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.