Showing posts with label eat this. Show all posts
Showing posts with label eat this. Show all posts

Tuesday, January 10, 2023

The Best Things I Ate in 2022 (Round 2)

Happy New Year, all! I actually managed to post Round 1 of the Best Things I Ate in 2022 before the calendar flipped over, so that's progress over last year. This is how I intend to approach 2023: be grateful for any tiny modicum of improvement. Round 1 started in the Bay Area before making its way back to Miami, then returned west to L.A. as it wrapped up. Round 2 starts off back in Miami again at an old favorite with a new look, and makes detours to Chicago, the Pacific Northwest and Iceland before finding its way home.
Seafood Platter - Michael's Genuine
Seafood Platter - Michael's Genuine

I'll confess that Michael's Genuine had fallen off my radar for a while. But over the past year it's made its way back into the rotation, with a major remodel of the space, and new chef de cuisine Dillion Wolff (who worked his way up from line cook over several years), bringing some new energy.  My most recent meals have been some of the best I've had there in several years, highlighted by this fantastic seafood platter featuring cold, briny oysters, tender poached Florida-harvested shrimp, a ceviche of whatever is fresh with citrus and kimchi flavors, crunchy crudites, and on this visit, an especially delicious king crab tostada. MGFD, Michael Schwartz, and exec chef Bradley Herron have achieved a lot, but maybe the greatest accomplishment is keeping a restaurant fresh and relevant and true to itself over 15+ years.

kohada - Uchi Miami
Kohada Nigiri - Uchi Miami

Miami has seen an absolutely insane influx of omakase sushi options over the past few years. For a long time, unless you knew who to ask and when, it was pretty much Naoe or bust. Now, I can count over a dozen spots that, if not exclusively omakase venues, offer some variation on the theme. On one hand, this is a good thing: done well, this is one of my favorite dining experiences. On the other hand, several of these spots can seem like cynical machines designed to separate spendy customers from their money with maximum efficiency, where less attention is paid to technique and flavor than to flashy, status-y items that are often torched or sauced (or both) beyond recognition by relatively inexperienced hands. Better quality ingredients have been easier to come by as True World Foods (the primary distributor of Japanese products in the U.S., and here in Miami)[1] has facilitated access to suppliers from Tokyo's Toyosu Market. So it has become more of a question of how you handle them and what you choose to do with them.

Uchi Miami has a whole section of their sushi menu devoted to "Toyosu Selections" which can run over a dozen deep, on top of a roughly equal number of selections from the regular menu. At the sushi bar they use a judicious but creative hand in how those selections are treated, with garnishes that complement rather than overwhelm. On a June visit we ordered almost exclusively from that list, and enjoyed everything, but especially this kohada (gizzard shad), one of my favorite neta, which was given a delicate vinegar cure, sliced and twisted into an elegant braid, and topped with a daub of minced ginger and slivered scallion.

(More pics from Uchi Miami | Wynwood).

Matrimonio - Porto (Chicago)
Matrimonio - Porto (Chicago)

Tomato & Escabeche - Porto (Chicago)
Tomato & Escabeche - Porto (Chicago)

More shiny little fish! I was intrigued by Porto when we booked a reservation during a short visit to Chicago; and I was truly wowed by the whole experience, which far exceeded my expectations. The restaurant is run by a group that has about a dozen venues under its wing, which makes its particularly focused and quirky vision all the more surprising: Porto is devoted to the flavors of Portugal and Spain's Galician coast, and more specifically to both the fresh and the high-quality preserved seafoods of that region, which exec chef Marcos Campos, CDC Erwin Mallet, and even pastry chef Shannah Primiano manage to work into just about every dish.

It is a gorgeous space, with a choreographed riot of colors and patterns on nearly every surface from floors to walls to ceiling. The main dining room is dominated by a long, three-sided "chef's island," while a second dining room in back has an almost outdoor feel, anchored by a huge, active cooking hearth. The tasting menu brings about a dozen rounds: marinated mussels crowning crispy potato cubes (served on a platter fashioned from a dehydrated flatfish carcass); a duo of oysters, both cold-smoked with a sea bean escabeche, and also poached in seaweed broth, then bathed in a cava emulsion; La Brújula sea urchin conserva atop toasted brioche along with smoked cauliflower purée and creamy Sao Jorge cheese. One of my favorites bites: this "matrimonio," a spin on a traditional tapa typically featuring white and dark anchovies, here done with house-pickled white anchovies and cured brown anchovies, served atop a delicate garbanzo bean cracker laced with stripes of red piquillo pepper and green dill and garlic purées.[2] And another, this brain-teaser of a dessert of pastry chef Primiano, with tomato panna cotta, a San Simon cheese shortbread, sweet pimentón, plankton olive oil, plum and apricot jam, and a strawberry and mussel sorbet, all nestled into a crab carapace. I'm a big fan of savory desserts, and this is just about as far as I've seen that envelope pushed, in an incredibly successful way.

This was a sensational meal, and the most surprisingly great experience of the year for us.[3]

(More pics from Porto | Chicago).

Salt Roasted Beets - Lion and the Rambler (Coral Gables)
Salt Roasted Beets - Lion & the Rambler (Coral Gables)

I remember ten years ago seeing an intriguing preview menu for a spot that was opening as a pop-up in a little café space on the northern edge of Coral Gables. The spot was Giorgio Rapicavoli's Eating House, which after a lengthy run left its original home, and recently reopened in a new location on Giralda Avenue. Meanwhile, a new spot with a peculiar name and an intriguing preview menu showed up in that original location. The spot is Michael Bolen's Lion & the Rambler, where we had a really promising first visit earlier this year. The food lineup actually reminds me quite a bit of EH's early days – creative, flavorful, fun, and adventurous, but not so far out there as to alienate anyone.[4] The house-baked breads (usually two choices are offered) were a highlight, and vegetables get their due, including on our visit maitake mushrooms drowning in a pool of neon-green parsley sabayon, and grilled broccolini under a blanket of mimolette fondue with nubbins of pickled kohlrabi. I was especially fond of these salt roasted beets, cubed and paired with ripe black velvet apricots,[5] crumbled pistachios and a frothy mousse of horseradish-spiked goat cheese.[6] Yeah, beets and goat cheese. It still works.

Chopped Aji Nigiri - Mr. Omakase
Chopped Aji Nigiri - Mr. Omakase (Miami)

To continue a theme here: way back in 2015, I was bemoaning the absence of good omakase options in Miami, while describing my first visit to Myumi, a food truck that set up shop in a vacant lot in Wynwood. Myumi offered a 12-course, $60 omakase served by chef Ryo Kato,[7] which you would eat piece by piece perched on a stool at a counter running along the truck's open side window. It was surprisingly good, and by the following year, the nigiri of chopped aji (horse mackerel) Chef Kato served at Myumi was one my favorite dishes of 2016.

Flash forward to 2022, and Ryo is now running Mr. Omakase, a sushi counter downtown which offers three different "experiences" ranging from $89 - $149 for between 10 and 18 courses. We went with "the works," and given the going rates these days, it is also one of the better omakase price-to-value ratios available in the Miami market. My favorite bite? That same nigiri of aji chopped with ginger and scallion to a fine tartare, and topped with toasted sesame seeds.

(continued ...)

Thursday, December 29, 2022

The Best Things I Ate in 2022 (Round 1)

Hang on a minute, folks, just need to dust this off a little bit, maybe move some things around, look under this pile over here ... there it is! Found it. My blog. Hasn't seen any action in about half a year, but seems like it still works. Let's take this thing out for a drive.

It's an annual tradition here at FFT to recap the best things I ate over the past year, even if sometimes it doesn't get posted until months after the calendar flips over. So this year's is actually somewhat ahead of schedule by my standards! For many – for us, anyway – 2022 marked something of a return to normal, or at least a "new normal," after a couple very strange years. It certainly marked a return to recreational travel, as we tried to make up for lost time with visits to the Bay Area, Southern California, Chicago, Seattle, Oregon, and Iceland (!!!) over the course of the year. As a result, my 2022 list skews more heavily toward out-of-town places than South Florida – a disparity which is ironic, given that it has been a year of pretty exciting debuts for Miami restaurants. I constantly keep a "to-do" list of local restaurants I intend to visit, and it is as long as it has ever been.[1]

I'll try to rectify that balance in the coming year; in the meantime, here's a look back at a year's worth of good eating in 2022:

Angler Private Batch Caviar
Angler Private Batch Caviar & Banana Pancakes - Angler (SF)

Soft Serve Sundae - Angler
Soft Serve Sundae - Angler (SF)

Our first trip of 2022 was to the Bay Area, kicked off by a visit the night of our anniversary to Angler in San Francisco. With so many places to try in the city, it's unusual for us to keep going back to the same spot. But Angler makes me really, really happy. Fantastic ingredients, treated thoughtfully, with a simplicity of presentation that belies the care and labor that goes into their preparation, usually involving some form of exposure to smoke or fire. It's a tasting menu kind of experience in an a la carte package (albeit with prices that skew more toward the former than the latter). This was my first time getting the "Angler Private Batch" caviar, which they source and process on their own, and which proves to be entirely worth the effort. If the accompanying banana pancakes are too weird for you (they're great, but I get it), then I highly recommend getting an order of the Parker House rolls as an alternative. I highly recommend doing so regardless, actually. And I can't visit Angler without ordering the soft serve sundae, with embered caramel and cacao nibs, a very grown-up version of a McDonald's classic.

(More pics from Angler | San Francisco).

Celery Salad - Day Trip
Celery Salad - DayTrip

Thai Chili Dungeness Crab - Day Trip
Thai Chili Dungeness Crab - DayTrip

We met up with Frod Jr. the following evening at DayTrip in Oakland, which completely won me over. Flavor-forward, interesting, shareable dishes, an adventurous in-house fermentation program, lots of tasty natural wines, an anarchic, playful attitude, and a real spirit of genuine hospitality. It was somehow not a big surprise to make a cross-country connection that wine director Jenny Eagleton was a friend of Bianca Sanon, the wine maven at North Miami's Paradis. Small world.

This celery salad doesn't look like much but bursts with flavor: the stalks thinly sliced, doused in a dressing redolent with lemon verbena oil, bright green with chlorophyll, spicy with habanero, and then showered with shavings of funky Sardinian sheep's cheese. If I may make a weird analogy: not that anything about this dish tastes Thai in any way, but it does the same thing that great Thai cooking does by going in a bunch of directions at once (with Thai, sweet / sour / salty / spicy – here, grassy / lemony / spicy / funky) while still feeling like a unified dish. On the other hand: this Dungeness crab did actually venture into Thai territory, doused in chili garlic sauce, and a melting puddle of good butter spiked with fish sauce. I was still enjoying it long after the rest of the family grew weary of watching me pick at the shells.

(More pics from DayTrip | Oakland).

The Whole Crab - Harbor House Inn
The Whole Crab - Harbor House Inn

Fort Bragg Sea Urchin - Harbor House Inn
Fort Bragg Sea Urchin - Harbor House Inn (Elk, CA)

We'd spent time along California's Mendonoma Coast before, but this was our first visit to Harbor House Inn in Elk – about three hours due north of San Francisco, about a half hour shy of Mendocino. I know they "only" have two Michelin stars, but this place is "worth a special journey" in every sense. We stayed two nights, had an in-room dinner one night (and excellent breakfast) before doing the tasting menu in the restaurant the following night, and I did not want to ever leave. Chef Matthew Kammerer and crew do magical, wonderful things with the local bounty – mostly seafood, seaweeds, and vegetables grown and foraged on-site and nearby. It is one of the most beautiful meals, in one of the most beautiful places, I've experienced.[2]

Two highlights here: first, "The Whole Crab," a Dungeness crab offered up three different ways: (1) a mound of sweet, salty, tender picked lumb crabmeat dressed with a tangy gelée and allium flowers; (2) the crab's legs, rubbed with a fava bean miso; and (3) maybe most evocative, a broth made from the crab carcasses, an incredibly pure and powerful essence of the ocean. And second, sweet lobes of sea urchin (sourced from just up the coast in Fort Bragg) draped over custardy koji toast, nestled in a pool of a tart, rich ume sabayon. This is a version of a dish that I'd had years ago, the sea urchin toast at Saison, where Kammerer was exec sous chef for several years before opening Harbor House. Maybe it's just a matter of being closer to the source, but this improves on perfection.

(More pics from Harbor House Inn and Elk, CA).

Hotaru Ika - Itamae
Hotaru Ika - Itamae (Miami Design District)

Torta Helada - Itamae
Torta Helada - Itamae (Miami Design District)

Back home, I found myself scoring a solo seat at the counter of Itamae while Mrs. F was out of town. I said last year that every meal with the "Chang Gang" has been better than the last, and that trend continues. A couple items in particular stand out: a plate of hotaru ika (tiny, tender firefly squid, a spring seasonal specialty in Japan) served tiradito-style in a bath of squid ink, urfa biber pepper, and swirls of green chive oil; and a sensational dessert from Maria Gallina (who, alas, has since moved on) which used a traditional torta helada as a starting point for a composition that featured some of my favorite locally grown-tropical fruits: a floofy[3] canistel mousse, topped with a gooseberry gelée veil and anchored by a sponge cake soaking in mamey pit infused milk, giving that same intriguing whiff of noyeaux / almond extract as you get from crushed peach or cherry pits.[4]

(continued ...)

Saturday, April 16, 2022

The Best Things I Ate in 2021 (Round 2)

I know, I know. It's already April. "What are you doing posting a 'Best of 2021' list now?" Look: time is just a social construct. Stay up late. Eat breakfast for dinner. Publish your "year in review" posts in April. It's all fine.

After more than a year of being homebound, we finally began traveling again last summer, so this list does venture outside of South Florida. But my primary purpose in doing these posts is to highlight the interesting things happening in the Miami dining world of late. Because if we're not going to toot our own horns, who else is going to do it for us?[1] There's a mix here of some old favorites and some new additions; not an attempt at a comprehensive survey, since I don't get around much any more lately, but rather just a set of personal preferences and predilictions. (If you missed it, here's Part 1.)

passionfruit tiramisu - Lil Deb's Oasis (Hudson, NY)

You know what else is fine? This passionfruit tiramisu we had at Lil Deb's Oasis in Hudson, New York. In July 2021, we did our first traveling in over a year. And as if to show just how out of practice I was, I forgot to bring my real camera, meaning I had to rely entirely on my iPhone for the whole trip. So forgive the wonky colors here, which, in my defense, are largely due to the magenta disco lights that adorn the bar at Lil Deb's. What an absolutely delightful place: friendly and welcoming to everyone (their unofficial slogan – "If U Gay, Perfect" – was coopted from a homophobic Yelp review), with a relaxed but energized house party feel that is a model for how hospitality can be done well in these weird times. And some really delicious, sometimes a bit wacky, food. I loved everything – the oddly compelling cabbage salad over crushed avocado with little crispy bits on top, the fermented lentil dosa with wild mushrooms, the lamb skewers with salsa verde and a dusting of cacao – but especially this fluffy, tangy passionfruit tiramisu enrobed in ginger-y mascarpone and topped with crunchy buckwheat.

cornmeal buttermilk pancake - West Taghkanic Diner (Hudson, NY)

The Hudson Valley is also home to the West Taghkanic Diner, which Kristopher Schram took over after spending years at some of Copenhagen's top restaurants (Relae, Manfreds, Bæst). You'd never guess the chef's pedigree from a look at the place, which remains a faithfully preserved mid-century diner. And the menu doesn't hint at much either. But everything is pretty outrageously delicious: the WTD hash of house-smoked pastrami and bacon burnt ends topped with fried eggs and pickled onions, the avocado toast with fresh cheese and toasted seeds. That "under-promise, over-deliver" ethos is embodied in a simple cornmeal pancake – fluffy as a pillow, crowned with a generous pat of good salted butter melting into crisp, browned little crags and gullies on the surface.

warm crab pimento cheese dip - The Maker Café (Hudson, NY)

The Maker is a posh, restored hotel right on Warren Street, Hudson's main drag. In their downstairs café, we had a few things that were perfectly OK, but one dish that I keep thinking about is this plate of warmed, melty pimento cheese dip, generously studded with sweet, tender crabmeat. I'm not saying this is on par with the "discovery of a star," as Brillat-Savarin would put it; I'm just saying it really hit the spot.

Butcher's Feast - Cote (Miami Design District)

Back home, we finally made our way to one of the many new imports from N.Y. that opened in Miami over the past year: Cote. As one who cheers for the hometown teams, I admit to having an inherent bias against all out-of-towners. But Cote overcame my skepticism. The concept behind Cote is to merge the sensibilities of Korean barbecue with a classic American steakhouse. The execution is even greater than the sum of the parts. The space is a looker, with a magenta-lit alien-spaceship entranceway a la early Alinea, a circular bar that draws you like a magnet, gold-rimmed ceramic charcoal grills at every table, and some sort of turbocharged ventilation system that keeps everything from getting smoky. The service is dialed in like a Swiss watch, somehow omnipresent and unnoticeable at the same time, with someone always ready to turn something on the grill, check on your drinks, or replenish your banchan. And the "Butcher's Feast" ($58 per person when we were there, now up to $64 but still a solid value) is a pretty perfect meal: a nice assortment of banchan, a shredded scallion salad in gochujang vinaigrette that you will compulsively eat without regard for your breath afterwards, four different cuts of prime and American wagyu beef, two different stews, a puffy egg souffle, and soft serve with soy sauce caramel for dessert. This place is doing everything right.


Sunday, April 10, 2022

The Best Things I Ate in 2021 (Round 1)


The last post here was December 2020 when, with very mixed emotions, I continued the annual tradition of recapping the best things I ate over the past year. The exercise felt more than a bit frivolous in light of everything we'd gone through in 2020. And yet it also seemed important to recognize the contributions of those who helped make the year a little more bearable by feeding us and bringing us moments of joy, togetherness and satisfaction. In my lifetime, anyway, there had never been a more difficult time to run a restaurant, and I'm incredibly grateful to all who continued despite the mind-boggling challenges of navigating their way through it all.

Here we are again, another year gone by. Well, actually, another year and then some, since my calendar is telling me it's already April. And as strange as it sounds to say, 2021 was an incredibly active year for the Miami restaurant universe. There was a tidal wave of new openings from some of the city's most talented local chefs: Niven Patel opened Orno, Michael Beltran reopened Chug's as a full-scale sit-down diner, Sam Gorenstein opened Abbalé Telavivian Kitchen, José Mendin opened Casa Isola with Santo Agnello in the kitchen of the original Pubbelly space, Scott Linquist opened Serena and Como Como. (Let me pause to take a breath). Giorgio Rapicavoli opened Luca Osteria, Steve Santana opened Off Site, Henry Hane opened Jatto in the old Alter space, Pablo Zitzmann opened Zitz Sum. And there was another foreign invasion, with Major Food Group (the folks behind Carbone, Sadelle's, ZZ's, and HaSalon) seemingly taking over every space not already commandeered by Miami's Groot Hospitality (Swan, Strawberry Moon, Papi Steak, Sushi Fly Chicken).

That list of new openings is far from comprehensive. And ... um ... I've been to almost none of them. If you're looking for what's new and hot, you won't find it here, especially since I'm only now, four months into 2022, getting around to this post. But a little perspective can be a good thing. And speaking of perspective, a reminder that this is just my own personal, idiosyncratic compilation of the dishes that made me happy over the past year: the places that serve the kind of food I like to eat, that do things right. So here' s a recap of my favorites from 2021, and a look back on another weird year.

Pork Offal Congee - Mama Tofu Street Food
Pork Offal Congee - Mama Tofu Street Food (Davie)

For me, anyway, it simultaneously seems like forever and no time at all since those year-end 2020 posts, with most of 2021 feeling like another round in limbo. Despite my passion for the restaurant world,  I was very slow to make my way back. On March 11, 2020 I had dinner at Balloo (now gone and still sorely missed, though I hear great things about Timon's new spot The Katherine in Fort Lauderdale). It would be the last meal I ate at a restaurant – indoors or out – in 2020. In early January 2021, after getting vaccinated, I marked my return to restaurant dining with a visit to Mama Tofu Street Food in Davie. After contorting myself into one of their authentically Vietnamese street food style knee-height outdoor tables with footstools for seats, I settled into a warming, soothing bowl of pork offal congee, loaded with every part of the pig you can imagine. It was nice to be back.

Broward County's dining options are often looked down upon by Miamians (and sometimes by its own residents), but that's because folks are ignoring places like Mama Tofu, which serves a really curious and delicious assortment of Vietnamese street foods, many tofu-based as the name suggests but also lots of seafood and snail dishes lately. And just in this one shopping mall – centered around the Foodtown international supermarket, which is an experience in itself – there are a bunch more places worth checking out, like 545 Banh Mi CafePho 79, and the Hong Kong style Tasty Cafe.

Simit Sandwich - Mr. Mandolin
Simit Sandwich - Mr. Mandolin (MiMo District)

We were still doing mostly takeout in early 2021, though, and Mr. Mandolin was a nice new addition to the roster when the folks from long-time Miami favorite Mandolin Aegean Bistro took over the restaurant space in the Vagabond Hotel on Biscayne Boulevard. The menu, crafted with the guidance of chef Roel Alcudia (who moved on to the Groot empire and now has headed back up to New York to work with Jonathan Waxman) is mostly a straightforward collection of kebabs and wraps and the like, but everything is well done, fresh and flavorful. I am especially a fan of this simit sandwich, which uses a delightfully crispy/chewy, sesame seed studded chickpea flour ring as the base for sucuk (a dried sausage), kefalograviera (a nutty, melty Greek cheese), arugula and sliced tomatoes.

Parker House Rolls - Sonny's Someday Steakhouse
Parker House Rolls - Sunny's Someday Steakhouse (Little River)

Mackerel Crudo - Sonny's Someday Steakhouse
Mackerel Crudo - Sunny's Someday Steakhouse (Little River)

"Sunny's Someday Steakhouse" may be one of the all-time greatest Miami pandemic pivots. The folks from Jaguar Sun, a cozy cocktail bar downtown by barman Will Thompson and chef Carey Hynes, took over the "Lot 6" space in Little River. In the spacious outdoor venue with picnic tables under a sprawling banyan tree, and cooking entirely from an outdoor kitchen, they created a sort of reinvented steakhouse which was one of my favorite experiences of last year. Pitch-perfect cocktails, friendly and gracious service, and really excellent food. Yes, the steaks were great, but what I dream about are these fluffy Parker House rolls, which are a must-order on any visit. Another favorite: this crudo of spanking-fresh mackerel served in watermelon water with burnt serrano relish topped with basil leaves. After a hiatus, Sunny's is back at Little River (now going by the moniker "Sunny's Soonish Steakhouse," hinting at more developments coming soon) and on a recent visit was even better than ever.


Sunday, December 27, 2020

The Best Things I Ate in 2020 (Bonus Round)

I originally thought I was going to keep this year's list of The Best Things I Ate in 2020 to 36 dishes over three posts (Part 1, Part 2 and Part 3) – enough is enough already, right? Can't we just be done with 2020? But in going back through my pictures, I realized that there were too many things I'd omitted that had brought me some happiness over the past doozy of a year. And the last thing we need to be doing right now is rationing happiness. So here's a Bonus Round of some old favorites and newcomers that have made this year a little better.

Takeout from Mignonette (Edgewater)
Takeout from Mignonette (Edgewater)

One of our favorite pre-pandemic "Happy Meals" would be to secure a perch at the counter at Mignonette, order a seafood tower, maybe a couple other things, and a bottle of something crisp and white. Those are the moments I miss, maybe even more than a long fancy tasting menu. So we'd sometimes do our best to recreate it at home: there were no freshly shucked oysters, but we could still bring home lobster deviled eggs, shrimp cocktail, and smoked fish dip, the fantastic Boston lettuce salad with buttermilk dressing, and maybe a conch po'boy. Mignonette's reopened for dinner service and is still doing takeout with online ordering. Save me a spot at the counter. (All my pictures from Mignonette).

It's Brisket B*tch Croissant - Flour & Weirdoughs (Key Biscayne)
It's Brisket B*tch Croissant - Flour & Weirdoughs (Key Biscayne)

You probably have to be at least a little bit crazy to get into the restaurant business. You are probably more than a little bit crazy to do it in the middle of a pandemic. But that's exactly when Flour & Weirdoughs opened their Key Biscayne bakery, where they make everything from organic flour all milled in-house. They do some delightful breads, including some unorthodox things like their Cacio e Pepe sourdough with pecorino cheese and black pepper or the special Chicharron Loaf studded with bits of crispy pork belly. But I was especially wowed by their croissants – not just because this particular version (the "It's Brisket B*tch") comes filled with smoked Montreal-style brisket, provolone cheese and grainy mustard – but because they were beautifully laminated, all golden-brown and flaky, leaving a mess of pastry shards in your lap when you're done, as a proper croissant should. (All my pictures from Flour & Weirdoughs).

Dumplings from Li's Dim Sum
Dumplings from Li's Dim Sum

Raymond Li made his imprint as executive chef at Palmar in Wynwood before jumping to El Cielo just a few months before COVID came along. So with the shutdown, he turned his attention to Li's Dim Sum, a father and son project with Ray Sr. Their dumplings are delicate, silky and flavorful, like these pork dumplings redolent of five-spice, and these vegan trumpet mushroom and watercress versions. Li's Dim Sum is available for pickup or delivery via their website. 


Saturday, December 26, 2020

The Best Things I Ate in 2020 (Part 3)

2020 may have been a generally lousy year, but we still ate well. Part 1 and Part 2 of The Best Things I Ate in 2020 are already up; here's Part 3. 

Avocado Tuna Bhel Puri - Ghee (Design District)
Avocado Tuna Bhel Puri - Ghee (Design District)

One small thing that did not suck about 2020 was that as a result of the COVID restrictions, one of my favorite local restaurants, Niven Patel's Ghee, began doing takeout. Alas, in August Niven closed the Design District location, though the original in Downtown Dadeland remains open and he's now opened Mamey in Coral Gables. In late July, we were happy to secure one last order of the wonderful avocado tuna bhel puri, an inspired dish that brings creamy avocado and glistening ruby cubes of raw tuna to the traditional chaat of puffed rice, sev and spices. (All my pictures from Ghee).

Tropical BBQ pop-up at All Day
Tropical BBQ pop-up at All Day

If you're a long-time reader, you know that one of my all-time favorite Miami restaurants was Kris Wessel's Red Light, a wonderful, inspired, unpredictable spot in what was originally the Gold Dust Motel on Biscayne Boulevard.[1] So when I saw that Kris was doing a pop-up tasting-menu dinner at All Day, and that they were offering it for takeout as well, I jumped on it. It brought back memories of Red Light,[2]] featuring all sorts of local flavors with the occasional Creole twist: yellowtail, smoked and cured, with cassava chips and pickled okra; a delicate tart of coconut butter poached blue crab; conch stuffed chayote with a creole pepper stew; tilefish with a sour orange glaze, boniato and calalloo; duck with a sapodilla glaze and a calabaza cashew hash. Rather than a single dish, it was the sum total of it all that made it so memorable. (All my pictures from the Tropical BBQ Pop-Up).

Isaan Rotisserie Chicken - Lil Laos
Rotisserie Chicken - Lil' Laos

I feel like I've been chasing Lil' Laos around Miami all year. The Laotian pop-up from partners Sakhone Sayareth and Curtis Rhodes (who had previously been chef at Café Roval, River Oyster Bar and Oak Tavern) was at Sixty10 in Little Haiti for a little while; then they did a residency at Fooq's downtown; now they've  found a more permanent home at The Citadel food hall. Wherever they've been, the food has been excellent. Laotian cuisine bears lots of similarities to Thai cuisine, but the spice and flavor profiles are different in ways I can taste but have trouble nailing down. In any event: Lil' Laos stuff is delicious, especially the charcoal roasted rotisserie chicken, served with papaya salad, sticky rice, and a delicate, soothing tinola soup (which I thought was Filipino, but whatever). (All my pictures from Lil' Laos).


Thursday, December 24, 2020

The Best Things I Ate in 2020 (Part 2)

My last post, Part 1 of The Best Things I Ate in 2020, began in a blissful time before a virus turned the world upside and vigorously shook it. Restaurant meals! Tasting menus! Travel! Things I always appreciated, but also kind of took for granted. Not any more. It's been a crazy, brutal year. In the restaurant world, there have been some unfortunate losses along the way, but I've actually been surprised and gratified by how many places have somehow been able to weather this long, extended storm. Part 2 of this list picks up in the early phases of the pandemic, when shutdown orders limited all restaurants to takeout and delivery only. 

pork chops and polenta
pork chops and polenta @ home

With restaurants basically shut down, we found ourselves doing a lot more cooking at home. We also found ourselves with the opportunity to work with much better product than we were accustomed to, despite the shutdown. Restaurants started selling staples and straight-from-the-farm produce, restaurant suppliers started selling direct to individual customers, shops like Proper Sausages starting offering delivery options. The end result? A home-cooked dinner that takes a village: porchetta-spiced Proper pork chops rubbed with fennel, rosemary, garlic and lemon and dusted with fennel pollen, Moretti polenta from the Boia De larder cooked in mushroom broth, locally grown Paradise Farms oyster mushrooms via the All Day grocery, brined local tomatoes from Chef Jeremiah. I don't know that my cooking skills got any better, but the materials I could work with sure did.

Midday Snack - El Bagel
Midday Snack - El Bagel (Upper Eastside)

After a very successful run of selling their excellent, chewy, crusty bagels at pop-ups and from a food truck for years, El Bagel took the big step of graduating to a brick and mortar location in the MiMo District – opening in early March, just in time for the shutdown. Rotten luck, but they executed their pivot quickly and effectively. They're now open Thursday through Monday from 8am to noon for takeout only, with all ordering done online and pickup times given via text notice. Between the easy ordering and geographical proximity, this has worked out incredibly conveniently for me: over the past nine months, my receipts indicate that Family Frod has consumed nearly twenty dozen El Bagel bagels.[1] I usually just get a dozen plus some cream cheeses and lox, but occasionally I'll get one of their prepared sandwiches. My current favorite is this "Midday Snack," with lox cream cheese, thinly sliced ringlets of red onion, and chives, served open-faced as God intended, and best with an addition of smoked trout roe when available. (All my pictures from El Bagel).

pastrami sandwich - Hometown Barbecue
pastrami sandwich - Hometown Barbecue (Allapattah)

I didn't need a pandemic to remind me how much I love sandwiches – I actually wrote on the subject late last year for Edible South Florida – but 2020 did turn out to be pretty sandwich-intensive. One of my favorites was this simple, perfect pastrami sandwich from Hometown Barbecue, which opened in Allapattah last fall. Don't try to trace the spiral path of a pastrami sandwich served at a Texas-style BBQ spot opened in a wholesale produce distribution center in Miami by a Brooklyn restaurateur. Just enjoy. (All my pictures from Hometown Barbecue).


Tuesday, December 22, 2020

The Best Things I Ate in 2020 (Part 1)


Every December when I do these "year in review" posts, I conclude with something my grandfather used to say: "Always better, never worse." Sorry, grandpa, but it didn't work this time. 2020 sucked. It's been a miserable year, for people who have lost their family members and friends, their health, their jobs, their businesses, their sense of security, their ability to enjoy companionship and community. It's been a year that's also brought into painful focus how race and class lead to fundamentally different experiences and outcomes in our country, and how hatred and intolerance are still alive and well. 2020 was worse, not better, in just about every way.

So it feels more than a little bit frivolous to be posting one of these "Best of 2020" posts in a year like this. And yet, if there's one thing we can all do right now, it's to support those people and businesses that we care about. The restaurant world I focus on here has had a particularly hard year, repeatedly whipsawed back and forth by closures and rule changes while getting little in the way of leadership or support from government at any level.[1] The industry is a challenging one in the best of circumstances; over the past year, mere survival seems to me an incredible achievement. I've always admired the dedication, resiliency, resourcefulness and creativity of those who've devoted themselves to this craft, but especially now, as so many struggle to balance the safety and security of their teams, the comfort and experience of their customers, and the sustainability of their businesses.

So as weird as it may seem in this disaster of a year, it's also gratifying to be able to celebrate the work of those that amidst it all have provided so many of us some moments of joy. Here is the first of three installments of The Best Things I Ate in 2020.

Million Dollar Salad - Navé
Million Dollar Salad - Navé (Coconut Grove)

One of my favorite new restaurants of late 2019 was Navé, the Italian seafood themed next-door neighbor to Michael Beltran's Ariete which he opened with Justin Flit. Navé quickly became a regular multipurpose spot, good for a quick bite at the bar, a date night, or a get-together with friends. There were a lot of things I liked: the seafood towers, the snapper milanese, the pasta with bottarga, uni and cultured butter. But the one must-order every time I was there was the simple but pitch-perfect "Million Dollar Salad" with crisp, bright gem lettuce, fresh herbs, and a Sicilian pistachio vinaigrette. I'm thrilled that after going into pandemic hibernation, then periodically resurfacing for some "Navé Seafood Shack" pop-ups, Navé reopened earlier this month. (All my pictures from Navé).

ankimo - The Den at Azabu
Ankimo - The Den at Azabu (Miami Beach)

In the early part of the year, pre-shutdown, I had a couple very happy omakase sessions at The Den at Azabu – a solo visit in late January, and then a follow-up shortly after with a jealous Mrs. F. My first round was with chef Shingo Akikuni behind the counter; round two was with chef Yasu Tanaka. Both meals were outstanding. Maybe my favorite bite among many was this ankimo (monkfish liver): lush, silky, and fully deserving of its nickname as the "foie gras of the sea." The Den has reopened for dining and is also doing a take-out omakase (which makes an appearance later in this list) if, like me, you're not yet doing dine-in. And I'm excited to hear that Chef Akikuni is now at Hiden in Wynwood, which recently reopened and is also doing a take-out omakase for two. (All my pictures from The Den at Azabu).

wagyu beef tartare - Eating House
Wagyu Beef Tartare - Eating House (Coral Gables)

It had been a minute since I'd last paid a visit to Giorgio Rapicavoli's Eating House in Coral Gables. But it felt like old times when I stopped by in February, taking a seat at the front bar counter, munching Sazon-spiced popcorn with an NBA game on the TV while waiting for my order, and eating tasty fun dishes like this wagyu beef tartare with shio koji, shallots, braised and pickled carrots, and lime zest, every bite bouncing with umami, depth, freshness and acidity. (All my pictures from Eating House).


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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Thursday, December 26, 2019

favorite dishes of 2019: miami version

More lists! I already spilled nearly 5,000 words in my last post recounting the decade of dining in Miami. I'll try not to do that for another ten years. But this one is an annual tradition: the best things I ate over the past year. I've always made clear that this in no way purports to be any sort of definitive "best of" type of list, but is based solely on my own personal experiences and as a result is heavily influenced by my own preferences and proclivities.[1] Something new for 2019: rather than throw them all in a bucket together,[2] I've made one list of the best things I ate in Miami, and another for the best things I ate everywhere else. These appear in chronological order.

unagi shirayaki - Hiden
For a while, Miami was behind the curve on the trend of high-end, omakase-only sushi dens that have overtaken New York, Los Angeles and San Francisco. We're catching up with places like Hiden, which opened in mid-2018 but which I didn't manage to book until January of this year. Hiden is an intimate eight-seat sushi counter hidden away in a private room in the back of the Taco Stand in Wynwood, serving a chef's choice menu of about a dozen courses of sushi and other raw and cooked things for, as of press time, $170 before tax and tip. It was excellent when I visited with chef Tadashi Shiraishi running the show, but he left in a split with ownership the following month and I've not been back. My favorite bite among many very good ones was this unagi shirayaki (grilled freshwater eel), seasoned only with salt and a dab of fresh wasabi rather than the typical sweet tare.

(See all my pictures in this Hiden flickr set).

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Saturday, December 21, 2019

Cobaya Amarilla with Chefs Santiago Gomez and Carlos Garcia

One of our goals with the Cobaya dinner group is to provide an alternative to the typical restaurant experience, but even so, most of the time we're doing it within restaurants. We're usually working with restaurant chefs, they've already got their space and equipment and crew, and it's a whole lot easier for everyone. But some of our most interesting experiences come when we get out of the restaurants, despite – or maybe in part because of – the challenges and constraints.

Santiago Gomez is the chef of high-end Mexican spot Cantina la Veinte in Brickell and its fast casual sibling, Tacology. Carlos Garcia – who hosted us earlier this year for Cobaya Experiment #77 – is the chef of Obra, and one of Venezuela's top chefs. When they're not in their restaurants, they like to host private dinners together at Gomez's home - "La Casa Amarilla." (And on top of that, Gomez and his wife Camila Basmagi started a non-profit called "Recipes for Change" which organizes cooking events, workshops and fundraisers to help feed at-risk communities - more on that below).

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Saturday, November 30, 2019

Cobaya Arson with Deme Lomas

Almost exactly four years ago, we did a Cobaya dinner with Chef Deme Lomas at Niu Kitchen, the small, Catalan inspired restaurant he opened with Karina Iglesias and Adam Hughes in 2014. Since that time, as Niu has continued to thrive, the team opened up Arson right down the block, a restaurant dedicated to cooking with live fire. We figured it was time for another round with Deme, and brought forty guinea pigs to Arson earlier this month.

(You can see all my pictures in this Cobaya Arson with Deme Lomas flickr set).

It was another great experience – interesting, delicious food all touched by the flames, with equally interesting, exciting wines supplied by Arson and Niu's wine director, GM and ringmaster, Karina Iglesias. Here's what we had:

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Monday, November 25, 2019

some thoughts on growing a Beard (Award)

There's been some griping from some quarters – OK, from me, among others – about how Miami has been under-represented in the annual ritual of bestowing James Beard Awards. On one hand, maybe it's silly to pay any attention at all – that argument's been made pretty eloquently very recently by Ghee's Niven Patel, who always has such a good perspective on such things. But the reality is that most chefs like to be recognized for their hard work, and a Beard Award happens to be one recognition that is still regarded as valuable currency by many in the industry and in the dining public.

Much can be questioned about the Beard Awards: that the voting process, standards, and accountability remain rather opaque, that some of the regional categories tend to disproportionately favor certain cities,[1] that the awards tend to go to chefs who have been around the block a few times over fresh new talent, and have historically been predominantly white and male. But that's not my purpose here, and I'll acknowledge that the Foundation has been taking steps to try to address all those issues.

Rather, my purpose is to consider what we, as South Florida diners, can do about it. And here's a simple thing: submit a nomination form. The link is right here – James Beard Foundation - The 2020 James Beard Awards – and anyone can create an account and submit a nomination, up until December 2.

Now, let me immediately make clear that I am not suggesting any sort of balloting campaign for anyone in particular. The awards are not popularity contests and the number of nominations submitted has nothing to do with whether someone is selected. Rather, what I'm suggesting is that if there is someplace or someone that you think is deserving of recognition, you should create an account, make your submission, and maybe most important, explain why you're doing so (each submission has a box for "Why are you recommending this chef/restaurant?").

I do think these are very good times for Miami dining, and that there are many people doing great things who deserve recognition for it. And I'm concerned that one of the reasons that's not as well seen from the national perspective is that there isn't a robust enough discussion of what's happening here. So FWIW, here are my nominations (which will be submitted to the Beard Foundation without pictures, those are just for your entertainment):

Best Chef South

Niven Patel (Ghee, Erba)

Niven Patel’s Ghee is not just a “great Indian restaurant.” It’s not just a “great Miami restaurant.” It’s a GREAT RESTAURANT. Period. If there is one place in Miami that I think would stand out in any city in the U.S., this is it. But at the same time, part of what makes Ghee so special is how closely it’s tied to South Florida - all the way down to sourcing a significant portion of the menu from Niven’s family’s backyard farm in Homestead.

Traditional Indian dishes like bhel puri, pakora, chicken tikka masala and saag paneer serve as inspiration but not a straitjacket, because the menu is equally inspired by South Florida’s local products – the bhel puri is topped with fresh local wahoo, the pakoras feature calabaza or taro leaf Niven grows himself, the tikka masala is enriched with local heirloom tomatoes, the saag paneer uses backyard kale. In season, a whole section of the menu is devoted to “Rancho Patel” local fruits and vegetables. Niven’s taken the farm-to-table ethos of his former alma mater, Michael’s Genuine Food & Drink (where he was Chef de Cuisine for 3 years from 2013-2016 under Best Chef South 2010 winner Michael Schwartz) to a new level and introduced it to the vibrant, deep flavors of Indian cuisine. I love the bright flavors, fresh products, and how the menu is always in constant motion, in sync with the seasons.

The three-course family-style tasting menu (which features an assortment of dishes for each “course”) is one of the best $55 meals you will find anywhere. There is not a person I’ve recommended Ghee to or taken there that hasn’t left happy.

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Monday, January 21, 2019

best dishes of 2018 - part 3

herbed tostada - Willows Inn
We're already a few weeks deep into 2019, but I'm still writing 2018 on my blog posts. Here's the last round of my personal "best dishes of 2018," which starts at one of my favorite places on earth, then spends the rest of its time back here in sunny South Florida. You can read Part 1 and Part 2 here. Happy New Year, all!

smoked black cod doughnuts - Willows Inn
smoked sockeye salmon - Willows Inn
heirloom wheat bread, crab brain - Willows Inn
fruits and their leaves and kernels - Willows Inn
In late summer we made our third pilgrimage to Blaine Wetzel's Willows Inn on Lummi Island, a tiny speck on the map among the San Juan Islands off the coast of Washington State. Our first visit was almost exactly five years earlier, in 2013, and we fell in love – not just with the restaurant, which is wonderful, but with the idyllic, tranquil island itself. This latest meal was our best yet at Willows. (More pictures, of dinner and also of Lummi Island, in this Willows Inn flickr set).

It's unusual for a restaurant to have multiple "signature" dishes, but several from Willows Inn could easily be called that: the "tostada" crafted from a tempura-fried mustard leaf, smeared with an oyster and herb emulsion and festooned with everything fresh and blooming from the garden, a different burst of flavor in every bite; the puffy donuts stuffed with smoked black cod, sprinkled with sea salt and dried seaweed; the perfect smoked salmon, about which I said five years ago: "You realize: this is the best salmon you are ever going to eat in your life." I didn't consider at the time: you can always go back. This time was just maybe even better.

The other dishes pictured here reflect how Wetzel so effectively captures place and time, location and season. During our first two visits, a hearty bread course was one of the highlights, in large part because it came with a ramekin of rich, sticky chicken drippings for dipping. This time, instead of chicken drippings, there was a crab carapace – from nearby waters, of course[1] – filled with bits of warm crabmeat covered in a thick blanket of creamy crab brains, with an intense but clean and pure taste of the sea. Frod Jr. told me months later he was still thinking about how good this was. Yup. Dessert was pretty magical too: an assortment of fruits captured at their peak of ripeness, paired up with something else from the same fruit: peaches and blackberries with ices made from their leaves, plums in a syrup of their kernels, obscenely fresh figs right off the tree with a fig leaf cream.

When I win the lottery – or maybe even if I don't – this is where you'll find me one day.

lobster thermidor - The Surf Club Restaurant
I might have ruffled a few feathers when I said in Eater that the biggest dining surprise of 2018 was how boring the menu was at The Surf Club Restaurant:

The space is gorgeous, the service is outstanding, the execution is precise, but the choices are just ... so ... dull. I get the whole “throwback” theme, and it provides some highlights (the Oysters Rockefeller are second only to Galatoire’s IMO, and I thought the Lobster Thermidor was great), and I like going there. But when I heard we were getting a Thomas Keller restaurant, and when he brought in a creative, talented chef like Manuel Echeverri, who was doing great things at Bazaar Mar, to run the kitchen – well, I was hoping for something more.

The truth is, I have ambivalent feelings about the Surf Club. I've thoroughly enjoyed my three visits there; just not so much for the food, which has been good, but not particularly memorable. I expected more things like the Lobster Thermidor, an Escoffier classic which frankly I'd never had a particularly good example of until this one. Instead of the typical stodgy spackle mounded into a lobster shell, this version held some surprises: a ragout of lobster meat and vegetables plus a thin sheet of crispy puff pastry concealed under a burnished blanket of cream and cheese, the perfume of tarragon wafting from within, all serving as the bed for a precisely cooked lobster tail, some preserved morels providing a rich, woodsy counterpoint which acted as a bridge for the aromatic red Burg that wine director Zach Gossard generously poured for me. More like this, please.

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