Sunday, December 27, 2020

The Best Things I Ate in 2020 (Bonus Round)

I originally thought I was going to keep this year's list of The Best Things I Ate in 2020 to 36 dishes over three posts (Part 1, Part 2 and Part 3) – enough is enough already, right? Can't we just be done with 2020? But in going back through my pictures, I realized that there were too many things I'd omitted that had brought me some happiness over the past doozy of a year. And the last thing we need to be doing right now is rationing happiness. So here's a Bonus Round of some old favorites and newcomers that have made this year a little better.

Takeout from Mignonette (Edgewater)
Takeout from Mignonette (Edgewater)

One of our favorite pre-pandemic "Happy Meals" would be to secure a perch at the counter at Mignonette, order a seafood tower, maybe a couple other things, and a bottle of something crisp and white. Those are the moments I miss, maybe even more than a long fancy tasting menu. So we'd sometimes do our best to recreate it at home: there were no freshly shucked oysters, but we could still bring home lobster deviled eggs, shrimp cocktail, and smoked fish dip, the fantastic Boston lettuce salad with buttermilk dressing, and maybe a conch po'boy. Mignonette's reopened for dinner service and is still doing takeout with online ordering. Save me a spot at the counter. (All my pictures from Mignonette).

It's Brisket B*tch Croissant - Flour & Weirdoughs (Key Biscayne)
It's Brisket B*tch Croissant - Flour & Weirdoughs (Key Biscayne)

You probably have to be at least a little bit crazy to get into the restaurant business. You are probably more than a little bit crazy to do it in the middle of a pandemic. But that's exactly when Flour & Weirdoughs opened their Key Biscayne bakery, where they make everything from organic flour all milled in-house. They do some delightful breads, including some unorthodox things like their Cacio e Pepe sourdough with pecorino cheese and black pepper or the special Chicharron Loaf studded with bits of crispy pork belly. But I was especially wowed by their croissants – not just because this particular version (the "It's Brisket B*tch") comes filled with smoked Montreal-style brisket, provolone cheese and grainy mustard – but because they were beautifully laminated, all golden-brown and flaky, leaving a mess of pastry shards in your lap when you're done, as a proper croissant should. (All my pictures from Flour & Weirdoughs).

Dumplings from Li's Dim Sum
Dumplings from Li's Dim Sum

Raymond Li made his imprint as executive chef at Palmar in Wynwood before jumping to El Cielo just a few months before COVID came along. So with the shutdown, he turned his attention to Li's Dim Sum, a father and son project with Ray Sr. Their dumplings are delicate, silky and flavorful, like these pork dumplings redolent of five-spice, and these vegan trumpet mushroom and watercress versions. Li's Dim Sum is available for pickup or delivery via their website. 


Saturday, December 26, 2020

The Best Things I Ate in 2020 (Part 3)

2020 may have been a generally lousy year, but we still ate well. Part 1 and Part 2 of The Best Things I Ate in 2020 are already up; here's Part 3. 

Avocado Tuna Bhel Puri - Ghee (Design District)
Avocado Tuna Bhel Puri - Ghee (Design District)

One small thing that did not suck about 2020 was that as a result of the COVID restrictions, one of my favorite local restaurants, Niven Patel's Ghee, began doing takeout. Alas, in August Niven closed the Design District location, though the original in Downtown Dadeland remains open and he's now opened Mamey in Coral Gables. In late July, we were happy to secure one last order of the wonderful avocado tuna bhel puri, an inspired dish that brings creamy avocado and glistening ruby cubes of raw tuna to the traditional chaat of puffed rice, sev and spices. (All my pictures from Ghee).

Tropical BBQ pop-up at All Day
Tropical BBQ pop-up at All Day

If you're a long-time reader, you know that one of my all-time favorite Miami restaurants was Kris Wessel's Red Light, a wonderful, inspired, unpredictable spot in what was originally the Gold Dust Motel on Biscayne Boulevard.[1] So when I saw that Kris was doing a pop-up tasting-menu dinner at All Day, and that they were offering it for takeout as well, I jumped on it. It brought back memories of Red Light,[2]] featuring all sorts of local flavors with the occasional Creole twist: yellowtail, smoked and cured, with cassava chips and pickled okra; a delicate tart of coconut butter poached blue crab; conch stuffed chayote with a creole pepper stew; tilefish with a sour orange glaze, boniato and calalloo; duck with a sapodilla glaze and a calabaza cashew hash. Rather than a single dish, it was the sum total of it all that made it so memorable. (All my pictures from the Tropical BBQ Pop-Up).

Isaan Rotisserie Chicken - Lil Laos
Rotisserie Chicken - Lil' Laos

I feel like I've been chasing Lil' Laos around Miami all year. The Laotian pop-up from partners Sakhone Sayareth and Curtis Rhodes (who had previously been chef at Café Roval, River Oyster Bar and Oak Tavern) was at Sixty10 in Little Haiti for a little while; then they did a residency at Fooq's downtown; now they've  found a more permanent home at The Citadel food hall. Wherever they've been, the food has been excellent. Laotian cuisine bears lots of similarities to Thai cuisine, but the spice and flavor profiles are different in ways I can taste but have trouble nailing down. In any event: Lil' Laos stuff is delicious, especially the charcoal roasted rotisserie chicken, served with papaya salad, sticky rice, and a delicate, soothing tinola soup (which I thought was Filipino, but whatever). (All my pictures from Lil' Laos).


Thursday, December 24, 2020

The Best Things I Ate in 2020 (Part 2)

My last post, Part 1 of The Best Things I Ate in 2020, began in a blissful time before a virus turned the world upside and vigorously shook it. Restaurant meals! Tasting menus! Travel! Things I always appreciated, but also kind of took for granted. Not any more. It's been a crazy, brutal year. In the restaurant world, there have been some unfortunate losses along the way, but I've actually been surprised and gratified by how many places have somehow been able to weather this long, extended storm. Part 2 of this list picks up in the early phases of the pandemic, when shutdown orders limited all restaurants to takeout and delivery only. 

pork chops and polenta
pork chops and polenta @ home

With restaurants basically shut down, we found ourselves doing a lot more cooking at home. We also found ourselves with the opportunity to work with much better product than we were accustomed to, despite the shutdown. Restaurants started selling staples and straight-from-the-farm produce, restaurant suppliers started selling direct to individual customers, shops like Proper Sausages starting offering delivery options. The end result? A home-cooked dinner that takes a village: porchetta-spiced Proper pork chops rubbed with fennel, rosemary, garlic and lemon and dusted with fennel pollen, Moretti polenta from the Boia De larder cooked in mushroom broth, locally grown Paradise Farms oyster mushrooms via the All Day grocery, brined local tomatoes from Chef Jeremiah. I don't know that my cooking skills got any better, but the materials I could work with sure did.

Midday Snack - El Bagel
Midday Snack - El Bagel (Upper Eastside)

After a very successful run of selling their excellent, chewy, crusty bagels at pop-ups and from a food truck for years, El Bagel took the big step of graduating to a brick and mortar location in the MiMo District – opening in early March, just in time for the shutdown. Rotten luck, but they executed their pivot quickly and effectively. They're now open Thursday through Monday from 8am to noon for takeout only, with all ordering done online and pickup times given via text notice. Between the easy ordering and geographical proximity, this has worked out incredibly conveniently for me: over the past nine months, my receipts indicate that Family Frod has consumed nearly twenty dozen El Bagel bagels.[1] I usually just get a dozen plus some cream cheeses and lox, but occasionally I'll get one of their prepared sandwiches. My current favorite is this "Midday Snack," with lox cream cheese, thinly sliced ringlets of red onion, and chives, served open-faced as God intended, and best with an addition of smoked trout roe when available. (All my pictures from El Bagel).

pastrami sandwich - Hometown Barbecue
pastrami sandwich - Hometown Barbecue (Allapattah)

I didn't need a pandemic to remind me how much I love sandwiches – I actually wrote on the subject late last year for Edible South Florida – but 2020 did turn out to be pretty sandwich-intensive. One of my favorites was this simple, perfect pastrami sandwich from Hometown Barbecue, which opened in Allapattah last fall. Don't try to trace the spiral path of a pastrami sandwich served at a Texas-style BBQ spot opened in a wholesale produce distribution center in Miami by a Brooklyn restaurateur. Just enjoy. (All my pictures from Hometown Barbecue).


Tuesday, December 22, 2020

The Best Things I Ate in 2020 (Part 1)


Every December when I do these "year in review" posts, I conclude with something my grandfather used to say: "Always better, never worse." Sorry, grandpa, but it didn't work this time. 2020 sucked. It's been a miserable year, for people who have lost their family members and friends, their health, their jobs, their businesses, their sense of security, their ability to enjoy companionship and community. It's been a year that's also brought into painful focus how race and class lead to fundamentally different experiences and outcomes in our country, and how hatred and intolerance are still alive and well. 2020 was worse, not better, in just about every way.

So it feels more than a little bit frivolous to be posting one of these "Best of 2020" posts in a year like this. And yet, if there's one thing we can all do right now, it's to support those people and businesses that we care about. The restaurant world I focus on here has had a particularly hard year, repeatedly whipsawed back and forth by closures and rule changes while getting little in the way of leadership or support from government at any level.[1] The industry is a challenging one in the best of circumstances; over the past year, mere survival seems to me an incredible achievement. I've always admired the dedication, resiliency, resourcefulness and creativity of those who've devoted themselves to this craft, but especially now, as so many struggle to balance the safety and security of their teams, the comfort and experience of their customers, and the sustainability of their businesses.

So as weird as it may seem in this disaster of a year, it's also gratifying to be able to celebrate the work of those that amidst it all have provided so many of us some moments of joy. Here is the first of three installments of The Best Things I Ate in 2020.

Million Dollar Salad - Navé
Million Dollar Salad - Navé (Coconut Grove)

One of my favorite new restaurants of late 2019 was Navé, the Italian seafood themed next-door neighbor to Michael Beltran's Ariete which he opened with Justin Flit. Navé quickly became a regular multipurpose spot, good for a quick bite at the bar, a date night, or a get-together with friends. There were a lot of things I liked: the seafood towers, the snapper milanese, the pasta with bottarga, uni and cultured butter. But the one must-order every time I was there was the simple but pitch-perfect "Million Dollar Salad" with crisp, bright gem lettuce, fresh herbs, and a Sicilian pistachio vinaigrette. I'm thrilled that after going into pandemic hibernation, then periodically resurfacing for some "Navé Seafood Shack" pop-ups, Navé reopened earlier this month. (All my pictures from Navé).

ankimo - The Den at Azabu
Ankimo - The Den at Azabu (Miami Beach)

In the early part of the year, pre-shutdown, I had a couple very happy omakase sessions at The Den at Azabu – a solo visit in late January, and then a follow-up shortly after with a jealous Mrs. F. My first round was with chef Shingo Akikuni behind the counter; round two was with chef Yasu Tanaka. Both meals were outstanding. Maybe my favorite bite among many was this ankimo (monkfish liver): lush, silky, and fully deserving of its nickname as the "foie gras of the sea." The Den has reopened for dining and is also doing a take-out omakase (which makes an appearance later in this list) if, like me, you're not yet doing dine-in. And I'm excited to hear that Chef Akikuni is now at Hiden in Wynwood, which recently reopened and is also doing a take-out omakase for two. (All my pictures from The Den at Azabu).

wagyu beef tartare - Eating House
Wagyu Beef Tartare - Eating House (Coral Gables)

It had been a minute since I'd last paid a visit to Giorgio Rapicavoli's Eating House in Coral Gables. But it felt like old times when I stopped by in February, taking a seat at the front bar counter, munching Sazon-spiced popcorn with an NBA game on the TV while waiting for my order, and eating tasty fun dishes like this wagyu beef tartare with shio koji, shallots, braised and pickled carrots, and lime zest, every bite bouncing with umami, depth, freshness and acidity. (All my pictures from Eating House).


Wednesday, May 20, 2020

What's Next?

I was very grateful to have been asked to participate in a Facebook Live discussion on “Check Please! South Florida” earlier this week with host Michelle Bernstein, Palm Beach chef Lindsay Autry, and Fort Lauderdale food writer Mike Mayo, to talk about the future of the South Florida restaurant industry in light of the COVID-19 pandemic. Thanks to all who joined us live; if you missed it and want to watch, I've embedded it above and you can find it here: “Check Please! Conversation with Michelle Bernstein."[1]

I wrote down a lot of notes in preparation for the talk, and thought it would be worth sharing and expanding on some of those here. Many of these thoughts will not be anything new if you've been following the effect of this crisis on the restaurant world and food supply chains. But as we reach an inflection point – this week Miami-Dade County began the process of lifting “shelter in place” orders and authorized restaurants to reopen with limited capacity – it seemed a good time to think about where we’ve been and what’s to come.


Let me start by saying how much I admire the resilience, the resourcefulness, the perseverance, and the care for their employees, their customers, and the community at large displayed by so many chefs and restaurant operators. When this crisis and shutdown hit, the immediate reaction from so many of the folks I know was to help: to try to take care of the employees they had to lay off as best they could, and then to provide meals and groceries for first responders, laid off workers, and anyone in the community who might be struggling to find a meal.

I do business bankruptcies for a living, and in my career have never seen a greater challenge – not just because of the shutdown, but because of the uncertainty of what comes next. To be looking to help others, while the businesses they’ve spent years of hard work and money building are facing a genuinely existential threat, is a truly remarkable response, but one that seems to come naturally to so many who have chosen this path.

(continued ...)

Wednesday, March 18, 2020

Miami Restaurants Doing Takeout / Delivery During the Coronavirus Shutdown

Hope everyone's staying safe and healthy. Since many have asked, here's a quick and incomplete list of Miami restaurants that are offering takeout, delivery, prepared meals, cooking kits, groceries, fresh produce, wine and cocktails as we shelter in place during the coronavirus shutdown. If there's something good that's been left out, let me know. If there's an option to order directly from the restaurant, keep in mind this will save the restaurant substantial commissions that the delivery services charge them.

Some other lists that you can check:

Miami Eats (courtesy of the Greater Miami Convention and Visitors Bureau)

Curbside Miami (handy spreadsheet format, sortable by neighborhood or any other field)

Infatuation Miami Neighborhood Takeout and Delivery Guide (organized by neighborhood)

Edible South Florida with a map of South Florida restaurants open for takeout and delivery, and a list of places to buy fresh produce.

Downtown Development Authority list of Downtown Miami restaurants doing takeout and delivery, with another list of participants in its "Go Local Program" (10% off if you order direct from the restaurant).

--------- THE LIST (updated 5.9.2020)

Now organized by neighborhood!

Aventura / North Miami Beach:

Captain Jim's (North Miami) doing takeout 12-6pm, call 305.892.2812 to order.

Hadekel 1 (North Miami Beach) doing takeout and delivery, order through the website.

Houston's (North Miami Beach) open for take-out with curbside pickup, order through the website.

Bal Harbour / Surfside:

Josh's Deli (Surfside) open Fri-Sun for takeout, pre-order for pickup, menu on Instagram.

Hillstone (Bal Harbour) open for take-out with curbside pickup (and delivery at Bal Harbour), order through the website.

Makoto (Bal Harbour) open for takeout and delivery 12-8pm, order through the website.

Surf Club (Surfside) is doing take-out of a three-course family meal for $29pp, menu changes daily, check menu and order through their Tock website.

Buena Vista / MiMo District / Little Haiti:

Blue Collar (MiMo District) starting takeout / delivery Tuesday 3/24, order through their website.

Boia De (Buena Vista) doing take-out  and delivery 12-8pm  with pickup through the ventanita, order through their website.

Dogma Grill (MiMo District) open for takeout 12-8pm, call 305.759.3433 to order.

El Bagel (MiMo District) doing pickup only with online ordering at (closed Tu-We).

Lil Laos (Little Haiti) popping up Saturday and Sunday 5/2-5/3 at Sixty10, check IG for details.

Luna Pasta e Dolci (MiMo District) open for takeout plus pasta kits, order through their website.

Mandolin Aegean Bistro (Buena Vista) reopening for takeout Tues. 4/28, order through their website.

Ms. Cheezious (MiMo District) taking online orders for takeout on their website or delivery through the usual suspects.

Phuc Yea (MiMo District) doing curbside takeout / delivery direct through their website starting at 6pm, use Corona10 for 10% discount.

Pinch Kitchen (MiMo District - ish) open for take-out, curbside pick-up and delivery 11:30am-9pm.

Sixty10 (Little Haiti) doing takeout / delivery 11am-8pm.

Sottosale (MiMo District) doing takeout through dedicated website or call 786.634.1005.

(continued ...)

Monday, January 6, 2020

deep thoughts: Silverlake Bistro | Normandy Isles (Miami Beach)

The restaurant review is having a midlife crisis. So says this guy, anyway. While there's a kernel of truth in his identification of the symptoms, I'm far less convinced of his diagnosis as to the cause. At its heart, his claim is that the problem is the restaurant review format itself:
I just want to deal with one of the genre’s challenges — namely, its form. ... To be blunt, the traditional review is a terrible vessel for inventive prose, contrarian opinions, and nuanced arguments about the mystery and meaning of food.
Well, on that point, I must beg to differ. Good writing transcends genre. Restaurant reviews are as useful a format as any to paint a portrait of of a city, as Jonathan Gold did so beautifully for Los Angeles, to explore social and cultural issues, as Soleil Ho does at the San Francisco Chronicle, to craft poetry like Ligaya Mishan does at the New York Times, to entertain and enlighten with wit and snark, like Jay Rayner does at The Guardian. The problem isn't the vessel; it's all about what you're putting inside.

Also: there's a whole universe of food writing that isn't restaurant reviews. That's not to say I believe reviews should be devoid of any discussion of broader issues – if you've been reading here at all, you know I'm prone to plenty of digressions – but rather, that there are lots of ways to talk about culture through the lens of food, reviews being just one of them.

Also, also: I am perhaps one of a dying breed who believe that the underlying purpose of a restaurant review – to help answer the question, "Where should I want to eat?" – while not as noble or important as curing cancer, is still itself a worthwhile and valuable endeavor.[1]

Having said that, it does seem that the restaurant review industry, in some quarters anyway, is in the doldrums. I don't think the problem is the format, though no doubt it is kind of a bore to read reviews that just grind through the "here's the apps, here's the mains, here's the desserts" routine by rote. To my mind, it's more a combination of the decline of media outlets that provide the budgetary, editorial and promotional support for restaurant criticism, and the rise of crowd-sourced opinions a la Yelp. Combine that with a lack of diversity and community representation in the voices that still get heard. Throw a little "death of the blog at the hands of Twitter and then Instagram" into the mix too. Sprinkle some "influencers doing it for the freebies" over the top like finishing salt. And what you have is a dearth of credible, reliable voices motivated and able to write thoughtfully and critically about restaurants.

(continued ...)