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).