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.


BEC Pizza - Square Pie City (Miami Beach)

In 2020, a/k/a "The Year of Take-Out," we saw a lot of pizza pop-ups. Now some of them are finding more permanent homes. Square Pie City took up residence in the Time Out Market in South Beach, where they're turning out puffy, crispy-edged Detroit style squares. At a brunch-type thing in August, I had this slice of an indulgent "BEC" pizza with Babe Froman bacon, melty mozzarella, a runny, sunny egg and a dusting of parm shavings.

ora king salmon collar, anticuchera sauce - Itamae (Miami Design District)

Every meal I've had at Itamae has been better than the last. And that is pretty high praise, given that from the start, I've had nothing but great meals from the "Chang Gang." The highlight of a dinner at the kitchen counter in August was this gorgeous broiled collar of Ora King salmon rubbed in anticuchera sauce and plated with puddles of a creamy, green huacatay sauce. While the meat is always sweetest closest to the bone if you're willing to work for it, this is also a smart way to make use of every bit of the fish, as the rest of the carcasses hang to age for use in cebiches and tiraditos. 

kale and fontina cestini - Boia De (Buena Vista)

I said in Part 1 that I couldn't say enough good things about Boia De. So here I am, back saying more good things. They tend to rotate certain pasta dishes on and off the menu through the seasons, and one of my favorites is this kale and fontina cestini. These "baskets" – plump dumplings with the corners gathered at the top (here's Pasta Grannies showing how it's done) – practically burst with their soft filling of cheesy greens, which goes great with a sort of gremolata of toasted pine nuts, herbs and Calabrian chili peppers.

tomatoes, lacto tomato dashi - Kojin (Little Haiti)

I don't quite remember how I learned about Kojin, an omakase pop-up in the back of Hachidori Ramen in Little Haiti. It may have been via an email blast from Tock, the reservation service they use. In any event, it was a happy discovery. As we talked, I realized I'd surely eaten chef Pedro Mederos' cooking before: he'd spent time at Healdsburg's wonderful SingleThread during times I'd visited, and then came back to Miami where he had been cooking at Alter before it closed. Mederos and his pastry chef partner (now wife) Katherine Randolph serve a six-course, Japanese-inspired menu with a focus on in-house fermented flavors and esoteric sake pairings.[2] On my first visit, my favorite among many tasty things was a dish of multi-hued cherry tomatoes swimming in an intensely tomato-y lacto-fermented tomato water dashi, tweaked with two different house-made vinegars (smoky lapsang souchong and tangy ume), and a sprinkling of furikake.

tapas tower - Aita (Miami Design District)

I'm not sure when Juan Garrido opened Aita in the MIA Market in the Design District, I do know it took me a while to get over there. When I finally did, I was really excited by what I found: some very Spanish-ish bites, not strictly canon but still very much in the spirit of how we ate in Spain. It all came together with this "Tapas Tower," just about every little bite on the menu piled up on a two-tiered seafood platter. So many good things here: traditional gildas (a Basque pintxo of anchovies, olives and peppers all mounted on a skewer), untraditional gildas (shrimp and tomato, octopus and peppers), marinated mussels, shrimp cocktail, spiced nuts, good chips, chorizo and manchego ... plus a delicious chistorra hot dog. This is my kind of happy meal. Garrido is now doing an extended pop-up at Jaguar Sun downtown under the moniker "Bar Gilda" which is equally wonderful, if not more so.

fried aji with shiso & tartar sauce - ZZ's Club (Miami Design District)

I have to confess that one of the new trends in the Miami restaurant world – the "private dining club" – rubs me the wrong way. In principle, I get it: membership fees provide a steady source of revenue that can enable the opening and operation of a type of restaurant that might not otherwise be sustainable. And yet the execution of it just seems kind of – douchey. Major Food Group came into Miami like a tidal wave once shutdowns lifted here, taking over some of the city's prime restaurant real estate – Italian-American hit Carbone went into the former Upland space South of Fifth, HaSalon (with Israeli chef Eyal Shani) went into the old China Grill space, Sadelle's took over the Tigertail & Mary space in Coconut Grove,[3] and ZZ's Club went into the two-story Design District spot that had housed Brad Kilgore's Ember and Kaido. The progenitor of ZZ's is ZZ's Clam Bar in New York, an intimate cocktail bar which originally showcased barman Thomas Waugh's handiwork along with a short menu of raw, expensive seafood dishes. The Miami version is a members-only club where you can get a $95 bluefin tuna tartare with caviar and avocado, a $27 miso caesar salad, and triple-digit wagyu steaks. If that's what you're into.

In the fall, itamae Yasu Tanaka (who was at the Den at Azabu, and who moved on to open the more casual, but still very good, Sushi Yasu Tanaka at the MIA Market) was brought in to do a pop-up sushi omakase at at ZZ's. I have had some great meals with Yasu and love his work, so I finagled a reservation. It was another really great meal, and an opportunity for him (and us) to splurge on some luxe ingredients: Hokkaido scallops with uni and freshly shaved truffle, lots of bluefin tuna, more Hokkaido uni, wagyu beef, more wagyu and uni. It's probably just the contrarian in me, but my favorite bite was maybe the humblest: this cut roll of fried aji with a ribbon of shiso leaf, topped with a dollop of tartar sauce. Yasu's a fan of fried things with tartar sauce; so am I.

quenelle de brochet - Le CouCou (New York)

In November, we took a long weekend in New York City for the first time since late 2019. The city was still as quiet and uncrowded as I've ever seen it, as if still waking up from a long hibernation. I was thrilled to find out, shortly before we were on our way, that a favorite spot – Daniel Rose's Le CouCou – was finally reopening. This is everything I'd missed about restaurant dining: pressed white linens, candlelit tables, gracious service, posh French cooking I could never do at home. I wouldn't want to dine like this all the time, but it sure is nice every once in a while. Everything was delicious – lobster salad, foie gras and chicken terrine, grilled duck and figs, rum babas - but it's all epitomized in this old-school classic quenelle de brochet in a rich, frothy sauce Américaine.

soy tofu, maple-mirin, caviar - Contra (New York)

We also finally got to a place that's been on my to-do list for years: Fabian Von Hauske and Jeremiah Stone's Contra. We went with their "carte blanche" menu, and were about five courses in when I realized that one dish I really wanted to try was not going to make an appearance. So we ordered it on the fly before desserts, and I was so glad we did. Silky, quivering freshly made tofu, steeped in a sweet-savory bath of dashi, mirin, maple syrup and vinegar, topped with a dollop of caviar, snipped chives, crunchy buckwheat, and genmaicha. Creamy, salty, bitter, sweet, savory, in a combination not quite like anything I've had before but also somehow making perfect sense.

chou farci "mandoo" - Little Mad (New York)

To round out a long weekend in New York, someplace new: chef Sol Han's Little Mad.[4] What a neat place. There are lots of Korean flavors, a little French influence, a mix of humble and luxurious ingredients,[5] and an underlying spirit of indulgent fun. I liked it all – the gratis starter of savory taiyaki served with ramp butter, the yellowtail dressed with sesame and scallion oil sandwiched between slivers of Asian pear, the crispy pig ear salad, the Paris Brest filled with matcha cream for dessert. But the dish that really knocked me out – and which showed the through-line of Han's Korean heritage and French training – was this "chou farci" "mandoo," a fat dumpling of cabbage stuffed with minced tiger prawn and foie gras, served in a silky lobster sabayon, and topped, if you wish (trust me, you do), with a dollop of good caviar.

everything at Ghee Indian Kitchen (Kendall)

The Design District location of Niven Patel's Ghee was a pandemic casualty. The good news is that – although not as geographically desirable for me – the original location in Downtown Dadeland is still going strong, and Niven's managed to open Mamey and then Orno, in the Thesis Hotel in Coral Gables, as well. Late last year we made the trek south to the original flagship, and it was as good as ever. This picture kind of sums it up, because I love *everything*. The crisp pani puri with charred vegetables and green juice. The tuna bhel puri with avocado dressing. The short rib dosa with sambar dal and coconut curry chutney. The charred corn with smoked paneer and cilantro cream. The spicy green papaya salad. The puffy avocado bhatura. This is consistently one of the best meals you can have in Miami.

milk pudding - Kojin (Little Haiti)

Something sweet to close out 2021: a really delightful dessert by Katherine Randolph from a return visit to Kojin. A creamy milk pudding, topped with a graham crumble, a "Snow Yeti" sake gelée (the logo from the sake bottle, made by Yuki Otoko in Niigata, also adorns the serving piece), fragrant elderflowers, and shards of light, crispy meringue. Clean, pure and sweet. A nice way to finish a meal, and a year.

Every year that I've posted this list, I've closed it with the wish my grandfather would make for us every new year: "Always better, never worse." In Miami's restaurant world, that was certainly true for 2021. As always, a big thank you to all the folks who made it so, who have persisted and even thrived amid constant change and challenge.

[1] Actually, StarChefs did an excellent job last year of capturing many of the good things happening here with their "2021 Miami Rising Stars" recognitions, and an accompanying magazine I was proud to have contributed to. It was gratifying to see a number of deserving local folks in the list of James Beard semifinalists for 2022 – Michael Schwartz (Michael's Genuine) for Outstanding Chef, Pablo Zitzmann's Zitz Sum for Best New Restaurant, Antonio Bachour (Bachour) for Outstanding Pastry Chef, Zak Stern (Zak the Baker) for Outstanding Baker, Michelle Bernstein and Julio Cabrera's Cafe La Trova for Outstanding Bar Program, and Michael Beltran (Ariete), Val, Nando and Fernando Chang (Itamae), Clay Conley (Buccan), Jeremy Ford (Stubborn Seed), Niven Patel (Ghee), and Michael Pirolo (Macchialina) all for Best Chef: South. It was disappointing to see only one of those names - Zak – make it out of the initial round as a nominee. I've vented before about how the Beard Foundation's process has resulted in a virtual stranglehold by the city of New Orleans on nominations and winners coming out of the "Best Chef: South" category, and after two years on hiatus (no winners were announced in 2020; no nominations were made in 2021), we're back to the same thing. I saved the receipts here. But forget the awards for a moment. While I'm not so much of a homer to claim that Miami has the same depth of great restaurant options as a city like New Orleans, I will say this: if you put the best of Miami up against the best of New Orleans, you'd be hard pressed to say one is better than the other.

[2] In case not clear: "omakase" and "Japanese-inspired" does not translate to "sushi" here.

[3] This seemed like a pretty sharp-elbowed deal, with Michael Schwartz's T&M getting squeezed out of a 10-year lease for the popular restaurant after the property was sold to a developer who is partnered with MFG.

[4] There's a restaurant family connection here: Han and his executive sous chef Jonathan Culbert both worked at Le CouCou before it closed for the pandemic.

[5] As a smart upsell, they offer the option for every dish to "Make It Madder" by adding uni, truffle or caviar.

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