Saturday, January 6, 2024

The Best Things I Ate in 2023 (Round 1)

"Year in Review" and "Best ..." posts are tired and lazy. I know. But in their (my) defense, they're also an opportunity for some reflection and perspective, a change of pace from the ephemeral but unrelenting blare of most food media these days. When writing these posts, I'm not just trying to tick off some boxes – there's some thought that goes into deciding what dishes really brought the most pleasure and inspiration over the past year, and effort in trying to find words that capture what was special about them, occasionally even some consideration of how they might fit into some grander scheme. Plus, once a year seems to be about the pace I'm capable of maintaining here at FFT these days.

2023 was a big year for Miami dining, as far as recognition beyond our borders. Bon Appetit magazine pronounced Miami its "Food City of the Year," and followed up by naming Val Chang's new Peruvian restaurant, Maty's, one of its Best New Restaurants of 2023. The New York Times included Maty's, along with Smoke & Dough, among its Best Restaurants of 2023 (with a huge splash shot of Maty's tuna tiradito on the cover). Esquire magazine followed suit, including Maty's and Niven Patel's new Erba in its 50 Best New Restaurants. Val and brother Nando (soon to be reopening Itamae as an omakase counter inside Maty's) were both among Food & Wine magazine's Best New Chefs. And for whatever it might mean, Miami entered its second year of being a Michelin-rated town, with one addition (Tambourine Room) to the ten one-stars selected last year, and everyone else retaining their stars (including two-starred L'Atelier de Joel Robuchon).

That kind of attention draws a lot of big-money operators. Major Food Group started with a Carbone clone in South Beach in early 2021, and soon two hands may not be enough to count all their Miami restaurants. Clubster David Grutman (LIV) has become a restaurateur, with over a half-dozen venues under the umbrella of Groot Hospitality, including a team-up with Tao Group on the new Casadonna. Stephen Starr and Keith McNally opened a recreation of their New York faux-French bistro Pastis in Wynwood. Thomas Keller opened a Bouchon Bistro in Coral Gables. Chicago group Lettuce Entertain You opened the Mediterranean Aba in Bal Harbour. Toronto's INK Entertainment Group (which also runs Byblos) opened the Mediterranean Amal in Coconut Grove. Everyone and their brother opened a Mediterranean restaurant with a two-syllable name containing at least one, and preferably two, soft-a sounds in it, this past year.[1] Then their cousin opened an omakase counter with a $200+ price point.[2]

But that's not remotely the most interesting segment of the Miami dining universe these days. For me, anyway, what is most exciting to see is the resurgence of small, adventurous restaurants that don't fit into any particular mold. And not just the spots that have (justifiably) gotten so much media attention recently, like Maty's and Erba and Boia De, but pop-ups like Spanish-Japanese QP Tapas, locally-focused EntreNos, pintxos-themed Bar Gilda, Southern brunch specialist Rosie's, and pop-up-turned-permanent Vietnamese gem Tam Tam, plus quirky spots like New Schnitzel House, and Lion and the Rambler, and Aitor Berasaluze's new Edan Bistro in North Miami. Can we swap out some of the "clubstaurants" for more of these? What is the exchange rate?

As is usually the case, I'm way behind the curve. Between travel and returns to old favorites, I made it to about twenty new restaurants in Miami over the past year. Yet the "to-do" list – which is not everything that has opened, only those that actually look interesting to me – still grows ever longer. Roughly half of the dishes on this year's list are locally grown; the rest come from a variety of places we were lucky enough to visit in 2023: Northern California, England, Scotland, Lisbon, Marrakech and Spain.[3] (You want itineraries? I've got itineraries.)

Without further ado ...

ugly mushroom pasta - Pomet (Oakland)

Early in the year we did an all-East Bay trip to Northern California, making the Moxy in Oakland our base camp and only passing through San Francisco to get to and from the airport. This is not one of those "San Francisco has become a cesspool" screeds (not that Oakland is spared from that stuff), but rather a recognition that some really interesting creative stuff is happening on the other side of the Bay Bridge (also Frod Jr.'s in Oakland). We had a great meal at Pomet, which turns the farm-to-table trope on its head: the restaurant was started by Aomboon Deasy, who runs K&J Orchards and wanted a place to highlight their fantastic produce. She recruited chef Alan Hsu to do the cooking and the results are pretty wonderful, highlighted by this "ugly mushroom" filled pasta smothered in an assortment of trumpets and other mushrooms and some Shared Cultures mirepoix miso butter. An umami bomb in a silky, delicate package. 

Hong Kong egg tart - Snail Bar x Gizela Ho (Rich Table) (Oakland)

Our weekend visit to Oakland happily coincided with a pop-up dinner with Gizela Ho, CDC of San Francisco's Rich Table, at the culinarily overachieving wine bar Snail Bar. My favorite thing on the night's menu were these decadent egg tarts, flavored with chamomile and hazelnut oil, topped with oscetra caviar, and adorned with a garland of marigold petals – a traditional dish twisted in the service of new flavors. What is maybe most refreshing about the wave of new spots in the East Bay – like Pomet, Snail Bar, Day TripBurdellLion Dance Cafe – is that they aim for a more casual vibe and lower price point than the high-end temples of gastronomy that have become increasingly common in S.F., while still maintaining the focus on interesting, delicious cooking with high-quality ingredients.

Pintxo Matrimonio, Txangurro - Jaguar Sun x Ernesto's (Miami)

Back home, but sticking with the pop-up theme: early in the year, Carey Hynes and Will Thompson of Jaguar Sun did a great series of collaboration dinners at Understory in Little River. The couple I made it to were both great experiences – a seafood-themed one with Ben Sukle of Oberlin in Providence, R.I.[4], and this Basque-themed one with Ryan Bartlow of N.Y.'s Ernesto's. There were lots of good things this night, including gambas de Palamos and a rice with rabbit, mushrooms and truffles, but what really resonated for me was this very traditional pintxos platter: a "matrimonio" of black and white anchovies over a puff pastry baton, and a "txangurro" tart filled with sweet, tender blue crab cooked with a sofrito of tomato and onion. These were every bit the equal of the pintxos we had during our end-of-year trip to San Sebastian.

Celeriac, Brown Crab & Apple - Inver (Strathlachlan, Scotland)

Some meals are inseparable from the environment in which they are served. Sometimes it's because the kitchen is dedicated to sourcing from surrounding lands and waters, creating a literal connection to the environment. Sometimes it's because the locale itself is so special that it is indelibly attached to the experience. And sometimes it's both. Inver Restaurant & Rooms, in Strathlachlan, Scotland, is one of those that fits both descriptions. Our drive to Inver, situated along the Loch Fyne a couple hours west of Glasgow, proceeded along an increasingly narrow road that at one point became so wee I wasn't sure I hadn't somehow detoured onto a hiking path. Upon arriving, we found ourselves at the foot of a marsh, gazing out onto the water with the ruins of the old Castle Lachlan in the distance. What a setting.

Lodging is provided in very comfortable, contemporary bothies along the marsh; dinner is served in a spare, simple house at the end of the path. It is all exceedingly local and exceedingly delicious, like this dish with a sort of mille-feuille of celery root topped by a rich mousse of brown crab, batons of celery root and apple alongside. I could have just as easily gone with maybe the most humble, straightforward dish I was served all year: a cup of a frothy bread and butter broth with an incredibly deep, savory flavor.

You can find tasting menus stuffed with foie gras, caviar, and wagyu in just about any metropolitan city, and so many of them are going to feel exactly like each other no matter where they are. You can find roughly a dozen omakase venues just in Miami which serve fish and seafood shipped direct from the Japanese markets. What is truly rare, and special, is the meal you simply cannot get anywhere else. This is the kind of restaurant experience I'm increasingly drawn to: a place with a sense of *place*.  

(continued ...)

Venison, Bramble, Meadowsweet - Heron (Edinburgh Scotland)

When I made a reservation at Heron in March of last year, I did not have a lot of information to work with. It had an intriguing menu. It had a pair of young chefs. And, unlike several other places on my  Edinburgh list, it was open on Wednesdays. Then a couple weeks after we booked, and before we arrived in Scotland, Michelin bestowed a star upon it. I can see why they did. Everything we ate here was flat out delicious: a rich, almost feral-tasting pig head croqueta as an opening bite, a perfectly cooked veal sweetbread in a savory, sticky sauce topped with walnuts and sweet arugula; an indulgent bowl of crispy potatoes over a rich puddle of Galloway Farmhouse cheese sauce and snipped chives (who doesn't like cheesy potatoes?). But most outstanding of all, this plate of rosy venison loin from Hopetoun Estate, accompanied by a gorgeous little pithivier filled with braised venison and a sidecar salad of complementary red things (beets, grapes, radicchio).[5]

Roast Chicken, Morels & Vin Jaune - Noble Rot (London)

From Edinburgh to London, which is such a great eating town. We have some old favorites, but this time also tried something new for us: Noble Rot, a restaurant that started as a wine magazine, with Stephen Harris (of culinary cult favorite The Sportsman in Kent) overseeing the menu along with Alex Jackson, head chef at the Soho locale we visited.[6] The menu is kind-of French in a not very rigid way, ingredient-driven, unfussy, and of course, quite wine-friendly. For me, a roast chicken can either be the most boring thing on a menu, or when done well, the most exciting thing. Noble Rot's roast chicken with morels in a vin jaune sauce was one of the greatest things I ate all year, just an absolutely perfect meal.[7] If a restaurant like this were anywhere near me, I would be there every week.

Carabineiros - Cervejaria Ramiro (Lisbon)

On our way to Morocco, we arranged a 24-hour layover in Lisbon (TAP Airlines makes this very easy to do for several destinations, and had the best flight options anyway). And now, I am itching to take a more fulsome trip to Portugal. We arrived around 7 a.m., dropped our bags at the hotel, fortified ourselves with pasteis de nata,[8] walked several miles up what felt like several thousand stairs, and stopped for lunch at Cervejaria Ramiro. Ramiro is on most folks' Lisbon lists, and for really good reason: this was an outstanding meal, an utter pleasure. Ramiro is a seafood specialist, the menu populated with multiple different kinds of shrimp, clams, crabs, and other sea-dwelling creatures, simply prepared. We had a plate of some of the best percebes I've ever eaten, a bucket of clams in garlic and parsley, and these absolutely gorgeous carabineiros (giant red prawns). I am usually a D.I.Y. guy when it comes to these monsters, sucking on the heads like some kind of caveman, but at Ramiro they do something really special. Using a steak knife, the server cuts off a side of the carapace, exposing the head, and splits the tail, exposing its flesh. Then all those delicious juices are spooned from the head over the tail meat. It is one of the most delicious things you will eat in this life. (I totally gnawed on the heads anyway.) Maybe most remarkable? This meal, including a couple beers, was under $100 for two. My only disappointment was that Mrs. F would not permit me to do as one is supposed to do at Ramiro, which is to order the prego (a steak sandwich) for dessert. Have to go back.

Arroz de Forno & Carabineiros - Essencial (Lisbon)

Paris-Brest Pistachio Yuzu - Essencial (Lisbon)

I'm not sure how obvious this is, but I really like carabineiros. So when, after walking several more miles and several thousand more steps through Lisbon, we wound up at Essencial for dinner, and I saw a rice with carabineiros on the menu, we had to order it. It was every bit as good as I hoped: those prawns so fat and sweet, the rice infused with a potent seafood broth compounded even further by the juices from the prawn heads, daubs of silky aioli, and spoonfuls of chili oil. Dessert was a winner, too, a pitch-perfect Paris-Brest with a powerfully flavored pistachio and yuzu cream that still managed to stay somewhat light on its feet. Indeed, everything else we had at Essencial was pretty wonderful too: a fresh sea urchin filled with a mousse of the roe dotted with sweet shrimp; a plate of fresh morels with a soft egg and parmentier potatoes. And even though the menu was short, there were several other dishes I would have loved to try, including a pithivier with pigeon, smoked eel and foie gras. Essencial was also somewhat shockingly affordable, with a three-course meal priced at €50 per person (though the carabineiro rice was a €23 pp supplement).

Leg of Lamb and Sesame Candied Eggplant Tajine - Sahbi Sahbi (Marrakech)

Mrs. F was at a conference in Marrakech for a week, while I was only able to stay a few days (this was months before the earthquake in September). It was still enough time for a great experience, and a great meal at Sahbi Sahbi. In a beautifully designed space rich with shades of terra cotta, copper and gold, an all-women crew works an open kitchen turning out dishes inspired by Moroccan home cooking. Some of it was familiar – an assortment of salads, a pigeon pastilla, tajines – other dishes less so, like Mokh Mcharmel ("brains the Moroccan way")[9] and a tajia of beef shin and white beans, cooked in and served from an amphora-like earthen vessel.[10] Among many delicious things, the best dish we had was this tajine of tender lamb leg with silky eggplants coated in candied sesame seeds, a lovely combination of savory, sweet and spice.

Uni Risotto - QP Tapas (Miami)

Home! Finally! It is entirely possible that my two favorite regional cuisines are Japanese and Spanish. So when Josh Elliott[11] started popping up with QP Tapas, a Spanish-Japanese mash-up, it was right in my wheelhouse. I love everything about it. The ingredients are high-quality, the cooking is on point, the flavors are great, and nothing feels like it's trying too hard. QP does a great matrimonio, the bread generously slathered with grated tomato before being draped with black and white anchovies, drizzled with olive oil and dotted with aioli. Sashimi meets the Basque Country with slices of bluefin tuna topped with pickled cucumber and "Basque chili oil" (this stuff ought to be jarred and sold). There's a textbook tortilla española served with Kewpie mayo, and an unorthodox but delicious okonomiyaki. But maybe my favorite thing is this uni "risotto," made with orzo swimming in an uni fondue, topped with baubles of smoked trout roe and more of that chili oil. It's just a fantastic dish. QP has about a month left at the Allocation Room in Coconut Grove before they start scouting locations again; go get it while you can.

Bigfin Reef Squid, Huacatay, Fermented Aji Limo Leche de Tigre - Itamae (Miami)

Way back in 2017, I went to a pop-up dinner called "Nisei."  The chef was a young guy named Fernando Chang, and the menu he'd put together highlighted "Nikkei" cooking, the fusion of Peruvian and Japanese culinary cultures. I could see a spark in his cooking, some finesse and balance, even on the second night of his first pop-up. Fast forward six years, and Nando has fulfilled that promise at Itamae, which started in what was then the St. Roch Food Hall in the Design District before moving downstairs to a mostly open-air space with a sushi bar style counter inside. I've now said this repeatedly, but every one of my visits to Itamae has been better than the last. Nando sources outstanding quality fish, and butchers and sometimes ages them all himself; he brings new life to the already kaleidoscopic repertoire of Nikkei flavors with fermentations and cures. It's all on display in this tiradito of bigfin reef squid, napped with a huacatay sauce, swimming in a leche de tegre of fermented aji limo. The sticky, chewy squid, the minty, musky herbaceousness of the huacatay, the acidic, spicy punch of the leche de tigre, together are like fireworks. Itamae is currently on hiatus, and will be reopening as an omakase counter inside sister Val Chang's new restaurant Maty's. I'm really looking forward to that.

Chicories, Pear, Pecans, Green Goddess - Walrus Rodeo (Miami)

Greenhorn 'Za - Walrus Rodeo (Miami)

Walrus Rodeo, the second album from Boia De duo Alex Meyer and Luci Giangrandi, just barely squeaked onto my 2022 list following a late December visit, only a couple weeks after they'd opened. I'm always reluctant to pass judgment, either positive or negative, so early in a restaurant's life. We've been back to the Rodeo[12] several times since then, and, like my experience with Itamae, each time has been better than the last. I can't go to Boia De without getting Luci's Chopped Salad, and as long as it is on the menu at Walrus, I am ordering this chicory salad with nuts, castelfranco cheese and green goddess dressing. I don't even like salads! What's going on here? But it's perfect: bitter, sweet, bright, herby, salty, savory, tangy – it's everything everywhere all at once, in a salad instead of a bagel. And while the Walrus insists that it is not a pizzeria, it happens to serve some really outstanding pizzas, with ethereally light, airy crusts and inspired toppings. My favorite so far has been this "Greenhorn 'Za" topped with plump morels, spring onions, arugula rabe and some funky cheese.

(More pics from Walrus Rodeo)

Tamago - Shingo (Coral Gables)

I want to be very clear about something: I am NOT complaining about the recent proliferation of omakase counters in Miami. I don't love them all, and I'm certainly not convinced they all deliver the value of their price points, but this is one of my favorite types of meals and I'm all in favor of optionality. I had several good meals with chef Shingo Akikuni when he was at The Den at Azabu along with Yasu Tanaka. Shingo left for Hiden, and Yasu started his own thing at Sushi Yasu Tanaka in the Design District food hall. Now Shingo has his own name on the door at a beautiful, simple space in the old La Palma building in Coral Gables. The hinoki counter and tranquil room feel about as close to Japan as I've found in Miami. And my first experience there, with Shingo assisted by Arrel Pluvoise and Amir Anvari, immediately put this in my top tier of local omakase options. There were several great bites: a tsumami of crispy grilled eel topped with a generous spoonful of good caviar; nigiri of firm, sweet makogarei (marbled sole) and tokishirazu (chum salmon that "do not know time" and stay in the ocean getting fat in late spring instead of heading for fresh water to spawn).[13] But what struck me the most was one of the "simplest" items: tamago. Just before this was served I was saying to Mrs. F how much I enjoy the infinite varieties of tamago that sushi chefs prepare – an opportunity to sometimes pay homage or show individuality. It can be savory and dense like a Spanish tortilla, or sweet and fluffy like a cake, with any number of variations in between. This version was one of my recent favorites – intensely eggy and rich, and simultaneously umami-savory with a flavorful dashi, but also with a hint of sweetness. Loved it.

Lotus Root Salad - Tam Tam (Miami)

We paid a few happy visits to Tam Tam when it was popping up around Little Haiti, then waited patiently for a long-delayed opening of their brick-and-mortar spot downtown. When they finally turned on the lights in the old Diana's Cafe space across from the courthouse, I was grateful to find that the cooking had not lost any of the energy and vibrance that characterized their pop-up tenure. Tam Tam's menu is almost entirely *not* what you'll find at most Vietnamese places in South Florida, which tend to focus on pho, rice and noodle bowls. Instead this is "quan nhau" – drinking foods, the rough equivalent of a Japanese izakaya. The offerings lean toward smaller dishes, many vegetable-centric, with a few big items that are great for sharing. This lotus root salad brings so many good flavors in one dish: poached shrimp, slivers of pork belly, pickled veg, crispy shallots, fresh herbs, tangy lime. Toss it all together and spoon it onto a rice cracker, then stick it in your mouth.

Baked Florida - MaryGold's Brasserie (Wynwood)

In what is kind of a recurring theme here at FFT, it took us a while to get to MaryGold's, Brad Kilgore's new "Florida Brasserie" in Wynwood, inside the Arlo Hotel, for which he teamed up with Elad Zvi and Gabe Orta of Bar Lab / Broken Shaker. When we finally got there, we were happy with what we found: a bright, airy dining room surrounded by glass; a cocktail list with unconventional treats like a kumquat and coconut Old Fashioned; and a menu that felt sort of French and sort of tropical at the same time, with things like oysters topped with Belizean carrot cocktail sauce or citrus sabayon, beignets topped with jerk oxtail and coconut gouda, and a delicious tagliatelle with Homestead tomato pomodoro, sweet crabmeat, gjetost cream and scallop "parmesan".[14] It's all encapsulated in this fantastic dessert from pastry chef Leiti Gonzalez: a "Baked Florida" which takes the classic Baked Alaska on a trip to the islands, with a passionfruit curd and coconut semifreddo concealed within, and a pineapple rum igniting the flames that burnish the meringue.

All right, that takes us through the middle of the year. Back at you soon with the rest of the best of 2023.


[1] Yes I'm recycling material from my Festivus "Airing of Grievances" post on Eater Miami, but consider: Aba, Abbale, Amal, Avra, Branja, Eva, Levant, Lira, MazehNeya ... when is enough enough?

[2] Let me be clear: while they are not all created equal by any means, I am not in any way philosophically opposed to omakase counters. Or Mediterranean restaurants, for that matter.

[3] There's a lot more out-of-town than local on the front end of this list, but be patient, it finds its way back home eventually.

[4] One of the all-time great meals I've ever had was at the counter of Sukle's now-closed restaurant Birch (pics).

[5] Curiously, we had a very similar dish the following night at Tom Kitchin's restaurant Kora, which was another very good meal.

[6] Noble Rot's first location was in Bloomsbury, and they've recently opened another in Mayfair.

[7] Bonus points for being able to drink a lovely Amelie Guillot Arbois Vin Jaune with our chicken in vin jaune sauce.

[8] Everyone has their favorites, and we didn't try them all, but I can heartily recommend the pasteis de nata served at Manteigaria.

[9] Mrs. F would not let me order these.

[10] I've read that traditionally, the ingredients for this dish would be packed into the amphora at the butcher's shop, and then brought to the hammam to cook in its furnace.

[11] Josh was a Boulud guy at DB Bistro Moderne, then spent time with the Pubbelly group (including running the wonderful but short-lived L'echon Brasserie in North Beach), before heading up to Boston, where he hooked up with Ken Oringer and Jamie Bissonnette at Toro. Now he's back in town and has been bouncing from spot to spot with QP – first in the MKT Kitchen space in Coral Gables, currently at the Allocation Room in Coconut Grove (neighbor to Ariete and Taurus).

[12] I'm torn as to whether the short-form version of "Walrus Rodeo" should be "Walrus," or "Rodeo," or, old-person "The Facebook" style, possibly "The Walrus," or "The Rodeo," so I'm going to try to use all of them.

[13] When the salmon head upstream into freshwater rivers to spawn, they also sexually mature and change shape; these, instead, lollygag in the ocean and get fat. Repeating an IG comment I already stole once, but: "Doesn’t mature and gets fat? Same, fish, same.” As a side note to this side note: these kinds of neta – special, seasonal, uniquely delicious – bring me so much more pleasure than the parade of chu-toro and o-toro that everyone has come to expect at omakase counters these days. There was a time that I would decline to eat bluefin tuna, mostly for environmental / preservation reasons, but also in the hope of encouraging the use of other fish. At some point I gave up on fighting that one-man campaign, but I have some thoughts of taking it up again.

[14] The dried scallop powder and the delightfully weird gjetost cream – gjetost is a Norwegian cheese made from cooked-down whey which is almost like a cheesy dulce de leche – hearkened back to the inspired dishes Brad created at Alter before it closed in 2020.

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