Showing posts with label Top Chef. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Top Chef. Show all posts

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Gigi - Midtown Miami

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

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

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

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

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

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

(continued ...)

Monday, June 21, 2010

TV Dinner

I've been watching a lot of food-related television programming lately. Truth is, I've always been a regular watcher of Top Chef, but this season has particular appeal, with local hero (and one of my favorite chefs) Andrea Curto-Randazzo, of Talula and the newly opened Water Club, on as a contestant. Let me be clear: I hate "reality TV." I like cooking shows. Though Top Chef may skew more towards the former than the latter, there's still enough real cooking going on to hold my interest, and though there are a good number of contestants each season who are clearly Starfleet Red Shirts, it has provided an opportunity to highlight some genuine talent as well.

The season premiere for Top Chef Season 7 was this past Wednesday, and though it didn't feature much of Andrea, she did move on to see another day. If, like me, you didn't get enough Andrea during the episode, you can find some more on YouTube, where she's uploaded a three-minute interview (wine glass in hand) she calls "I'm Just Sayin'."

In it, she gives fellow contestant Kenny Gilbert, a/k/a "Kenny G," yet another nickname, dubbing him "Twenty G" for having won the initial $20,000 Quickfire; considers giving some grief to another fellow contestant, Angelo Sosa, for being cocky, but decides better of it since it was so obvious to everyone; proceeds to give Padma Lakshi a lesson in "Miami 101" for not recognizing the "Miami" in her Elimination Challenge dish,[1] a chorizo-infused gnocchi with slow-roasted pork, calabaza, manchego and orange gremolata, suggesting that maybe instead she should have served a blackened mahi-mahi with mango salsa; and closes out by making me spurt my drink through my nose with a "Jam out with your clam out, rock out with your cock out" sign-off.

(continued ...)

Friday, June 18, 2010

goes around ... comes around - milkshake edition

Richard Blais, former Top Chef contestant and present proprietor of Flip Burger Boutique, with locations in Atlanta and Birmingham (no relation to the Flip Burger Bar just opened in North Miami - and just wait till he gets wind of that) is all up in arms that a burger joint in Denver is serving a milkshake that he thinks bears a more than passing resemblance to one served at Flip Burger. He's so upset his hair is standing on end!

The details: Flip Burger's menu features several liquid nitrogen-chilled shakes, including one with Nutella and burnt marshmallow. A place in Denver called H Burger (Blais didn't name it, though Eater quickly figured it out) lists on its cocktail menu a liquid nitrogen-chilled "Nutella Marshmallow" shake with vanilla vodka, hazelnut liquor, nutella, and vanilla ice cream topped with roasted marshmallows. Though Blais' column noted the similarities between the two - that is, Nutella and burnt marshmallows, liquid nitrogen, and a similar presentation ("right down to the pint glass and red straw," which, I've got to say, doesn't exactly sound as novel or unique as, say, the peacock used at Alinea) - he omitted that H Burger's, unlike Flip Burger's, is an alcoholic libation.

Anyhoo, Blais thinks H Burger is ripping off his steez: "On the street, you don't copy someone else's style." He's so mad "it makes me want to load up my smoking gun and do a mother fucking drive-thru drive by." Of course, Blais is smart enough to know, and acknowledges, that recipes can't be copyrighted or patented. He's also smart enough to know, and acknowledges, that he didn't invent either the ingredients or the techniques involved in his particular concoction:
I didn't invent liquid nitrogen, or its use in food preparation. Shit, chemistry teachers have been making LN2 ice cream in classrooms for 30 years, at least. I didn't create marshmallows. Or Nutella. Or milk shakes. Or straws and pint glasses for that matter.
So what's he all bent out of shape over? Perhaps it's a matter of credit or attribution. He says:
I have been so sensitive to the topic, that if I find a dish of mine is similar in spirit to one I've seen, I'll denote it a "remix." Maybe it's in my blood. I don't think Wylie Dufresne is going to find me on a corner and put a cap in my ass. But that's how I approach it. Inspiration is a funny thing. Sometimes you can't remember exactly how you got there or who helped, but I believe you know if you're completely ripping someone off.
All right. So Chef Blais thinks his milkshake brings all the boys to the yard, and damn right it's better than yours. But this all gave me a strange sense of deja vu. And then I remembered why. A couple years ago, I came across press blurbs about Blais' "creation" of something he called a "Popcornsicle," a ball of popcorn frozen with liquid nitrogen and served on a stick. The press blitz came complete with photos of the chef blowing liquid nitrogen smoke from his nose and mouth as he ate one. Well, other than the stick, Chef Blais' "creation" just happened to be identical to an item that was regularly served at José Andrés' minibar, where it's called "Dragon's Breath Popcorn," and where I'd just happened to have eaten a week earlier. And I said so. That prompted a discussion on Chowhound about the nature of "copying" when it comes to cooking. Back then I noted:

(continued ...)

Thursday, May 13, 2010

South Florida - Celebrity Chef Breeding Ground?

Earlier today, I learned that Chef Andrea Curto-Randazzo of Talula will be a contestant on the next season of Top Chef, which starts airing June 16. But she's not the only South Floridian with TV celebrity chef aspirations.

Also in the mix? Aria Kagan, who has been selected as a finalist in Food Network's "The Next Food Network Star." Who is Aria Kagan? When I got a blurb from a Food Network publicist, it didn't ring any bells (sadly, I'm terrible with names). But when I went to the website to check the biography, I had one of those "Hey! I know her!" moments; because Aria (who used to teach at Le Cordon Bleu in Miami and now runs a catering business) also used to work at Timo in Sunny Isles.

So now there's two local talents to root for on your TV this summer. Next Food Network Star begins airing on June 6 at 9pm.

Top Chef Andrea Curto-Randazzo!

For years, Andrea Curto-Randazzo has been one of my favorite local chefs. We've long been fixtures at the kitchen bar seats at Talula, the restaurant that she and husband Frank Randazzo opened in 2003, and I've often told anyone who will listen that I think they put out the best food to be found on South Beach. Chef Curto-Randazzo also helped kick off our Cobaya underground dinners with our first event, one that many of us still think was the best dinner we've done.

And, yes, I also happen to be a Top Chef fan as well.

So I am thrilled - just thrilled - to see that she is going to be a contestant on next season's Top Chef, and that the rest of the country will get a chance to see what she's capable of doing.

I will be watching and rooting for Andrea like a gibbering maniac. GO ANDREA!

Saturday, April 18, 2009

My Dinner With Toby?

Top Chef is something of a guilty pleasure for me. I normally can't stand the reality show format, the product placements are painful, and the competition structure is somewhat contrived and goofy, but at least there are some real chefs and some real cooking going on. This past season was a bit of a downer, as the caliber of the contestants seemed to have dipped, and the couple of folks who seemed to me to show any flair for creativity (Jeff McInnis, Jamie Lauren in my book, but to each his own, of course) struggled to get any traction, but I continued to watch anyway.

I didn't exactly find the season to be enhanced by the presence of the new judge, Toby Young, an English prat whose greatest claim to fame is his ability to annoy other people and somehow get marginally famous for doing so. (Don't take my word for it; he's published a book called "How to Lose Friends and Alienate People: A Memoir"). I have no issue with tough criticism, but he didn't even really offer that. Rather, I just found Young's comments to be stilted, forced, unfunny, and often just plain ignorant. I think you could hear the groans across the country when he attempted to make an "I've found the weapons of mass destruction" joke about five years after that could have remotely been thought of as topical. And it was a real thrill to have an Englishman pontificate on what makes for "authentic" New Orleans or Miami food.[1]

The kicker for me was when, in response to critics, he presumed that it was his mastery of basic grammar, rather than his contrived (lack of) wit, that us knuckle-dragging Americans found so off-putting:
But one of the penalties of being a well-educated Brit in America is that people are constantly accusing you of having memorised lines for the simple reason that you talk in complete sentences and — completely unheard of, this — you don’t make any grammatical mistakes.
Yeah, that must be it.

When I saw on Feedbag that (1) Toby Young was making another appearance as a judge on Top Chef; (2) he was amused by the hue and cry for someone, anyone other than him to serve in that capacity (some of the suggestions included Sirhan Sirhan, Beetlejuice, and an inanimate carbon rod); and (3) he was offering up a dinner in Vegas in his company for an eBay charity auction, well I couldn't resist sharing my two pence. OK, actually what I said was:
Don’t take too much satisfaction from being told that you’re funny by a guy who was making “I’ve found the weapons of mass destruction” jokes in 2008. Question about that eBay auction: do I get to order for TY? (”I’ll have the porterhouse, and my companion here will be having the shit sandwich.”)
Well, someone claiming to be Toby Young responded, "If yours is the winning bid, Frodnesor, I’ll eat what you tell me to eat, no questions asked. That’s a promise." And while it'd be perfectly easy for someone to pretend to be TY - why would anyone ever want to do that? So, on a lark, I put in a bid for the charity auction for a dinner with Toby Young at Tom Colicchio's Craftsteak in Las Vegas.

And - not that I should be all that surprised that the bidding is not exactly going like hotcakes - I'm currently the high bidder, with a whopping bid of $100.01. [I've since been outbid, and am contemplating how much this opportunity is potentially worth]. So here's my question. Assuming nobody else is willing to pay more than $100.01 to spend a weekend in Vegas and have a meal at Craftsteak if it means having to endure Toby Young's company for said meal, what choice things would have you have me ask (or tell) Mr. Young? Any thoughts you'd like to share?[2]

[1] Particularly one whose depth of understanding of New Orleans cuisine is evidenced by this quote from a review of a London restaurant called "Big Easy BBQ and Crabshack":

"The Big Easy is modelled on the informal seafood restaurants of America's Gulf Coast, with plain, utilitarian furniture, chequered tablecloths and plastic bibs for those who want to avoid getting crabmeat on their Hawaiian shirts. It's so laid back, it could almost be one of those bars in the French Quarter of New Orleans where the drinkers were undisturbed by Hurricane Katrina. My fellow diners all looked as though they'd consumed several jugs of frozen margaritas before sitting down to tackle one of the restaurant's gigantic meals."

[2] I'm a little concerned with some of the fine print in the eBay auction, specifically this piece:

Winner and guest understand they will need to behave in a reasonable and appropriate manner at all times during the experience. Violations will invalidate the experience for all participants and the winner and guest will be asked to leave the dinner. Causes for termination include but are not limited to: profanity, harassment, not following instructions of assigned escort or security at event, intoxication, or other codes of conduct which are considered unreasonable.
But I'm assuming that "reasonable," "appropriate," "profanity," and "harassment" will be narrowly construed. Surely someone with Mr. Young's resume has developed a somewhat thick skin by this time, no?

Monday, April 6, 2009

Where Are South Florida's Best New Chefs?

New Times raises the question why there are no South Florida representatives among Food & Wine's Best New Chefs of 2009, and resorts to instead listing South Florida "Best Old Chefs". I ask, if you're coming up with a list of top South Florida chefs, new or old, shouldn't you maybe look more than 3 miles south of the Dade-Broward border? Is Allen Susser really the only active chef in Miami-Dade county that could conceivably make that list?* Mr. Schwartz? Ms. Bernstein? Bueller?

Actually, I asked a similar question several weeks ago when the James Beard Award semifinalists were announced and there were no South Florida nominees for "Rising Star Chef of the Year". Some potential suspects are kicked around in this Chowhound thread, but few of the names are really jumping out at me (and some aren't so new either).

When StarChefs did its South Florida edition of 2008 Rising Stars, it named Zach Bell of Cafe Boulud, Michael Bloise (then of Wish, now gone), Alberto Cabrera (formerly of Karu & Y and now M.I.A.), Clay Conley of Azul, Christopher Eagle of Cielo, Jeff McInnis of DiLido Beach Club (and Top Chef fame), David Mullen of Angle (no longer there - about a year ago I saw that he had become executive chef at Bourbon Steak, yet BS's website does not mention it), Kurtis Jantz of Neomi's / Paradigm (of which I'm a big fan, and for which chef de cuisine Chad Galiano also deserves much credit), and pastry chefs Joel Lahon of Nobu and Malka Espinel of Johnny V's.

That list is a decent start. Who else? Berenice de Araujo at Sra. Martinez? Arthur Artiles (a Van Aken disciple) at Brosia? Marc Vidal at Por Fin? Nate Martin at Andu? I've enjoyed eating at each of these places (I've never had a full dinner at Andu but I had some great hors d'oeuvres at a cocktail reception; I've eaten at Por Fin several times and would say it's good not great, though they did a fantastic spread of tapas for a recent wine tasting event). But the only one I'd really say was exceptional would be Sra. M, and then the question becomes how much credit is due to Michelle Bernstein and how much to de Araujo.

Who am I missing?

*Norman Van Aken doesn't really count in my book, since his only restaurant currently open is in Orlando, even though rumor is that he's working on a new place in Coral Gables.

Sunday, February 22, 2009

Bulldog BBQ - North Miami Beach

Howie Kleinberg is probably known to most people for his appearance on Top Chef Season 3, shot in Miami, where he was one of three local products. While Howie may be remembered best by Top Chef viewers for his abrasive manner and propensity for perspiration (given that among my talents are sweating and growing hair in inappropriate places, I can sympathize), he also seemed to cook his best when working with pork. The bulldog personality makes its appearance in the name of his new restaurant, and the affinity for pork also shows up in many items on the menu at the recently opened Bulldog BBQ.

Though the space is in an undistinguished strip mall along Biscayne Boulevard in North Miami Beach, it's actually reasonably pleasant once you step inside. It's clean and modern looking, with some red walls, simple furniture, an open kitchen with about 8 bar seats around a portion of it, and a soundtrack of guitar rock of the late '70s and early '80s that made me feel like I was back in high school. It looks like most of the 'cue items are done in a couple cabinet smokers, with ribs and chicken heated up on a grill for service and small amounts of other meats pulled throughout the night and kept warm in a steam table setup. It's not likely to please a bbq purist, but that doesn't necessarily mean it's not good eats.

On our first visit, we started with "BBQ Lettuce Wraps," which brought a pile of pulled chicken (or pork if you so choose), a pile of shredded cheese, a ramekin of scallion studded sour cream, and a few big crisp leaves of iceberg lettuce for some DIY lettuce wraps. Not the most elegant presentation, but tasty, in a slightly white-trash-y, Bennigan's kind of way. I'm not knocking it, it tasted good; Little Miss F loved it. On a return visit, I tried the cornbread-crusted oyster starter which brought three wee fried oysters, each over a little bed of diced avocado, tomato and onion, and dotted with a garlicky green aioli. The oysters were nicely crisp on the outside without being completely obliterated, and the flavors were on target, but this was an awfully dainty portion (particularly compared to some of the mammoth servings of other items). The turkey chili on the other hand was a hefty and hearty portion, with ground turkey, white beans, a layer of toasty cheddar cheese, sour cream, and crispy bits of cornbread on top (these in particular were a nice touch). Really almost a meal unto itself, I can't imagine eating a bowl of this and then moving on to a full plate of 'cue.

As for that 'cue ... a pulled pork main was decent, not stellar, very tender but a bit bland - though it perked up quite a bit when doused with some of the neon yellow mustard-y bbq sauce provided (a milder red bbq sauce is also available but this was just sweet and insipid). A hot smoked salmon was also good, distinctly but not overly smoky, and cooked nicely to a medium so that it stayed moist and tender throughout. The next time around I ordered the beef brisket, which was an outrageously humongous portion - there may have been an entire side of beef on my plate. This was not bbq brisket like I've ever had it before. Served up very wet, some of the slices had some nice deep char on the edges, but certainly no discernable smoke ring. In an interview, Howie's made clear that he's not trying to do super-traditional 'cue, and describes his brisket as "a cross between Jewish brisket and Texas brisket." An unusual goal, but I actually think he's accomplished what he set out to do. Me, I'd still probably prefer one or the other, but this still ain't all bad. Generally, though, all of the meats were somewhat bland, and it seems that if Bulldog isn't going to go hard-core on the barbecue technique, they should be working on something else to elevate the flavors some.

Mains come with coleslaw (good but unremarkable), cornbread (ditto, though the kids loved it) and a choice of one side. First time around, we went with cheddar grits and mac & cheese, and added on an order of the sweet fries. The cheddar grits were interesting, surprisingly using what I believe was whole hominy rather than ground grits, held together with a nicely gooey white cheddar. Not at all what I was expecting but I liked it quite a bit. The mac & chee was of the neon orange variety (but not out of the blue box), and used a distinctly smoky cheese which I found overpowering and somewhat redundant, what with the smoked meats and all. The sweet potato fries were OK, a bit limp (tough to avoid with sweets) but tasted fresh and well-salted.

On our second visit, we tried the "burnt end beans," which might be the most substantial side dish I've ever encountered. Containing far more than just some burnt ends (the crispy bits of brisket trimmings that don't make for great presentation but offer great flavor and texture), these beans were loaded with almost as much brisket as my plate - along with a topping of crispy fried sweet onions. It was so loaded with brisket it took me a few minutes just to find any beans, enough to possibly reach the point of overkill (somewhat ironic because I'm pretty sure I saw Howie prepping these, while I also later witnessed him riding one of the other kitchen staff for sending out over-large portions of the desserts). I brought home most of the beans and thoroughly enjoyed them reheated with a fried egg on top for breakfast.

For dessert the kids went with s'more pie and milk & cookies. The s'more pie was a dense slab of chcoolate with a graham crust, topped with a generous shmear of gooey marshmallow which gets toasted with a blowtorch. A sweet, sticky guilty pleasure, though what I believe was some shredded coconut in the pie filling was an unexpected and unnecessary addition, which also contributed a disconcerting grainy texture. Milk and cookies was just that, about a half dozen home-made cookies (chocolate chip, white chocolate chip, and butterscotch chip), which hit the spot for Little Miss F.

Beer selection was pedestrian, seems like a place that could really use even just a few carefully chosen microbrews to go with the 'cue. There are about a dozen wines, all nicely priced at under $25 / bottle.
Service was completely warm and friendly and food got out to the tables reasonably quickly on both our visits; it looked like they were doing a good job of turning the tables throughout the restaurant, impressively so for a packed house and a soft opening.

So is Bulldog BBQ going to be a barbecue mecca for the true believers of the low and slow arts? I doubt it. But while a number of the items could stand to be refined, I've still enjoyed a couple good meals there.

Bulldog BBQ
15400 Biscayne Boulevard
North Miami, FL 33160
T 305.940.9655
11am - 11pm daily

Bulldog Barbecue on Urbanspoon