Showing posts with label Asian. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Asian. Show all posts

Friday, August 12, 2016

30 Great Things to Eat in Miami for Less than $11

A disproportionate amount of my time and energy writing here is devoted to higher end dining (leading some people to think I actually eat that way all the time!). Yes, there's a lot more glamour in a fancy tasting menu than in the average daily meal. But not necessarily more satisfaction.

And as Miami rapidly becomes an increasingly expensive place to live, there's a particular joy when that satisfaction comes cheap. As we enter the season of Miami Spice, when everyone goes scrambling to sample all the $39, 3-course dinners, this year I decided to do something different.

So forgive me for the click-bait title, but here are thirty great things to eat in Miami[1] all of them under $11.[2] A few of these come from Miami's most celebrated chefs and restaurants. Others come from places with no websites or social media managers, made by cooks whose names I will never know. Many are not terribly Instagram-friendly. What they all have in common is that they make me very happy when I eat them.

Though it was not my original purpose, and though it's obviously skewed somewhat by my own personal predilections,[3] I suspect this list might just give a more complete picture of our city than the latest restaurant "hot list" – not just the million dollar dining rooms in the South Beach and Brickell towers, but the many Latin American and Caribbean and other flavors that give Miami its – well, flavor. I'm always gratified to see exciting things happening in the Miami dining stratosphere; but there are good things closer to the ground too. Here are some of them.

1. Pan con Croqueta ($10)

I wrote recently about All Day, and won't repeat myself here. Instead, I'll mention something that only occurred to me in retrospect: how comfortably it traverses the territory between new school coffee house and old school Cuban cafecito shop. Sure, the coffee beans are a lot better than the regulation-issue Bustelo or Pilon, and they don't need to put an avalanche of sugar into an espresso to make it taste good, but there's not as much space as you might think between a fancy Gibraltar and a humble cortadito. All Day even has a ventanita where you can order from the sidewalk. And, they've got an excellent version of a pan con croqueta, with warm, creamy ham croquetas and a runny, herb-flecked egg spread, squeezed into classic crusty pan cubano.

(More pictures in this All Day - Miami flickr set).

All Day
1035 N. Miami Avenue, Miami, Florida

2. Croqueta Sandwich ($5.90)

If All Day offers a new-school version of a pan con croqueta, the prototype can be found at Al's Coffee Shop, hidden away inside a Coral Gables office building. Despite the obscure location, it's usually full of police officers and municipal workers, who know where to find a good deal. The croqueta sandwich here starts at $4.65; you can add eggs for an extra $1.25. Bonus points: on Tuesdays, those excellent croquetas are only 25¢ apiece all day.

Al's Coffee Shop
2121 Ponce de Leon Boulevard, Coral Gables, Florida

3. Curry Goat ($10; $7 on Thursday)

For as long as I've been in Miami – which is a long time – B&M Market has been open along a dodgy stretch of NE 79th Street. Run by a sweet, friendly Guyanese couple, this Caribbean market with a kitchen and small seating area in back turns out fresh rotis, staples like braised oxtails, jerk chicken, cow foot stew, and my favorite – the tender, deeply-flavored curry goat. A small portion, with rice and peas and a fresh salad, is plenty, and will set you back $10 – or go on Thursday when it's the daily lunch special, and it's only $7.

(More pictures in this B&M Market - Miami flickr set).

B&M Market
219 NE 79th Street, Miami, Florida

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Monday, March 14, 2016

best thing i ate last week: razor clams and rice at Bazi "kaiseki" dinner

I was surprised when I heard that pasta master Michael Pirolo of Macchialina was opening an Asian-inspired restaurant – Bazi. Pirolo's culinary upbringing is Italian through and through. He was raised in Italy, went to culinary school in Torino, and did apprenticeships in Bologna and the Piemonte. The first kitchen he ran as chef de cuisine was Scott Conant's Scarpetta, then he went out on his own with Macchialina (originally opened with the Pubbelly boys, but from whom he split a few years ago).

I didn't see how an Asian restaurant fit with that resume and, to be very candid, figured the motivation was money rather than passion. My theory was thrown into doubt, though, when Bazi recently announced it would start doing a special "kaiseki" style dinner on Wednesday nights for up to eight people at the downstairs bar. Not that $150 per person is exactly giving food away, but considering it's for a ten-course dinner inclusive of drink pairings, tax and tip, it doesn't seem like much of a money-maker either.[1] This is the kind of thing a chef does because they really want to, and maybe because they're a little crazy.

Let's not dwell too long on how much this truly resembles a traditional Japanese kaiseki dinner (short answer: not too much).[2] Instead, let's talk about the best thing I ate last week: the clams and rice dish Pirolo served as one of the courses.

(You can see all my pictures in this Bazi Kaiseki Dinner flickr set).

In this one dish, Pirolo ties together his Italian background and his Japanese ambitions. Diced razor clams are combined with chewy but tender viaolone nano rice, all served in the clam's shell. The rice is prepared in classic "all'onda" fashion, and bound with the clams by an uni vinaigrette which further highlights the flavors of the sea. A shower of fresh lemon balm adds a bright, herbaceous, citrusy note. It's a beautiful dish.

It was a close call between this, the chicken wing stuffed with five-spiced foie gras torchon, the black cod stuffed with Key West shrimp and Alaskan king crab with a nasturtium and avocado purée, and the roasted squab served with a coconut and ginger rice fritter. If that many dishes were in the mix, that's the sign of a pretty good meal. If you're interested, maybe check it out yourself this coming Wednesday.

1200 Collins Avenue, Miami Beach, Florida

[1] Full disclosure: Chowfather and I were guests of the house for this first of their Kaiseki Dinner Series. Had I been spending my own hard-earned dollars, however, I'd still have felt this was a pretty good value. Ten courses, several featuring at least some small doses of luxury ingredients like osetra caviar, uni and foie gras. A pairing with each course by Will Rivas, the talented beverage director of Bazi and Macchialina, including cocktails, sakes (some fruit-infused in-house), smartly selected wines, a rare Japanese beer, and a couple JoJo teas. With tax and tip included. You can spend $150 on a meal in Miami and do far worse.

[2] Longer answer? To my admittedly extremely limited knowledge, most of which is derived from the gorgeous book "Kaiseki" by Yoshihiro Murata (of Kikunoi restaurant) and a couple meals in Japan, there are a few key components to kaiseki. One is the procession of courses, which typically follows a certain pattern though there is some room for variation. Another is the importance of seasonality, with dishes and presentations that attempt to capture a particular moment in time (and consequently are often locally sourced as well). Finally, and linked indelibly to the seasonality component, is the focus on the ingredients themselves; presentations and plating can be rather ornate, but the dishes themselves are often quite elemental – not so much austere as serene, if that makes any sense.

Pirolo's menu paid some heed to the traditional kaiseki progression, without being mindlessly obedient to it. He started with "sakizuke," effectively an amuse-bouche, followed by "hassun," typically an assortment of several different seasonal items, then a sashimi course. Where there are usually then a series of simmered dishes and soups, often followed by a grilled fish, Pirolo took a detour through a series of dishes that didn't really have much traditional antecedent. But whatever – they were some of the best courses of the night. I did miss one of my favorite parts of the typical progression: a rice dish, typically served with pickles and soup, as the final savory item before dessert.

But what I felt was missing more than the progression was the seasonal, local element. There were lots of  great dishes; but the ingredients were from literally all over the map, not much of it local, and not seemingly connected much to the season. Perhaps on a related note, too many dishes seemed to be more about the preparations than the ingredients themselves. For instance, with three fish used in the sashimi course, none were local and none were actually served raw: the arctic char was cured, the escolar was marinated in koji, the eel was grilled. This was also probably my least favorite course of the evening; while I have huge respect for Pirolo bringing in live eels and tackling the task of butchering and preparing them from scratch, I'm not convinced the end result is better – or more to the point, more in the spirit of "kaiseki" – than a simple preparation of pristine, fresh local fish.

Personally, I'd love to see a menu that's more about the ingredients, and less about what's been done with them. In this sense, I think Chef Kevin Cory's omakase dinners at Naoe – though he doesn't call them "kaiseki" – are actually much closer to that spirit. And if Pirolo called these "omakase" dinners rather than "kaiseki," I could spend a lot less time spinning wheels in my own head over whether that term really makes any sense here, and instead just focus on the food, which is what I'm really trying to do in this post, other than in this overlong footnote.

Saturday, March 12, 2016

Cobaya Kamayan with Chef Dale Talde

We encourage chefs to think of a Cobaya dinner as a chance to do something different, something they typically couldn't otherwise pull of in their restaurants. Chef Dale Talde of Talde Miami Beach (and also of Talde Brooklyn, Talde Jersey City, Pork Slope and Thistle Hill) got the message.

(You can see all my pictures in this Cobaya Kamayan with Chef Talde flickr set).

We gathered in the restaurant's bar as our twenty-five guinea pigs made their way to Mid-Beach. Though Talde is inside the Thompson Hotel, it ditches the typical bland, anonymous feel of a hotel restaurant for a hodge-podge of Asian-Americana and hip-hop motifs: behind the hostess stand is a tongue-in-cheek portrait of Talde with a couple bikini-clad models all holding plates of food; one wall is covered with a street art style picture of a tangle of ramen noodles.

As we were assembling our guinea pigs, the Talde crew was getting ready for us, spreading out layers of banana leaves on one long communal table. Though Talde describes his style as "proudly inauthentic" Asian-American cooking, this was going to be a meal with a genuine connection to his Filipino ancestry: a kamayan feast.

What does that mean? From what I can gather from a few minutes of Googling, "kamayan" literally means "with your hands," and derives from a pre-colonial tradition in the Philippines of eating with one's hands. The Spaniards of course saw this as "uncivilized," and brought with them the use of cutlery. But great eating traditions don't die easily, and there is a real pleasure and sense of community in everyone literally digging into a meal with their hands. I've also seen the same thing described as a "boodle fight," referring to a Filipino military custom in the same style where soldiers and officers, regardless of rank, all eat with their hands from the same table.

So as we entered the dining room (after making sure everyone washed their hands), we found one long table covered in banana leaves, and then piled high with dinner for twenty-five. No plates, no utensils, just a lot of food – and a lot of napkins.

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Thursday, February 25, 2016

best thing i ate last week (feb. 8-14): chow fun with braised pork and mustard greens at Talde Miami Beach

I still have little hope of keeping up with the pace of Miami restaurant openings, but lately I've made a small dent in the list. Saturday before last, I braved my way through Miami Boat Show traffic to visit Talde Miami Beach, Chef Dale Talde's new restaurant in the Thompson Hotel (OK, maybe not even so new any more - it opened in November).

(You can see all my pictures in this Talde Miami Beach flickr set).

Where its companion in the Thompson, Michelle Bernstein's Seagrape, harmonizes with the hotel's 1950's, Morris Lapidus vibe, Talde brings a little of Chef Talde's Brooklyn home base to the beach: half the seating is in a re-purposed shipping container, graffiti covers the walls, hip hop blares over the speakers. The menu is similar to the chef's Brooklyn outpost which also bears his name, and features a hodge-podge of unabashedly inauthentic "Asian-American" dishes: kung pao chicken wings, pretzel pork and chive dumplings and the like.

It's a refreshingly casual place in a part of the beach that is becoming increasingly fancy. Prices are not exactly cheap, but they aren't ridiculous either, especially the short list featured on the "Late Night Noodles" menu from midnight to 4am on Thursdays to Saturdays for the club kids crowd.

I took a spot at the small kitchen counter that lines the back of the restaurant, where I tried a few things including one real standout: Talde's chow fun with braised pork and mustard greens. The broad rice noodle is given an unusual presentation, rolled in a tight spiral and seared on its top surface, the idea being that you break up the noodle and mix it with the rest of the components at the table. It makes for a great combination of crispy and chewy. The noodle, once given some encouragement, is an effective vehicle for the flavors of the tender braised pork, a broth that's redolent of sweet soy (and possibly Chinese fermented black beans), and some pleasantly tangy pickled mustard greens that provide much-wanted brightness.

I'll be back soon to try the Benton's bacon dumplings and the Korean fried chicken with spicy kimchi yogurt.

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

CobaYeo at Khong River House

For Cobaya experiment #47, we returned to the site of experiment #30, almost exactly two years ago: Khong River House, just off Lincoln Road on Miami Beach. In the interim, there had been changes in the kitchen – owner John Kunkel had lured Chef Patricia Yeo down from Chicago to head up the restaurant – and we were excited to see what was new.

Chef Yeo worked with Bobby Flay at several of his New York restaurants before opening several of her own places, first in New York and then Boston, including Om and Moksa. In 2012, she left Boston to join Chicago's Lettuce Entertain You group, for which she served as creative director of a fast-casual Asian mini-chain, Big Bowl. Some of you may also remember her from her appearance on Bravo's Top Chef Masters show. She only recently joined Khong and has been in the process of making its menu her own.

But when we do Cobaya dinners, we don't want the restaurant menu, and I was happy that Chef Yeo did not constrain herself. Rather, she put together a "belly" themed menu for our dinner featuring some form of belly in each course.

(You can see all my pictures in this CobaYeo flickr set).

To start things off: clam bellies. Served family style for the table to share, these plump, juicy clams were lightly battered and fried, together with a zingy aioli spiked with lemon and capers. I've paid one visit to Khong since Chef Yeo took over, and from my limited sample size, this dish (even though there was nothing Asain about it) is characteristic of her style: very bright, defined flavors. There's an angularity rather than a roundness to her cooking, if that makes any sense: you taste each component distinctly and vividly.

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Tuesday, July 24, 2012

The Bazaar for Dummies

So let's say you want to eat at Bazaar South Beach, but you don't have the patience to wade through 4,000 words and 19 footnotes to figure out what to order. Here's my version of "The Bazaar for Dummies" - a simplified (and opinionated) guide to the 60+ item menu. For more details, consult the long-playing version.

Must Have:[1]

Papas a la Huancaina - Peruvian potatoes, sea urchin
Baby Japanese Peaches - fresh burrata, hazelnuts, arugula
Black Rossejat - paella-style pasta, squid ink, shrimp, aioli

Really, Really Good:

Kueh Pai Ti - Singapore's favorite street food - shrimp, peanuts, chili sauce
"Colada Cubana" Yogurt - coffee with foie gras
Almond Yogurt - tomato granite, fresh almonds
Smoked Oysters - ice and smoke, apple mignonette
Jamon de Toro - salt-cured fatty tuna like Spanish jamón with picas
Yuca "Churros" - with peanut butter and honey
Ajo Blanco - mango, sherry ravioli, king crab, fresh almonds
Butifarra Flauta - piquillo peppers, aioli, piparra
Frozen Blue Cheese Sandwich - lemon marmalade, walnut bread
Mediterranean Mussels - olive oil, sherry vinegar, pimentón
Sautéed Catalan Spinach - apples, pine nuts, raisins
Pa amb Tomaquet - Catalan-style toasted bread, tomato
Patatas Bravas - fried potatoes, spicy tomato sauce, aioli
Escalivada with Blue Cheese - Asturias meets Catalonia, José's two loves!
Sea Urchin - butter, black pepper, toasted bread
José's Taco - caviar, jamón Ibérico
Banana Mojito - mojito sorbet, mint and caramelized bananas
Key Lime Pie - José's way

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Monday, July 23, 2012

The Bazaar - South Beach

If it wasn't the most eagerly anticipated restaurant opening in Miami, The Bazaar was certainly the most long-awaited. Speculation that Chef José Andrés might be opening a Bazaar in Miami started all the way back in early 2009, shortly after the original Bazaar Los Angeles opened, when the SLS hotel chain started work on the Ritz Plaza hotel on South Beach.[1] The patter continued in 2010. And then we waited. And waited. And waited, as is the customary Miami style.

Finally last month, Bazaar South Beach opened. It was worth the wait.[2]

I've not been to The Bazaar in L.A., but I've been to several other of Chef Andrés' establishments - Washington DC's Jaleo several times, minibar back in 2008, the now-closed Café Atlantico, plus more recent visits to é and China Poblano in Las Vegas. (For more background on Chef Andrés, read my post on é.) The Bazaar borrows bits and pieces from each of them. There are traditional Spanish tapas, many of which are mainstays on the Jaleo menu. There are more contemporary dishes, often derived from items that started as part of the minibar and é multi-course extravaganzas. And there's even a section of the menu described as "Miami Meets the World," an unusual conglomeration of Singapore street foods, ceviches and "nigiri," and several more items with Latin American flavors, similar to the Asian / Mexican mash-up he does at China Poblano.[3] It is a sprawling, ambitious menu - perhaps even more so than the original Bazaar in L.A.

The venue itself is not quite as grand as I might have anticipated, though it's growing on me. The Ritz Plaza is one of Miami Beach's old Art Deco hotels, built in 1939, and like many of the Art Deco properties, it doesn't really have a separate space set aside for a restaurant. What this means is that as soon as you pass through the hotel doors, you've stumbled into the "Rojo" room, the first of two dining rooms of The Bazaar, with the hotel's check-in desk off to the other side of the entrance.

(You can see all my pictures in this Bazaar - South Beach flickr set).

Done up in traditionally Spanish red and black colors but with a contemporary feel, this is the more casual of the dining rooms. Two- and four-tops line the near wall, while larger tables, some bar-height, occupy the middle of the room, flanked on the far wall by a bar and open kitchen.[4] A taxidermied bull's head wearing a lucha libre mask, by artist Mikel Urmeneta,[5] looks out from one wall, while above the bar is a mural by local artist Claudio Picasso that hearkens back to the hotel's original Art Deco style.

On the other side of the bar and kitchen is the "Blanca" dining room, simultaneously a little more posh and a little more cozy. Much of the seating is on well-cushioned sofas; knick-knacks and antique photos adorn ledges on the walls; a massive shell-encrusted chandelier hangs from the ceiling. It looks like it could be your abuela's living room, if your abuela hired Phillippe Starck as a decorator.[6]

A good way to start a meal is with a LN2 frozen caipirinha, a fun bit of tableside cryotechnics by which the traditional Brazilian concoction of cachaca, lime and sugar is mixed with super-cold liquid nitrogen in a dramatic billow of steam to a perfect slushy consistency.

At $5 each, it's also the "Joe's Fried Chicken"[7] of the Bazaar menu, even if the portion size has been tapered back a bit since my first round.

You could alternatively start with "The Ultimate Gin & Tonic," which at $18 is no bargain at all, but is still a very fine drink. Spaniards are obsessed with the "gintonic," and this version plays up that obsession by reintroducing the botanicals typically used in the spirit: Fever Tree tonic, juniper berries, fresh herbs and flowers, and lime mingle in the glass along with your choice of gins.[8]

This will also give you some extra time to peruse the menu, which you're going to need. With over sixty items - even more if you count the selections of Spanish hams and cheeses - it's a fairly daunting prospect, even for an avid menu decoder like myself.[9] Almost exclusively tapas-style small plates, the choices divide into two main themes - "Miami Meets the World" and "Spain Yesterday and Today" - which each get further broken down into several subdivisions. The "Miami" section includes a "Singapore Connection," "Yogurts and Cones," "New Generation Nigiri and Ceviche," "Seafood," "Fruits and Vegetables," "Meats," and "Some Little Sandwiches." "Spain" includes "Latas y Conservas," "Jamones y Embutidos," "Quesos," "Verduras Tradicional," "Pescado y Marisco," and "Carnes."

Ready? Let's dive in.

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Tuesday, December 6, 2011

CSA Week 2-3 and its Uses

Uh oh. Only three weeks into the CSA season and I'm already a full week behind in posting. Not an auspicious start. This is no fault of Little River Market Garden, which has been supplying great stuff. Let's see what we can do to get caught up.

CSA Week 2 Share

The Week 2 share brought kale, pei tsai (the unnamed mystery green from Week 1), basil, passionfruit, chinese leeks, long beans, roselle (a/k/a Jamaican hibiscus), and green beans (in the bag).

The basil quickly went into a salsa verde (Italian style, not Mexican), which is good on just about anything and everything: with fish, chicken or beef, tossed with vegetables, dressing a salad, slathered inside a sandwich. The kale and pei tsai hung around the fridge until Week 3 (no picture) arrived with more greens (more kale, radish tops, kohlrabi tops). They all went into a gumbo z'herbes, about which, unfortunately, the less said the better. I was working from the Commander's Palace cookbook, which would seem a decent enough place to start, but wound up with an unappetizing stockpot of swamp bog. I think there was a roux failure somewhere along the way.

A couple experiments that fared better:

"Asian pesto"

The thinking process here went something like this: first, I saw the basil and thought "pesto." Then Mrs. F used up the basil in the salsa verde. Then I saw the long beans and thought of trennette with pesto, which often includes green beans. Then I looked at the Chinese leeks next to the long beans, and thought "Why not an Asian pesto?" The Chinese leeks (much like garlic chives) were chopped, then thrown into the food processor along with some peanuts and enough peanut oil to make a paste. This became a topping for a stir fry of chicken thighs and long beans, the chicken first marinated in soy, garlic, ginger and honey. The chicken, long beans and "pesto" were served over ramen to serve as the pasta element of the dish (I know, chicken has no particular relationship to an Italian pesto, but we had it in the fridge).

The long beans are a favorite of the whole family, including Mrs. F who typically hates green beans. And the "Asian pesto" here provided a nice flavor punch and texture, though the Chinese leeks are pretty pungent raw. We're considering repurposing the rest of the pesto as a dumpling stuffing, and bought some gyoza skins to try it out.

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Monday, May 23, 2011

Makoto - Bal Harbour

If I were opening a new restaurant in Bal Harbour, I'm not sure it would be a Japanese place. I say that primarily because Bal Harbour is situated almost exactly in the middle of what are already some of my favorite Japanese restaurants in Miami: Naoe and Yakko-San to the north, and Sushi Deli to the south. Of course, Stephen Starr, the restaurateur behind Makoto, has opened plenty more restaurants than I have (Starr: 24; Frodnesor: 0), so maybe he knows what he's doing.

But I say that also because I'm not quite sure what kind of Japanese restaurant would appeal to this particular market. Tony Bal Harbour generally, and the ultra-tony Bal Harbour Shops in particular, have been a tough nut to crack for restaurateurs. Though Carpaccio has held steady for several years despite middling to decent food at best, most others that have taken a run at it have failed (witness the procession of restaurants that have occupied the space opposite Carpaccio, currently held by La Goulue). The people who frequent the mall are, no doubt, a high net worth bunch unafraid to drop a sizable sum on a meal, but it's entirely possible that they have more money than taste, when it comes to food anyway. Meanwhile, even if it's good, will more food-minded folks not otherwise inclined to do their shopping here still find their way to the restaurant?

Well I did, and overall, was pretty glad to have done so. The truth is, Makoto is really not much at all like any of those other places I mentioned. If anything, it is probably most similar to Zuma, which opened downtown about a year ago: high quality sushi, robata selections, and a grab-bag of other cooked Japanese items, all served up in a slick contemporary setting.

Makoto is named for its chef, Makoto Okuwa, who's got some pretty serious chops. Born and trained in Japan, he was head sushi chef at Morimoto's Philadelphia restaurant, then moved to New York to open the Morimoto restaurant there (where in 2006 he was named one of StarChef's Rising Stars). A couple years later he switched coasts, heading to Los Angeles as executive chef of Sashi. When Starr (who runs Morimoto's restaurants) set eyes on Bal Harbour, he lured Chef Makoto back into the fold. I also saw chef Dale Talde (who works at Starr's Buddakan in New York, and is known to many as a Top Chef contestant) in the kitchen on one of my visits.

Makoto the restaurant is situated on the ground floor of the Bal Harbour Shops, toward the south end. The dark-lacquered entrance on the mall side is so subtle as to be easily missed, though you can also enter from the east side directly from the parking lot, where there is also covered outside seating. A narrow entranceway, with some tables squeezed in, opens up onto a broad dining room which has smaller tables along the walls as well as a few larger picnic-style tables in the middle.[1] A sizable sushi bar (with at least four chefs working it) sits in front of the kitchen. That's where we've sat each time we visited.

Each spot at the sushi bar has a block of pink Himalayan salt situated in front of it, and once a diner is seated one of the sushi chefs will place your gari and wasabi on it. I do hope they clean those things between diners, as I wouldn't put it past some child to stick their finger on the block and lick it to see if it really is made of salt. Just saying.

salt block

(For more photos from Makoto, check this Makoto - Bal Harbour flickr set).

We started one of our meals at Makoto with nigiri, which comes two pieces to an order. With the exception of the hirame (fluke or flounder), which was only OK, everything else we sampled ranged from good to exceptional. Particularly notable were the chu-toro ($12) and the even richer, fattier oh-toro ($16). Makoto is, to my knowledge, the only place in South Florida that is sourcing Kindai bluefin tuna. Though bluefin tuna stocks are becoming rapidly depleted and as a result bluefin makes most sustainable seafood experts' "avoid" list, Kindai - which are farm-raised from the egg - are an arguably more responsible alternative. (For more about Kindai, read up: "The rarest tuna of all"). Chef Makoto is clearly a fan of the stuff. And after trying it, so am I, though it's an expensive "solution," if it even is that, to the bluefin problem.

Every bit as good was the hotate (scallop) ($14) - sourced live, and as fresh and pristine as any I have sampled anywhere (and that includes Naoe, which often features live scallop). Silky, tender, and sweet, these were really special stuff. Sadly, they weren't available on my return visit. The uni (sea urchin) ($12) was also very good, as was the aoyagi (orange clam) ($8). The "Hokkai" hand roll offered another way to sample their uni, wrapped up in nori with sweet shrimp and a quail egg ($12), a rather luscious seafood combination. Again, this item wasn't available on our second visit, which prompts some concern about "dumbing down." (We'll return to this later).

I went the sashimi route on our second visit, a couple weeks later. The offerings this time included a number of items sourced from Hawaii, including pink-fleshed nairagi (striped marlin) ($10) and silky ono (wahoo) ($8), both recommended by our server, as well as a second sampling of the aoyagi and Kindai chu-toro.[2]


The presentation was quite dramatic, the slices of fish perched on a wide bowl of crushed ice, above which towered an artful arrangement of branches and leaves. The sashimi itself was excellent - carefully sliced and impeccably fresh. Similarly dramatic was a yellowtail tartare ($18), served in the style made famous by Nobu Matsuhisa: the finely chopped fish molded into a hockey puck shape in a small bowl with a puddle of wasabi-infused soy sauce, crowned with a dollop of caviar, all mounded into a bigger bowl of crushed ice.

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Saturday, May 7, 2011

Cobakayapaz - Cobaya Dinner with Chefs Richard Hales, Vanessa Paz

It was almost exactly a year ago that we did our "Cobaya in the Night Kitchen" midnight dinner at Sakaya Kitchen. At that point, Sakaya had only been open a few months. The late-night diners who came out for that event got a good sampling of what was going on there, with Chef Richard Hales mixing in some standard menu items (his Filipino egg rolls and pork buns) and some more adventurous twists (Korean fried sweetbreads, "Chim Quay" quail).

Chef Hales has been itching to do another Cobaya dinner for a few months now, and we finally put it together. This past Monday, he rolled the Sakaya Kitchen truck (truck #2 for him, with the Dim Ssam a Gogo truck being the first in the fleet) over to Villa 221 to serve a small group of 20 guinea pigs. As an extra bonus, he brought in pastry chef Vanessa Paz of Michy's to do desserts.

You can see all the pictures from the dinner in this "Cobakayapaz" flickr set.

Villa 221, located just north of downtown Miami just a few blocks past the Performing Arts Center, was a gorgeous venue for the dinner, with a nice breeze keeping things cool enough for outdoor dining, and the group small enough to fit around one open-square table beneath the trees.

Villa 221

Chef Hales' cooking at Sakaya takes a good number of its culinary cues from Korea - bulgogi, ssams, ssamjang and kimchi all play prominent roles - but often looks elsewhere, both East (baos, Filipino egg rolls) and West (the incredible Bulgogi Burger, spicy tater tots) for inspiration. This Cobaya dinner was even more diverse, with dishes that drew on Vietnamese, Thai, Japanese, Italian and even American Southern motifs. Here is the menu he and Chef Paz put together:

Nuoc Mau Spiced Pork Rinds
Pickled Papaya, Peanut Brittle, Organic Tomatoes, Local Mint
Mushroom Brioche "Toast," Ssamjang Mayo, House Cucumber Pickle, Local Cilantro
Burrata, Blackberry "Panzanella," Sesame Oil, Fuji Vinegar, Brioche, Maple, Basil
Fried Baby Artichokes, Quail Yolk, Fish Roe
Colossal Shrimp, Blistered Organic Shishito Pepper, Miso Cauliflower Purée
Kurobuta Pork Belly, Peach Gastrique, Grilled Ramps, Corn Croquetas, Black Eyed Peas
Miso Chocolate Brûlée, Hot Chocolate Foam, Spicy Pecan Crumble
Pineapple Pie, Coconut Ice Cream
Dulce de Leche Panna Cotta, Pistachio Sponge Cake, Dry Meringue
Shot of Strawberry Sake
"PB&J" Peanut Butter Ice Cream Sandwich
Green Tea Mascarpone Cake, Sapote
Chocolate Doughnut, Passion Fruit Sauce

His first course was a small plate of airy, crispy pork rinds drizzled with nuac mau. Cleverly combining a Southern snack stable with a classic Vietnamese caramel sauce often used as a marinade or glaze for meat dishes, this dish sounded a couple notes that would be prevalent throughout much of the meal: (1) the mash-up of culinary genres, and (2) the interplay of savory and sweet. Many of Chef Hales' dishes play in that neighborhood between sweet and savory (Sakaya's honey-orange ribs have been Frod Jr.'s chosen dessert on more than one evening), and we would see much of that in this menu.

Papaya Salad

The next dish was a take on the Thai classic som tam, or papaya salad, which traditionally uses unripe green papaya shredded into a fine julienne, dressed with lime juice, fish sauce, sugar and chiles, often tossed with some tomatoes and peanuts. Chef Hales' version used ripe pink-fleshed papaya,[1] plump, halved grape tomatoes, a sweet, crunchy peanut brittle, and sprigs of local mint and cilantro. Clean, light and refreshing, I would have welcomed even more spice and tartness to balance out the sweet of the papaya and the brittle.

Mushroom Brioche Toast

This mushroom brioche "toast" fell somewhere between a French canapé and a Chinese shrimp toast, all the while borrowing the flavors and accompaniments of Sakaya's delicious pork buns: ssamjang mayo, thinly sliced pickled cucumbers, and a shower of fresh cilantro sprigs and green onions. This was good, though a bit heavy, plus these flavors were already very familiar to those of us for whom the Sakaya pork buns are a weekly staple.


The next course veered into more unfamiliar territory: burrata, served with a "panzanella" of blackberries and toasted brioche, dressed with sesame oil and Fuji vinegar and a julienne of fresh basil. This is the kind of dish I love: an unexpected combination that seems to make no sense and perfect sense at the same time. The cheese was just gorgeous, perhaps the freshest-tasting burrata I've had, luscious and exploding with creaminess. The "panzanella," subbing plump blackberries for tomatoes, provided a nice foil for the burrata, crisp cubes of bread giving some substance and the tangy blackberries some sweet, acidic contrast, further reinforced by the Fuji vinegar, all while the sesame oil provided an additional layer of lush richness. Italian and Asian flavor profiles don't meet very often; perhaps that's a missed opportunity. This was one of my favorite dishes of the evening.[2]

(continued ...)

Sunday, January 16, 2011

This One Goes to Eleven - Cobaya at Chow Down Grill 1.11.11

It's always an interesting experience planning these Cobaya - Gourmet Guinea Pigs dinners. The mission statement for the chefs is a simple one: cook exactly what you want, without limits, so long as it's on off-the-menu experience that diners won't find in a restaurant. That leaves much room for interpretation. The particular dishes, the menu format, pretty much everything is up to the chef. Ideally, it gives the diners a chance to experience something new and different, and gives the chefs a chance to explore ingredients, cooking methods or ideas that they might not have an opportunity to use otherwise.

Chef Joshua Marcus of Chow Down Grill (you can read my write-up of Chow Down Grill here) is one of those who "got it" immediately. When we decided to do a dinner together, he really got into the spirit, setting things up so that diners were brought in via the alleyway behind the restaurant through an unmarked door that led into the (tiny) kitchen, managing to squeeze 32 seats into his tiny space in Surfside, and bringing in a couple guitarists to play throughout the dinner. He also called out reinforcements including a sushi chef from Nobu to assist in the kitchen, and a friend who worked at BLT Steak to help with service (and also to play the "bouncer" at the back door). They put out 11 ("These Go to Eleven")[*] courses using some ingredients that several of our diners had probably never encountered before, some of which Chef Josh and his team were working with for the first time too.

You can see the menu here at the Cobaya site and all of the pictures in this Flickr set - Cobaya 1.11.11. Here is a more detailed rundown.

Birds' Nest Soup
Bird's Nest Soup
When we first started plotting this dinner, one of the goals was to showcase the house-made soy sauce that Josh and his sous chef Jason have been brewing for months and were finally ready to unveil. I knew that Chow Down Grill was making most of their sauces from scratch. I did not know, until this dinner, that they were also making tofu from scratch, and the house-made soy sauce was a product of having all those soy beans around and wondering what else could be done with them. The bird's-nest soup (made with a stock from squab bones, the rest of which would make an appearance later in the menu) was purposefully underseasoned so diners could use that soy sauce with it. The sauce was light and thin and pure in flavor (like an uzukuchi soy sauce) and not overwhelmed by the sweet caramelized notes of many commercial soy sauces. Bird's nest soup is more about texture than flavor (the nests, made from the stringy saliva of swiftlets, really don't taste like much), though the highlight here for me was the broth, pure and simple, rich in flavor without being in any way heavy or filling.

Ankimo with Aji Panca Sauce
Monkfish Liver
Ankimo, or monkfish liver, is often called the "foie gras of the sea," and it has a depth of flavor that justifies the moniker. This was prepared in-house and came out very nicely - creamy, rich, in many ways very similar to duck or goose liver, but with something of a marine tang that belies its source. Typically in Japanese restaurants it will be served cold, often in a bath of ponzu sauce and with a pinch of yuzu kosho. Here, it was run under the broiler to warm it, and served in a pool of aji panca sauce and dots of soy, the Peruvian pepper providing some spicy heat to cut the richness. One of my favorite ingredients, and a  really nice dish.

Giant Oyster with Habañero Pickled Cauliflower
Giant Oyster
The picture here gives little sense of scale, but these Pacific oysters were close to twice the size of most normal oysters, apparently shucked and briefly steamed, then topped with tiny florets of pickled cauliflower with a dose of habañero chile, as well as a sprinkle of golden pike roe. This was practically a knife-and-fork oyster, though I ambitiously downed it one shot. I found it had gotten a bit dried out from being warmed, and could have used maybe some light sauce or liquid to compensate, but this is a great product with just enough added to complement without detracting from it.

(continued ...)

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

PubBelly - South Beach

PubBelly styles itself an "Asian inspired gastropub," but I'm not convinced that's entirely on the mark.  With its semi-open kitchen, a menu dominated by small plates, and an overt pork-centricism, PubBelly's Western influences seem much more Iberian than Anglican in derivation. If anything, PubBelly strikes me less like an English gastropub, and more like a well-mixed mashup of a Spanish tapas bar and a Japanese izakaya - which, it should go without saying, is far from a complaint.

PubBelly also claims to be the first of its type in Miami, and I'm even more certain that's not the case. As has been noted here seemingly ad infinitum, the contemporary casual Asian meme has clearly taken hold in Miami, and did so well before PubBelly opened its doors around Thanksgiving. But I've also said that I think there's plenty of room in this particular sandbox, provided the food is done well and there's something to distinguish one place from another. And happily, that's mostly the case with PubBelly.

The smallish room is centered around a long communal table, on either side of which are scattered several 4-tops. There is more seating at stools lined up around a small bar which doubles as a cooking station. Brick walls and rough wood furnishings that look like they could have come out of an Ikea catalog give something of a D.I.Y. aesthetic. The soundtrack is primarily 90s and early 21st century alt.rock - Oasis and New Pornographers figured prominently on my last visit, turned up perhaps a notch louder than would invite any intimate conversation. It's a tight, noisy, friendly place, where everyone seems to know each other - and if they don't, are still often happy to talk, particularly about whatever you just ordered. It was also fairly crawling with restaurant industry folk when I popped in recently on a Sunday evening.

They're coming to sample from a menu that features mostly small plates - about a dozen or so cooked items, supplemented with a selection of raw and cured items from land and sea, a handful of vegetable dishes, rounded out by a few larger noodle and rice bowls and a short list of large plates. It's a diverse lineup which appears to be changing, around the edges, anyway, on a pretty regular basis. At least three or four dishes had come and gone or metamorphosized between my two visits, only a couple weeks apart.

The name and the pig head logo are good hints to what this place is about: pork belly, the newly fashionable cut, makes appearances in multiple dishes. Indeed, if you should wish, you could easily craft a "7 Courses of Pork Belly" variation on the traditional Vietnamese "Bò 7 Món," or 7 Courses of Beef: start with some pork belly rillettes, followed by pork belly dumplings, then perhaps the pork belly with butterscotch and pumpkin, a McBelly sandwich, a bowl of ramen garnished with pork belly and shoulder, a side of mofongo with pork belly, and finish up with the soft-serve ice cream with brownie and bacon crumbles. This is a menu that really puts the slogan "Everything's Better with Bacon" to the test.

(continued ...)

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Gigi - Midtown Miami

Fish is the new steak, and Asian is the new burger. Consider: the past couple years brought us the openings of a multitude of high-end steakhouses - Meat Market, BLT Steak, Gotham Steak, Red the Steakhouse, STK, the reopened Forge. Yet the construction of shrines to carnivorism seems to have slowed (the recently opened 1500° notwithstanding), and instead Douglas Rodriguez opens De Rodriguez Ocean, Blue Door has become Blue Door Fish, even untrendy Luna Cafe on Biscayne Boulevard is becoming Sea Bar.

On the other end of the restaurant market, burgers were everywhere for a time (as if they were using the trimmings from all those new steakhouses)- 8 Oz. Burger Bar, Burger & Beer Joint, Heavy Burger, Flip Burger Bar,[1] Shake Shack ... But burgers are yesterday's news. Modern, casual Asian is now the order of the day, as Sakaya Kitchen, Chow Down Grill, American Noodle Bar, and Gigi will all attest.

Sakaya (Richard Hales), Chow Down (Joshua Marcus) and American Noodle (Michael Bloise) each started with a chef's own vision, and were very much personal projects. Gigi came about things from the opposite direction: Gigi was a concept in search of a chef to execute it. Amir Ben-Zion, who also runs Bond Street and Miss Yip on South Beach, Sra. Martinez in the Design District, and the Bardot nightclub right down the street from Gigi in Midtown Miami, placed a Craigslist ad looking for a chef about six months before the restaurant's opening. The ad was not lacking for hype:
"Its cutting edge, high performance, Asian inspired and freshly prepared cuisine is affordable, innovative comfort food for the modern educated discerning palate."
It was also transparent about its inspiration:
"Located on the same block as Bardot, gigi is the first Miami outpost of the renaissance in affordable high-end food led by Momofuko [sic] in NYC’s Chinatown and lower East Side."[2]
Gigi lucked out: whether in response to the ad or otherwise, Ben-Zion managed to snag Chef Jeff McInnis to run the kitchen at Gigi. Chef McInnis, who is probably known as much for his appearance on Top Chef Season 5 as for his work as chef of the Ritz-Carlton South Beach's DiLido Beach Club, has put together a menu that delivers good, fun, flavorful food that carries out the mission statement well.

While Miami's other new casual contemporary Asian outposts have a distinctly D.I.Y. aesthetic, Gigi more clearly bears a designer's touch. On the corner of Miami Avenue and 35th Street, its exterior is wrapped in floor-to-ceiling glass, its interior in lots of blond wood and metal. A long, open galley kitchen stretches about twenty yards down most of the space, with counter seating and backless stools providing a distinctly Chang-ian look and feel.

photo via gigi Facebook page
The menu likewise shows a strong Chang-ian influence. There are buns to be had, filled with a choice of roasted pork, chicken or shiitake mushrooms; there is ramen, likewise served with roasted pork. But much of the rest of the fairly abbreviated menu appears to look closer to home for inspiration, with many items featuring more-or-less Asian spins on locally sourced ingredients. It's divided into sections that have no clearly defined correspondence to starters or mains: "basics" include not only those buns, but also a short rib "meat loaf," a pound of "southern boy" BBQ ribs, or a BLT made with pork belly and pickles; "raw" includes both salads and raw fish dishes; "snack" includes a variety of smaller bites, both vegetable and animal; "noodle bowl" offers the aforementioned ramen, as well as a few other noodle variations; and "rice bowl" seems to feature the most substantial, entrée-like items. Though the sub-heading to the Gigi sign says "noodles * bbq * beer," there are in fact only a few noodles dishes and even fewer BBQ items (like, um, one).

Those buns are a good place to start a meal. The roasted pork version was probably my favorite, though Little Miss F was partial to the pulled chicken variety. On a more recent visit, the latter had morphed into a tandoori chicken, which was a tad dry despite being garnished with a drizzle of yogurt nicely enhanced by some cucumber and mint. Even the pork, though, did not have quite the same explosive depth of flavor as the Sakaya Kitchen pork buns, which remain my local benchmark. The fluffy and lightly toasted bao, however, which I believe are made in-house, may be a notch better.

(continued ...)

Saturday, November 6, 2010

American Noodle Bar - Miami, FL - First Look

[Sorry, this restaurant has closed "for remodeling"]

I drive down Biscayne Boulevard to work every morning. As a result, I have been a spectator, on a daily basis, to the drawn-out opening of American Noodle Bar. In fact, I recall when the first sign went up on a small space in one of the dodgy, 1950's era "MiMo" style hotels along Biscayne, it was for something that was going to be called "Pineapple Express" and promised an opening date of "January 2010." The name changed. And so did the projected opening date, which dragged out for months.[*]

American Noodle Bar finally opened Wednesday night. I usually avoid opening nights; I also usually like to give a place a few visits and at least a few weeks, sometimes months, to find its footing before writing. But the lengthy period of anticipation left me eager to try it, and to provide a long-awaited "first look." (I also feel incredibly guilty that it seems like it's been months since I've written about a Miami restaurant).

The chef behind American Noodle Bar is Michael Bloise, a StarChefs "Rising Star" who is best known for his work at Wish on South Beach. His new project is something very different. The space is a tiny wing of the Biscayne Inn motel, into which he has squeezed one large communal table, a line of counter seating along one wall, and an open galley kitchen along the back wall. It's a got a funky, DIY aesthetic, with bonzai trees on the table and a bamboo tree print on the wall providing the primary decoration. There is also outdoor seating in front facing Biscayne Boulevard. (For those looking to get their bearings along Biscayne, it is right next door to Kingdom, and I suspect you can smell their burgers grilling from the outdoor seats). Service is semi-fast-food style: order at the counter, and they'll bring it out to your seat when it's ready (right now, at least, in plastic bowls and cardboard boxes, though I'm not sure if that's intended as a permanent state of affairs or just an opening week thing).

The menu at American Noodle Bar is superficially simple, but actually presents many more choices than might be immediately apparent. The focus - no surprise, given the name - is on noodles, though presently of only one variety. A bowl of noodles can be had for $7 with a choice of one sauce and one "add-on." But here's where things get complicated: there are nearly ten sauce options, and just as many "add-ons" (a couple vegetable options but mostly various proteins). Additional "add-ons" can go in the bowl for another $1 each.

There were so many possible to directions to go: if I spent less time focusing on food and more on math, I could maybe tell you how many. Nearly paralyzed by the seemingly limitless combinations, for my inaugeral meal, I had a bowl with sriracha butter for a sauce, and roasted duck and Chinese sausage for the "add-ons." The noodles (I did not ask questions as to their provenance, though I'm curious; I doubt they're made in-house) were of a lo-mein style variety: a bit thicker than a typical ramen noodle, but with that slightly springy texture, versus the more supple smootheness of an Italian pasta. They were hearty and pleasing, but on their own, nothing to get too excited about: it's really the sauces and toppings that will make or break things.

(continued ...)

Monday, October 4, 2010

The Return of the Truck Party - Dim Ssam a Gogo, Jefe's Original

The last time we mentioned a "truck party" here, it was a two-part taste test featuring the gastroPod and Latin Burger. That was more than half a year ago, and since then several more food trucks have started up operations in Miami. In fact, the twitter list of South Florida food trucks I've compiled now numbers more than twenty, though not all of those are in regular circulation (and conversely, there are others who shun contemporary social media such as Twitter in favor of - I don't know, paper cups and string?). As I mentioned Friday, several of the food trucks were gathered in Haulover Marina Park on Saturday for the South Florida Dragon Boat Festival, and I stopped by for some more samples. There was not much in the way of dragon boats actually racing when we were there at mid-day, but there was some good eating.

One of the newest trucks on the block is the Dim Ssäm à Gogo truck from Sakaya Kitchen. Chef Richard Hales has been doing a fantastic job at Sakaya putting out creative, vibrantly flavored, Korean-influenced food (my raves over his "Dim Ssam Brunch" and the regular menu have already appeared here), and the Dim Ssäm à Gogo takes that show on the road (I think I've now officially used up every corny "street"-related reference). On board, Chef Richard Hales is offering a nice short-form sampling of items from the restaurant menu, both some "greatest hits" (Korean Fried Chicken, Honey Orange Ribs) and a grab-bag of other creations.

Family Frod split some KFC, a "K-Dog," and some "Covered & Chunk'd Tots."

(continued ...)

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Chow Down Grill - Surfside

[sorry, this restaurant has closed; but check out Josh's Deli, at the same spot with the same owner, which I've reviewed here]

I paid my first visit to Chow Down Grill the first week that they opened, about a month ago. This is often a somewhat dicey proposition, even more so for a place that is as unabashedly D.I.Y. as Chow Down Grill. And sure enough, the A/C wasn't working, they'd just gotten their license and hadn't stocked up on beer yet - but the food showed real promise. I went back recently to try it again. The good news is that the A/C is cranking, the beer is well-stocked and cold, and the food delivers on that promise, providing some interesting and well-executed spins on old-school Chinese classics (with some occasional straying into Vietnamese territory).

The chef behind Chow Down is Joshua Marcus, who spent some time in a number of Miami kitchens before venturing out on his own. His resumé includes China Grill, BLT Steak, Timo, and the now defunct North One 10, and it seems he's picked up some tricks at each of them. But Chow Down Grill does not aspire to be like those places, and instead sets out to adapt and update Chinese-American dishes with fresh ingredients and some modern twists in a budget-friendly format. The menu he's put together is fairly short but sweet: a selection of about a half-dozen dumplings for starters; a salad, a couple soups; a choice of a few banh mi style sandwiches; entrées with a choice of protein combined with a choice from about a half-dozen different sauce/vegetable pairings; and fried rice or noodle sides to round out your meal.

Those dumplings are a great place to start. Shaped like oversized potstickers, they come four to an order ($6), and the couple we've sampled were unorthodox but good. A striking black wrapper, colored with squid ink, surrounded a finely diced shrimp filling brightened up with fennel and corn, while a minced chicken dumpling came wrapped in a vibrant basil-green skin. Equally satisfying were the wontons, slightly smaller and more delicate, which came with a peanut sauce that carried a nice undercurrent of spice.[*] I'm not big on salads, but I still found myself picking repeatedly at Mrs. F's "Chow Down Chop" ($8 + $3 to add chicken, shrimp or beef). It's a spin on the iconic Wolfgang Puck Chinese Chicken Salad, with a mix of fresh, perky Napa cabbage, onion, corn, cucumber, carrot, radish,cilantro and slices of mango, all dressed in a brightly flavored chile lime vinaigrette.

It was a bit of a mystery to me why the sandwiches are not called what they clearly are: banh mi, the classic Vietnamese sandwich. Chef Marcus explained: his girlfriend is Vietnamese, and won't let him call them "banh mi" because they're not sufficiently authentic. (This also explains why the "House Special Noodle Soup" is not called "pho"). Whatever it's called, the 24-hour braised beef ($8.50), meltingly tender like a pot roast, makes for a great sandwich. A pâté aioli is an inspired way to combine a couple of the traditional banh mi components and adds even more richness, offset by the fresh flavors of the pickled carrot, cucumber, radish, jalapeño, onion and cilantro.

(continued ...)

Monday, April 26, 2010

"Cobaya in the Night Kitchen" at Sakaya Kitchen

"Did you ever hear of Micky, how he heard a racket in the night and shouted and fell through the dark..."

Forty guinea pigs were making a racket in the night at Sakaya Kitchen this past Saturday for our latest Cobaya dinner. There were a few reasons we decided to do a midnight dinner. First, we just wanted to do something different. Second, Sakaya's chef, Richard Hales, is working pretty much non-stop during regular hours, with Sakaya being open 11am - 10pm 7 days a week. Third, Sakaya may eventually be rolling out a late night service, so this was something of a dry run. Those who notice the posting schedule here know I'm usually up then anway, but I'm apparently not the only night owl: I was thrilled - and once again, grateful and humbled - that when a post went up on the Cobaya board which basically said nothing more than: "Midnight. Saturday April 24. $55," 60+ people said "Yes!"

We weren't able to accomodate all who wanted to come, but we did have our largest dinner yet. After a little game of musical chairs - we had to split one long communal table in two to squeeze everyone in - we sat down to seven courses at CobSakaya Kitchen.

I've seen all sorts of different menu formats, but this was the first one that had both footnotes[a] and relationship advice ("Dessert!?...Go home and have sex like the old days instead of blogging about food..."). I won't share with you how that dessert suggestion worked out, but I'll happily tell you about the rest of the meal. If you can't read that scratchy picture above, here is the menu:

"Cobaya in the Night Kitchen @Sak[1]aya Kitchen"
 April 24, 2010 Midnight

What you may already know...

Papa's Shrimp & Pork Filipino Egg Rolls, Fuji Vinegar

Pork Butt, House Cured & Roasted Boston Butt, House Pickle, Ssamjang Sweet Chili

Some new stuff for Cobaya...

Garlic'd Laughing Bird Shrimp, Chive Flower Soba Noodles

Bucket of Korean Fried Sweetbreads & Spicy Frog Legs, Local Baby Cucumber Blossom

"Chim Quay" Quail, Pig Skin "Tsitsaron," Chinese Broccoli

"Nuoc Mau" Pork Belly, Roasted Local Baby Carrots, Crispy Bone Marrow, Coconut Rice

Dessert!?...Go home and have sex like the old days instead of blogging about food...

Blue Point Oyster[2]


Wife Hales' Chocolate Chocolate Cookie Bag

[1]Cobaya Kitchen
[2]An aphrodisiac is a substance that increases sexual desire

(continued ...)

Monday, March 8, 2010

Restaurant at the Setai - South Beach

I have long been intrigued by the menu at the Restaurant at the Setai - a curious amalgam of several Far Eastern cuisines - but there was always something keeping me away.

Honestly, it was the prices. Intrigue will only get me so far through the door to try "small plates" that are mostly priced in the mid $20s and main courses that are generally double that or even more. The Restaurant would participate in Miami Spice and occasionally offer other more reasonably priced programs, but I could never get my timing right. So even though the eclectic mix of Asian dishes was alluring, and Executive Chef Jonathan Wright had some solid credentials (Raymond Blanc's Le Manoir aux Quat Saisons in England, Bradley Ogden's Lark Creek Inn in California), I never made my way in.

Intrigue finally got the best of me when I saw that the Setai was offering a "Menu Gourmand," featuring twelve courses from their menu for $120. Somehow, twelve courses for $120 seemed much more reasonable than perhaps three courses for probably about 3/4 of that, and so I paid my first visit to the Setai last week. The "Menu Gourmand" features:

Blue Fin Tuna Skewers, Shiso Ponzu, Asian Pear and Kaffir Lime Salsa

Sea Urchin, Shiso, Wasabi and Ginger Tempura, Oscetra Caviar, Ginger Yogurt

Seared Tuna Belly, Warm Salad of Capers, Mushrooms, Olives, Garlic Emulsion

Hot and Cold Foie Gras with Mango, Szechuan Pepper, Spiced Bread

Warm Mushroom Salad with Soba Noodes, Truffle Vinaigrette, White Truffle Ice Cream

Slow Cooked Duck Egg, Peking Duck, Foie Gras, Sweet Braised Onions, Teriyaki Broth, Bonito

Clear Ham Broth with Winter Melon, Iberico Ham, Chicken, Crab Meat, Ginger and Straw Mushrooms

Scallop and Black Truffle Har Gao, Truffle Emulsion

Scottish Langoustines, Orange and Earl Grey Emulsion, Fennel Salad

Braised then Crisp Fried Pork Belly, Turnips, Kimchi and Roasted Peanuts

Jivara Ginger and Caramel Crème with Jasmine

Passion Fruit Souffle, Bitter Chocolat Sorbet

Most of these dishes come from the "small plates" section of the main menu, which also features a selection of dim sum, several different fish, shellfish and meats prepared in a variety of Asian styles, as well as noodle and rice dishes, curries and tandoor items. Though the menu credits the cuisines of India, Singapore, Thailand, China and Malaysia as its driving forces, a keen observer will note a clear Japanese influence as well. But this is perhaps better described as a "grab-bag" approach rather than a "fusion" menu - as our waiter noted, the individual dishes tend to be uniquely of one particular culinary style, rather than trying to blend them together.

maguro akami
The restaurant itself is an unusual space, with an open exhibition kitchen and several long wooden tables jutting out at right angles from it, as well as a number of regular tables, some of which look out onto Collins Avenue. There was, however, not a lot of action going on in that exhibition kitchen, with one cook at a sauté station and another at a wok station moving in an unrushed fashion to tend to a quiet dining room. We were started with some crispy rice crackers and some pungent achar-style pickles, along with a silver bowl of toasted peanuts mixed with some small, crispy, salty dried whole fish. An unusual and promising start; but unfortunately, for several of the items that followed, smart and delicious sounding combinations were marred by flaws of technique or seasoning.

Though the "Menu Gourmand" indicates that it is served "Share Style," in fact most of the dishses were composed individual plates like this one: a cube of the lean, red flesh of a bluefin tuna ("akami"), in a puddle of shiso-inflected soy-and-citrus ponzu sauce, topped with a fine dice of Asian pear brightened with Kaffir lime, and crowned with a bit of caviar and a sprig of micro-herbs (shiso?) (apologies, by the way for the terrible quality of the photos, I'm still working on how to get decent pictures in low light). It was a nice, clean taste to start the meal, though the cube was a bit large for one bite and unwieldy to handle in any other way given the plating.

uni tempura

The next course offered some of my favorite things: uni, shiso, ginger, caviar. Though advertised as a "tempura," however, what came out was more of a fried dumpling, the thick casing obscuring the delicate flavor of the sea urchin. It was a shame, because I think the other components could have complemented it well, particularly the ginger-infused yogurt it was resting upon. I will confess I rarely if ever find that cooking improves uni, but if you're going to do so, it deserves more delicate treatment than this. Nobu, for instance, does an uni tempura featuring similar flavors where the uni is wrapped in shiso, then nori, then gets a very light tempura coating before being fried. Though really, even that is unnecessary.

toro hagashi

Hagashi toro is supposed to be among the most lush and fatty of tuna cuts, typically, I believe, taken from the top of the tail. Here, a generous portion (one of the only dishes that was actually served share-style)[2] was seared and plated with a warm salad of shimeji mushrooms, capers and olives, along with a creamy-textured garlic emulsion. Unfortunately the tuna was seared so far as to be predominantly brown rather than pink, and consequently lost most of its unctuous fattiness. As a result, my favorite elements on the plate were the mushrooms and the silky garlic pudding.

si chuan man gua
The next dish offered a combination of foie gras and mango in hot and cold forms - the hot, with seared foie over a crescent of mango fruit; the cold, a cube of foie gras torchon with a cube of soft mango sandwiched by thin crispy spice bread. The torchon was lovely, the combination with mango a tropical variant on the long-running and effective theme of playing foie against fruit. The seared foie was peculiarly bland. The traditional pairings were played out even further by serving the dish with a shot of Choya umeshu, the sweet and tart Japanese plum wine playing the role customarily played by Sauternes in this composition. What I couldn't detect was the promised szechuan peppercorns, which might have brought a different element to the party.

pot au feu
Calling this a "pot au feu" suggests stronger "fusion" influences than the Restaurant's mission statement lets on to. Within the bowl were a soft-poached duck egg (presumably slow-cooked in an immersion circulator), slivers of roasted duck, cubes of foie gras, enoki and shimeji mushrooms, some chewy grains (barley? farro?) and slow-braised caramelized onions, all in a dark, sweet soy and bonito "teriyaki" broth. There were some great flavors here and I really loved the composition of elements in this dish, but unfortunately they were all overwhelmed and obscured by the overly sweet broth.