Showing posts with label midtown. Show all posts
Showing posts with label midtown. Show all posts

Monday, August 7, 2017

first thoughts: Gaijin Izakaya by Cake | Midtown Miami

A couple years ago I got pretty excited over a tiny storefront along Biscayne Boulevard serving possibly the best Thai food I'd eaten in South Florida: Cake Thai Kitchen. Since then, Chef Cake (a/k/a Phuket Thongsodchareondee) has gone on to open a second, more polished Cake Thai in Wynwood, and has plans in the works for another location in the Citadel, a food hall and multi-purpose space currently in development in Little Haiti. It's been wonderful to watch the ascent of a chef whose talent is matched only by his humility.

And now, he's doing something else: a Japanese style izakaya in the Midtown Miami space of "The Gang," which he's calling "Gaijin Izakaya by Cake."[1] It's called "Gaijin" to dispel any notions of authenticity and because, well, Cake is as Japanese as I am, but it's really not such a huge leap: before opening his own Thai restaurant, Cake worked for years with chef Makoto Okuwa at Makoto in Bal Harbour, one of the best Japanese restaurants in town.[2] His menu at Gaijin is long and ambitious (I've not seen it posted online yet but I've got pictures: Page 1, Page 2 and Page 3) and after a couple visits, I've still only just made a dent in it, but have already found several highlights.

(You can see all my pictures in this Gaijin Izakaya by Cake flickr set.)

Back in the day, when Hiro's Yakko-San was in a tight little spot on West Dixie Highway and there was almost always an hour-long wait, they used to make okonomiyaki, an Osaka-style Japanese pancake / omelet type thing, usually topped with seafood and/or bacon, then bedazzled with Kewpie mayo, salty-tangy-sweet okonomi sauce, aonori, pickled ginger, and wispy katsuobushi shavings that wriggle in the heat. It disappeared from Yakko-San's menu some time around their move to a larger space, and is otherwise an elusive dish to find. But they're doing okonomiyaki at Gaijin, and it's a good version, with a hearty, chewy base and a layer of crisp, salty pork belly underneath all those toppings.

(continued ...)

Saturday, April 15, 2017

best thing i ate last week: fried chicken sandwich at La Pollita

There's yet another wave of taquerias opening in Miami these days, so many I've given up even trying to list them, much less sample them all. But last week I did stop in on La Pollita, which is currently operating from a trailer parked in the Midtown Garden Center. The backstory is intriguing: chefs Luciana Giangrandi and Alex Meyer worked at some pretty highfalutin places before this: Eleven Madison Park (just named as "World's Best Restaurant" by the suspect but influential 50 Best list), its sibling the NoMad, Scarpetta in Manhattan, Animal in L.A. Which made me wonder – what are these folks doing running a taco truck?

Making really great food, it turns out. They've got a short list of tacos, served on fresh tortillas pressed from masa supplied by Miami masa maestro Steve Santana (of Taquiza), and the cochinita pibil I tried was very good. But the standout item was the fried chicken cemita. A hot, crispy, juicy tranche of fried chicken. A crunchy, vinegar-laced, herb-flecked cabbage slaw. A dollop of mashed avocado for some richness. A creamy, mildly spicy Valentina aioli. A sesame-seed flecked bun with just the right heft: substantial enough to be a meaningful component of the sandwich composition and to keep everything together until the last bite; but not so much as to overwhelm the stars of the show. It is just about perfect, and was the best thing I ate last week.

(You can see some more pictures in this La Pollita - Miami flickr set).

The mantra at EMP is "Make It Nice." The alumni running La Pollita learned it well.

La Pollita
2600 NE 2nd Avenue, Miami, Florida

Monday, November 28, 2016

deep thoughts: Proof Pizza and Pasta | Midtown MIami

Someone asked me recently[1] "So, when you are going to write an actual review of a Miami restaurant again? You know, like you used to?" Fair question. Like the food writers I used to berate, I'm probably more than a little guilty of the Magpie Phenomenon – being constantly distracted by the latest shiny object. I try to keep relatively current on Miami dining with the "best thing I ate last week"  and "first thoughts" posts, and I report on our roughly monthly Cobaya dinners; but then the bulk of my more expansive writing lately seems dedicated to "travelogues" or other recaps from "further afield," rather than locally focused.[2] Mission creep has taken hold.

So let's fix that. And let's start with a place that may not be among the most talked-about restaurants in Miami, but one which I think deserves more attention for what it does: Proof. Chef Justin Flit[3] opened "Proof Pizza & Pasta" almost exactly two years ago just up Miami Avenue from Wynwood, across from the Midtown shopping center. The name was modest and the spot was too: a basic box with exposed ventilation and simple tables and chairs, not so much "industrial chic" as just plain old "utilitarian."

(You can see all my pictures from Proof in this Proof Pizza & Pasta flickr set).

But while it might have sounded and looked like a utility slice joint, Proof was actually serving gorgeous Neapolitan style pies with toppings like soppressata, n'duja and broccoli rabe, or braised oxtail with black garlic and caramelized onions.

And its pastas – all made in-house – were some of the best in town. The lineup would change often, but has included delicate pillows stuffed with butternut squash, awash in brown butter and sage and dusted with crumbled amaretti cookies, and the fantastic angel hair with crab, Calabrian chiles and lemon breadcrumbs. This latter is a mainstay, too good to take off the menu (I wrote a bit more about it in this "best thing I ate last week" from last year).

(continued ...)

Wednesday, September 9, 2015

best thing i ate last week: angel hair with crab, calabrian chili and lemon breadcrumbs at Proof

I don't often go to Italian restaurants, for reasons I've previously expressed. Put in less vulgar terms: it's not so easy to find it done much better than I can do it at home. So when I do go out for Italian, I go to a place like Proof Pizza & Pasta. The modest name belies the seriousness of the cooking here. The pizzas are very good, but the pastas are easily some of the best in town, rivaled only by Macchialina and perhaps Scarpetta (where I haven't been since Nina Compton left).

Case in point: their angel hair with crab. Angel hair is usually the most insipid and pointless of pastas, but here the noodles still have a substantial texture despite their diminutive width, making them an ideal vehicle for the sweet crabmeat. It all swims in an intense crustacean sauce somewhere between broth and bisque, with some Calabrian chiles for some zing, and lemon breadcrumbs for brightness and texture. It was the best thing I ate last week.

All the pastas at Proof are pretty consistently excellent, but I'd also suggest you not sleep on the bucatini with uni and roasted cauliflower, which was a new addition to the menu on my last visit.

(That picture is from about a year ago, though the dish remains the same; you can see all my pictures in this Proof Pizza & Pasta - Miami flickr set).

Runners up: this excellent house-made charcuterie board at Edge Steak and Bar in Brickell; this cured and oil-poached local tuna and kimchi reuben from Josh's Deli.

Monday, June 22, 2015

best thing i ate last week: dim sum at BlackBrick

For Father's Day, the kids indulged me and let me pick where to go for brunch. It had been a while since we'd done a dim sum run, and I had it on the brain. The day before, we'd driven past Tropical Chinese territory (after already having eaten lunch) while en route to the Redlands to get the last of the season's lychees. We ended up bringing home about twenty pounds of tropical fruits from Robert Is Here: fantastic jackfruit, mamey sapote, canistel, sapodilla, ciruela, three different varieties of mangoes, and – oh, yeah – some juicy, perfumey Brewster lychees. Not wanting to trek all the way down south once again on Sunday, we headed instead to BlackBrick in Midtown.

Sometimes father really does know best. The dumplings – shrimp har gow, pork shiu mai, jade duck dumplings – were great, their silky, translucent skins encasing steaming hot, juicy fillings.

Runner up: I could have just as easily picked the shattering crisp bean curd skin wrapped around an unctuous mushroom filling, or the char siu pork served with fluffy parker house rolls for some DIY bao action.

3451 NE 1st Ave., Miami, Florida

Sunday, February 1, 2015

Cobaya Proof with Chefs Justin Flit and Matt DePante

This is really why we do it. Justin Flit and Matt DePante are a couple guys you probably haven't heard of. But Justin spent years as the sous chef at Bourbon Steak, and Matt had the same role at another of Miami's top restaurants, The Dutch. And you might not expect much from their new restaurant, Proof Pizza & Pasta, by the name, anyway. It seems like a pretty simple place, with a short menu of mostly – you guessed it – pizzas and pastas.

But these two – who met at the French Culinary Institute (now the International Culinary Center) and both worked in New York before finding their way down to Miami – can flat out cook. The restaurant exceeds expectations, serving some of the best pastas I've had in Miami (you can see some pictures from a regular dinner at the restaurant here). And when we talked to them about doing one of our Cobaya dinners, I had a high degree of confidence they'd do it right. Actually, both are veterans of a couple Cobaya dinners themselves: Justin was in the kitchen at Bourbon Steak for Experiment #6, as was Matt for Experiment #24 at The Dutch. So they know the drill.

My confidence was rewarded: Justin and Matt and their team at Proof put together a really exceptional meal on all fronts: food, service, pace, atmosphere.

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

(continued ...)

Monday, May 19, 2014

CobayaBalloo - Chef Timon Balloo at Bocce Bar

I love a meal that tells a good story. A meal can be a journey – like Norman Van Aken's menus, traversing the flavors of the Caribbean, Asia, Latin America and Iberia. Some of the best are those that aspire to simply reflect a time and place – the flavor of the here and now, as Blaine Wetzel does to such great success at Willows Inn. Still others are more personal, attempting to recapture a particular taste memory or flavor sensation – that tunnel-vision view into a childhood experience so magnificently captured in the film Ratatouille.

This last type is often the most difficult to pull off, because there is no guarantee everyone has the same memory bank of experiences, or that they were absorbed in the same way. (For more thoughts on "story food" and capturing food memories, read this recent piece by Bruce Palling in "Cutting Edge Chefs Serve Up Food That Tells a Story"). Getting the backstory is helpful, which is part of why interaction can be a key to a meaningful dining experience.

Chef Timon Balloo took the autobiographical approach to the Cobaya dinner he put on last week, putting together a menu that told the story of his life in food. He also did a great job filling in the backstory which wound a meandering path from a Trinidadian childhood breakfast to the two Midtown Miami restaurants – Sugarcane Raw Bar Grill and Bocce Bar – that he runs today.

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

Our group of nearly forty guinea pigs took over several large tables set in front of the open kitchen of Bocce Bar, which recently opened a few doors down from Sugarcane in the space which was formerly occupied by Sustain. As we always do, we told Timon that we didn't want "Sugarcane" food or "Bocce Bar" food – we wanted "Timon" food. He did exactly that, with a nine-course menu that paid tribute to his culinary influences and inspirations.

"A Trini Kid's Sunday Morning"
house cured cod "buljol" fritters, avocado, shaved cabbage, heirloom tomatoes, fried bake
Chang Beer, Thailand

Growing up in a Trinidadian family, this was a typical weekend breakfast – salt cod tossed with shredded cabbage, tomatoes and fresh herbs, tucked into "bake," a simple, dense, chewy bread (you may have also heard of "Bake and Shark," another typical Trini recipe). This doesn't look or sound like much, but it was one of the dishes of the night for me, and a great start to our meal.[1] The snappy, spicy Chang Beer pairing was also right on target, as were all the pairings, which smartly and effectively featured beers as often as wines.

"Ode to Fisherman's Wharf"
english pea and crawfish chowder, herb-sourdough bread bowl
Donnafugata Lighea Zibibbo 2012

Chef Balloo spent some formative years in San Francisco, and while there are several potential candidates for an iconic San Francisco dish, the chowder in a sourdough bread bowl served at dozens of spots along Fisherman's Wharf may be the most ubiquitous. Timon stuck with the classic format but put a seasonal spin on the ingredients, subbing in a crawfish bisque studded with English peas for the typical clam and potato chowder.

(continued ...)

Sunday, May 4, 2014

BlackBrick (a/k/a Midtown Chinese) - Midtown Miami

"I'm an unpure purist, something like that." - Keith Richards
"Authentic" is a word I try to avoid. I'm just not convinced it means an awful lot. Too often, it's thrown about by one-upping blowhards trying to bolster their own credibility ("I spent a weekend in Cabo so I know all about 'authentic' Mexican tacos."). Even for those with more serious intentions, the definition of "authenticity" is elusive, for reasons I've kicked around before. The executive summary: "So many cuisines, even in their 'native' forms, are capable of so many infinite variations, and so many 'traditional' dishes are actually themselves the result of historical cross-cultural mash-ups that would today go by the sobriquet of 'fusion' dishes, that labeling any one particular iteration as 'authentic' is a fool's errand."

"Delicious" is another word I try to avoid. Like "authentic," I'm just not convinced it means much. Unlike "authentic," everyone knows the definition: "this food is good." But it doesn't tell you what is good about it, or why it's good. That unfocused vagueness is why "delicious" is on many food writers' (and editors') lists of banned words.

I'm not going to tell you the food at BlackBrick, Richard Hales' new Chinese restaurant in Midtown Miami, is "authentic." But I will tell you it is "delicious." And I'll do my best to tell you why.[1]

Miami has long been a Chinese food desert. For decades, the Canton chain – a paradigm of mediocrity – somehow managed to be the standard-bearer. Tropical Chinese stands out, but only as a big fish in a little pond. Hakkasan offers a much more refined experience, and their dim sum is excellent, but the price to value (and excitement) ratio of most of the rest of the Hakkasan experience is out of whack. A host of other contenders – Chef Philip Ho, Chu's Kitchen – come and go, with all the stability of Miley Cyrus. Unlike West Coast meccas like Los Angeles, the Bay Area and Vancouver, we seem to lack the populations to support a thriving Chinese restaurant market. And the waves of hyper-regional Chinese restaurants that New York has enjoyed – Sichuan, Shaanxi, Dongbei, Hunan, Yunnan and more, in addition to the more ubiquitous Cantonese – never really made their way here.

(You can see all my pictures in this BlackBrick - Midtown Miami flickr set).

I suspect Richard Hales felt much the same way. And whether because he saw a market opportunity, or just pined to eat better Chinese food and found nobody else making it, he decided to do what he could to change it. BlackBrick, a self-described "passion project," is the result.[2]

Hales' first project as chef/owner was the fast-casual, pan-Asian Sakaya Kitchen, which opened about four years ago. Serving pork buns and Korean chicken wings may not have been an entirely original notion,[3] but Sakaya distinguished itself by focusing on quality ingredients (local and organic whenever possible), fresh preparations, and bold flavors, especially the smoky heat of Korean kochujang that weaves through several dishes.

BlackBrick in some ways follows a similar model, though the service is sit-down style, and the flavor profiles look to China's Sichuan province, among other places, for spicy inspiration. Indeed, if you grab a spot at the counter in front of the open kitchen, you may periodically be inundated by billowing clouds of chili-infused smoke emanating from the wok station.

You can start with something simple and invigorating, like these chicken thighs doused in a spicy chili oil and Chinkiang vinegar, then showered with slivered green onions, cilantro, peanuts and sesame seeds. The poached chicken is served cold with its slippery skin intact, the mild, tender meat a foil for the double dose of spice and sour from the chili oil and black rice vinegar.

"Ma La." These are two more words you're going to want to know. They mean "numbing" and "hot," and their combination – in the form of Sichuan peppercorn (which causes a tingly, numbing sensation) and dried chilies – produces a compulsively tasty, "hurts so good" reaction. It's what makes BlackBrick's "Numbing and Hot Chinese Spare Ribs" so flavorful, the meaty riblets served crusted with dry spice along with wok-sauteed onions, jalapeños and bell peppers.

(continued ...)

Friday, October 19, 2012

Goes Around ... Comes Around: Double Feature Edition

I ate at two new restaurants this week. I’ll need to make return visits to give a complete assessment of the food, but just from looking at their menus I could tell something about both of them: they kind of want to be other restaurants.

First, Tikl. Or, to be more precise, Tikl Raw Bar Grill. Where the menu is divided into “snacks,” “raw,” “small” and “robata” sections, rounded out by a couple “large” dishes. Where said “raw” dishes feature creatively flavored seafood crudos, the “small” items are an eclectic mix of tapas style dishes, and the “robata” items include meats, seafood and vegetables with a mish-mash of Asian and Mediterranean flavors. Where the menu puts the main ingredient of a dish in boldface, followed by a lower-case list of the other ingredients separated by slashes.

If this sounds familiar, that’s because it is almost exactly the same menu format as Sugarcane. Or, to be more precise, Sugarcane Raw Bar Grill. Which has a menu divided into “snacks,” “crudos,” “tapas,” “robata grill” and “large plates” (though Sugarcane also offers sushi and sashimi). And which just happens to be one of the most popular and heavily trafficked restaurants to open in Miami the past couple years.

In fairness, though, Sugarcane uses a slash between ingredients on the menu. Tikl uses a backslash.

Now, to really be fair, I should point out that while the menu format at Tikl is clearly copied from Sugarcane, the dishes are not. Even if it’s in the same style, the particulars are certainly different. And none of this ultimately has anything to do with how well they’re actually executing what’s on that menu. But it’s impossible to look at Tikl’s menu and not realize that it’s trying to be the Sugarcane of Brickell.

(continued ...)

Sunday, July 1, 2012

I don't care if Monday's blue ...

Miami is not exactly at its most charming in the summmer: the constant 90°+ heat and sweltering humidity can wear just about anyone down. But for those of us who stick it out year round here, there are at least a few good things about summer. There's mango season, for one. And there are the dining specials, designed to bring the locals out from their air-conditioned caves until the tourists come back in the fall.

We're still a month away from Miami Spice season, but there are already enough restaurant specials to fill out nearly the full week of dining. Consider:

Monday - It's not quite every week, but Sugarcane Raw Bar Grill has been using Monday nights to host a "Dinner with Friends" series of guest chef events. Chef Timon Balloo has already teamed up with Jamie DeRosa (Tudor House), Paula DaSilva (1500°), Lee Schrager (SoBeWFF), David Bracha (River Oyster Bar), Dean Max (3030 Ocean), and Dena Marino (MC Kitchen). Coming up next: Cesar Zapata (The Federal) on Monday July 23, and Clay Conley (Buccan) on Monday August 27. Reservations open up on the 10th of each month, priced at $110 including beverage pairings. For more info, email Sugarcane.

Sugarcane Raw Bar Grill
3252 N.E. 1st Ave., Miami

Tuesday - Every Tuesday through the summer, it's "Bourbon, Beer and Q" night at The Dutch. Each week they will be featuring a different genre of BBQ, with a spread of several mains and sides for a fixed price of $30 (excl. tax, tip and beverages), plus $3 PBR tallboys and $22 pitchers of cocktails. This coming Tuesday, July 3, is Memphis-style, with dry-rubbed baby-back ribs, whole roasted and smoked BBQ turkey breast, and BBQ spaghetti with pork shoulder,[1] plus fried pickles, corn on the cob, and brown sugar sweet potatoes. Every week will bring a different style, with St. Louis, Carolinas, and Korean in the pipeline.

The Dutch
2201 Collins Avenue, Miami Beach

(continued ...)

Monday, April 2, 2012

Sustainable Cobaya


Sometimes even we're surprised.

When we plan these Cobaya dinners, we purposefully keep the "marching orders" to the chefs minimal: basically, be creative, and do something you don't normally get to do. Often we'll kick around ideas, we might see preview menus, but not always. Sometimes we have only a rough sketch of what to expect, and sometimes we go in completely blind.

When we sat down to talk with Chef Alejandro Piñero and Manager Jonathan Lazar of Sustain Restaurant + Bar in Midtown Miami, they said they were thinking of doing a Southern Italian inspired menu. Though Sustain is known mostly for its focus on fresh, local, and - yes - sustainable ingredients, this didn't come as a complete surprise to me. Before Sustain, Chef Piñero spent five years as sous chef at Casa Tua and then took over as chef de cuisine at Fratelli Lyon, so Italian is clearly in his repertoire. We invited them to run with the idea, and that was the extent of what we knew.

I expected Sicilian and Sardinian flavors, I expected some modern and some old-school techniques, I expected some great wine pairings from sommelier Daniel Toral. Even I didn't expect a roasted goat's head.

testa di capra arrosto

Here is the full menu (you can see all my pictures in this Sustainable Cobaya flickr set, or click on any picture to view a larger version):

sustainable cobaya menu

Arancia Rossa e Averna

Lardo e Ricci di Mare
Andrea Franchetti "Guardiola" Etna, Sicily 2010

"Oliva" e Frissée
Tenuta delle Terre Nere Etna, Sicily 2010

Ragu di Cinghiale
Arianna Occhipinti "SP68" Vittoria, Sicily 2010

Cerevella di Capra, Patate e Cavolo Nero
Andrea Franchetti "Passopisciaro" Etna, Sicily 2008

Arancia Rossa, Torta all'Olio d'Oliva

Miele Sardo e Sorbetto al Latte di Mandorle

I am generally terrible with foreign languages, but have a savant-like ability to read menus. So it was fun to watch some at our table struggle to translate our menu, particularly as they got to the fifth course.

(continued ...)

Saturday, January 29, 2011

Sustain - Midtown Miami

[sorry, this restaurant has closed]

I've already repeatedly mentioned here how the contemporary Asian trope has taken hold here in Miami. But that isn't the only trend afoot. If restaurants weren't turning Japanese (or Chinese, or Korean) this past year, they were going green. "Farm to table," "sustainable," "eco-" this or that appeared in every other press release announcing a new opening. De Rodriguez Ocean pitched itself as a "sustainable seafood" restaurant. 1500° was a "farm-to-table restaurant with a heavy steakhouse sensibility."[1] Even the mega-chains got in on the act, with Darden Restaurants (the people who bring you Red Lobster and Olive Garden, among others) launching Seasons 52, which claims a "seasonally-inspired menu" but was serving asparagus in December when I visited their new Coral Gables location.

Some of this is just blatant greenwashing. And yet sometimes there is a genuinely serious commitment to working with local farms, sourcing top-quality, organic product, and running a restaurant in a way that is attuned to the environment. Of course, none of that really matters if the food sucks. Ultimately, people will come, and come back, to a restaurant because the food is good, not because the restaurant does good things. Sustain, opened last month in the stretch of Midtown Miami that already includes Sugarcane Raw Bar Grill and Mercadito, is getting it right on both fronts.[2]

When you call your place "Sustain," you better be serious about it. And this restaurant was literally built from the ground up with sustainability in mind. Fixtures on the ceiling are made from recycled aluminum. A captivating wooden "ribcage" sculpture along one wall is crafted from sustainable mangrove. The tables and chairs are reclaimed cypress, the fabrics are LEED-approved, the lights are energy-conserving LEDs. The menu is equally "green": Much of the produce comes from local farms, cheeses come from local producers, fish come mostly from local waters, meats are from stock that are pasture-raised on Florida ranches.

photo via Sustain
All of which may make you feel good about eating there; making it taste good is Chef Alex Piñero's job. After all, "sustain" also means to feed and nourish. Chef Piñero, who worked his way through Cheeca Lodge, The Strand (Michelle Bernstein's first Miami restaurant), Talula, Casa Tua and Fratelli Lyon before taking over the kitchen at Sustain, takes a low-key approach to the menu here. Preparations are mostly straightforward, and ingredients are front and center. This is not the kind of place to expect culinary pyrotechnics. Sometimes such minimalism equates to blandness, but Sustain mostly avoids that pitfall.

The menu starts with several "bites" priced at $4-6, and they are all worth sampling. The pretzel bites, little tater-tot sized nuggets, are pleasingly warm, crusty, and chewy, and come with ramekins of whole grain mustard and honey for dipping (best in combination, if you ask me). Fried chickpeas have an intriguing pop to their texture, and are napped with a light green herb oil. Meanwhile, corn dogs, featuring house-made mini hot dogs encased in a light cornmeal batter, are true to the carnival classic, a nostalgic start to a meal.[3] Tender pork and beef meatballs, served in a little cast-iron Staub pot, are draped with a rich mushroom gravy and dollops of creamy goat cheese. Those corn dogs and meatballs are also reflective of the restaurant's underlying ethos: the ground pork and beef that go into them are a way to use up the less-than-glamorous bits that do not become chops and steaks. Indeed, as you read through the menu you can reconstruct much of a cow and a pig along the way.[4]

Some of those bits also wind up in a charcuterie plate. The plate features a jar of pork rilletes (shoulder and belly meat cooked in its own fat and shredded to a fine paste) which were the best I've had in Miami, for a few reasons: they're unabashedly fatty; they're assertively spiced; and they're not served too cold. This last in particular makes a big difference: too often (locally anyway) rillettes are served dead cold, denying them all their unctuous appeal. A country pâté wrapped in bacon was serviceable but could use something to distinguish or enliven it, whether it be a more pronounced livery tang, or perhaps some fruit or nut in the mix. The plate is rounded out with some thinly sliced country ham from Allan Benton, which is simply marvelous stuff, as well as some house-made pickles, mustard and grilled ciabatta.

I'm not a big salad eater, but the "50 Mile Salad" is one that I actively crave. As the name indicates, the salad is composed of ingredients all sourced from within 50 miles of the restaurant.[5] It starts with a blend of baby brassicas (mustard greens, mizuna, kale, arugula) from Paradise Farms in Homestead (here you can read a bit more about their "Bx3 Baby Brassica Blend") which is the remedy to everything I typically find uninteresting about salads. Instead of grazing, cow-like, on a monotonous bowl of bland lettuce, there is a lively contrast of textures and flavors here, alternating sweet, bitter, soft, spiky, herbaceous, peppery from bite to bite. Then add an earthy bass note of roasted golden beets, carrots all blistered, caramelized and sweet from the wood-burning oven, tart-sweet heirloom tomatoes, tangy pickled onions, creamy fromage blanc from Hani's (there's more to read about Hani and his goats at Mango & Lime), a vinaigrette redolent with soft herbs, salt it well, and that's a salad I can enjoy.

(continued ...)

Monday, November 29, 2010

Eat Basel - Where to Eat for Art Basel

It's that time of year, when culturati from all over the world, like the swallows of Capistrano, descend upon Miami for Art Basel. There will be plenty of sources for information on art installations, events and parties: New Times has a comprehensive list of Art Basel events as well as a guide to the satellite art fairs, and the New York Times just published a more curated list. And though we've danced around the food as art question here occasionally, right now let me address the issue in a more pedestrisn fashion: where should you eat?

South Beach / North Beach

The Art Basel exhibition itself is in the Miami Beach Convention Center on South Beach. The good news is that from the Convention Center, you'll be in easy walking distance of the Lincoln Road pedestrian mall. The bad news is that there's hardly anyplace good to eat on Lincoln Road any more. If you must, consider Meat Market for a contemporary take on the steakhouse genre, or for smaller budgets, the new Shake Shack (my Shake Shack review here) in the Herzog & de Meuron designed building at 1111 Lincoln Road. Otherwise, keep in mind that any place with saran-wrapped food and the hostess' bodacious cleavage on display out front generally is not worth eating at.

But all hope is not lost. South Beach has several promising new additions within about a mile of the Convention Center. The recently opened Pubbelly is an "Asian-inspired" (read "Momofuku-inspired") gastropub which brings the contemporary casual Asian meme to South Beach. Eden, in the late (and missed) Talula space, features a menu designed by New York chef Christopher Lee and a gorgeous outdoor patio space.[*]

For the high rollers of the art world, the Wolfsonian Collection is hosting a special event dinner on December 1 in conjunction with a site-specific installation, "Seduce Me," by actress/filmmaker Isabella Rossellini. While "Seduce Me" explores the mating rituals of various animals, big name chef Jean-Georges Vongerichten will be doing the cooking, Robert Mondavi Winery will be pouring the wines, and Bulgari will be providing a special Rossellini-designed handbag and a watch for a post-dinner auction. Tickets are $1,000 (!); more information can be had from Michael Hughes at 305.535.2602 or

If it's some local flavor you want, try one of Chef Douglas Rodriguez's venues, each of which takes a slightly different spin on contemporizing Latin American cuisines: Ola at the Sanctuary Hotel, the most pan-Latin of his restaurants (and also the closest to the Convention Center); De Rodriguez Cuba (my De Rodriguez review), in the Astor Hotel, for updated versions of Cuban classics; or the newly opened and seafood-focused De Rodriguez Ocean, on the south end of Ocean Drive. Or for something more casual and funky, there's Tap Tap, South Beach's only Haitian restaurant.

But if you want to really want to do South Beach like a local, consider a few more options: Altamare (my Altamare review), on the quiet western end of Lincoln Road (across Alton Road), is a local seafood specialist, and the menu has gotten more interesting and diverse since Michael's Genuine alum Simon Stojanovic took over the kitchen. Indomania (my Indomania review) is a hidden gem of a place, just a little bit north of South Beach proper on 26th Street, but worth the trek for their fun, flavorful Dutch-Indonesian food (the rijsttafels come with more than a dozen different dishes). And if you're up late and hungry, you'll be better off ignoring Anthony Bourdain's recommendation of T-Mex Cantina (f/k/a San Loco); it's not his fault, I'm sure he just had one too many at Club Deuce and his judgment was impaired. Instead, head over to the The Alibi, tucked away in Lost Weekend, a divey bar on Española Way, for their Philly Cheese Steak (on an authentic Amoroso roll) or a shrimp po'boy, with a side of hand-cut fries with Ranch Dust (open till 5am).

(continued ...)

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Gigi - Midtown Miami

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

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

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

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

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

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

(continued ...)

Monday, April 26, 2010

"Cobaya in the Night Kitchen" at Sakaya Kitchen

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

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

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

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

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

What you may already know...

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

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

Some new stuff for Cobaya...

Garlic'd Laughing Bird Shrimp, Chive Flower Soba Noodles

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

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

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

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

Blue Point Oyster[2]


Wife Hales' Chocolate Chocolate Cookie Bag

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

(continued ...)

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Sakaya Kitchen Dim Ssam Brunch - Midtown Miami

I wrote about my initial visit to Sakaya Kitchen about a month ago. Chef Richard Hales' focus on Korean flavors, organic ingredients, and reasonable prices all showed real promise. That promise is fulfilled, and then some, with Sakaya's "Dim Ssam" brunch, which was unveiled this weekend.

Sakaya Kitchen

While the restaurant is set up for counter service, Chef Hales has switched over to table service for the brunch, and has crafted a longer menu of smaller-portioned dishes that play on his contemporary Korean theme (thus, "Dim Ssam"). I was just about the first person knocking on the door a little after 11am this past Sunday to give it a try.

Dim Ssam Brunch Menu

Choosing was not easy. Fortunately, the prices are so reasonable that you can try a sampling of several items without breaking the bank. Everything I tried was excellent.

"Banchan" are a customary feature of Korean dining, a selection of little side dishes to accompany a meal. Different types of kimchi are typical, but usually there are a variety of other items as well. At Sakaya, ordering the banchan (for $5.99) brought seven dishes, including dried shredded cuttlefish ("ojinguh bokkeum"), bean sprouts dressed in sesame oil ("kongnamul"), tiny dried anchovies ("myulchi bokkeum"), pickled cucumbers, green bean kimchi, balloon flower root kimchi (a/k/a bellflower, or "doraji"), and marinated tofu.


Here are some closeups (note, by the way, that everything is served in disposable, recyclable dishes. I saw some kvatches when Sakaya first opened that the take-out boxes they were using for in-restaurant service were somewhat awkward; the dishes used for the "Dim Ssam" brunch were all perfectly serviceable):

dried cuttlefish
dried cuttlefish
dried anchovies
dried anchovies
balloon flower root kimchi
balloon flower root kimchi

These ranged from extremely pungent (the anchovies) to very spicy (the balloon flower root kimchi) to sweet-sour (the cucumber pickles) to sweet-spicy (the dried cuttlefish) to mild (the bean sprouts and tofu), and each with a different texture as well. It's a great way to wake up the palate and reinvigorate it between bites of heartier stuff. Just keep a beer close by.

With prices for just about everything at around $3 or under, I tried several of the menu items, starting with the Korean Pancake with Pork, Radish Kimchi and Ssamjang.

(continued ...)

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Sugarcane Raw Bar Grill - Midtown Miami

Unlike professional restaurant critics, I'm allowed to admit certain biases. One of these, which I'll readily confess, is that I tend to prefer chef-driven restaurants to concept-driven restaurants. A chef-driven restaurant is one that starts with the chef: the menu, often even the environment, follow from the chef's personal vision, which is more often than not centered on the food. Michy's is a chef-driven restaurant; Naoe is an even more extreme example. Concept-driven restaurants start with an idea: a marketing ploy around which everything else is assembled. The chef, typically, is simply a cog that fits into the wheel of the restaurant's concept, the menu just a piece along with the decoration, the music, the drinks, the scene. China Grill is the prototypical concept-driven restaurant.

No doubt my bias toward chef-driven restaurants is naive and overly romanticized. After all, chefs (and their backers) want to make money just like everyone else. But as someone who cares mostly about the food, I've learned that the odds of finding the best food are improved by going to places where the decisions are made by the person who creates it.

Sugarcane Raw Bar Grill, the new spinoff from the creators of Sushi Samba, is a concept-driven restaurant. But I'm not too proud or stubborn to admit that it's a darn good one, one for which the food is far from a mere afterthought.

Located in Midtown Miami, Sugarcane occupies a long space whose voluminous feeling is multiplied by the two-story high ceilings, with rattan fans turning slowly overhead. There's a large indoor/outdoor bar as you walk in, with most of the main space bisected by a row of red leather-clad banquettes. Off to the right side, backed by a stone wall, is a raw bar with seating around it. Toward the back is the robata station, housing a sizable grill under which they burn Japanese bincho-tan charcoal (which generates high heat without much smoke). Off to the left is still more seating. The decorations have the purposefully haphazard look of a very expensive haircut, with mismatched chairs and partially painted walls throughout. (Some of those mismatched chairs, I will note, are too tall for the tables, leading to a hunched-over seating posture more conducive to hard-nosed contract negotiations than dining).

The "concept," I suppose, must be tapas with a Japanese tilt, though the influences are more global than the Brazilian/Japanese mashup that characterizes Sushi Samba. The Sugarcane menu is pretty much exclusively comprised of the "small plates" that are taking hold on so many local menus lately. It is divided among "snacks," "tapas," "robata grill," and "raw bar," the last of which includes traditional raw bar items, crudos, sushi, sashimi, and rolls. A blackboard features a short list of entreés, including a roasted chicken that has been getting raves all over twitter of late. Food comes from either the raw bar, the robata, or the hot kitchen, and like a tapas bar, items come out as they're prepared. This orchestra is directed by Chef Timon Balloo, whose resume includes stints with some of Miami's big name chefs (Michelle Bernstein, Alan Susser, Tim Andriola) and at Sugarcane's local cousin, Sushi Samba Dromo on Lincoln Road, before he took the helm at the now-closed Domo Japones.

I've not tried that roasted chicken yet, but I have tried most of the rest of the menu during our two visits. Among the snacks, edamame come out steaming hot and generously salted. Even better may be the shishito peppers, their skin blistered, and brightened with a squeeze of lemon and big flakes of (Maldon?) sea salt. From the raw bar, a half dozen Blue Point oysters were presented on one of those impressive seafood tower contraptions with a raised stand and a gigantic bowl of ice. Accompaniments were simple: lemon, cocktail sauce, horseradish, mignonette. The conch salad was light and refreshing, strips of the mollusk matched with orange segments and shreds of lettuce or cabbage.

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Sakaya Kitchen - Midtown Miami

It is not often that I am at a loss for what to have for dinner. Yet I found myself driving home from work this evening, knowing there was not much in the fridge to cook (yes, there are some pig trotters, but that's more of a project than a quick Tuesday night meal), pondering: "What's for dinner tonight?" Fortunately an idea occurred to me before I made it home to the near-empty fridge: Sakaya Kitchen, one of several new places that have recently opened in the Midtown Shops. (While the Five Guys next door has been open for some time, the Cheese Course and Sugarcane Raw Bar have finally come online after extended waits, and Mercadito is supposedly close).

photo via Sakaya Kitchen

Sakaya's setup looks like a fast food place, with a mostly open kitchen fronted by a long counter that has room for multiple cash registers (a sign either of unbridled optimism, or of a space that was originally built out for another tenant). But there aren't many fast food places where the menu is scrawled out daily on a chalkboard, where almost all the menu's components are made in-house, or where the menu brags about all-natural meats, organic dairy, and fresh produce. You may order at a counter, but this is real food.

When I visited, there were about a dozen items on the menu, plus a few things available by the piece or as side orders. The list is a bit of a pan-Asian hodgepodge with something of a Korean focus, playing in particular on flavors and dishes that David Chang has recently made ever so popular through his Momofuku empire - pork buns, Korean stye chicken wings, noodles with ginger scallion sauce. Which just happened to be what I ordered.

The pork buns were the standout of the group, 2 puffy clamshell buns filled with tender, meaty slabs of pork belly butt that had been slow-cooked for eight hours. The richness was cut by some thin-sliced cucumber pickles stuffed into the buns, along with a generous dollop of a sweet-ish ssamjang (Korean chile sauce). If I could have had my druthers, I would have taken the sticky-sweet-spicy sauce for the pork in a more spicy, less sweet direction, but these were some fine bites.

The Korean chicken wings can be had either by the piece ($4.69 for 6, $8.99 for 12, $14.99 for 20) or as a "combo" of six wings with jasmine rice, kimchi and more of those cucumber pickles ($7.45). The wings had been given a good long bath in a marinade redolent with kochujang (Korean chile paste), the flavor of which was infused throughout. It would be unfair of me to address the crispiness of the wings, as they had to travel 10 minutes in their take-out containers before I got home. I liked the rice, which was moist and just a bit pleasantly sticky, and generously sprinkled with fresh slivers of green onion. I also really liked their kimchi, which had a nice hint of that distinctive fermented, lactic tang.

The noodles, which came with cubed tofu and green beans, were a generous portion, but could have used a much more generous dollop of ginger-scallion sauce to perk them up. The green beans themselves also hadn't been seasoned and wanted some salt. With some minor tweaking I'm sure this could be a fine dish too.

Other items that intrigued included Angus beef bulgogi lettuce wraps, kimchi egg rolls (rolled fresh in house daily), and the promise of a "dim ssam" brunch menu coming soon. There's also about a half dozen sakes available by the bottle as well as a decent selection of Japanese beers.

Sakaya has only been open about a month and I'm sure is still tweaking the recipes and the menu. (My hope is that they turn up the bright spicy flavors even more. "Fortune favors the bold.") But even now it delivers good food at a good price that you can feel good about eating. Plus, it's conveniently located between my office and my house.

Sakaya Kitchen
Buena Vista Avenue btwn 34th & 36th Streets
Miami, FL 33127

Sakaya Kitchen on Urbanspoon

Thursday, September 3, 2009

The Bagel Wars Are On

Hot on the heels of the "Brooklyn Water Bagel Co.," here's another entrant into the bagel brouhaha: Brooklyn Bagels, coming - sooner or later, like so many other places announce - to Midtown Miami. The press release says the owner, Ashraf Sahaltout, has "roots in Brooklyn for generations. " I could not, despite inquiry, get any info as to what NY delis he's been associated with.

Press release also said that "a key ingredient he proudly utilizes is the pure city water shipped directly from New York." OK, bakers: how much water would you need to ship down from New York to really do that?

Meanwhile, the author of "The Bagel: A Surprising History of a Modest Bread" chimes in on the whole issue of whether it's really about the water:

As to whether New York City water is the all-important ingredient — the bread scientists I consulted were not convinced.
A good bagel place would certainly be a valuable addition to the midtown Miami area. Maybe everyone should save their efforts in trying to use, or recreate, New York water, and just focus on making a better bagel. Anticipated opening date: December 2009.

Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Mexico to Miami by Way of New York

Another New York import is on its way to Miami, but lo and behold it's not a steakhouse. Instead, it's Mercadito, from Chef Patricio Sandoval, which pitches itself as being inspired by the food of Mexican markets but with a modern flair. They currently have three locations in New York City which seem to get a decent amount of love on the Manhattan Chowhound board. Their fish tacos in particular oft are singled out for high praise.

I'm not sure what to make of the fact that their 5-page menu only has 2 pages of actual foodstuffs, the rest being a pretty impressive list of tequilas, cocktails, wine & beer, other than that you may be carrying me out of there. The food items look to have the same contemporary, vaguely upscale, geographically unplaceable quality of, say, Rosa Mexicano, another Mexico-to-Miami-by-way-of-New-York mini-chain. As compared to Rosa Mexicano, it seems that more of Mercadito's menu is focused on a lengthy selection of tacos and smaller plates, though I'm a bit disappointed to see that with nearly a dozen taco options to choose from there are still none of the more visceral taco stand staples like lengua, tripas, cabeza, etc. But then I can always find the Orale taco stand and get such things for about 1/3 of the price on the Mercadito menu.

Mercadito's Miami outpost is destined for Midtown Miami where they are taking out a 5,000 square foot space. Other tenants supposedly slated for Midtown Miami include Brasserie d'Azur (from the same folks who brought you Maison d'Azur), Sugarcane Lounge from the SushiSamba folks, The Cheese Course, and Primo Pizza. Projected opening is "Winter 2009." Some good Mexican would be a nice addition to Miami dining options, especially in the Midtown area, though it sure seems we've been hearing about all these places slated for Midtown Miami for quite some time.