Showing posts with label French. Show all posts
Showing posts with label French. Show all posts

Monday, January 6, 2020

deep thoughts: Silverlake Bistro | Normandy Isles (Miami Beach)

The restaurant review is having a midlife crisis. So says this guy, anyway. While there's a kernel of truth in his identification of the symptoms, I'm far less convinced of his diagnosis as to the cause. At its heart, his claim is that the problem is the restaurant review format itself:
I just want to deal with one of the genre’s challenges — namely, its form. ... To be blunt, the traditional review is a terrible vessel for inventive prose, contrarian opinions, and nuanced arguments about the mystery and meaning of food.
Well, on that point, I must beg to differ. Good writing transcends genre. Restaurant reviews are as useful a format as any to paint a portrait of of a city, as Jonathan Gold did so beautifully for Los Angeles, to explore social and cultural issues, as Soleil Ho does at the San Francisco Chronicle, to craft poetry like Ligaya Mishan does at the New York Times, to entertain and enlighten with wit and snark, like Jay Rayner does at The Guardian. The problem isn't the vessel; it's all about what you're putting inside.

Also: there's a whole universe of food writing that isn't restaurant reviews. That's not to say I believe reviews should be devoid of any discussion of broader issues – if you've been reading here at all, you know I'm prone to plenty of digressions – but rather, that there are lots of ways to talk about culture through the lens of food, reviews being just one of them.

Also, also: I am perhaps one of a dying breed who believe that the underlying purpose of a restaurant review – to help answer the question, "Where should I want to eat?" – while not as noble or important as curing cancer, is still itself a worthwhile and valuable endeavor.[1]

Having said that, it does seem that the restaurant review industry, in some quarters anyway, is in the doldrums. I don't think the problem is the format, though no doubt it is kind of a bore to read reviews that just grind through the "here's the apps, here's the mains, here's the desserts" routine by rote. To my mind, it's more a combination of the decline of media outlets that provide the budgetary, editorial and promotional support for restaurant criticism, and the rise of crowd-sourced opinions a la Yelp. Combine that with a lack of diversity and community representation in the voices that still get heard. Throw a little "death of the blog at the hands of Twitter and then Instagram" into the mix too. Sprinkle some "influencers doing it for the freebies" over the top like finishing salt. And what you have is a dearth of credible, reliable voices motivated and able to write thoughtfully and critically about restaurants.

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Wednesday, November 21, 2018

Cobaya Le Zoo Makoto with Chefs Julian Baker and Anthony Micari

I'm a big fan of collaborations. When you put two creative minds together, good things are bound to happen. Yet many "collaborative" dinner events turn out to not really involve all that much actual teamwork. Sure, the chefs will communicate about a menu and ingredients, and decide who is going to do what. But more often than not, they're ping-pong-ing courses back and forth, rather than working together to create dishes that are a genuine combined effort.

Which is one of the things that made our Cobaya dinner last week with chefs Julian Baker of Le Zoo, and Anthony Micari of Makoto, so special: each dish seemed to bear the imprint of both chefs, and both kitchens.

They had some advantages in doing so. The French bistro and contemporary Japanese restaurant are neighbors, both housed in the posh Bal Harbour Shops. They are also siblings of a sort, both under the management of Stephen Starr's Starr Restaurant Group.[1] And they're both Cobaya alumni, in a way: Chef Baker hosted Cobaya Experiment #40 while he was chef at Toscana Divino in Brickell, and Makoto's namesake, head chef Makoto Okuwa, was the host for Cobaya Experiment #32.

For Experiment #75, the two chefs set up a table for thirty of us right between their two restaurants: smack in the middle of the breezeway of Bal Harbour Shops over a glassed-in koi pond that runs through the center. Amidst the shoppers browsing the Dolce & Gabbana couture and Fendi purses, they served a menu that combined, in each dish, the flavors and ingredients and techniques of France and Japan. Here's a recap:

(You can see all my pictures in this Cobaya Le Zoo Makoto flickr set)

Guinea Pigs starting to make their way in for Cobaya Experiment #75.

A snack as guests arrived, and a preview of what's to come: toasted baguettes smeared with a rich, and very French, chicken liver mousse, topped with a zingy, spicy, and very Japanese, yuzu kosho marmalade.

"Toro Niçoise." Chef Micari marinated block cuts of fatty tuna sashimi in soy sauce, toro zuke, style. Chef Baker brought the flavors of the Mediterranean: pickled haricots verts, tomatoes, niçoise olives, slivered radishes, a delicate squash blossom. Someone threw in some fudgy, Szechuan-spiced egg yolk, which was a very good idea. This was a great start.

"Japanese Bouillabaisse." Chef Micari brought some seafood from Tsukiji Market in Tokyo: gorgeous head-on shrimp, silky scallops, delicate baby calamari. It arrived at the table in a bowl with a rice puff rubbed with saffron aioli, the traditional accompaniment to a Provençal bouillabaisse. The dish was then finished with a tableside pour of a rich, heady, spicy seafood stew that had been enriched with red aka miso.

(continued ...)

Wednesday, June 20, 2018

first thoughts: Sixty10 Organic Rotisserie Chicken | Little Haiti (Miami)

In the kitchen, unitaskers are anathema. All those avocado slicers and egg peelers and meat shredders just do the same things you can do with standard kitchen tools while taking up extra space in your drawers. As Alton Brown used to say on Good Eats, "The only unitasker allowed in my kitchen is a fire extinguisher."

When it comes to restaurants, though, I'm a big fan of unitaskers. Focus on just one thing, and you're more likely to do it well. Case in point: Sixty10 Organic Rotisserie Chicken, recently opened in Little Haiti. There are several items on the menu at Sixty10, but they are all essentially variations on one theme: chicken, rubbed with salt and spices, and cooked on a rotisserie until its skin is well-bronzed and its flesh pulls apart in soft, juicy ribbons. It may come as a whole, half or quarter chicken, along with a few different sandwich or salad iterations, but it's all about the bird. And happily, it's a really tasty bird.

(You can see all my pictures in this Sixty10 flickr set).

On a first-time lunch visit last week, I got the Sixty10 sandwich: pulled rotisserie chicken meat, a tangle of caramelized onions, coins of fingerling potatoes slippery with chicken jus, all smooshed inside a kaiser roll It was simple, straightforward, and delicious. The seasonings are subtle, not overpowering; it tastes like chicken, but actually like chicken, not just a bland blank canvas. Having said that, a smear of mustard or a daub of hot sauce would probably do it wonders.

I'll have to make a return visit to bring a whole roasted chicken home for the family, which can be had with two sides (options include those roasted potatoes, a creamy, tangy cole slaw, brussel sprouts or green beans) and two sauces (could be jalapeño jam, curry sauce, or pikliz, a nod to the Little Haiti neighborhood, among others) for $34. That's about 50% more than you'd pay for a commodity chicken family meal at Pollo Tropical and it's probably about 200% better.

There's not much to the place right now, which used to be a Haitian Creole take-out joint: a window into the kitchen where you place your order, a covered patio with some tables and benches if you want to "dine in." But there's a huge, sprawling yard out back, partly shaded by live oaks spreading their branches over from the neighboring property, and the owners have bigger long-term plans: live music (a stage is already set up), a chickee hut (plans have been filed with the city), wine and beer in a picnic-style atmosphere (there's no liquor license yet, so for now they're sometimes pouring wine for free).

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Saturday, January 23, 2016

best thing i ate last week (jan 4-10): seafood plateau at Le Zoo

I'm still playing catch-up on "best thing i ate last week" but there's only two weeks to go. After our week-long Southern expedition (here's a report on Memphis; similar travelogues for Nashville and Louisville hopefully coming soon), I figured we'd be eating a lot of home cooking. I was right, but not entirely. Within a week, we were ready for someone else to cook for us.

Miami has recently seen a mini-wave of new French bistro / brasserie type places. I've not tried them all, but I've been to several, and found them mostly underwhelming or worse. Le Zoo, Stephen Starr's new place in Bal Harbour Shops (in the cursed spot across from the thoroughly mediocre but ever-popular Carpaccio that has previously been home to La Goulue and Elia before that), seems to be getting it right.

We didn't sample much, but what we did try was quite good. The standout was this seafood platter; a "petit plateau" came with a half-dozen oysters from east and west coasts, four littleneck clams, four sweet scallops in their shells with a dusting of espelette pepper, about a dozen little Mediterranean mussels, a cluster of cold poached shrimp, half a lobster, and both king crab and snow crab. Everything was perky and fresh, and for $75, seemed like a relative bargain as such things go.

Runner-up; a vitello tonnato from the same meal, with properly rosy, thin-sliced veal, a mayo properly redolent and funky with anchovy, and a scatter of cherry tomatoes, capers and celery leaves.

Monday, July 14, 2014

first thoughts: L'Echon Brasserie - Miami Beach

First it was an Asian gastropub. Then, Spanish tapas. Sushi. Italian. A steakhouse. I would joke that when the Pubbelly Boys opened a burger joint, they'd be able to declare Miami restaurant "BINGO!"[1]

Instead, they went a different route – their latest project is L'Echon Brasserie, located in the Hilton Cabana hotel, up in the northern reaches of Miami Beach (i.e., 62nd Street). This makes me happy for at least a couple reasons: (1) Miami lacks good casual French restaurants; and (2) North Beach is closer to home for me than the rest of their South Beach outposts.

(You can see all my pictures in this L'Echon Brasserie flickr set).

The hotel, well, looks like a Hilton. And the dining room too is maybe a bit more corporate than other Pubbelly venues, but it still keeps some of the same spirit, and has the added virtue of an outdoor bar backing up to the ocean. The food, meanwhile, is very much in the typical Pubbelly style: it takes the classic French bistro menu as a jumping-off point for some contemporary, usually indulgent, and often pork-centric, variations.

For instance: chicken liver mousse, paired with fried chicken livers? Sometimes I think the Pubbelly style is a bit too heavy-handed, and then I try something like this. Or, pictured at top, the "Pan con L'Echon," a nice little slider of juicy cochinillo topped with pickled shallots and mojo aioli on a brioche bun, and the Croque Monsieur made with salty country ham, melty Gruyere cheese and an oozy bechamel.

(continued ...)

Monday, July 29, 2013

DB Cobaya Moderne

Some of our Cobaya events come together on the fly: a chef says they want to do one, we find a spot, and before you know it, dinner is served. Others require more legwork. Our recent dinner at DB Bistro Moderne in downtown Miami fell into the latter category, with Chowfather in particular working for months to make it happen. The reality is, Daniel Boulud is not just a chef - he's a brand - and DB Bistro is not just a restaurant - it's an outpost of a culinary empire, with fourteen venues spread out among eight different cities in five countries.

It's a little different from our usual modus operandi, but it was also a chance to do a dinner at what I regard as one of Miami's top restaurants. Other than maybe Michelle Bernstein at Michy's, or Kevin Cory at Naoe (really a different beast entirely), I don't think there's another kitchen in town that executes with such consistent precision. So we pushed forward, as I knew it would be a good meal, and wanted to see what executive chef Matthieu Godard (who took over the helm for Jarrod Verbiak about a year ago) would do given the Cobaya format (which is really nothing more than "cook whatever you want that gets you really excited and that you don't regularly get to do").

(You can see all my pictures in this DB Cobaya Moderne flickr set.)

I've said before that I think DB's charcuterie is the best that can be found in Miami - and, indeed, some of the best I've had anywhere. So I was happy to see the dinner start with a board of it: a couple different salumi, a few different pâtés, ruby-hued slices of cured ham, a half-moon of lush, silky foie grass mousse, an assortment of pickled cornichons and onions, and maybe the showstopper of the platter, crackling-crisp nuggets of pork rillons, like croutons of pure pork belly.

Soon another platter landed on the table, described as "Flavors of the Mediterranean." It was loaded with spanikopita, lamb kibbe, mussels in a spicy tomato sauce, mackerel escabeche, slices of chorizo and manchego cheese, a little "fritto misto" of smelts and calamari, marinated olives and marcona almonds, and ramekins of roasted eggplant baba ghanoush, red pepper hummus and tzatziki.

Aside from offering such a copious selection of treats, the communal presentation of these first courses on the boards was a nice ice-breaker. We always have a mix of newcomers and veteran guinea pigs at these dinners, and this was a good way to get strangers passing dishes around - and eventually, prompt some good-natured fighting over the last spanikopita.

(continued ...)

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

If You Like Food and Wine ...

You're in the right place. If you don't like food and wine, well I'm not sure what you're doing here. With Miami Spice season concluded, those of you who do like food and wine may be wondering how to spend your dining dollars. Some local restaurants have a few ideas: as if it to make up for two months of serving $35 three-course dinners, several places are now rolling out some higher-end dining propositions. Here are some upcoming wine-themed dinners, including a couple for tonight that may still have seats available:

October 18: Domain Lucien Albrecht Dinner at db Bistro Moderne:

Chef Jerrod Verbiak will be cooking a four course dinner (no menu posted), paired with eight of Alsatian vintner Domaine Lucien Albrecht 's wines. Domaine Lucien Albrecht's owner Marie Albrecht will host. Reception at 6:30pm, dinner starts at 7:00pm, spots are $150 per person including tax and gratuity. Sign up here.

db Bistro Moderne
255 Biscayne Boulevard Way, Miami

October 18: Spain: A Wine Dinner at Charlotte:

Chef Elida Villaroel closed down her charming Charlotte Bistro over the summer, revamped, and recently reopened. To help kick off the reopening, she's hosting a Spanish-themed wine dinner at the restaurant together with Sunset Corners. The lineup:

1+1=3 Cava Brut (D.O. Cava)

King Crab Risotto with truffle emulsion and micro-greens
Abadel Picapoll 2008 (D.O. Pla de Bages)

Grouper with celery root puree and a lemongrass veloute
Becquer Tinto 2008 (D.O. Ca. Rioja)

Magret de Canard with a fruit chutney and finished with a balsamic pomegranate emulsion
Luna Beberide "Finca la Cuesta" 2008 (D.O. Bierzo)

Lamb Shank with red wine au jus and fennel salami finished with fine herbs and cacao beans
Finca Torremilanos, Torre Albeniz Reserva 2006 (D.O. Ribera del Duero)

Moelleux au Chocolat with Grand Marnier creme anglaise

Dinner starts at 7:00pm, price is $69 per person plus tax and gratuity. Contact the restaurant for a reservation.

264 Miracle Mile, Coral Gables

(continued ...)

Tuesday, May 31, 2011

City Snapshots: Washington DC Dining

Over the past couple months we've done a bit of traveling and, as we always try to do, some good eating along the way. Memory, notes, and photos are not necessarily as good as might be hoped, and so instead of full recaps of meals, here are some quick thoughts on some of the places we visited. I don't begin to pretend that a brief few days can begin to capture the dining zeitgeist of a city; rather, these are more in the nature of personal travelogues. First, a trip to Washington DC over the kids' spring break.

Possibly my favorite of the places we dined at was Palena. Located a bit northwest from central DC, but easily accessible by the DC Metro, Palena has a more formal Dining Room with a prix fixe menu, and a more casual Café with a la carte offerings. With kids in tow, we went the latter route. The food is Italianate (Chef Frank Ruta's family hails from Abruzzo), but not in a way that insists on banging you over the head with it. An appetizer of baby calamari was quickly cooked with Sicilian flavors of tomato, caperberries and chilies. Both roasted and raw slivered beets were paired with hazelnuts in a salad. A steak was cooked over a wood-fired grill that lent a touch of smokiness to the meat, served with an elemental salad of bibb lettuce and blue cheese and nicely crisp fries. But the real standout for me was an absolutely pitch-perfect bollito misto, with tender, deeply flavored veal tongue and corned beef in a soul-restoring broth, rounded out by a coddled duck egg and a few root vegetables. It's deceptively hard to do "simple" foods well; Palena made them shine.

3529 Connecticut Avenue NW
Washington DC

Palena on Urbanspoon

I was hoping to take the whole family to José Andrés' minibar, but we were unable to score a reservation. Instead we made a trip to his more straight-ahead tapas restaurant, Jaleo, as well as a visit to Café Atlantico for its "Nuevo Latino Dim Sum Brunch."[1] Jaleo is something like a living encyclopedia of tapas, with nearly 70 tapas selections, along with several paellas for those with even more robust appetites. They range from ubiquitous classics like pan con tomate and tortilla de patatas, to regional specialties like the Canary Islands' papas arrugas and Catalan esqueixada, to more unique items like calamares with pine nut praline and a Pedro Ximenez reduction, or seared salmon with a cauliflower purée and raspberries.

We found that some of the best items were those that hewed more closely to tradition, where Chef Andrés creates what may be close to the platonic ideals of classic Spanish dishes. An order of pan con tomate brings toasted but not completely crunchy bread, spread with softly tangy puréed tomato, a  generous drizzle of olive oil and sprinkling of salt completing the composition. His croquetas come to the table hot, with a crisp fragile shell encasing molten bechamel and shredded chicken. Buñuelos de bacalao achieve the same balance, with a honey aioli to play against the salty fishiness of the dried cod. Another contrast of sweet and salty is played out by the berenjenas a la miel, the feathery light fried eggplant glazed with a drizzle of honey.

Ensalada rusa, the curiously named Spanish potato salad (what's Russian about potatoes, peas and carrots bound in mayo?), is given double richness from a generous hand with the mayonnaise and luscious canned Spanish tuna, plus an extra layer of flavor provided by strips of piquillo peppers. I am a huge fan of ensalada rusa and this was one of the best I've had. Fried dates wrapped in bacon are accurately described in the menu as "como hace todo el mundo" (that you will want to eat every day). And those papas arrugas - wrinkly, generously salted marble-sized baby potatoes served with a pungent mojo verde reminiscent of an Argentine chimichurri - are equally addictive.

Surprisingly, the dishes we found to be less successful were the more creative ones. Those calamares with sweet pine nut praline and a Pedro Ximenez reduction couldn't successfully bridge the gap between seafood and sweet. The same was true of the salmon with a (vanilla-touched?) cauliflower purée and raspberries. On the other hand, a dish called Arroz de Pato "Jean Louis-Palladin," after the legendary DC chef, featuring rice with duck confit, topped with a seared duck breast, and drizzled with a foie gras cream, was an overdone layering of rich upon rich.

But Chef Andrés deserves culinary sainthood if for no other reason than that he was instrumental in enabling the import of Spanish jamón ibérico into the United States. Jaleo was the first place it was served in the U.S., and there is possibly no more perfect dish than a plate of jamón ibérico de bellota. Priced at $22 at Jaleo, it's a worthwhile indulgence.[2]

480 7th Street NW
Washington DC

Jaleo on Urbanspoon

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Friday, February 26, 2010

There Will Be Boulud

Rumors have swirled for some time, now it's official. Uber-chef Daniel Boulud will be expanding his restaurant empire to Miami.

Boulud, whose flagship Daniel picked up three Michelin stars in the 2010 edition, will be opening a DB Bistro Moderne in the JW Marriott Marquis supposedly due to open in mid-2010. Boulud already has a toehold in Florida with Café Boulud in the Brazilian Court Hotel in Palm Beach. The DB destined for Miami is being described as a "sister restaurant" to the New York version and presumably will have a similar contemporary bistro format.

Good timing for the formal announcement: Boulud is the honoree at a tribute dinner during South Beach Wine & Food Festival Saturday night.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Buena Vista Bistro - Miami Upper East Side

I am clearly very late to the Buena Vista Bistro party. This pocket-sized little restaurant, just north of the Design District on N.E. 2nd Avenue, is closing in on celebrating its second anniversary. But somehow, despite having heard many raves for its thoughtfully priced, homey French bistro fare, other destinations in the Design District (Michael's Genuine, Sra. Martinez, Pacific Time) called to me with much louder voices whenever I was headed in this direction. We finally ignored those voices and gave BVB a try this week.

It's a charming little place in its own way, with dark, moody lighting, 50's style black-and-white vinyl chairs, the entire menu written on a blackboard behind the bar in back, and one long side wall entirely covered in mirrors, upon which is scrawled the wine list. It's got the bohemian vibe down pat: everyone eating here isn't French, but they look and act as if they wish they were. There are no big surprises on the menu. Apps are mostly bistro mainstays like escargot, rillettes, pâté, soupe de poisson, and the like, with some less exclusively Gallic notes here and there like tuna tartare, scallop carpaccio and caprese salad. Mains are much the same: steak (a ribeye) and frites, scallops provençal, and lamb chops share space with chicken curry, spaghetti bolognese, and farfalle alfredo.

We started with the fish soup and the rillettes. The former was a good take on the French classic, a murky, ruddy brown broth (this is not a criticism - prepared right, this is a frankly unattractive soup) well stocked with bits of fish and potently flavored with their extracted goodness. We pined, however, for the traditional accompaniment of croutons smeared with rouille and floated on the surface of the soup. Mrs. F tried her best to duplicate it with the nicely crusty bread that was brought to the table, but it wasn't quite the same. It seemed incongruous for such fine bread to be served with little single-serve pats of butter in plastic casings like you'd find in a Denny's.

The rillettes were also a fine rendition, the slowly cooked pork tender and rich, served simply with some Dijon mustard and cornichons. The only drawback was that the rillettes were served so cold that they lost out on some of their potential for unctuous goodness - no doubt closer to room temperature these would be even more lovely. But this is still a hearty, satisfying appetizer which despite the dainty ramekin it's served in could easily be split among two people, and a good deal at about $6.

Unfortunately I was somewhat less enamored with the rest of our meal. The tuna tartare Mrs. F followed her soup with was fine but unexciting in any way; the wakame salad which crowned it, redolent with sesame oil, was the overwhelmingly dominant flavor note. It also really could have used some sort of crackers or chips for scooping. I had the lamb chops as an entrée. They had been given a nice herbal marinade, but had been sliced so thin - before cooking - that getting them to only the requested medium rare was all but an impossibility. Rather than slicing these into 1/2" thick "chops" before cooking, they would have been much better served if the rack were left intact to avoid overcooking and then, if at all, carved before serving. I don't need a ton of food to be happy, but these four skinny chops seemed a slightly meager serving, though at a price of about $15 this is not a complaint about value. The mashed potatoes and ratatouille that came with the lamb chops were fine but would not inspire any homeward-bound correspondence.

In an unusual twist, the by-the-glass prices on the wines generally seem a little more reasonable than the prices by the bottle, though the Julienas we had for $40 was a good value and a good wine, and there are a decent number of choices mostly in the $35-50 range.

Despite being underwhelmed by some of the things we had, I can clearly see Buena Vista Bistro's appeal. I like its relaxed, laid-back atmosphere, and it's always nice to be able to find a meal cooked with care for a reasonable price.

Buena Vista Bistro
4582 NE 2nd Avenue
Miami, FL 33137

Buena Vista Bistro on Urbanspoon

Thursday, January 7, 2010

Lüke - New Orleans

Even a successful restaurant has certain inherent limitations on its profitability. You can only squeeze so many butts into so many seats. You can only increase your prices by so much before you wander beyond whatever particular niche of the dining market you've captured. So for many - particularly in this era of celebrity chefdom - at some point there comes the urge to grow, which means adding additional venues.

There are at least a couple different approaches to such growth. Some restaurants take what I call the "clone and colonize" approach, bringing the same package to different regional or even international markets. Nobu has restaurants in nearly twenty different cities in a dozen different countries. Joel Robuchon (after basically retiring from cooking) has restaurants in Paris, London, Monaco, Hong Kong, Macao, Tokyo, New York and Las Vegas. A plethora of chefs have set up satellite offices in Vegas, and over the past couple years the influx of "invasive exotic species" has made its way to Miami as well. Even Thomas Keller has gone bi-coastal with Per Se in New York, plus Bouchons in Las Vegas and now Beverly Hills.

Other chefs stay closer to home, creating fiefdoms in their native territory. In Seattle, Tom Douglas has opened several restaurants all within a few blocks of his original flagship, Dahlia Lounge. Here in Miami, restaurateur Myles Chefetz has done much the same thing on the "SoFi" (South of Fifth Street) end of South Beach with Prime 112, Nemo, Shoji Sushi, Big Pink, and the latest addition, Prime Italian. Jonathan Eismann is looking to do the same in the Design District, where he recently opened PizzaVolante a block away from his flagship Pacific Time and will soon be opening Q and Fin right down the street. (Of course some chefs follow both approaches: Mario Batali has his chubby fingers in nine New York restaurants, three in Las Vegas, and a few in L.A. too).

Unlike the "clone and colonize" approach, which simply seeks to duplicate the same experience in a different venue, the "fiefdom" approach requires that there be something to distinguish one restaurant from another to reach different segments of the same geographic market. The easiest thing to do, particularly if you started with a high-end restaurant, is to do a lower-end, more budget-friendly place (note that David Chang did this in reverse, starting with Momofuku Noodle Bar and later opening the higher-end Ko); but then what? If you want to build an empire, the next step is to diversify the range of cuisines you offer.

That's what John Besh has done in New Orleans. Chef Besh's reputation was made at his Restaurant August, which I'd loosely characterize as contemporary French in style with a strong influence from the Creole and Cajun cuisines and native ingredients of Louisiana. Riding the waves of acclaim for August (to say nothing of other favorable attention including a strong appearance in Top Chef Masters), Chef Besh now runs no fewer than a half-dozen restaurants in New Orleans. They range from the inevitable steakhouse, to an Italian restaurant, Domenica, to the one we visited, Lüke.

Lüke is a brasserie with a curious Franco-Germanic (Alsatian?) tilt to it. The menu, picking up on some of the trends-du-jour (not necessarily a pejorative, I happen to be very much in favor of some of these), features lots of charcuterie and many varieties of pig parts. It also has typical brasserie items like moules & frites, roast chicken, steak & frites, and croque monsieur (or madame). The Germanic/Alsatian tilt manifests in dishes such as flamenküche (a/k/a tarte flambée),choucroûte, and an entirely unexpected matzo ball soup (!)

It's a somewhat rustic looking place with a bit of a turn-of-the-century feel, featuring a long bar with carved wooden pillars, tiled floors, a pressed tin ceiling, and fans operated by a pulley-and-belt system supposedly invented in the 1880s. We showed up early for our reservation and so started our meal at the bar, where we sampled their custom-brewed pilsner and some items from the raw bar.

The local P&J oysters were impeccably fresh and expertly shucked, and the Louisana shrimp were likewise fresh, sweet and tender. I generally prefer a smaller, tighter oyster like a kumomoto to a big sloppy one, but these were a happy medium - plump, firm and loaded with salty liquor. I might have hoped for something more adventurous to go along with them than cocktail sauce and horseradish sauce, but all they really needed was a squeeze of lemon anyway. Both the oysters and the shrimp seemed like a remarkable bargain at $7 and $11 per half-dozen, respectively.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Lemon Twist - North Beach

[sorry, this restaurant has closed]

Lemon Twist is an example of restaurant reincarnation. Years ago, there was a restaurant in this little spot on Normandy Circle, towards the northern end of Miami Beach, called Lemon Twist (which, alas, was not that good). Then the space went dark for a while. Then it was a very lightly trafficked sports bar. Now it's Lemon Twist all over again. This time around, it's under the tutelage of Alain Suissa, whose resume also includes Grass Restaurant and Lounge in the Design District. Maybe this Twist will stick around a while longer.

It's a genuinely charming venue, with a pressed tin ceiling over the bar, a long velvet sofa serving as a banquette, roses and candles on the tables, and dark lace, linen-covered sconces, and French posters on the walls. It looks and feels exactly like what it aims to be, which is a classy neighborhood bistro. The menu likewise hews pretty closely to the line of straight-ahead French bistro fare. A short list of appetizers includes onion soup gratinee, endive salad with roquefort,escargot in garlic butter, a charcuterie plate. Entrées include poached salmon, sea bass provencale, moules frites, chicken cocotte, duck a l'orange, a few steaks, a rack of lamb. The menu listing is supplemented with about a half dozen blackboard specials, but there are few surprises here (though a "Weight Watchers" section of the menu, complete with "points," seems strangely incongruous; what self-respecting Lyonnaise chef would deign to do a  "Weight Watchers" menu?)

Not that there's anything wrong with sticking with the classics. Classics are that for a reason and I've previously mentioned how I find a traditional French bistro lineup to be genuinely satisfying and reassuring. This can be both good and bad for a restaurant. On the good side, if you do the classics competently, you can create food that people already know and love; it requires no learning curve. But on the other hand, to stand out is difficult. It is not easy to make a truly outstanding onion soup, particularly when almost every diner has had the chance to try several versions already.

Our meal at Lemon Twist was a bit slow getting started. When we were there on a Sunday night, it appeared there was only one person working the entire restaurant, and though they weren't terribly busy (only about 3-4 other tables being served while we were there), he was struggling a bit to keep up. We waited at least 15 minutes for water to be served and orders to be taken, and about another 15 minutes before any bread hit the table (without butter? is the chef really from Lyon?), but things generally picked up from there.

We started with the escargot de bourgogne, as well as a couple items from the blackboard - a frisée lardon salad, and the soupe du jour, a cream of asparagus and leek. The snails were doused in the customary bath of butter and garlic, and though the presentation was perhaps not as impressive as at Au Pied de Cochon, where they are served stuffed back into their shells, the buttery juices were just as good sopped up with some warm bread (though the bread likewise would not compare favorably to the crusty baguettes served at APDC). The frisee lardon hit all the right spots, the bacon still chewy with just a hint of crispness, the spriggy lettuce dressed with a classic vinaigrette bolstered with bacon fat, the poached egg warm and still oozy. The soup was satisfying if a bit one-dimensional.

Sunday, September 27, 2009

Bistro Laurent - Paso Robles

Bistro Laurent
Photo via Bistro Laurent
The last leg of our California trip brought us to Paso Robles. When I had made inquiry through friends of friends for recommendations, a few names kept coming up, and Bistro Laurent was one of them. I can now understand why. Every wine region seems to have a place like this (or ought to) - a comfortable restaurant where you can find simple, well-prepared food that compliments the local wines. Bistro Laurent clearly fits that description.

I knew that Paso Robles was a wine-producing area that has gotten some attention particularly for Rhone varietals and zinfandels, and was familiar with at least a couple producers (Tablas Creek and Linne Calodo, the latter of which I've been a mailing list customer of). But frankly, I hadn't quite realized how extensive Paso Robles' wine biz had become. There are now over 180 wineries in Paso Robles with 26,000 acres of vineyards, and the publicists claim it is the fastest growing wine region in California. Happily, much of that is still focused on small-production wines from vineyards that are still family-owned.

Bistro Laurent, which does double-duty as a wine shop and restaurant, is a good place to sample some of that local product. The restaurant is in a brick building that occupies a corner of the town square. Inside, it's cozy and informal, with exposed brick walls on the interior interspersed with French wine and spirits posters, and along the ledge behind the banquettes, a fine collection of French cookbooks to peruse after you order. The menu offers either a four- or five-course tasting menu in a DIY style with a number of choices (very reasonably priced at $48 or $64), or you can order a la carte. We did some of both.

I started with a simple salad of crabmeat paired with some orange segments over a lightly vinaigrette-dressed green salad, the flavors of which were simple and clean. I followed with seared sea scallops served over a textbook ratatouille, a drizzle of a red wine reduction providing a nice bridge for appeasing my prediliction for red wine with seafood (and everything else). Next, duck magret, still nicely rosy pink, served over potatoes macaire (twice-cooked, first baked, then the flesh scooped out, cooled, molded into a disk and then pan-fried till nice and crispy on the outside), also with a red wine sauce, this one bolstered and smoothed out with demiglace. Meanwhile, we also had their onion soup, again a textbook rendition, a couple pizza-like tarts, one topped simply with tomatoes, mozzarella and basil, the other with a nice combination of escargot, pesto and goat cheese, and a perfectly cooked, juicy pork chop. A chocolate pot du creme and creme brulee were likewise fine versions of the classics.

Terry Hoage The PickThe simple bistro fare makes a good foil for the wine list, which features a pretty encyclopedic offering of Paso Robles' finest, including some back vintage options. The Rhone Ranger types seemed a particularly good match for the food, and we tried something I had never heard of before, Terry Hoage's "The Pick" (2006). The wine was a GSM (grenache syrah mourvedre) blend, heaviest on the grenache, which was dense with black fruits without being over-ripe or over-sweet, and had a nice backbone of spice. I was happy to discover that the winery was only a couple minutes away from our hotel and paid a visit the next day.

Terry Hoage is a former football player (a Georgia Bulldog defensive back who had a 10+ year pro career) and now he and his wife run a small vineyard and winery in the hills of west Paso Robles. Their focus is exclusively on Rhone varietals and total production is about 2,000 cases. The lineup features a grenache blanc / roussanne blend, a rosé of syrah & grenache, a 100% syrah ("The Hedge"), a grenache ("Skins"), and a few blends - "The Pick," a GSM as noted above, "The 46" which is 50/50 grenache & syrah, and "5 Blocks Cuvee" which is a syrah based blend with grenache, mourvedre and cinsault. Both oenophiles and football fans will appreciate the multiple points of reference of the names, and from top to bottom I was really excited by their wines.

When you've got good wine like this, you don't necessarily need or even want culinary pyrotechnics with it. Is the food at Bistro Laurent cutting edge? Innovative? Not even remotely. Is it satisfying, especially together with some of the local juice? Absolutely.

Bistro Laurent
1202 Pine Street
Paso Robles, CA 93446

Bistro Laurent on Urbanspoon

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

(Not) Citronelle - Carmel

At first, I didn't have very high hopes for our first dinner in Carmel. Given that the meal was going to be sandwiched in between visits to Incanto on the front end and Manresa on the back end, I was OK with low expectations. Then just a few days before we arrived, I got an email from the Carmel Valley Ranch where we were staying, advising that the resort had "partnered with acclaimed French Chef Michel Richard for our new signature restaurant -- Citronelle by Michel Richard." Well - that changed things. I've never eaten at Chef Richard's flagship restaurant in Washington DC[*] but I certainly knew of his reputation as a phenomenally talented, creative and whimsical chef. Maybe this dinner wouldn't be a letdown after all.

But from the moment we set foot in the restaurant, something seemed amiss. First off, there was no signage whatsoever identifying the place as Citronelle - not in the resort, not in the entrance to the restaurant, not on the menu. Then out came an amuse bouche of - a lemon sorbet? Is it 1975? Followed by a bowl of french fries? They were good fries indeed, perversely reminiscent of classic McDonald's fries (and I say that as a compliment), but - could this really be how Chef Richard's reputation was earned?

Aside from no evidence of the name, the menu also showed no signs of Michel Richard's influence. Where were the trademark dishes - the lobster burger, the 72-hour braised short rib? Nowhere to be seen. It turns out, I now know, that right around the time we arrived, Chef Richard and Citronelle had cleared out shortly after the resort was sold to new owners. Chef Flynt Payne (which has got to be one of the most manly names I have ever heard) was dubbed the new executive chef shortly aftwerwards. I don't even know if he was in the kitchen yet at the time of our visit.

With this preview, it should come as no surprise that the meal in fact was something of a letdown; but I blame this mostly on the resort management which was responsible for emailing me about their "new signature restaurant" Citronelle, even as Chef Richard was packing up and heading out the door. It would also certainly suggest that it is too early to fairly evaluate the new incarnation of the dining room at the Carmel Valley Ranch. So this is much more in the nature of a "just passing it along" post rather than passing any sort of judgment.

The menu was a fairly short list of maybe a half-dozen each of appetizer and entree options, and a few desserts, offered only as a $65, 3-course proposal. They were accomodating, however, when we proposed to split one 3-course menu between the two kids, with Little Miss F taking a vegetable risotto starter and Frod Jr. a quail main course, and then splitting (reluctantly) a chocolate torte for dessert. I had myself a pig-fest, starting with a pork terrine followed with a milk-braised pork shoulder, and closed with a cheese course. Mrs. F had a beet salad and the quail as well, finishing with some fresh doughnuts (which the kids happily shared).

All of the cooking was technically faultless and well-executed. Among the more notable items, the pork terrine had a flavorful and well-spiced forcemeat, and was wrapped in bacon to give an extra salty porky punch. It was plated with pistachios and fresh nectarines, whose flavors paired nicely. The risotto, studded with summer vegetables, was also good, simple and satisfying. But - and this was likely a result primarily of the flux in the kitchen and the lack of time for a new chef to put his stamp on a new menu - very little that we had was particularly striking or memorable in any way. It was also less (in the way of quality, not quantity) than I would expect from a $65 meal, and the mandatory 3-course agenda was a downer.

Edited to add: Perhaps the greatest revelation of the meal was the wine we had with it: Couloir Monument Tree Pinot Noir (2006). Monument Tree is a cool climate, Anderson Valley vineyard, and the winemaker for Couloir is Jon Grant, who is also the assistant winemaker for Turley Wine Cellars. I am a big fan of Anderson Valley pinots and this was a great example. It retails from the winery for $44 and we had it from the wine list at $77.

The kitchen showed enough technical proficiency to suggest that they're capable of some good cooking. Just don't go expecting Citronelle (no matter what the resort's emails may tell you).

Carmel Valley Ranch
One Old Ranch Road
Carmel, CA 93923

Citronelle on Urbanspoon

[*]Chef Richard actually first made a name for himself in Southern California before shifting coasts to DC.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Petit Rouge - North Miami

petit rouge menu In belated celebration of Bastille Day, I figured I ought to finish off my thoughts on Petit Rouge, which we visited for the first time last weekend. I've noted previously how there is something immensely comforting to me about the classic French brasserie menu. Escargot, onion soup gratinée, frisee aux lardons, duck confit, steak & frites, potatoes sardalaise ... it's all good. Even though I have no real personal connection with the country or its food, I know this food, I enjoy it, and it's a true pleasure when executed correctly. Petit Rouge gets it right.

The menu was fairly close to the one linked to above with a few tweaks. We started with a tarte flambée for the kids to split as an appetizer. Tarte flambée is basically an Alsatian pizza, a flatbread topped with crème fraîche, sautéed onions and bacon, with perhaps a slightly crispier crust than the average Neapolitan pie. Petit Rouge's had a nice crispy crust, and a great mix of creamy, salty and sweet from the toppings. Mrs. F and I waited patiently for the kids to have their fill and then ravenously descended on what they left behind.

Though there was much on the regular menu's list of appetizers that was tempting, I was even more tempted by one of the daily specials recited to us - duck rillettes. A generous mound of rich duck confit, pulled and shredded and moistened with some duck fat, served with a nice little salad of frisée and other greens, along with some cornichons and olives and some croutons for shoveling. Nice, simple and delicious. Mrs. F started with a salmon tartare, done with nice fresh fish and all the classic pairings (chopped egg, capers, onions, a bit of crème fraîche).

I followed with another daily special, house-made boudin blanc. Boudin blanc is a light-colored, mildly flavored sausage, usually involving some combination of veal, pork or chicken, along with cream or milk. Petit Rouge's version included two gigantic plump links, served along with some nice mashed potatoes (rich but not overly creamy, and addictive) and braised red cabbage. Very nice boudin blanc, which I'd be prepared to say was possibly every bit as good as the one I had for breakfast at Thomas Keller's Bouchon in Las Vegas.

The rest of our dining crew had an assortment of other items - bavette steak in a red wine jus with frites (and good frites they were), Scottish salmon with a provençal tomato sauce, frisée aux lardon topped with an oozy poached egg and a bacon vinaigrette, and a macaroni and cheese with a crispy topping of bread crumbs and golden-brown toasted cheese. All were done properly and hit all the right notes.

For dessert, Frod Jr. was, of course, sucked in by the immense gravitational pull of a flourless chocolate cake, while Little Miss F went with a tarte au citron. The chocolate cake was one of the few items that didn't really impress, striking me as a bit dry and underflavored.

The prices at Petit Rouge are also designed to please, with almost all entrées under $25. It was particularly appreciated that the boudin blanc special I ordered turned out to be only $18, actually less than many of the items on the regular menu. The wine list follows suit - we had a 2007 Jean Descombes Morgon for $35 which, while perhaps not a fantastic bargain from a markup perspective (the wine retails for anywhere between $10-20), was nonetheless a great price point, and there were several other selections in this range.

Petit Rouge is in a tiny shoebox of a space on Biscayne Boulevard just north of 123rd Street which used to house another French restaurant, the short-lived Plein Sud. Based on our visit, I suspect Petit Rouge is going to be there much longer.

Petit Rouge
12409 Biscayne Boulevard
North Miami, FL 33181

Petit Rouge on Urbanspoon

Sunday, May 31, 2009

Au Pied de Cochon - South Beach - First Look

[Sorry, this restaurant has closed]

Au Pied de Cochon The original Au Pied de Cochon was opened in Paris shortly after the conclusion of World War II. Its owner was a pork butcher in Les Halles market, who wanted someplace to feed his staff when they came off their shifts. Since that was often early in the morning, the restaurant was open 24 hours a day. The restaurant endeavored to serve all of Paris' social classes, from aristocrats to butchers, with simple traditional French fare. Though Les Halles market has since been moved to the outskirts of Paris, Au Pied de Cochon remains, and supposedly has never closed its doors (indeed, the story is that there are no keys).

The Miami Au Pied de Cochon just opened its doors this past Friday evening, in an old Art Deco building a block down the street from Joe's Stone Crab. Mrs. F tells me this was a pretty decrepit building previously, and since I don't remember it, I have to believe her. It looks quite nice from the street now, and inside it's done up in typical Parisian brasserie style, with long banquettes with brass-railed glass partitions and lots of red leather on the seating surfaces. It's a somewhat peculiar layout - some might say cozy, others slightly claustrophobic. The main dining room space is sort of chopped up by a long banquette, there is a large curved bar in the middle and directly across from it a big seafood case stacked with oysters, lobsters, crabs and big head-on shrimp, and then more seating to the far side of the bar. Piggie motifs abound, from the pink pig vases on the tables to the pig imprints around the bar to the murals painted on the walls.

When we arrived early Saturday evening the staff (which is a small army) were still getting briefed and ready for service, though there were a couple tables already being seated. We settled in at the bar, where they had a short list of wines by the glass (they plan to expand it) and, surprisingly, no cocktails menu. Since this is de rigeur on South Beach these days (along with the $15+ price tags), I'm sure it will come soon. Meanwhile, Campari and soda and a Makers' Mark old-fashioned were about $10 per. It was only after I'd ordered my drink that I saw them setting up an old-fashioned absinthe drip on the bar.

The menu reads like a lengthy greatest hits list of French brasserie cuisine - the well-stocked seafood bar (with items available either by the piece or in plateaus of various degrees of extravagance), terrine of foie gras, escargots, onion soup gratinée, steak tartare, bouillabaisse, duck confit, braised veal cheek, rack of lamb, several prime aged steaks ... and making a decision was not easy. Even though I've got no French roots and indeed only spent very limited time in France, there's something oddly reassuring and comforting about this kind of traditional line-up. Mrs. F stuck with apps and went with a smoked salmon platter, followed by steamed mussels; I had the "Perigord salad," followed by the namesake pig's trotter.

Before our appetizers were delivered, we were each brought a nice, warm, crusty baguette, tucked into a little wax paper bag, along with a little ramekin of creamy salted butter. So far so good. The Perigord salad was a garden variety mix of soft-leafed lettuces, with slivers of smoked magret (duck breast), several croutons topped with foie gras, toasted nuts, and grapes, dressed in a walnut oil vinaigrette. This is how to get me to eat a salad. They were very generous with the smoked duck and foie croutons (about five long thin slices of toasted brioche, topped with thin slices of foie gras terrine). Unfortunately, some tomatoes that someone had gone to the trouble of fileting (cutting off the seed pod and leaving just the "flesh") were unripe and rock hard. It could have stood some perkier lettuce as well. I'm also partial to the traditional addition of green beans, but that's just a matter of personal preference.

The smoked salmon appetizer was brought out on a long narrow platter and looked like it was practically an entire side of salmon, served with the traditional accompaniments of chopped hard-cooked egg yolk and white, capers, and diced onion, along with a couple of blini. As Mrs. F was starting to dig in, one of the service staff was unhappy with how she was going about it and offered to "prepare" it for her; intrigued, Mrs. F accepted his offer, and he set up a tray next to our table and dressed the salmon with all of its accoutrements, a charming gesture. It was good salmon and a remarkably generous portion, though the blini were unusually fat and doughy, almost more like crumpets.

Mrs. F's steamed Prince Edward Island mussels, done simply in white wine and herbs, were again a massive portion for an appetizer, brought out in a big cast-iron pot. This seemed like a 1-kilo serving, and the mollusks were fresh and briney, though I prefer the daintier Mediterranean mussels to the fatter PEI's.

The pièce de résistance was the namesake pig's trotter, again a massive portion including not just the foot but pretty much the entire next joint of shank as well, given a very light coating of bread crumb, and laden with all the slightly mysterious textures of which pig is capable - crispy skin, tender shreds-with-a-fork meat, rich fat, gooey gelatinous bits. This is not for anyone who doesn't like to work some for their dinner, as it requires a good bit of picking among various knuckle-bones and other inedible bits, but for aficionados of the porcine, it's all worth it. It also is not for those seeking a lean, low-fat piece of pork tenderloin. Let me put it this way - when a dip in the béarnaise sauce (just slightly overthick in texture, but nicely spiked with tarragon vinegar and herbs) cuts the richness of a dish, that's a bit of a heavy meal. I came nowhere close to finishing this, but happily brought it home and chopped up the remaining meat and other bits to have with some eggs and toast this morning. I wonder if there's any chance they will bring to Miami La Tentation de Saint-Antoine, a pigalicious fest of trotter, snout, ear and tail served at the original Parisian outpost.

The accompanying fries were a bit skinnier than I'm accustomed to at French and Belgian places, and also a bit soggier. These could use some refinement, though Mrs. F and I still managed to finish most of them off (they were awfully good dipped in the béarnaise).

Though we didn't need anything more, I felt obligated to try a dessert, and we split a crème brûlée. Again, this was not an easy choice, with lots of other French classics on the menu - ile flottante, crêpes flambeed with Grand Marnier, warm chocolate timable, apple tart, Grand Marnier souffle ... I'm certainly glad we ordered only one dessert, as this was a massive portion - usually served in a small ramekin, this crème brûlée came in something more akin to a trough, nearly a foot across. The burnt sugar topping was nicely crispy, but the custard base was almost too soft and quivery, feeling slightly underdone.

The wine selections were fairly limited but decent, with about 8 bubblies, a few Rosés, about 15 whites (with one French representative from each of Burgundy, Bordeaux, Rhône, Loire and Alsace and the remainder from the rest of the globe) and about 30 reds (roughly half from France, and those mostly Bordeaux and Rhône). Prices range from $30s to upwards of $100 and most markups appear to be in the range of a 2x to 2.5x retail. One frustration is that vintages are not listed on the menu, though I was pleasantly surprised to see that the Vidal-Fleury Gigondas we ordered was a 2000 with some bottle age on it (this appears to be a late release from the winery).

Service belied both South Beach and French stereotypes, and was warm, friendly, solicitous and helpful. Everyone there seemed to know the menu well, and was eager to make recommendations. For only having been open one day, they seemed to be running pretty smoothly, and we had no notable service issues. There's also many old-school French touches like tableside preparations on several of the dishes - I felt a rush of heat on the back of my neck as the veal kidneys in mustard sauce were prepared for the next table over.

The food was not perfect, but it was good and showed promise, and a good French brasserie is always a nice thing to have around, especially one that is open 24 hours a day. But there is a bit of a disconnect between the quality and sophistication of the fare at Au Pied de Cochon and the prices in some instances. The Perigord salad seemed perfectly fair at $15.50, but $27.50 for a terrine of foie gras appetizer seems awfully steep even for this luxe ingredient (though I was sorely tempted by the $29 foie gras and apple tarte tatin appetizer, I refrained both due to the price and in anticipation of my trotter entree). A pork chop can be had for $21.50, but a Kobe beef burger is $25, duck leg confit is $27, the braised veal cheek is $33, and the steaks (all USDA prime and aged 21-28 days) are all in the $40s. On the other hand, the portions on some of the other items (like Mrs. F's $14.50 mussel appetizer or the gargantuan crème brûlée for only $7) made them seem like incredible bargains.

I'd just as soon see them work on the portion sizes and smooth out the menu pricing all around, rather than have such extremes. It's possible to have a reasonably priced meal here, but it can also quickly become quite expensive. While it's nice and cozy, it is simply not a fancy enough place to feel like you're having a $100 meal; and at some of these rates, the Miami Au Pied de Cochon is going to have a difficult time drawing in the butchers. But if they can straighten out some of the food miscues and pricing oddities, and make this more of an "everyday" rather than "special occasion" type of place, I suspect it will do quite well with the South Beach crowd.

Au Pied de Cochon
81 Washington Avenue
Miami Beach, FL 33139

Au Pied de Cochon on Urbanspoon