Showing posts with label North Beach. Show all posts
Showing posts with label North Beach. 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.

(continued ...)

Monday, March 20, 2017

Sushi Deli / Japanese Market - an appreciation

Many, many years ago, when I first started writing this blog, I made a big mistake: I wrote about Sushi Deli.

It's not that my recommendation was off target. The once-tiny sushi counter[1] inside a Japanese market (called, simply enough, "Japanese Market") was the classic hidden gem, a place where, among the packaged ramen noodles and bags of rice and frozen fish and togarashi spice mixes, you could get ridiculously good sushi, some of it flown in from Japan every week, at an incredibly reasonable price. There is surely no place I'd visited more often, or that had been the source of more satisfying meals, despite the peculiar hours (closed Mondays and Tuesdays, and never open later than 6:30 p.m. – a closing time which moved progressively earlier over the years as the place became ever more popular).[2]

Truth is, a good portion of what I know and love about sushi, I learned sitting at that counter: the joy of the many different varieties of hikari mono, or silver-skinned fish, the differences in flavor and texture among uni from different parts of the world, the seasonality of sushi offerings and the sense of paying attention to what is best when. But perhaps most of all, I learned the importance of trust and loyalty.

I don't claim to be particularly close to Chef Kushi: our brief conversations across the counter would mostly be limited to what was good that day, or his last trip home to Japan, or how his golf game was doing, or – most frequently – how he was working too hard. But he knew how much I appreciated his food, and his passion; and I always felt appreciated there too. From what I can gather, the root word of "omakase" is "entrust." After several visits, I entrusted my meals to Michio, and more important, he trusted me enough to let me experience many things I might never have tasted in Miami otherwise.

You could go full omakase at Sushi Deli if you wished, which would often bring a procession of sashimi and other items. But my standard order was something of a variation on the theme: I would ask for six pieces of nigiri – whatever Chef Kushi chose[3] – along with a battera roll, an Osaka-style pressed sushi roll topped with vinegar-cured saba, a sheet of cured seaweed, and toasted sesame seeds, plus, usually, a "triple-egg" temaki (uni, ikura, and quail egg) for "dessert." And this was how I discovered any number of things: sayori (halfbeak, or needlefish), with a shiny strip of silver along its gorgeous translucent flesh, tai (Japanese snapper) lightly cured in kombu to enhance its flavor, kazunoko (herring roe), a new years' tradition. Often, these came adorned: grated fresh ginger, a daub of uni, a smidgen of yuzu kosho, a sprinkle of sesame seeds, a dot of miso or ume paste, a sheet of cured seaweed, a sliver of shiso.

(You can see several of these in this Sushi Deli / Japanese Market flickr set).

Though Michio is, in his way, very much old fashioned – I've tried, unsuccessfully, to count the dozens of signs posted around the restaurant warning customers not to use cellphones and not to take pictures, among other rules – these creative elaborations show that he actually was not particularly bound by tradition. So, too, does the fact that he had women working behind the sushi bar – including his daughter Erika, who, it's reported, is looking to open her own place in the neighborhood within the next year.

My mistake was that some things are perhaps better left unsaid. Not that I claim credit for blowing it up on the blog. FFT has never exactly raked in the page views, and I could probably name every person who visited the site in those first few months when I first wrote about Sushi Deli. And many folks with exponentially bigger megaphones than myself have been guilty of breaking what some of us eventually tried to make the "First Rule of Sushi Deli" (You do not talk about Sushi Deli), like chefs Michelle BernsteinJosé Andrés, Norman Van Aken, and Kevin Cory of Naoe. But that post is also among the top 25 in all-time visits here, many of those over the past few years, so I guess I'm guilty too.

As Sushi Deli became more and more popular the past couple years, I unfortunately found myself going less and less often (of course, considering there was a stretch that I made almost weekly visits, that was bound to happen). What had once been a place where we would just pop in on Sunday afternoons had become one where you had to show up a half-hour before they opened to get on the list for seats. When I was able to score a seat, Michio – who is now a very spry 68 years old – would be in non-stop motion, and often seemed as harried as a Tokyo salaryman.[4] Maybe, Sushi Deli should have stayed a bit more under the radar. Selfishly, anyway, it would have been better for me.

Chef Kushi himself always seemed ambivalent at best about Sushi Deli's increasing popularity. In fact, he often seemed to actively resist it. Those shortened hours, and all those rules, seemed at least partially designed to discourage customers – or certain types of customers, anyway. In a story last month which announced the impending closure, he admitted, "I wish I could choose the customers. Each of them."[5] And this isn't the first time he thought about calling it quits. A few years ago, he started a rumor that he was about to close – which may have been serious, or may have just been a ploy to try to get the restaurant listing off of Yelp.

But this time, it's for real. All the merchandise had been cleared off the shelves, and the several dozen folks who were lined up outside yesterday – some as early as 8:30 a.m. – will be Sushi Deli's last customers.

I will miss it dearly. I can't even begin to count the moments of quiet happiness I've had at that counter over the years, many of them shared with my family. But I am thrilled for Chef Kushi and his lovely wife to finally get to relax, as they so rightfully deserve. And I am incredibly excited for what's in store from the next generation ... but maybe I shouldn't say any more about that.

[1] Not that it ever got very big: over the years, they perhaps doubled the original capacity of about a dozen, if you counted a small table in the back underneath the Japanese video DVDs.

[2] It's entirely possible there's also no place where our kids ate more frequently than Sushi Deli, as we've been taking them from a very young age. Frod Jr.'s regular order at first was the salmon teriyaki lunch plate, and he eventually branched out to the rest of the menu. Little Miss F's regular order was the crunchy shrimp roll, though she came to like the battera roll nearly as much as her dad.

[3] On my last visit to Sushi Deli a couple weeks ago, another customer saw this coming out and asked Chef Kushi what it was. He opened his eyes wide and exclaimed "I don't know!"

[4] It is customary if you're drinking sake at the sushi bar to offer your itamae a pour, but a few years ago, Mrs. Kushi cut Michio off because the sake would slow him down too much in the afternoons.

[5] I was always baffled by the people who would wait an hour for a spot there, and then order a California roll and a spicy tuna roll. But maybe even worse were the ponderous blowhards loudly "educating" their companions about Japanese food, usually while drowning Chef Kushi's sushi in a viscous slurry of soy sauce and wasabi.

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

(continued ...)

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 ...)

Friday, December 2, 2011

Art Basel Dining Guide: Off the Beaten Path Part 2

Yesterday, we explored a couple of Miami's less-heralded destinations for those Art Baselites who lack the foresight to have made reservations in South Beach or the Design District / Midtown / Wynwood, and lack the patience to wait for a table at the no-reservations spots. We journeyed through Downtown, then made our way to North Beach and crawled up Collins Avenue. Today, we can pick up where we left off in North Beach and start trekking back toward the mainland, winding up on Miami's "Upper East Side."

Lou's Beer Garden - slip inside the gates of the New Hotel, an updated MiMo hotel in North Beach, walk to the back, and you'll find Lou's Beer Garden, a funky little hideaway around the hotel pool with an outstanding beer selection, better than decent food, and a wonderful, relaxed atmosphere. The menu is mostly populated with simple stuff like salads, burgers and pizzas, but keep an eye out for Chef Luis Ramirez's more esoteric specials like the crispy sardines, callos a la Sevilla, or the grilled squid stuffed with chorizo sausage.

7337 Harding Avenue, Miami Beach

Las Vacas Gordas - Devout carnivores will want to pay a visit to an Argentine parrillada while they're here, and Las Vacas Gordas (The Fat Cows) is a worthy shrine. There are about a half-dozen different cuts of steak that they'll throw on the grill. My favorite is the entraña, or skirt steak, served rolled in a gigantic coil, but if you're indecisive you can get the "parrillada para 1" (which will easily feed 2 people not named Kobayashi) which will bring the true variety pack: a sampling of a few different steaks, chorizo, morcilla, mollejas (sweetbreads) and chinchulines (pig intestines) too. Slather it with chimichurri and try not to stand too closely to anyone for the rest of the night: the garlic stink will stay with you a while.

933 Normandy Drive, Miami Beach

Katana - It's far from the best sushi in town. But it's cheap, and it's served on floating boats coursing along a canal that winds around the restaurant. If something looks good, grab the plate off the boat as it floats by. The plates are color-coded for price, and the waitress will add up your stack when you're finished. I have an inexplicable fondness for their salmon nigiri, served with a generous squirt of Kewpie mayo and a shower of slivered onions. Here's a pro tip: if you can, sit directly clockwise from the itamae, so you can grab the freshest dishes as he makes them.

920 71st Street, Miami Beach

(continued ...)

Thursday, December 1, 2011

Art Basel Dining Guide: Off the Beaten Path in Downtown and North Beach

This week has seen no end of Art Basel guides: art fair guides, music guides, party guides, and, yes, food guides, some even in handy Q&A format. I got into the act myself last year. And while many of last year's recommendations will still hold up, I thought I'd take a slightly different approach this time, while expanding a bit on some of last year's list.

See, here's the thing: if you're just getting around to looking at this now, it's going to be too late to snag a table at most of the hot spots in South Beach where Art Basel proper resides, or in the Design District / Midtown / Wynwood enclave where you'll find most of the satellite fairs and local galleries. But! You shouldn't starve, just because you didn't have the foresight to make a reservation or don't want to wait hours for a table. Just expand your horizons a bit, there are good eats to be found elsewhere. May I humbly suggest you explore a couple of Miami's less heralded destinations: Downtown and North Beach?


Downtown Miami has a lot more office buildings than art galleries, but the city is running a free shuttle during Art Basel (11am - 11pm) that will take you between the downtown area and most of the major fairs and hot spots in the Wynwood / Midtown area. So try:

Phuc Yea! - Miami's first contemporary Vietnamese pop-up restaurant is open only for another week, but that's just enough time for you to get in there. They're rolling their own Viet-style porchetta di testa or coming up with creations like "When Elvis Met 'Nam" (seared foie gras, caramelized banana, peanut butter, jalapeño jelly, and nuoc cham caramel on french toast) along with more customary items like spring rolls, banh cuon, and salt n pepper calamari. Read all my thoughts on Phuc Yea! here.

Oodles of Noodles

19 SE 2nd Avenue, Miami

neMesis Urban Bistro - Chef Micah Edelstein's shoebox of a restaurant in the deserted northern outskirts of downtown serves up a very personal vision of global cuisine: shepherd's pie gets crossed with an empanada, "sushi" goes Tuscan with prosciutto, mascarpone and gorgonzola dolce, South African bobotie is served with passion fruit vinaigrette and garam masala pecans. I went in skeptical and came out very pleasantly surprised. There's often strange stuff brewing here - including, one time, a house-made coffee-infused beer - but it's often delicious.

1035 N. Miami Ave., Miami (LegalArt Building)

Little Lotus - this tiny Japanese restaurant is also hard to find, buried inside a nondescript office building, but serves up a nice selection of izakaya classics - lots of meats on sticks, takoyaki, chicken kara age, noodle dishes and rice bowls - along with a standard lineup of sushi items and some Indonesian classics thrown in for good measure. The team includes folks from local izakaya stand-out Yakko-San and Morimoto NY.

25 N. Miami Ave. Suite 107, Miami

Sparky's Roadside BBQ - it may not be competition-level 'cue, but it's better than a lot of BBQ pretenders in Miami, you can get a plate of pulled pork with a couple of sides for $10.50, they've got a super selection of brews, and you won't meet nicer guys in Miami than the ones running this place.

204 N.E. 1st St., Miami

(continued ...)

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

5 Countries in 5 Blocks - El Rincon de Chabuca - North Beach

[sorry, this restaurant has closed]

The food of Peru is possibly the original "fusion cuisine." Indigenous, Spanish, and Asian influences all have made their contributions. An abundance of produce, including more potato varieties than can be imagined, exotic chiles and herbs, as well as ready access to all sorts of seafood, also play a significant role in the uniqueness and diversity of Peruvian cuisine - which is represented in my "5 Countries in 5 Blocks" series on North Beach restaurants by El Rincón de Chabuca (or, as we call it in my household, El Rincón de Chewbacca).

El Rincón de Chabuca is a modest eatery along Collins Avenue just past 71st Street in the North Beach neighborhood where, as I've previously noted, you'll find a multitude of eating options from around Latin America. It's not much to look at, and it's probably not in contention for the best Peruvian food in all of Miami (most people think that honor goes to Francesco in Coral Gables), but some things are quite good.

If there is one item that people think of when they think of Peruvian food, it would most likely be ceviche, or its cousin, tiradito. Traditionally, a ceviche features raw fish or seafood that has been marinated in citrus juices, the citric acid in effect "cooking" the fish. With Chabuca's shrimp ceviche, the shrimp seemed to have been previously cooked, which with shrimp is not that unusual, doused in a mixture of lime juice, salt, garlic, and chile paste (they ask how spicy you want it and it is prepared to order), served over a bed of lettuce, topped with slivered red onions, and plated with traditional accompaniments of steamed sweet potato, choclo (a South American variety of corn with starchy, gigantic kernels), and corn nuts. Ours was good if a tad oversalted (a common refrain for many of the dishes we tried). Their ceviche can also be had with only fish, or with a mix of seafood (calamari, octopus, mussels and shrimp). I was intrigued by a menu item called "Ceviche Caliente Exotico," described as "crispy on the outside and yet fresh on the inside" and apparently involving seafood prepared ceviche-style and then deep-fried - but not intrigued enough to try it. You'll find a broader variety of preparations at a place like Francesco or La Cofradia, where they offer their ceviches either traditional style, or with an aji amarillo chile sauce or a rocoto chile sauce, and sometimes even more esoteric, non-traditional versions.

Saturday, December 12, 2009

5 Countries in 5 Blocks - El Rey del Chivito - North Beach

Most visitors coming to Miami, if they think of "ethnic" food, will think of Cuban food. And Miami indeed has plenty of Cuban food. But that one-note school of thinking fails to capture the diversity of Latin American peoples that have come to call Miami home - Argentina, Uruguay, Peru, Colombia, Venezuela, Honduras, Nicaragua and many others (without even considering the Caribbean, which is entirely another subject of discussion) all make their presence felt in the culture and cuisine of South Florida. And a good bit of that diversity is reflected in just a few blocks very close to my home.

The city of Miami Beach is situated on a series of man-made islands along the coast of Miami, and the "North Beach" neighborhood is essentially the northern periphery of the city. While tourist-inundated South Beach basically runs south to north from 1st Street to about 23rd Street, and the predominantly residential Mid-Beach area runs up to about 63rd Street, North Beach picks up north of 63rd Street up to about 85th Street, where it yields to the municipality of Surfside. This stretch is not nearly as flashy as South Beach. Most of the beachfront condos are still awaiting updating, and the only substantial incursion of new development is the Canyon Ranch at 68th and Collins Avenue.

El Rel del Chivito

This more modest neighborhood has become home to many of Miami's Latin American populations. Argentinians, in particular, many of whom came to Miami over the past ten years amidst economic strife in their home country, have so taken a shine to North Beach that some have dubbed it "Little Buenos Aires", but North Beach is actually a happy melting pot of people from all over Central and South America. Lucky for all of us, they've brought their recipes with them.

El Rey del Chivito 2

The first stop for my "5 Countries in 5 Blocks" tour is El Rey del Chivito. "Chivito," some of you may note, means goat, yet "The King of the Goat" offers no goat on the menu. According to the owner of El Rey del Chivito, the story goes that an Argentine tourist went to a restaurant in Uruguay and asked for a roast goat sandwich. Having no goat, the restaurateur served her a steak sandwich instead, which he began calling a "chivito." As other tourists began asking for additional toppings on the sandwich, they all stayed a part of the recipe, which now typically includes a thin grilled steak, bacon, fried ham, cheese, a fried egg, onions, lettuce, and tomato, all on a lightly toasted bun - slathered with mayonnaise, of course.

chivito sandwich

It is an over-the-top, heart-attack-on-a-bun kind of a sandwich. It is also absolutely delicious, though clearly something to be consumed in moderation. This is not simply a "This is Why You're Fat" style gross-out fest. The multitudinous components of the sandwich really do make for a truly delectable combination. I just try to limit my intake to about one a year, and recently learned, while paying a visit with National Geographic writer Andrew Nelson as he tweeted his way through Miami, that half a sandwich will actually do just fine. I just can't imagine who is putting away the "Super Chivito Emperador," the super-sized version they also offer on the menu. The fries, unfortunately, are disappointingly limp, though they do serve as a handy vehicle for the greasy goodness that drips off the sandwich.

While the chivito is unquestionably the official sandwich of Uruguay, and apparently unique to the country, Uruguayan food otherwise - at least what's available here - looks much like that of its neighbor Argentina. The menu at El Rey del Chivito also offers typical parrillada items, as well as a grab-bag other things: steaks, grilled chicken, hamburgers with various toppings, a few salads, a couple pastas, pizzas (there is a strong Italian influence to Argentine cuisine). Another curious item you'll see in both Uruguay and Argentina is faina, which is a thin chickpea-based bread customarily served with pizza in both countries. You can order it on its own or on top of the pizza, in which case it's called a "Pizza a Caballo" (on horseback).

pizza a caballo

This is perhaps more of a curiosity to be experienced than a delicacy to be sought out, as the pizza at El Rey de Chivito was only fair to middling, and the faina didn't really do much to elevate it for me.

But a chivito at El Rey del Chivito is always a fine and immensely satisfying sandwich. Just keep in mind that between the egg and bacon, the ham and cheese, and the steak, it can serve as breakfast, lunch and dinner all in one.

[Edited to add: I just noticed that the first picture of the restaurant wall, above, has some great stuff in it. There's a picture of Elvis, "El Rey del Rock", next to a picture of the owner, Aron, "El Rey del Chivito" wearing crown and robe; and also some diagrams and lists showing where the different cuts of beef come from. I'm going to have to give that a closer inspection next visit.]

El Rey del Chivito
6987 Collins Avenue
Miami Beach, FL 33141

El Rey Del Chivito on Urbanspoon

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, May 3, 2009

Japanese Market a/k/a Sushi Deli - North Bay Village

sushi deli menuWhile most people claim that Matsuri is the best place for sushi in Miami, my personal favorite is a tiny little counter inside a Japanese market along the 79th Street Causeway - Sushi Deli (a/k/a Japanese Market).

The market is small but well-stocked, with several choices of high-quality rice, noodles, sauces, spices, pickles, and the like, a selection of frozen fish and seafood items (including "super-frozen" tuna and hamachi), meats like kurobuta pork and thinly sliced beef for shabu shabu, a good selection of sakes, and occasionally, fresh Japanese vegetables. They also regularly stock "Pocky", a Japanese chocolate-covered-pretzel-stick snack (we are particularly fond of the "Men's Pocky" bitter chocolate flavor), among several Japanese snacks and sweets.

Occupying one corner of the market is a small sushi bar with only four seats in front of it, as well as a couple more counters and tables to the side. The bar is almost always staffed by Chef Kushi and his daughter (?)(amazing how rare it still is to see a woman behind a sushi bar). The menu lists a selection of nigiri priced from $1 - $2.50 a piece (with more exotic items subject to market prices), as well as an assortment of various maki, and a few simple cooked dishes. The selection of rolls makes some concessions to Americanized tastes - you will find a California roll, a "rainbow roll," and at least one eel/mango/cream cheese concoction, but the real joy of Sushi Deli is in the more traditional items.

In particular, one of my favorites is the battera roll. The battera is an example of a very old-school style of sushi-making from Osaka which originated hundreds of years ago, in which vinegar-cured fish (often an oily fish like a mackerel) is pressed with rice which is shaped in a wooden box. At Sushi Deli, the rice (usually still a little warm, lightly vinegared, and moist enough to stick together without being gooey or clumpy) is topped with shiny, silver-skinned saba (mackerel), itself also vinegar-cured, along with a sheet of translucent marinated seaweed, and a sprinkle of toasted sesame seeds, all pressed into the box, removed and then cut into rectangles. It's beautiful to look at and, for someone like me who likes the stronger flavors of hikari-mono (the Japanese term for all silver-skinned fish like mackerel, sardine, etc.), delicious and satisfying.

Though not nearly so traditional, and even though I'm not usually big on maki, I also like the ceviche roll, which is light and inflected with citrus and cilantro, and the Marie Roll, filled with diced tuna with spicy (Sriracha?) sauce, a bit of toasted sesame oil, little bits of toasted garlic, and a sliver of shiso leaf. Little Miss F is also a big fan of the crunchy shrimp roll, a combination of a crispy fried shrimp, avocado, and mango, bound with a little spicy mayo and given a little sprinkle of masago for a little pop. Meanwhile, Frod Jr.'s regular order is the teriyaki salmon, served over steamed rice with some salad and edamame (a bargain lunch for $4.95 or $7.95 for double fish), which he sometimes supplements with some unagi nigiri.

Some of the best things I've eaten at Sushi Deli have come when I simply ask Chef Kushi to make what nigiri he thinks is best that day. Perhaps at this point some disclaimers are in order. If you are serious about sushi, one of the first lessons you learn is to befriend your itamae (the sushi chef). If you show that you are interested - by being a regular customer,[1] by politely asking questions, by being willing to try new items, you may open yourself up to a very different dining experience.[2] Not to wax too philosophical, but when done well and conscientiously, there is an intimacy to a sushi meal that is hard to find in just about any other restaurant experience. The person who is making your food is right there before you, you watch as it's prepared, the chef handles it with their own hands, and the chef can see your reaction as you eat it.

I have been going to Sushi Deli a couple times a month on average for years now. I literally could not even begin to count the times I've visited. And at a certain point, when I would ask Chef Kushi what's good today, he would actually tell me, and show me. I've had ama ebi, the shrimp served raw and deliciously sweet, the head separately fried and the whole thing edible; beautiful uni (sea urchin roe), sometimes a couple different varieties (sourced from the U.S. and Japan) to compare; tai (Japanese snapper), sometimes lightly cured between sheets of kombu; fat raw sea scallops; toro (fatty tuna), always served in a generous slab, most recently enlivened with a fresh grating of Himalayan salt right before serving; aji (horse mackerel), ankimo (monkfish liver), and another favorite I was introduced to here, sayori (needlefish or halfbeak), a beautiful little fish with delicate translucent white flesh and shiny silver skin.

Often these items will come with some small flourish that highlights and enhances the flavor of the fish - a bit of grated fresh ginger and its juice, a quick squeeze of lime or sudachi, a dab of ume (pickled plum) paste or some special yuzu miso, a sprinkling of togarashi. A few months ago around January, I was served another item I'd never experienced before, kazunoko, or herring roe, a beautiful golden leaf of tiny eggs clumped together, which looked almost like a segment of a grapefruit and had a light flavor and fascinating, slightly bouncy texture. It was only after coming home and doing some Googling that I learned that this is a traditional (and expensive) Japanese new year dish. I felt honored to have the chance to share in such a tradition.

Some of these things you will not find on any menu. And - though I don't want to sound elitist about it - the reality is that if you're a first time visitor to the place, you may not find them at all, even for asking. Chef Kushi is the furthest thing from a "sushi bully" you could ever imagine - he is humble, polite, friendly and welcoming - but sometimes there are perks to being a regular. On occasion, the best things will be saved for the best customers. This is one of the reasons I've hesitated to write about Sushi Deli even though I eat there nearly every week, though you'll still have an excellent meal there even if you have absolutely no interest in some of the more exotic items that may be available. I've thought about it even more after reading this proposed "Food Blog Code of Ethics", which certainly has some good ideas. But I think in some ways this is the type of experience that can not be captured through a traditional restaurant review. The purpose of a traditional review is to describe the experience that any diner walking off the street will experience. Sometimes you have to "work" to really get to know a place, before it will reveal all of its charms.

I saw the flipside of this phenomenon when I recently visited Matsuri, which I get to only rarely. I sat at the bar, and when the itamae had a moment of down-time I asked what was especially good today. The response was a perfunctory and dismissive "Everything." Would I be treated differently if I was there every couple weeks? It's distinctly possible. But given how happy I am after every visit to Sushi Deli, it's unlikely I'll ever find out.

Japanese Market a/k/a Sushi Deli
1412 79th Street Causeway
North Bay Village, FL 33141
Sushi Deli hours:
11:30am - 6:30pm Wed-Sat
12:00pm - 5:30pm Sun[3]

Japanese Market on Urbanspoon

[1] In his book "Turning the Tables: The Insider's Guide to Eating Out," eGullet founder Steven Shaw (a/k/a "Fat Guy") suggests a two-visit routine to make any itamae your "personal sushi chef." While it's a great book, I'm dubious as to the universal effectiveness of this particular bit of advice.

[2] Of course, at many places you'll just be banging your head against the wall - it just doesn't get any better than their commodity-quality generic fish.

[3] Do note that Japanese Market closes early. As a result of these hours, it has been almost exclusively a weekend lunch place for me.

Sunday, April 12, 2009

Le Banyan - North Beach

[Sorry, this place has closed]

The Ocean Terrace area of North Beach is like a little miniature version of South Beach's Ocean Drive. Running between 73rd and 76th Streets just east of Collins Avenue, there are a few charming little Art Deco hotels (along with a couple larger condo buildings) facing right out onto the ocean. Other than beachgoers, however, there are generally not an awful lot of people around here. Despite that, another brave restaurateur* is attempting to have a go of it here - Le Banyan, a Thai restaurant in a lovely location on the corner of Ocean Terrace and 73rd Street.

There's seating inside in the classic Art Deco lobby, as well as nice rattan tables and lounge-y chairs outside where you can dine under umbrellas. We were there early on a Saturday evening and the weather was perfect for sitting outdoors. The menu is a somewhat abbreviated grab-bag of Thai dishes - appetizers include crab and vegetable variations on spring rolls, chicken satay, shrimp dumplings, spicy shrimp salad, along with a few other items, and about 10 choices of entrees along with a number of rice and noodle dishes.

It was just me, Frod Jr. and Little Miss F, and happily (for reasons I'll explain further below) they had a "children's menu" for $15 which included vegetable spring rolls, chicken satay, pan-fried noodles with vegetables, and either ice cream or banana spring rolls for dessert. Done and done (though Frod Jr. needed some convincing that he should stick with the kids' menu, as he eyed the steamed salmon wrapped in banana leaf). We asked if we could substitute one of the other desserts for the kids and pay the difference (I believe it was a coconut panna cotta with water chestnuts that intrigued Little Miss F) and after much consultation we got a vaguely positive response. I had the spicy shrimp salad to start, followed by a steamed fish with lime and chile.

The spicy shrimp salad was very brightly flavored though not particularly spicy - lemongrass playing the most prominent role, along with fresh mint, cilantro, toasted rice powder and chile, in roughly that order, and served on a few leaves of tender Boston lettuce. While very tasty, this was a skimpy portion that even Michelle Bernstein would have been ashamed to serve for $12. The fish was a very nice presentation, a snapper done skin-on and tail intact, with a very interesting fileting technique. It was completely deboned but both filets were still attached to the tail, with one stretched out across the plate and the other wrapped in a spiral around a stalk of lemongrass. It was served in another boldly flavored sauce tart with lime juice and enlivened with a hint of fresh chile. The kids both liked their kids' plates - I wasn't even offered a bite of their spring rolls, but got to try the satay which was more assertively flavored than many I've had locally (bright with yellow turmeric).

When dessert time came around we learned they were out of the item Little Miss F had wanted, and she got a "chocolate nem" instead, which turned out to be little chocolate-filled spring rolls with dabs of condensed milk with chopped peanuts for dipping, along with a scoop of chocolate ice cream. Frod Jr. was very happy with the banana spring rolls on the menu, which were crispy outside, gooey and sweet inside, and served over some melted chocolate for dipping. Instead of substituting, they brought out an extra kids' dessert so I got some banana spring rolls too. This gesture turned out to be less generous than it appeared when instead of just charging a markup for Little Miss F's substitution (which was maybe $2-3 difference), they simply charged us full freight for the extra dessert (which was about $11).

While the food was all pretty good, the prices were completely out of whack. Appetizers were in the $10-12 range that can be had for $5-8 at places like Tamarind Thai or Siam Bayshore around the corner. Entrees were mostly in the $25-35 range, which is just absurd for Thai food. Again, this compares to prices around $13-20 at either of the other neighborhood places I usually frequent. Desserts which go for $5 at the other places are $9-12 at Le Banyan. It's a nice view, but it can't justify those kind of markups, especially when I can't say that the food is markedly better than the other options.

Which is a shame, because if the prices weren't so exorbitant, this would be a really pleasant place to spend an evening. But just because Ocean Terrace looks like South Beach doesn't mean the prices ought to.

Le Banyan
7300 Ocean Terrace
Miami Beach, FL 33141
Le Banyan on Urbanspoon

*The last one that I recall was Baraboo, a circus-themed place, more than five years ago.

Thursday, April 9, 2009

Edy's Chicken & Steak - North Bay Village

[Sorry, this place has closed]

A couple years ago a sign went up on a storefront along the 79th Street Causeway for "Edy's Chicken & Steak". Then it seemed like nothing happened for nearly a year. Several months ago I noticed that, lo and behold, the place had opened up, yet the name still was not exactly luring me in. Chicken? and Steak? Umm, Ok...

Finally curiosity got the best of me and I peeked in and grabbed a menu. Well, this isn't just any "chicken & steak," but it's Peruvian style rotisserie charcoal broiled chicken - and even better, it's "famous from Falls Church, Virginia" according to the menu! After a little checking around, I learned that Edy's is reasonably well known in the DC area for its chicken, and even more so for the accompanying green sauce.

We got a whole chicken with a side of Peruvian potato salad (can also get french fries or yuca), which also came with a couple small green salads, for $16. The chicken was indeed good stuff - crispy well-seasoned skin, meat was hot but still tender and moist. But the star was the sauce - a spicy and herbaceous green chile sauce which just really perks up your taste buds. Another milder but slightly piquant mayo-based sauce (which the server could only describe to me as "white sauce") was also good. The potato salad was made with a mix of exotic Peruvian potatoes but a wee bit bland.

The menu also has a few steaks, a mixed grill with chicken, steak, pork chop and chorizo, and several different sandwich options. We've gotten take-out several times since my first visit (only the chicken, haven't tried the steaks) and the quality is consistently good. There are a few variations on side dishes, including yuca fries (decent if a bit bland), choclo (corn on steroids), and big slices of camote (Peruvian sweet potato). They also had several cakes in a display case and Peruvian ice creams (including lucuma flavored, which I thought was delicious - creamy, fruity and nutty, reminiscent of mamey).

The place itself is basically a fast-food joint and doesn't hold much appeal other than that it's clean and well-lit, but their chicken and the green sauce have found a regular spot on our take-out rotation. But I'll confess - this is all mostly just an excuse to link to this awesome ad they made (I'm a sucker for a chicken suit):

Edy's Chicken & Steak
1624 79th St. Causeway
North Bay Village, FL
Edy's Chicken & Steak on Urbanspoon

Saturday, April 4, 2009

North Beach / Biscayne Corridor Map of Good Eats

Just to get a start on the return to the original premise here - South Florida restaurants and dining - here's a Google map I created of good eats in my 'hood, the areas around North Beach, 79th Street Causeway and the Biscayne Corridor. If you click through to the actual map, each of the placemarks will pop up with a short description of the restaurant.

View Larger Map

The restaurants mentioned in the map:

Las Vacas Gordas
933 Normandy Drive
Miami Beach FL 33141

920 71st Street
Miami Beach FL 33141

940 71st Street
Miami Beach FL 33141

Che Sopranos
916 71st Street
Miami Beach FL 33141

Tamarind Thai
946 Normandy Drive
Miami Beach FL 33141

Dolce Vita Gelateria
954 Normandy Drive
Miami Beach FL 33141

Prima Pasta Cafe
414 71st Street
Miami Beach FL 33141

El Rancho Grande
314 72nd Street
Miami Beach FL 33141

Sazon Cuban Cuisine
7305 Collins Avenue
Miami Beach FL 33141

Le Banyan
7300 Ocean Terrace
Miami Beach, FL 33141

El Rey de Chivito
6987 Collins Ave
Miami Beach FL 33141

La Perrada de Edgar
6976 Collins Avenue
Miami FL 33141

Edy's Chicken & Steak
1624 79th St. Causeway
North Bay Village, FL

Siam Bayshore
1524 79th Street Causeway
North Bay Village FL 33141

Sushi Deli
1412 79th Street Causeway
North Bay Village FL 33141

Oggi Caffe
1666 79th Street Causeway
North Bay Village FL 33141

916 NE 79th Street
Miami FL 33138

Royal Bavarian Schnitzel Haus
1085 NE 79th Street
Miami FL 33138

Anise Taverna
620 SE 78th Street
Miami FL 33138

Magnum Lounge
709 NE 79th Street Causeway
Miami FL 33138

Pineapple Blossom Tea Room
8214 Biscayne Boulevard
Miami FL 33138

Red Light
7700 Biscayne Boulevard
Miami FL 33138

Ver Daddy Taco Shop
7501 Biscayne Boulevard
Miami FL 33138

Vagabond Market
7301 Biscayne Boulevard
Miami FL 33138

Le Cafe
7295 Biscayne Boulevard
Miami FL 33138

Dogma Grill
7030 Biscayne Boulevard
Miami FL 33138

Karma Carwash
7010 Biscayne Boulevard
Miami FL 33138

Casa Toscana
7001 Biscayne Boulevard
Miami FL 33138

6927 Biscayne Boulevard
Miami FL 33138

Uva 69
6900 Biscayne Boulevard
Miami FL 33138

6708 Biscayne Boulevard
Miami FL 33138

Upper Eastside Green Market
6600 Biscayne Boulevard
Miami FL

Canela Cafe
5132 Biscayne Boulevard
Miami FL 33137

(note that I have cut off this list before reaching the Design District, where there are a number of restaurants each meriting their own post). More details to come on several of these and many others.