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).


rice and pickles - Cultured Pickle Shop
rice and pickles - Cultured Pickle Shop (Berkeley)

Remember traveling? I do – kind of. I've got pictures, anyway. We had a quick visit to the Bay Area in mid-February. COVID was certainly already in the news by then, but I don't know that many of us had a clear idea at the time of what was to come.[2] Despite many visits to Berkeley over the past several years, I'd somehow never made it to Cultured Pickle Shop, where Alex Hozven and Kevin Farley practice the fine art of fermentation. They make all sorts of fascinating, wonderful products, and on weekends serve them to a few people at a time as "Rice and Pickles."[3] This bowl started with a base of sweet brown rice, which was then topped with a cornucopia of things from the shop: carrots fermented with green garlic and dulse, celery fermented with jalapeño and mirin, koji leeks, beet kasu, cabbage with radish, mint and umeboshi, chile leek tops rubbed with chile paste, fresh bok choy rabe, a sprinkling of sea kraut and spring onion gomashio. Great stuff. (All my pictures from Cultured Pickle Shop).

Gaeng Rawaeng - Nari
Gaeng Rawaeng - Nari (San Francisco)

There was a whole lot to like about Nari, Pim Techamuanvivit's second restaurant which opened in mid-2019: the airy, windowed space in San Francisco's Japantown, the seamless merger of contemporary food stylings with traditional Thai flavors, the intriguingly weird cocktail menu. I really enjoyed everything we ate there – the mah hor with mounds of pork, shrimp, peanuts and coriander root served on blood orange wedges,  the pork ribs with prik king flavors, the unapologetically funky kapi plah with wedges of fresh vegetables to scoop up a pungent paste of shrimp paste and smashed gulf prawns. But the standout was the Gaeng Rawaeng, a whole cornish hen stewed in a golden-hued, turmeric-scented curry, served with lacy roti for pulling and sopping tendrils of silky flesh and rich sauce. (All my pictures from Nari | San Francisco).

fresh tofu - Aburiya Raku (Las Vegas)
Fresh Tofu - Aburiya Raku (Las Vegas)

We squeezed in one last trip before the world shut down in late February, a long weekend in Las Vegas. After dropping our bags, we made a late-night visit to an old favorite, Aburiya Raku, where I first discovered the joys of freshly made tofu and now order it again every chance I get. The pro move at Raku is to get the half-and-half: one portion served plain with garnishes of freshly grated ginger, chopped chives and shaved katsuobushi, highlighting its creamy, pure goodness; the other done agedashi style, fried and served warm in a bath of dashi broth bobbing with little mushrooms, topped with a dollop of ikura and julienned nori strips. (All my pictures from Aburiya Raku | February 2020).

Veal Parmesan - Carbone (Las Vegas)
Veal Parmesan - Carbone (Las Vegas)

The remainder of our Las Vegas vacation was like an ersatz weekend in New York, plus gambling: we stayed at the NoMad (a "hotel within a hotel" in the Park MGM), and we ate at Major Food Group and Momofuku restaurants. The grandiose, almost cartoonish style of restaurant that Mario Carbone and Rich Torrisi have created feels like it was made for Vegas,[4] and I've got to say, over the past year I've come to miss this kind of shtick: the chummy waiters, the little plates of salumi and giardiniera as you're seated, the tableside Caesar salad, the dessert trolley. Of course at Carbone you have to get the veal parmesan, a platter's worth of crispy thin-pounded veal enrobed in tangy tomato sauce and molten mozzarella. (All my pictures from Carbone | Las Vegas).

French Dip - Majordomo (Las Vegas)
French Dip - Majordomo Meat & Fish (Las Vegas)

David Chang has figured out how to get into the Vegas spirit of excess too. The signature dish at his Majordomo Meat & Fish in the Venetian may be the smoked prime rib dinner, but the real winner is what they do with the leftovers: this insane French Dip, assembled tableside with a pound of smoked prime rib sliced thin and warmed in beef jus, piled high on some King's Hawaiian rolls, and topped with an obscene amount of melted raclette cheese, grated horseradish, and shaved black truffles, plus a sidecar of jus for dipping. Absolutely ridiculous in the best possible way. (All my pictures from Majordomo Meat & Fish | Las Vegas).

Golden Tilefish - Alter (Wynwood)
Golden Tilefish - Alter (Wynwood)

Foie Gras Milk &  Cereal - Alter (Wynwood)
Foie Gras Milk & Cereal - Alter (Wynwood)

By the time we got back from Las Vegas, it was clear that bad stuff was coming, and I quickly did the rounds of places I anticipated not being able to visit for a while (though I still don't think any of us realized how long, and how severe, the disruption would be). My next-to-last restaurant meal of 2020[5] was a March 10 tasting menu at Alter, and both savory and sweet dishes find their place on this list. Savory: a tranche of golden tilefish with a mantel of crispy scales, atop a tangy, savory yogurt-jamón broth with a button of sour quince jelly. Sweet: an absolutely delightful bowl of foie gras "Milk & Cereal," combining the foie with roasted banana, puffed grains, cream soda marshmallows and almond milk, simultaneously grown-up and nostalgic all at once. I'm so glad I went when I did: Alter remains temporarily closed at present. (All my pictures from Alter | March 2020).

Takeout from Macchialina (Miami Beach)
Cavatelli Macchialina and other Takeout from Macchialina (Miami Beach)

Those first days of quarantine were as surreal as any I've ever experienced without the involvement of mood altering substances, as everyone scrambled to stock up on groceries and toilet paper became scarcer than truffles. We quickly realized that we weren't going to starve. Quite to the contrary, with so many restaurants turning to takeout and delivery in order to survive, opportunities to eat well at home abounded, and provided a way to continue to support the places we wanted to see through to the other side. Our first quarantine take-out was from Mike Pirolo's Macchialina: broccolini al cesare, stuffed artichoke with bufala mozzarella, braised gigante beans, roasted chicken with garlic and lemon, but most important of all: the Cavatelli Macchialina, soft rippled shells of pasta in a basso profundo sugo chock full of little meatballs and porchetta, topped with shaved pecorino cheese. It's a dish that feels like a hug. (All my pictures from Macchialina @ Home).

Rohan Duck Breast - Ariete Cobaya @ Home
Rohan Duck Breast - Ariete Cobaya @ Home

Once we had secured a veritable shitload of toilet paper,[6] we turned our attention to how we could help.[7] Our Cobaya dinner group had a mailing list and a platform, but we couldn't exactly host a dinner during a quarantine. Instead, we did our first and only "Cobaya At Home" with Chef Michael Beltran of Ariete. Mike had a bunch of ducks aging in the walk-in for his "Duck Press Experience" and we rounded up 35 guinea pigs who were ready to try to duplicate the experience at home, though without the duck press. We staggered out pick-up times over a couple hours to maintain social distancing, the packages came with easy prep instructions, 20% of the proceeds went to an in-house employee relief fund, and it was one of the best meals I had all year. (All my pictures from Cobaya At Home with Ariete).

Stay tuned for Part 2 and Part 3, featuring lots of take-out, and the occasional home-cooked meal.

[1] Congress authorized the Paycheck Protection Program in late April, but even for those restaurants that were able to score loans, they offered little in the way of meaningful long term support; instead, most of the proceeds had to be used to pay employees at a time that they were not needed in the restaurants because of shutdown orders. Much the same result could have been accomplished through more robust individual "economic impact" payments or a more functional state unemployment system. Meanwhile, the RESTAURANTS Act, which would provide $120 billion to independent restaurants through a grant program, has bipartisan support in Congress, but the $900 billion relief package that Congress finally agreed upon as of the beginning of this week appears to contain nothing earmarked for the restaurant industry.  Locally, Miami-Dade County allocated $35 million of CARES Act relief money to a restaurant industry grant program, but managed to distribute only a fraction of the funds.

[2] When we made our routine first stop from the airport for dim sum at Koi Palace in Daly City, it was the first time I'd seen the place not completely packed. The U.S. had imposed travel restrictions to and from China on January 31, and anti-Chinese sentiment was already unfortunately taking root, though it wouldn't be until early March that our president started calling it the "Chinese Virus" while downplaying its seriousness and disregarding steps the U.S. could have taken to mitigate its impact here. But I digress.

[3] They'd been doing it in the shop, which was a neat experience to be surrounded by vats and drums of various fermenting things. They're currently doing it take-out only.

[4] Carbone could very well be the quintessential Las Vegas restaurant; but the gigantic Sadelle's which has opened in the Bellagio is possibly every bit its equal as a daytime venue.

[5] My very last restaurant meal of 2020 was a wonderful and poignant March 11 solo visit the following night to Balloo (which makes an appearance later in this list). I've not eaten at a restaurant since, either indoors or out, for the past nine months. It's been a painful decision, given how much I enjoy dining out, and how much I've wanted to support restaurants through the various phases of this ongoing crisis. But the testing numbers never got to the point where I ever felt comfortable spending time in a restaurant, even outdoors; and when they finally got close in mid-September, our governor decided to basically lift all restrictions and prevent municipalities from enforcing mask rules. The average positivity rate for COVID testing in Miami-Dade has nearly doubled from September 26 when that decision was made (around 4.5%) to now (nearly 9%), even as the number of people getting tested daily has roughly tripled over the same time period.

[6] One of the not-bad side effects of the COVID crisis was that all sorts of great product usually only available to restaurants was now accessible to the general public: we were able to buy fantastic locally grown greens, vegetables and fruit direct from French Farms, or via online bodegas set up by All Day, Chug's Diner, Threefold Café and others, and get home delivery from restaurant suppliers like Chef's Warehouse. But we also learned a valuable lesson: that rough, flimsy restaurant-supply toilet paper is not made for regular use, if you know what I mean.

[7] One of the things that has repeatedly struck me over the past several months is the generosity and community-mindedness of so many people in the restaurant world, who jumped in to help others even as their own businesses faced an existential threat. There are too many to mention, but I'd like to note in particular the work of Felix Bendersky (from F&B Hospitality Brokerage), Soroya and Brad Kilgore and others including Michael Schwartz, Michelle Bernstein and Zak Stern, who quickly set up the Miami Restaurant Employee Relief Fund which raised and distributed over a hundred thousand dollars in small grants to displaced restaurant workers; Food Rescue Miami, which has worked with dozens of local restaurants to deliver over 50,000 meals to folks in need; José Andrés' World Central Kitchen, which also does a tremendously effective job of preparing and distributing meals in times of crisis; Frontline Foods, which simultaneously supported restaurants and frontline workers by paying restaurants to prepare meals for health care crews; the countless restaurants and restaurant staff who worked with these organizations; Camila Ramos of All Day, whose Grocery Relief Fund provided hundreds of grocery bags with fresh fruits, vegetables and staples to food and beverage workers who lost their jobs due to COVID; and the South Beach Wine and Food Festival, which launched a Hospitality Industry Relief Fund that raised over $1.5 million, and received another $5 million allocated from Miami-Dade County, to distribute to restaurants and restaurant workers affected by the pandemic.

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