Thursday, December 29, 2022

The Best Things I Ate in 2022 (Round 1)

Hang on a minute, folks, just need to dust this off a little bit, maybe move some things around, look under this pile over here ... there it is! Found it. My blog. Hasn't seen any action in about half a year, but seems like it still works. Let's take this thing out for a drive.

It's an annual tradition here at FFT to recap the best things I ate over the past year, even if sometimes it doesn't get posted until months after the calendar flips over. So this year's is actually somewhat ahead of schedule by my standards! For many – for us, anyway – 2022 marked something of a return to normal, or at least a "new normal," after a couple very strange years. It certainly marked a return to recreational travel, as we tried to make up for lost time with visits to the Bay Area, Southern California, Chicago, Seattle, Oregon, and Iceland (!!!) over the course of the year. As a result, my 2022 list skews more heavily toward out-of-town places than South Florida – a disparity which is ironic, given that it has been a year of pretty exciting debuts for Miami restaurants. I constantly keep a "to-do" list of local restaurants I intend to visit, and it is as long as it has ever been.[1]

I'll try to rectify that balance in the coming year; in the meantime, here's a look back at a year's worth of good eating in 2022:

Angler Private Batch Caviar
Angler Private Batch Caviar & Banana Pancakes - Angler (SF)

Soft Serve Sundae - Angler
Soft Serve Sundae - Angler (SF)

Our first trip of 2022 was to the Bay Area, kicked off by a visit the night of our anniversary to Angler in San Francisco. With so many places to try in the city, it's unusual for us to keep going back to the same spot. But Angler makes me really, really happy. Fantastic ingredients, treated thoughtfully, with a simplicity of presentation that belies the care and labor that goes into their preparation, usually involving some form of exposure to smoke or fire. It's a tasting menu kind of experience in an a la carte package (albeit with prices that skew more toward the former than the latter). This was my first time getting the "Angler Private Batch" caviar, which they source and process on their own, and which proves to be entirely worth the effort. If the accompanying banana pancakes are too weird for you (they're great, but I get it), then I highly recommend getting an order of the Parker House rolls as an alternative. I highly recommend doing so regardless, actually. And I can't visit Angler without ordering the soft serve sundae, with embered caramel and cacao nibs, a very grown-up version of a McDonald's classic.

(More pics from Angler | San Francisco).

Celery Salad - Day Trip
Celery Salad - DayTrip

Thai Chili Dungeness Crab - Day Trip
Thai Chili Dungeness Crab - DayTrip

We met up with Frod Jr. the following evening at DayTrip in Oakland, which completely won me over. Flavor-forward, interesting, shareable dishes, an adventurous in-house fermentation program, lots of tasty natural wines, an anarchic, playful attitude, and a real spirit of genuine hospitality. It was somehow not a big surprise to make a cross-country connection that wine director Jenny Eagleton was a friend of Bianca Sanon, the wine maven at North Miami's Paradis. Small world.

This celery salad doesn't look like much but bursts with flavor: the stalks thinly sliced, doused in a dressing redolent with lemon verbena oil, bright green with chlorophyll, spicy with habanero, and then showered with shavings of funky Sardinian sheep's cheese. If I may make a weird analogy: not that anything about this dish tastes Thai in any way, but it does the same thing that great Thai cooking does by going in a bunch of directions at once (with Thai, sweet / sour / salty / spicy – here, grassy / lemony / spicy / funky) while still feeling like a unified dish. On the other hand: this Dungeness crab did actually venture into Thai territory, doused in chili garlic sauce, and a melting puddle of good butter spiked with fish sauce. I was still enjoying it long after the rest of the family grew weary of watching me pick at the shells.

(More pics from DayTrip | Oakland).

The Whole Crab - Harbor House Inn
The Whole Crab - Harbor House Inn

Fort Bragg Sea Urchin - Harbor House Inn
Fort Bragg Sea Urchin - Harbor House Inn (Elk, CA)

We'd spent time along California's Mendonoma Coast before, but this was our first visit to Harbor House Inn in Elk – about three hours due north of San Francisco, about a half hour shy of Mendocino. I know they "only" have two Michelin stars, but this place is "worth a special journey" in every sense. We stayed two nights, had an in-room dinner one night (and excellent breakfast) before doing the tasting menu in the restaurant the following night, and I did not want to ever leave. Chef Matthew Kammerer and crew do magical, wonderful things with the local bounty – mostly seafood, seaweeds, and vegetables grown and foraged on-site and nearby. It is one of the most beautiful meals, in one of the most beautiful places, I've experienced.[2]

Two highlights here: first, "The Whole Crab," a Dungeness crab offered up three different ways: (1) a mound of sweet, salty, tender picked lumb crabmeat dressed with a tangy gelée and allium flowers; (2) the crab's legs, rubbed with a fava bean miso; and (3) maybe most evocative, a broth made from the crab carcasses, an incredibly pure and powerful essence of the ocean. And second, sweet lobes of sea urchin (sourced from just up the coast in Fort Bragg) draped over custardy koji toast, nestled in a pool of a tart, rich ume sabayon. This is a version of a dish that I'd had years ago, the sea urchin toast at Saison, where Kammerer was exec sous chef for several years before opening Harbor House. Maybe it's just a matter of being closer to the source, but this improves on perfection.

(More pics from Harbor House Inn and Elk, CA).

Hotaru Ika - Itamae
Hotaru Ika - Itamae (Miami Design District)

Torta Helada - Itamae
Torta Helada - Itamae (Miami Design District)

Back home, I found myself scoring a solo seat at the counter of Itamae while Mrs. F was out of town. I said last year that every meal with the "Chang Gang" has been better than the last, and that trend continues. A couple items in particular stand out: a plate of hotaru ika (tiny, tender firefly squid, a spring seasonal specialty in Japan) served tiradito-style in a bath of squid ink, urfa biber pepper, and swirls of green chive oil; and a sensational dessert from Maria Gallina (who, alas, has since moved on) which used a traditional torta helada as a starting point for a composition that featured some of my favorite locally grown-tropical fruits: a floofy[3] canistel mousse, topped with a gooseberry gelée veil and anchored by a sponge cake soaking in mamey pit infused milk, giving that same intriguing whiff of noyeaux / almond extract as you get from crushed peach or cherry pits.[4]

(continued ...)

Saturday, June 4, 2022

Michelin Comes to Miami

The fat man’s coming to Miami. After various state and local tourism agencies paid the Michelin Guide undisclosed amounts which could exceed a million dollars, the star system will start coverage of Florida, with a big announcement of its ratings scheduled for June 9 in Orlando. So of course inquiring minds want to know: which restaurants will get the coveted recognition?

In theory, the Michelin Guide claims to rate restaurants based on five criteria: “quality of the ingredients used, mastery of flavor and cooking techniques, the personality of the chef in his cuisine, value for money and consistency between visits.” In practice, the Michelin Guide has long championed a certain type of restaurant: Euro-centric, fussy and expensive. While the focus is understandable given the guide’s origins – a traveling companion published by a tire company as a marketing tool to get people to drive their cars around Europe – it is not necessarily representative of the best that any particular region has to offer these days, especially outside of Europe. But if you look at the U.S. restaurants that have received multiple stars,[1] they fit a certain profile: they are almost universally high-end, tasting-menu venues. They are also overwhelmingly of the “Contemporary American” genre, with some French, Italian and Scandinavian thrown in the mix. Of 49 restaurants in the U.S. that have received 2 or 3 stars, there are less than ten that stray from these genres.[2]

So I’m not at all sure Michelin is going to find what it’s typically looking for in Miami. Theirs is not a style that has had much traction in South Florida for the past several decades.[3] We may like flashy, but we don’t particularly like stuffy. And IMO, the best dining in Miami these days is not necessarily at the highest end venues, but rather at places that are putting out great, inspired food without a lot of pomp and circumstance.

My predictions?

(1) No Florida restaurant will receive three Michelin stars.

Michelin currently has a three-star rating for at least one restaurant in every region it covers. (There are six in California, five in New York, one each in Chicago and DC). That streak will end in Florida, where as much as I am a champion of the local scene, I can’t think of any place that fits the Michelin Man’s vision of a three-star restaurant.

(2) There will be no more than three two-star restaurants and possibly none.

Chicago had only four restaurants receive two Michelin stars. DC managed only three. My guess is that Florida gets three at most, and that’s a stretch. The most likely Miami candidates, IMO (I know nothing about Orlando or Tampa, which appear to be the other Florida cities Michelin has focused on): L’Atelier de Joel Robuchon, Ariete, and Naoe. Wild card: Ghee. L’Atelier seems like the most viable candidate, since five Ateliers in other cities have already received two or more stars.[4] If the inspectors pay attention to the more ambitious facets of Ariete’s menu (the Versos Diarios tasting menu, the Canard a la Presse), they may well find what they’re looking for. I think Naoe is possibly in contention, but I also think that Michelin has devalued many outstanding Japanese restaurants in the U.S. The only ones to crack the one-star ceiling are Masa in NY (3*), and Hayato, n/naka and Sushi Ginza Onodera in LA (2*), which is kind of crazy given the options available in LA and NY these days. Niven Patel’s wonderful restaurant, Ghee, nails every single one of the Michelin guide’s criteria, but I have little faith that they’ll give two stars to an Indian restaurant in Kendall using local ingredients from Homestead farms.

(3) There will be 15-20 one-star restaurants from this list:

The “shoo-ins”:

These are places which I’m almost certain will get a star because other locations have already received stars. So, yes, I’m cheating to make my predictions by checking the answers from elsewhere.

Carbone (1* NY)
Cote (1* NY)
El Cielo (1* DC)
Fiola (1* DC)
L’Atelier de Joel Robuchon (3* Hong Kong; 2* Tokyo, Shanghai, Taipei, New York, 1* Paris)
Le Jardinier (1* NY)
Surf Club (3* French Laundry CA, 3* Per Se NY).[5]

The “better be there or I’m slashing your tires”:

These are places that are unquestionably deserving of recognition IMO, and if you miss them your credibility is shot, Roly-Poly Tire Dude.

The “pretty sure they’ll make it”:

These are places that I could easily see picking up a star.

The “on the cusp” candidates”:

Some of these I have “on the cusp” because they may be too casual for Michelin’s tastes (MGFD, Amara), or too new (Orno, Luca, Kojin). Others are parts of restaurant groups that Michelin appears disinclined to recognize with stars (Bazaar, Bourbon Steak, La Mar).[6] I’m not saying these are any worse (or better) than others listed above – or that all of these are any better (or worse) than other local restaurants I’ve not listed at all – only that I have less confidence they’re going to make it into the little red book.[7]

Let’s see how my predictions fare on June 9. But more importantly, let’s not lose sight of the fact that Michelin really doesn’t know bupkis about what makes dining in Miami unique, special and great.

[1] Michelin currently publishes guides for New York, California, Chicago and Washington DC. If you're keeping score at home, I've made a chart with all the U.S. restaurants to receive Michelin stars.

[2] There are four Japanese restaurants (Hayato, Sushi Ginza Onodera, and n/naka in LA, Masa in NY); two Korean (Atomix, Jungsik, both in NY); one each for Chinese (Benu, SF), Mexican (Californios, SF), and Indian (Campton Place, SF). My "genrefication" of many of these places is both reductive on my part (most are not strictly bound to a particular regional cuisine), and also symptomatic of Michelin's biases (even those places with Asian or Latin American inspiration that make their way into the guide generally are reflecting it through a "Contemporary American" tasting menu prism).

[3Ironically, the chef who was most likely to have earned the Michelin inspectors’ attention no longer has a restaurant open to the public. Brad Kilgore’s Alter both was the kind of place and was executing at the kind of high level that could have picked up two stars. But sadly Alter was a pandemic casualty, and Kilgore is currently running Verge at the Concours Club, a members-only restaurant within an automotive club for people with very expensive cars who want to drive them very fast and find other ways to flaunt their wealth. I'm very glad Brad is relieving them of some of their cash, particularly since he just became a proud new papa (Congrats!). Selfishly, I hope he makes a return to the public restaurant world someday.

[4] 3* for Hong Kong, 2* for Tokyo, Shanghai, Taipei and New York, though curiously, none of the Paris locations have received more than 1*. Since it’s hard to believe that the satellite Ateliers in the far-flung quarters of China, Taiwan, Japan and New York are better than the home offices in Paris, I take this to mean at least one of two things (likely both): (1) Michelin is grading these other regions on a curve; and/or (2) Michelin’s ratings bely a Euro-centric chauvinism that favors French restaurants even in Asian countries, i.e., “Our scout team is better than your starting roster.”

[5] Keller has 3* on each coast with French Laundry and Per Se, but Surf Club is far less ambitious, and its parallel in NY, TAK Room, was not recognized by Michelin, though it may have closed before it could make it into a guide.

[6] Jose Andres’ minibar in DC has 2* and Somni in LA had 2*, but Bazaar in LA was not starred, so I don’t put Bazaar Miami in the “shoo-in” category. Michael Mina (Bourbon Steak) had 1* for his namesake SF restaurant, but not for any of his other restaurants.

[7]Edited to add: I forgot that Michael White, who earned 1* at Marea and Ai Fiori in NY,  is now at Lido at the Surf Club, which could certainly be in contention. And consistent with my general blind spot for expensive Italian restaurants, I also left out Forte dei Marmi and Casa Tua, which for all I know could be in the mix (I've never been to either).

Saturday, April 16, 2022

The Best Things I Ate in 2021 (Round 2)

I know, I know. It's already April. "What are you doing posting a 'Best of 2021' list now?" Look: time is just a social construct. Stay up late. Eat breakfast for dinner. Publish your "year in review" posts in April. It's all fine.

After more than a year of being homebound, we finally began traveling again last summer, so this list does venture outside of South Florida. But my primary purpose in doing these posts is to highlight the interesting things happening in the Miami dining world of late. Because if we're not going to toot our own horns, who else is going to do it for us?[1] There's a mix here of some old favorites and some new additions; not an attempt at a comprehensive survey, since I don't get around much any more lately, but rather just a set of personal preferences and predilictions. (If you missed it, here's Part 1.)

passionfruit tiramisu - Lil Deb's Oasis (Hudson, NY)

You know what else is fine? This passionfruit tiramisu we had at Lil Deb's Oasis in Hudson, New York. In July 2021, we did our first traveling in over a year. And as if to show just how out of practice I was, I forgot to bring my real camera, meaning I had to rely entirely on my iPhone for the whole trip. So forgive the wonky colors here, which, in my defense, are largely due to the magenta disco lights that adorn the bar at Lil Deb's. What an absolutely delightful place: friendly and welcoming to everyone (their unofficial slogan – "If U Gay, Perfect" – was coopted from a homophobic Yelp review), with a relaxed but energized house party feel that is a model for how hospitality can be done well in these weird times. And some really delicious, sometimes a bit wacky, food. I loved everything – the oddly compelling cabbage salad over crushed avocado with little crispy bits on top, the fermented lentil dosa with wild mushrooms, the lamb skewers with salsa verde and a dusting of cacao – but especially this fluffy, tangy passionfruit tiramisu enrobed in ginger-y mascarpone and topped with crunchy buckwheat.

cornmeal buttermilk pancake - West Taghkanic Diner (Hudson, NY)

The Hudson Valley is also home to the West Taghkanic Diner, which Kristopher Schram took over after spending years at some of Copenhagen's top restaurants (Relae, Manfreds, Bæst). You'd never guess the chef's pedigree from a look at the place, which remains a faithfully preserved mid-century diner. And the menu doesn't hint at much either. But everything is pretty outrageously delicious: the WTD hash of house-smoked pastrami and bacon burnt ends topped with fried eggs and pickled onions, the avocado toast with fresh cheese and toasted seeds. That "under-promise, over-deliver" ethos is embodied in a simple cornmeal pancake – fluffy as a pillow, crowned with a generous pat of good salted butter melting into crisp, browned little crags and gullies on the surface.

warm crab pimento cheese dip - The Maker Café (Hudson, NY)

The Maker is a posh, restored hotel right on Warren Street, Hudson's main drag. In their downstairs café, we had a few things that were perfectly OK, but one dish that I keep thinking about is this plate of warmed, melty pimento cheese dip, generously studded with sweet, tender crabmeat. I'm not saying this is on par with the "discovery of a star," as Brillat-Savarin would put it; I'm just saying it really hit the spot.

Butcher's Feast - Cote (Miami Design District)

Back home, we finally made our way to one of the many new imports from N.Y. that opened in Miami over the past year: Cote. As one who cheers for the hometown teams, I admit to having an inherent bias against all out-of-towners. But Cote overcame my skepticism. The concept behind Cote is to merge the sensibilities of Korean barbecue with a classic American steakhouse. The execution is even greater than the sum of the parts. The space is a looker, with a magenta-lit alien-spaceship entranceway a la early Alinea, a circular bar that draws you like a magnet, gold-rimmed ceramic charcoal grills at every table, and some sort of turbocharged ventilation system that keeps everything from getting smoky. The service is dialed in like a Swiss watch, somehow omnipresent and unnoticeable at the same time, with someone always ready to turn something on the grill, check on your drinks, or replenish your banchan. And the "Butcher's Feast" ($58 per person when we were there, now up to $64 but still a solid value) is a pretty perfect meal: a nice assortment of banchan, a shredded scallion salad in gochujang vinaigrette that you will compulsively eat without regard for your breath afterwards, four different cuts of prime and American wagyu beef, two different stews, a puffy egg souffle, and soft serve with soy sauce caramel for dessert. This place is doing everything right.


Sunday, April 10, 2022

The Best Things I Ate in 2021 (Round 1)


The last post here was December 2020 when, with very mixed emotions, I continued the annual tradition of recapping the best things I ate over the past year. The exercise felt more than a bit frivolous in light of everything we'd gone through in 2020. And yet it also seemed important to recognize the contributions of those who helped make the year a little more bearable by feeding us and bringing us moments of joy, togetherness and satisfaction. In my lifetime, anyway, there had never been a more difficult time to run a restaurant, and I'm incredibly grateful to all who continued despite the mind-boggling challenges of navigating their way through it all.

Here we are again, another year gone by. Well, actually, another year and then some, since my calendar is telling me it's already April. And as strange as it sounds to say, 2021 was an incredibly active year for the Miami restaurant universe. There was a tidal wave of new openings from some of the city's most talented local chefs: Niven Patel opened Orno, Michael Beltran reopened Chug's as a full-scale sit-down diner, Sam Gorenstein opened Abbalé Telavivian Kitchen, José Mendin opened Casa Isola with Santo Agnello in the kitchen of the original Pubbelly space, Scott Linquist opened Serena and Como Como. (Let me pause to take a breath). Giorgio Rapicavoli opened Luca Osteria, Steve Santana opened Off Site, Henry Hane opened Jatto in the old Alter space, Pablo Zitzmann opened Zitz Sum. And there was another foreign invasion, with Major Food Group (the folks behind Carbone, Sadelle's, ZZ's, and HaSalon) seemingly taking over every space not already commandeered by Miami's Groot Hospitality (Swan, Strawberry Moon, Papi Steak, Sushi Fly Chicken).

That list of new openings is far from comprehensive. And ... um ... I've been to almost none of them. If you're looking for what's new and hot, you won't find it here, especially since I'm only now, four months into 2022, getting around to this post. But a little perspective can be a good thing. And speaking of perspective, a reminder that this is just my own personal, idiosyncratic compilation of the dishes that made me happy over the past year: the places that serve the kind of food I like to eat, that do things right. So here' s a recap of my favorites from 2021, and a look back on another weird year.

Pork Offal Congee - Mama Tofu Street Food
Pork Offal Congee - Mama Tofu Street Food (Davie)

For me, anyway, it simultaneously seems like forever and no time at all since those year-end 2020 posts, with most of 2021 feeling like another round in limbo. Despite my passion for the restaurant world,  I was very slow to make my way back. On March 11, 2020 I had dinner at Balloo (now gone and still sorely missed, though I hear great things about Timon's new spot The Katherine in Fort Lauderdale). It would be the last meal I ate at a restaurant – indoors or out – in 2020. In early January 2021, after getting vaccinated, I marked my return to restaurant dining with a visit to Mama Tofu Street Food in Davie. After contorting myself into one of their authentically Vietnamese street food style knee-height outdoor tables with footstools for seats, I settled into a warming, soothing bowl of pork offal congee, loaded with every part of the pig you can imagine. It was nice to be back.

Broward County's dining options are often looked down upon by Miamians (and sometimes by its own residents), but that's because folks are ignoring places like Mama Tofu, which serves a really curious and delicious assortment of Vietnamese street foods, many tofu-based as the name suggests but also lots of seafood and snail dishes lately. And just in this one shopping mall – centered around the Foodtown international supermarket, which is an experience in itself – there are a bunch more places worth checking out, like 545 Banh Mi CafePho 79, and the Hong Kong style Tasty Cafe.

Simit Sandwich - Mr. Mandolin
Simit Sandwich - Mr. Mandolin (MiMo District)

We were still doing mostly takeout in early 2021, though, and Mr. Mandolin was a nice new addition to the roster when the folks from long-time Miami favorite Mandolin Aegean Bistro took over the restaurant space in the Vagabond Hotel on Biscayne Boulevard. The menu, crafted with the guidance of chef Roel Alcudia (who moved on to the Groot empire and now has headed back up to New York to work with Jonathan Waxman) is mostly a straightforward collection of kebabs and wraps and the like, but everything is well done, fresh and flavorful. I am especially a fan of this simit sandwich, which uses a delightfully crispy/chewy, sesame seed studded chickpea flour ring as the base for sucuk (a dried sausage), kefalograviera (a nutty, melty Greek cheese), arugula and sliced tomatoes.

Parker House Rolls - Sonny's Someday Steakhouse
Parker House Rolls - Sunny's Someday Steakhouse (Little River)

Mackerel Crudo - Sonny's Someday Steakhouse
Mackerel Crudo - Sunny's Someday Steakhouse (Little River)

"Sunny's Someday Steakhouse" may be one of the all-time greatest Miami pandemic pivots. The folks from Jaguar Sun, a cozy cocktail bar downtown by barman Will Thompson and chef Carey Hynes, took over the "Lot 6" space in Little River. In the spacious outdoor venue with picnic tables under a sprawling banyan tree, and cooking entirely from an outdoor kitchen, they created a sort of reinvented steakhouse which was one of my favorite experiences of last year. Pitch-perfect cocktails, friendly and gracious service, and really excellent food. Yes, the steaks were great, but what I dream about are these fluffy Parker House rolls, which are a must-order on any visit. Another favorite: this crudo of spanking-fresh mackerel served in watermelon water with burnt serrano relish topped with basil leaves. After a hiatus, Sunny's is back at Little River (now going by the moniker "Sunny's Soonish Steakhouse," hinting at more developments coming soon) and on a recent visit was even better than ever.