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.


Hot Potato Cold Potato - Alinea
Hot Potato Cold Potato - Alinea (@ home)

We've never been ones to go out on "event" nights like Valentine's Day, so we sure weren't going to do so last year. But I was pretty excited to find that Chicago's Alinea had put together a multi-course D.I.Y. Valentine's Day dinner that they were shipping nationwide. With a not-unreasonable amount of at-home prep, we were able to recreate some of the restaurant's most famous dishes, like this "Hot Potato Cold Potato," in which a pin inserted through a wax bowl serves as the skewer for a slice of black truffle, warmed potato ball, chive, cold butter and parmesan cheese. Pull the pin, drop the hot potato and accoutrements into a bath of cold creamy truffle soup, and then gulp. I've done this a couple times at the restaurant, pretty cool to be able to do it at home. We wound up turning this into two dinners over two nights (we had added a "canapes" package that included a lot of the little bites like this dish), and I was very pleasantly surprised at how well everything traveled. 

Wild Mushroom and Southern Polenta - Rosie's
Wild Mushroom and Southern Polenta - Rosie's (Overtown)

Rosie's was another pandemic pivot that quickly became a favorite of mine. Jamila Ross and Akino West had just starting finding their rhythm at the Copper Door B&B they'd opened in Overtown when COVID messed everything up. They opened Rosie's as a breakfast and lunch pop-up in a covered patio space alongside the inn, and man, was it great. Their biscuits were the fluffiest. Their fried fish and grits with kimchi collards and tomato gravy was a classic soul food breakfast gone all soigné. Their Chicky Sandwich was the best crispy chicken I've had in a long time. I could have put any of those on this list, but instead will go with the "Southern Polenta" topped with wild mushrooms, quick-sauteed kale, lots of parm, a poached egg, and an herb gremolata, as just one more example of how Rosie's took southern staples and did them with such finesse. Rosie's is currently on pause, but you can find Akino and Jamila these days at 7th Cafe.

Caviar with Arepas - Uchi
Caviar with Arepas - Uchi (Wynwood)

Among the many new foreign imports that I've not yet actually visited is Uchi from Austin, TX chef Tyson Cole. But we did get a "to-gomakase" dinner from Uchi in March of 2021 to celebrate the one-year anniversary of the pandemic, and it made for some really outstanding at-home dining: a couple interesting cuts of sashimi, an assortment of nigiri, a nice salad, a few different cooked items, an ice cream sando for dessert, even some Szechuan sausage and negi biscuits to bake up the next morning. But my favorite course was a tin of Regiis Ova caviar, served with tangy labneh, house-made furikake and crisp, fluffy arepas. Uchi is high on my list of places I need to try for a real meal soon.

Asparagus, Maitake, Parmesan Broth - Boia De
Asparagus, Maitake, Parmesan Broth - Boia De (Buena Vista)

One great thing about all the outdoor dining we did in 2021, other than the fresh air? What a joy it is to shoot pictures in natural light. Here's a nice crisp shot from March of last year of all the good spring things at Boia De: fat asparagus and strips of meaty maitake mushrooms, served in a parmesan broth and topped with shards of nutty parm and baubles of trout roe. Over in the corner there, cappeloni stuffed with stracchino cheese, with fresh favas, pecorino and melting ribbons of lard. I just can't say enough good things about what Alex Meyer and Luci Giangrandi are doing at Boia De.

(More pics from Boia De)

BBQ - El Balbiquiu
BBQ - El Balbiquiu (North Bay Village)

I was curious when a sign saying "El Balbiquiu" went up on a spot along my usual commute across the 79th Street Causeway, a couple doors down from Happy's Stork Lounge. I was thrilled to discover that they were turning out some really delicious barbecue with Puerto Rican flavors: tender, nicely spiced brisket, tangy ribs, a really delicious, juicy chicken, with things like arroz mamposteao and mofongo for sides. I was crushed when they shut down a few months ago. If the folks behind this are still doing something in Miami, I'd love to know about it.

Curry Calabaza Tiradito - Timon Balloo @ Itamae
Curry Calabaza Tiradito - Timon Balloo @ Itamae (Design District)

In April, Val and Nando Chang brought Timon Balloo to Itamae to do what they called a "Studio Sessions" dinner. Some "collaboration dinners" feel like musicians taking turns playing each other's songs – one chef does a dish, then the other chef does a dish, and they bounce back and forth. That can be great, but it's not the same kind of magic that comes when artists work to create something together. Like David Bowie singing "Under Pressure" with Queen, or Eric Clapton playing guitar with the Beatles on "While My Guitar Gently Weeps." Or when chefs really work to combine their flavors and ideas and inspirations. There was already a lot going on both in Timon's cooking, which draws on every element of his Trini-Indian Afro-Caribbean heritage and then some, and the Peruvian-Japanese Nikkei mashup that defines the Chang Gang's cooking at Itamae. So when you put all of that together, you're going to get something really interesting. Each of the dishes at this dinner represented that kind of real collaboration - a true mash-up.

Among a bunch of great things, maybe my favorite example was this curry calabaza tiradito – Timon's curry-spiced pumpkin with creamy, tangy labne, done here with a huacatay-cilantro leche de tigre, plus crunchy cancha corn and puffed rice like you'd find in bhel puri. Indian-style chaat meets Peruvian-style tiradito. These are some of my favorite people making some of my favorite food in Miami.

Miami Clams - Navé (Coconut Grove)

Veal Parmesan - Navé (Coconut Grove)

We don't often go out for Italian food, for reasons I've explained here before. I make certain exceptions for places that do it thoughtfully and really well. Michael Beltran's Navé falls in that category. A focus on seafood keeps things a little lighter than usual, like with these delicious "Miami Clams" that merge Italy and Miami by topping them with "medianoche butter" and gruyere cheese before running them under the broiler. And there are few things that make me and Mrs. F as happy as this platter-sized, perfectly executed veal parmesan. Everybody in Miami went berserk when a certain New York group opened a certain restaurant in South Beach with a certain famous veal parmesan, which immediately become an impossible reservation. Everybody needs to calm the fuck down and go to Navé.

Tagliolini with Morel Mushroom Ragu - Macchialina (Miami  Beach)

Speaking of Italian restaurants that do it right: sometimes I forget what a gem chef Michael Pirolo has created in Macchialina, which is coming up on its ten-year anniversary some time this year. We had a great dinner outside in the "giardino" in May, which included some old favorites – the broccolini al cesare, the tiramisu with espresso granita – mixed in with some nice seasonal dishes, my favorite being this tagliolini with a rich, forest-y morel mushroom ragu.

Arroz de Setas a la Brasa - Leku (Allapattah)

Torta de Queso Vasca - Leku (Allapattah)

I was pretty excited for Leku, the Basque restaurant in the Rubell Museum in Allapattah, which was getting ready to open right as COVID rolled in. I am a big fan of Basque cuisine, and this seemed like it was going to be the real deal. They finally opened up several months later, and we made our way there in June. Everything felt right – the gin and tonic in a big goblet, the martini with a gilda garnish,  the jamón ibérico on a huge, puffy cracker, the fancy ensaladilla rusa – but my two favorite dishes were this lovely rice with wild mushrooms, creamy and rich but with a crisp soccarat underneath, and the oozy, burnished Basque cheesecake for dessert. This is as close as you will come to Basque Country in Miami. (The original chef from Leku, Aitor Garate Berasaluze, has now opened a spot at the Time Out Miami Market in South Beach called Lur, which I'm itching to try).

Round two of The Best Things I Ate in 2021 to come soon, hopefully before we're done with 2022 is up now!

No comments:

Post a Comment