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 ...)

Sakura Cured Madai - Hiyakawa
Sakura Cured Madai - Hiyakawa (Wynwood)

I did not manage to sample every one of the many new omakase venues that have opened over the past year in Miami, but not for lack of trying. Hiyawaka – with Masayuki Komatsu and Royce Appling behind the sushi bar – actually opened late 2020, but I only made my first visit this past spring, instead usually stopping short at its more casual, and geographically desirable, sibling Wabi Sabi instead. There are a couple other spots I need to return to in order to recalibrate the omakase-meter, but Hiyakawa may be my current favorite. There are a lot of places getting good fish these days, but this meal, more than any other in recent memory, captured the spirit of seasonality we found at my all-time top omakase experiences in Japan. Spring is cherry blossom season in Japan, and so it was fitting that the first bite of sushi at our late-March meal was this delightfully tender, sweet madai (sea bream) cured in sakura (cherry blossom) leaves, followed later in the progression by a bite of sakura masu (cherry salmon), a wild salmon caught off northern Japanese waters at its peak during cherry blossom season.

(More pics from Hiyawka | Wynwood).

Super Good Chicken Sandwich - Off Site
Super Good Chicken Sandwich - Off Site (Little Haiti)

Not gonna lie: I really like me a crispy chicken sandwich. Also not a lie: the "Super Good Chicken Sandwich" at Off Site is super good. Off Site is the brainchild of Taquiza's Steve Santana and the late Boxelder's Adam Darnell. The "nano-brewery" features a lineup of pretty standard bar fare that is deceptive in its simplicity and maximal in its flavors. It really seems as if everything on the menu is the best version of that particular thing you've ever had. A friend whose judgment I trust swears by the wings, but for me it's this chicken sandwich: a fantastically juicy and crispy buttermilk-battered thigh, with a tangy-creamy "special sauce," shredded iceberg, snappy pickles, on a toasted sesame seed bun. It's perfect.

(More pics from Off Site | Little Haiti).

Kansas City Strip  - Sunny's Someday Steakhouse
Kansas City Strip  - Sunny's Steakhouse (Little Haiti)

Sunny's Someday Steakhouse, the pop-up from the Jaguar Sun team in the Little River space, was the silver lining of the COVID crisis, an absolutely magical spot serving precisely dialed-in cocktails and a contemporary, live-fire version of a traditional steakhouse menu on picnic tables in a lovely outdoor space. It was on my list last year, and back again here for our last visit in March. This is how we would order at Sunny's: definitely the Parker House rolls, almost surely whatever crudo is on offer, at least one and maybe two salads (one of the best Caesars around), and then split a big steak with all the sauces: a frothy aerated bearnaise, salsa verde, piquillo condiment, XO, silky butter, and zingy pineapple hot habanero hot sauce. They changed from "Someday" to "Soonish" last year, and last I heard were working on turning it into a permanent thing. Here's hoping.

Florida Keys Snapper - Rancho Patel
Florida Keys Snapper - Rancho Patel (Homestead)

I've been fortunate to have shared several great meals with chef Niven Patel (Ghee, Orno, Mamey) at his home / farm down in Homestead, including one of my all-time favorite Cobaya dinners.[5] Niven and his team are now making it a semi-regular thing with a "Sundays at the Rancho" series of events. We went back in April, and it is truly one of the best, "Only in Miami" kind of experiences you can have. We arrived to find a school of red snapper, freshly caught in the Florida Keys, hanging over a charcoal fire, along with a parade of other dishes being assembled: stracciatella with marinated olives and kumquats, falafel with sungold tomatoes fresh from the garden, heirloom carrots and grilled radicchio with arugula pesto. Those snappers eventually found their way to the communal tables, doused in Calabrian chili and preserved lemon. Just a fantastic use of local product.

(More pics from Sunday at the Rancho).

Marinated Mussels - Boia De
Marinated Mussels - Boia De (Buena Vista)

Doppi Agnolotti - Boia De
Doppi Agnolotti - Boia De (Buena Vista)

One of the more gratifying things I've seen in the Miami food world over the past few years is the progression of Alex Meyer and Luciana Giangrandi. Five years ago, I was singing their praises for a delightful, Mexican-inspired crispy chicken cemita they were serving from the La Pollita food truck outside a garden store. Now they are running a Michelin-starred restaurant. It's not really a surprise: their collective resumés before opening La Pollita read like a Murderer's Row of some of the best restaurants on the east and west coasts, and that talent and experience found an outlet at Boia De, which they opened in mid-2019. It soon became my most consistent response when asked "What's your favorite restaurant in Miami?" And that remains the case now. The food is adventurous but satisfying, thoughtful but not precious, and consistently delicious. The wines are always intriguing. The atmosphere is always welcoming and friendly. The only complaint I could possibly lodge is that it's become an impossible reservation, though maybe their newly opened, larger Walrus Rodeo in the same shopping plaza will alleviate that.

In the meantime, I'll be eagerly looking forward to my next visit, and things like these delightfully plump, briny marinated mussels, served over a creamy smoked paprika sauce with crispy fingerling potato chips. And always a pasta: here, the doppi agnolotti with their clever two-tone filling, paired with asparagus and morels, tasting like spring in a bowl.

(More pics from Boia De | Buena Vista).

Unagi Eggplant Nigiri - Planta Queen
Unagi Eggplant Nigiri - Planta Queen (Coconut Grove)

With a vegan in the family, I have become much more attuned to the availability of plant-based restaurant options. Miami has lately become a more vegan-friendly dining market, but in a very particular sense: there are now several restaurants that are exclusively plant-based; but the rest of the restaurant world still often fails to give consideration to providing vegan options on their menus.[6] The good news is that some of those exclusively plant-based spots are doing so in really delicious ways.[7] Planta is from a restaurant group that started in Toronto and now has four spots in South Florida. The Coconut Grove Planta Queen is a slick-looking spot in the newly refurbished CocoWalk open-air mall, sitting right on top of Groot Hospitality's Key Club. The pan-Asian-ish menu mostly eschews ultra-processed "Impossible" type products in favor of real ingredients, which I appreciate. Nothing about the experience feels like penance or deprivation. Pretty much everything was tasty, including nice spinach shiitake dumplings and a really lovely kale Caesar salad enhanced with dried mushroom "bacon" and crispy yuba croutons. But I was kind of floored at how good the "unagi eggplant" nigiri was: the eggplant tender almost to the point of collapse, with bits of char on its edges, draped with a potently savory truffled miso dressing. A very plausible facsimile of the sensation and flavor of grilled barbecued eel; more importantly, it was the kind of bite where you immediately want to order another round.

Patas de Mula - Holbox (LA)
Patas de Mula - Holbox (LA)

Is there a better eating city in the U.S. right now than L.A.? I'm not sure that there is. On my way to a wedding in Laguna Beach, I popped in to Holbox for a quick lunch straight from LAX. From a small counter in the Mercado de Paloma, they serve some of the most incredibly fresh, flavorful Mexican-style seafood I've ever tasted: a tostada topped with kanpachi ceviche and Santa Barbara sea urchin; a delightfully fresh Baja style fish taco with crispy rockfish; and best of all, these patas de mula (blood clams), with an almost meaty texture and flavor, chopped together with tomatoes, onions, and cilantro, and dressed with a morita chile salsa, before being nestled back in their shells. Really special food in a really accessible format.

(More pics from Holbox | Los Angeles).

Tlacoyo de Habas - Taco Maria (Costa Mesa)
Tlacoyo de Habas - Taco Maria (Costa Mesa)

A wedding in Laguna Beach was also the perfect opportunity to pay a visit to a place that I've long wanted to try, chef Carlos Salgado's Taco Maria in Costa Mesa. Operating from an odd, small space in a suburban neighborhood surrounded by furniture stores, Salgado serves some of the most elegant and delicious Mexican inspired dishes I've had in recent memory. Everything was great, but especially this tlacoyo de habas, a thick hockey puck of savory blue corn masa, topped with a mash of refried fava beans, fresh sweet English peas, a fine julienne of greens and hoja santa, and an intense pistachio crema.

(More pics from Taco Maria | Costa Mesa).

Pork Chop - Rustic Canyon (Santa Monica)
Pork Chop - Rustic Canyon (Santa Monica)

Rustic Canyon is another spot I keep going back to despite the wealth of other dining options in the L.A. area. This is how I want to eat all the time: food that is super-flavorful, ingredient-driven but not just "figs on a plate," lots of technique to enhance and intensify flavors but it's invisible on the plate. The slogan at R.C. is "Simple Ain't Easy," and they consistently make it work. R.C. is not a flashy kind of place, but despite that this pork chop somehow became a bit "Instagram-famous." It's worthy of all attention it gets: a beautiful chop from Peads & Barnetts, dry-brined, dredged in koji flour, pan-cooked, then blanketed in a buttery sauce of whey, tarragon, coriander seeds and trout roe. Chef Jeremy Fox first joined R.C. back in 2013, and while my first visit in 2014 was all his menu, of late he's given a lot of autonomy to others, including Andy Doubrava, who was exec chef during this most recent visit, and has now gone off to do his own thing. The reins were recently handed over to chef Zarah Khan, and I'm fascinated to see her working hints of Middle Eastern flavors into the menu.

Stay tuned for Part 2 coming soon!

[1] It would be even longer if I didn't exclude a bunch of new places from some big-name restaurant groups, both national and local, which I don't particularly care to try.

[2] While somewhat unfair, it is impossible for me not to compare Harbor House to Willows Inn, Blaine Wetzel's once-highly-celebrated restaurant and inn on Lummi Island, which likewise had a prominently touted locavore focus in a beautiful spot on the Pacific Northwest coast. I had several fantastic meals at Willows Inn, and was incredibly disappointed to hear of the litany of awful things happening behind the scenes: sexual harassment, abuse of employees, and misrepresentations about ingredient sourcing. Wetzel's defensive, tone-deaf denials and excuses did little to assuage my disappointment. Of course, no high-end restaurant is as idyllic as the experience from the diner's side of the table would suggest (no doubt it gets tiresome at Harbor House to haul buckets of seawater up a hundred steps to dehydrate for their own sea salt), but I hope and believe that Harbor House is doing better by its staff, its neighbors, and its customers.  It ought to be possible to run a restaurant and inn that conveys a sense of place without that place being a misery for the folks working there. Earlier this month Willows announced it was closing for good and the property would be sold to a non-profit. Heartbreaking, in a way, but also: good riddance.

[3] One of my new years' resolutions is to expand my range of food description adjectives. I'm starting here with "floofy."

[4] Fun fact: that aroma is tied to the presence of amygdalin, which is converted in the human body to cyanide!

[5] For those who have been asking: Cobaya is not dead, just not quite yet crawled back out of its cave yet. We'll see if it makes a comeback in the coming year.

[6] By comparison, when we were in Iceland, even restaurants that only had a handful of main course choices would typically offer at least one vegan or vegetarian option.

[7] I've also had some really good things, in particular the dim sum, at Minty Z, a more casual vegan spot just down Grand Avenue. 

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