Showing posts with label smorgasbord. Show all posts
Showing posts with label smorgasbord. Show all posts

Friday, December 30, 2016

best dishes of 2016: part 2

It's a tradition, here and everywhere else in the known universe, to do year-end "best of" lists. It's cheesy and facile, but it's also a good opportunity to reflect on the year that's passed – the highs and the lows. In a year that had a brutal number of untimely demises, the Miami restaurant world had some as well. The first four dishes in this Part 2 of my Best Dishes of 2016 (click here for Part 1) were all served at restaurants that are no longer with us.

(You can see pictures of all of the dishes listed in this Best Dishes of 2016 flickr set).

vitello tonnato - Andrew Zimmern at Vagabond Cobaya / SOBEWFF dinner
The story picks up here in late February with our second Cobaya dinner in conjunction with the South Beach Wine and Food Fest, which was hosted by Alex Chang at the Vagabond (read my thoughts and see all my pictures from the Cobaya / SoBeWFF dinner). Chang and the Vagabond parted ways several months ago. He's now back out in Los Angeles but still has some Miami connections: he'll be heading up the new Broken Shaker / Freehand restaurant in L.A., The Exchange. But it was actually Andrew Zimmern's dish that was one of my favorites of that meal, and of the year:

Most folks probably know Zimmern from his James Beard Award winning Travel Channel program, Bizarre Foods. What they may not know is that the guy can also flat out cook. In addition to a silky vichyssoise with a citrus-cured oyster that was served as guests gathered around the Vagabond's poolside bar, he also was responsible for my favorite course of the evening: a riff on an Italian classic, vitello tonnato, done here with thin slices of veal tongue, a tangy anchovy-laden dressing, citrus segments, chile oil spiked fried capers and slivered olives for some punch, and crispy chickpea crackers for scooping.

Whenever we do a Cobaya dinner on our own, people generally know they're going to be in for something a bit different and adventurous. But seats at the SoBeWFF dinner get filled by all sorts of folks, including many who may not quite know what they're in for. So one of the highlights of the evening for me was Zimmern making sure to wait until everyone was about four bites into the dish before giving its description, and letting everyone know that he'd used veal tongue. I'd guess that about a quarter of the diners' jaws dropped. It makes me even more grateful for the support and open-mindedness of the group who come out to our regular dinners.

One of the really great things about this event was to see the teamwork of the chefs and their crews in the kitchen. As Carlo Mirarchi and his pastry chef Sam Short started to plate their dessert, everyone else jumped onto the line to help. The end result was outstanding: a nutty, burnt lemon cake, surrounded by a couple globes of coconut "fluff," with puddles of fragrant meyer lemon curd, a sort of celery jam, and sweet poppy seeds. Too often, these savory-leaning desserts feel contrived; but here, everything improbably made perfect sense together.

sweetbread, tomato, fennel, pickled strawberry - Cena by Michy
Another casualty of 2016: Michelle Bernstein's Michy's, which last year renamed itself Cena by Michy (read my thoughts and see all my pictures from Cena). She's still plenty active and engaged, between Crumb on Parchment, a Michy's pop-up for Art Basel, TV gigs, and her work for Common Threads, but it is a real loss to Miami that Bernstein closed what has been one of the city's best restaurants since it opened ten years ago. Nobody cooks foie or sweetbreads like Michy.

The decor and menu have changed at Cena by Michy (f/k/a Michy's), but at least one thing remains the same: if there is a sweetbread dish on the menu at a Michelle Bernstein restaurant, it will be outstanding. Case in point: this sweetbread milanese, like a cloud encased in a crispy shell. It's served with a tangy sort of stew of cherry tomatoes and fennel ribbons, with a wonderful little surprise: pickled strawberries, which provide little jolts of refreshing, sweet-tart contrast.

clams and rice - Bazi
Michael Pirolo's Bazi, a high-end Asian venture for the chef whose Italian restaurant Macchialina is one of my favorites on the Beach, wasn't around long enough for me to really mourn its closing (read my thoughts and see all my pictures from Bazi). Truth is, I only got there once, for a multi-course "kaiseki" dinner he did for a small seating at the bar. There were several very good dishes, and one in particular stood out.

This is the kind of thing a chef does because they really want to, and maybe because they're a little crazy. Let's not dwell too long on how much this truly resembles a traditional Japanese kaiseki dinner (short answer: not too much). Instead, let's talk about the best thing I ate there: the clams and rice dish Pirolo served as one of the courses.

In this one dish, Pirolo ties together his Italian background and his Japanese ambitions. Diced razor clams are combined with chewy but tender viaolone nano rice, all served in the clam's shell. The rice is prepared in classic "all'onda" fashion, and bound with the clams by an uni vinaigrette which further highlights the flavors of the sea. A shower of fresh lemon balm adds a bright, herbaceous, citrusy note. It's a beautiful dish.

valley between Andes | avocado, tree tomato, kiwicha - Alter / Central dinner
Many of the best things I ate this past year were found in Miami, though not necessarily from Miami chefs. Here's another from an Alter collaborative dinner, this time with Virgilio Martinez of Peru's Central (read my thoughts and see all my pictures from the Alter / Central dinner).

"Valley Between Andes" – I later figured out that Martinez's menu at Central features dishes inspired by the products of different elevations of the Peruvian topography. This one included avocado, tree tomato (a/k/a tamarillo), and kiwicha (amaranth seeds). The avocado was so creamy and rich that it almost ate like tender braised beef, napped with a tangy sauce and speckled with the nutty, quinoa-like kiwicha, with shards of translucent, herb-dotted crackers for some textural contrast.

fallen tree | heart of palm, snails, fungi, moss, spores - Alter / Central dinner
While the Alter dinners are collaborations, Brad Kilgore and the visiting chefs tend to alternate courses rather than create dishes together. Even so, sometimes the inspiration of working together can cause the identities of each chef to fade into the background. I would have been hard pressed to know if this was Kilgore's or Martinez's dish if I hadn't been following the back-and-forth cadence of the menu.

"Fallen Tree" – Brad started with a caramelized tranche of heart of palm as the base of the dish, with the other components evoking a tropical forest floor: snails, dehydrated mushrooms, a tangle of green (seaweed?) moss, a pouffe of spring garlic mousse with pickled honshimeji mushroom "spores" poking up out of it.

(continued ...)

Thursday, December 29, 2016

best dishes of 2016: part 1

2016. Stick a fork in it. Put it on a boat, light it on fire and send it out to sea. Let me join in the chorus of those who wish this terrible, horrible, no good, very bad year a hearty fuck you and good riddance.

In the greater world, 2016 was lousy. So lousy that it often makes talking and writing about the food world, the way I usually do here, seem pretty trivial. But that food world can be a little corner of joy and connection, a place where people aim to make each other happy – and I suspect we can all use some of that. I've had more than my fair share of meals that made me happy this past year, and I'm incredibly grateful for the people who made them and the people with whom I got to share them. Here, then, are the best things I ate over the past year.

Despite that word "best," I make no pretense of this being any sort of objective listing, only my personal favorites of the places I had the good fortune to visit in 2016. They are not ranked, but rather are listed here in roughly chronological order. For ease of digestion, I'll be breaking this up into three parts.

(You can see pictures of all of them in this Best Dishes of 2016 flickr set).

Benton's ham brushed with coffee vinegar - Husk Nashville
My best dishes of 2016 list actually starts with New Years' Eve of 2015, which found us in Nashville, celebrating in style at Sean Brock's Husk (read my thoughts and see all my pictures from Husk Nashville):

Husk's NYE menu was a three-course affair which offered about five choices for each course. Before those arrived, though, we were brought an amuse bouche of thinly sliced Benton's country ham, unadorned but for a brush of coffee vinegar. Allan Benton's hams are pretty magical on their own, and the coffee vinegar offered the most subtle counterpoint of rounded bitterness to the salty, nutty pork. It was like an elemental version of red eye gravy, and it was a perfect bite.

Rappahannock oysters with bone marrow butter and TN hackleback caviar - Husk Nashville
Out of several really good dishes, my favorite were these roasted Rappahannock oysters, swimming in an herbaceous bone marrow butter, and topped with spoonfuls of Tennessee hackleback caviar. a great way to close out 2015.

royal red shrimp, a bisque made from their heads, rice middlins, bronze fennel - Husk Nashville
"Royal red shrimp, a bisque made from their heads, rice middlins, bronze fennel" is a really long way to say "shrimp 'n' grits." But that's OK, because it was the best version I've ever had. Royal reds are a sweet, soft deep water shrimp from east coast waters that rank among my favorite crustaceans, here doing double duty with their flavorful heads used as a base for the sauce. That deep, rich oceanic bisque was a perfect pairing with the creamy rice middlins (broken rice grains with a texture much like corn grits).

roasted bones, XO butter, kim chee, radish, lettuces, sesame miso vin - Proof on Main
From Nashville we moved on to Louisville, home of one of my favorite hotel / restaurant combinations: Proof on Main in the 21c Museum Hotel (read my thoughts and see all my pictures from Proof on Main).

The food at Proof has a southern accent, but not an overwhelmingly strong one: enough that you can tell where it's from. It's also picked up several other curious inflections along the way: Chef Wajda plays around with Korean, Caribbean, even North African flavors, but the patois somehow feels natural, not contrived.

These "roasted bones" are a good example. It seems like 90% of the bone marrow dishes I see on restaurant menus simply recite the Fergus Henderson liturgy of parsley salad and coarse salt. Here, instead, Wajda brushes the bones with an XO butter, then plates them with an assortment of pungent house-made kimchis. There's a subtle nod back Fergus' way with a light salad dressed in a sesame miso vinaigrette, but also a bunch of strong, assertive flavors to play against the sticky richness of the marrow. It was an outstanding dish.

carpaccio: short rib, pear, asiago - gastroPod
After our trek through Memphis, Nashville and Louisville, I got back home in time for a brunch collaboration between two of my favorite Miami chefs, Jeremiah Bullfrog of the gastroPod and Kris Wessel, last seen at Oolite and the beloved Red Light, and now working on opening a barbecue spot in Little Haiti (read my thoughts and see all my pictures from this gastroPod / Kris Wessel brunch).

The standout for me may have been the short rib "carpaccio" – thinly sliced boneless short rib cooked at low temp to bring it up to medium rare and melt all the connective tissue, brushed with warmed beef fat, and plated with slivers of fresh and dried pears, nutty asiago cheese and a drizzle of olive oil. 

tendon and conch, tardivo, pine nut, XO - Contra / Alter dinner
For the first of several collaborative dinners hosted by chef Brad Kilgore at his restaurant, Alter, in Wynwood, he teamed up with Fabian Von Hauske and Jeremiah Stone of New York's Contra. It was an auspicious start, and these were some of the best meals I had all year (read my thoughts and see all my pictures from the Contra / Alter dinner).

Dish of the night? For me, it was this combination of beef tendon and conch in a pool of creamy, nutty sauce, given funky depth by XO sauce and bitter contrast with sprigs of radicchio tardivo. It was a great, unexpected combination of flavors, but even more so was all about the unusual, exciting textures of the components: the gelatinous tendon, the spingy conch, the subtle crunch of the radicchio, the creamy sauce.

(continued ...)

Tuesday, December 22, 2015

best dishes of 2015: part 3

We're in the home stretch now. Here are the final fifteen of the best things I ate in 2015. Still hungry? Check out part 1 and part 2, and you can also see all the pictures in this Best Dishes of 2015 flickr set. This final group splits time between Miami and Northern California, starting with what was, for me, one of the most unexpectedly exciting – and unfortunately, short-lived – restaurants that opened (and closed) here in 2015.

Once again, despite the title, this makes no claim as being the "best" of anything other than the things I had the good fortune to eat over the past year. There are oodles of intriguing new restaurants just in South Florida that I've not yet made it to, or only started to get to know, much less the broader dining universe out there. These appear in roughly chronological order.

Gordita, Haitian Griots and Pikliz, Cotija, Raw Vegan Verde - Centro Taco (Downtown Miami) (see all my pictures from Centro Taco)

This Mexican-Haitian mash-up was darn near perfect: a crisp, corn-y masa shell filled with tender, burnished-edged fried pork, a tangy, spicy cabbage slaw, a dollop of salsa verde and a sprinkling of cotija cheese. Before my first visit, I was by no means convinced that Miami needed another taco shop. But it can always use more like this. (I guess I was wrong – Centro Taco closed after only a couple months, but Chef Richard Hales is looking to reopen in another spot. I hope that happens soon.)

Cape Canaveral Prawns, Tajin Crust, Grits, Mole Verde, Lime Crema, Huitlacoche - Alter (Wynwood Miami) (read my thoughts and see all my pictures from Alter)

I found another favorite dish on a visit to Alter in August: the tajin-crusted Cape Canaveral prawns, strewn over a bed of creamy corn grits lashed with stripes of mole verde, lime crema, and huitlacoche. It's a beautiful combination – like a next-generation Mexican shrimp 'n' grits – but what really elevates it is the quality of those prawns, tender and juicy underneath their chile and citrus coating, their heads bursting with oceanic goodness when chewed or squeezed.

Caviar, Smoked Oil Poached Egg, Creme Fraiche; Celtuce, Just Dug Potatoes, Comté, Burnt Hay, Tarragon; Musk Melon, Coconut, Lemon Flavors - Coi (San Francisco) (read my thoughts and see all my pictures from Coi)

Here are three dishes from a meal at Daniel Patterson's restaurant Coi, shortly after the chef announced that he would stepping out of the kitchen at the end of the year. He's bringing in a wonderful chef to take over – Matthew Kirkley, who served me a great meal at Chicago's L2O late last year – but I'm glad to have had a chance to experience Patterson's cooking at Coi. From Patterson's book:
Coi is part of a well-established tradition of restaurants that serve expensive tasting menus. We are mindful of that history, but there are some aspects of an haute cuisine dining experience that feel more symbolic than heartfelt, like building the menu around a procession of luxury ingredients. Products like truffles and caviar are expensive, but they aren't hard to find or challenging to prepare. They don't carry any particular emotional value for me, just the wan connotation of a bygone era when waiters wore white gloves. Nothing wrong with that, it's just not how I cook.
Well, sometimes exceptions can be made. I, for one, would never turn down this mound of caviar, served over a poached egg yolk nestled next to some silky creme fraiche sprinkled with chives. Again there's another little surprise: the gooey yolk has been imbued with the flavor of the smoked oil in which it was poached, the combination of roe and smoke bringing to mind the grill-smoked caviar served by Victor Arguinzoniz at Etxebarri.

Another dish from the Coi "greatest hits" collection. The primary ingredient is celtuce, featured both in thickly sliced discs and thin ribbons of its stalk. It has the hearty snap of a broccoli stem, and a delicately bittersweet flavor somewhere in the neighborhood of lettuce, celery and asparagus. Freshly dug potatoes are cooked until just tender, and crowned with caps of nutty, buttery melted comté cheese. These sit over an oil blackened with powdered burnt hay. Those black and charred aromas are brought back to green and fresh by a few wispy leaves of tarragon. "Coi" is an archaic French word meaning "quiet," and Patterson's cooking voice can be quiet, subtle, understated. Sometimes you have to listen closely. If you do so, in this dish maybe you'll hear something that sounds like a field of grass blown by the wind, with all these variations on the vegetal tastes of the pasture.

Then the next bite soothes. Gorgeously fragrant, sweet cubes of musk melon swim in a soup of their juices, intermingled with lemon flavors (something herbaceous here: lemon verbena?) and topped with a scoop of coconut sorbet. It's simple. And stunning.

(continued ...)

Monday, December 21, 2015

best dishes of 2015: part 2

Last week I kicked off part 1 of my "Best Dishes of 2015." It started with a dessert at the new Vagabond Restaurant on Biscayne Boulevard, one of my favorite new Miami restaurants, and ended with a brunch at Oakland's Boot and Shoe Service. Today, we pick up with another of my favorite additions to Miami's dining lineup, on the same stretch of Biscayne Boulevard as Vagabond, and spend some more time in Miami before a brief excursion to Chicago. Again, these are not "ranked" but listed in rough chronological order, and despite the title, make no pretense of really being the "best" of anything – only my personal favorites from a year of good eating in 2015.

Rice with Shrimp PasteCake Thai Kitchen (Miami MiMo District) (read my thoughts and see all my pictures from Cake Thai Kitchen)

I've often bemoaned the cookie-cutter nature of most Thai restaurants in Miami. Cake Thai Kitchen is something different: chef Phuket Thongsodchareondee, who previously worked at Makoto, serves fresh, vibrant Bangkok style street food unlike what you'll find pretty much anywhere else in town. I'll mention two dishes, since my favorite (the rice with shrimp paste) is no longer on the menu.

Let's start by talking about their pad thai (top center). This is a dish I usually order for the kids. I've never experienced one I liked, usually finding it sticky, sweet and insipid. Cake's version is revelatory: smoky crushed dried chilies, tangy tamarind, funky dried shrimp, briny head-on tiger prawns, savory ground peanuts, crisp fresh bean sprouts all jockeying for attention. Several of the components are nestled into corners of the container, requiring some last-minute DIY assembly. Toss it all together: now, the dish makes sense.

The rice with shrimp paste (top right) is another DIY project, and another favorite of mine. The low-tide funk of shrimp paste permeates the rice, which you toss with cubes of rich, salty-sweet pork belly, shredded omelet, crisp dried shrimp, bits of tart green mango, slivered raw shallots, fresh chilies, and a squeeze of lime. It's a great dish.

Royal Red Shrimp, Florida Seaweeds, Beef Tendon, Chicken Jus; Elderflower, Reduced Whey, Cucumber, Tomatillo – Cobaya Chang at Vagabond (Miami MiMo District) (read my thoughts and see all my pictures from our Cobaya dinner with Chef Alex Chang)

Foraging is not exactly a new thing – the influence of Rene Redzepi's Noma has turned chefs around the world into hunters and gatherers – but it's still not found its way into many Miami restaurant kitchens. Chang is looking to change that: here, he dusts royal red shrimp with dried seaweeds (foraged from along Key Biscayne) to bump up those oceanic flavors. The shrimp were served over a verdant sea purslane purée (another foraged ingredient), together with speckled lettuce leaves, crispy puffed beef tendon for a bit of crunch, and a reduced chicken jus for just a hint of richness. This was another great dish.

I've been pretty consistently wowed by the desserts at Vagabond (Chang doesn't have a pastry chef and does the desserts himself), and this was no exception: a creamy ice cream of reduced whey infused with elderflowers, together with a bright green cucumber granita, a sweet, tangy, just slightly vegetal tomatillo jam, and a sprinkle of elderflowers over the top. This is the kind of dessert I love: bright and refreshing, not too heavy, not too sweet, with a great contrast of textures.

Kanpachi SushiMyumi (Wynwood Miami) (read my thoughts and see all my pictures from Myumi)

Myumi is not your typical sushi bar. In fact, it's a truck – a converted FedEx delivery truck, stationed in a lot in Wynwood when I visited (it's since hooked up with the Wynwood Yard project and is working on a brick-and-mortar location) – serving an omakase only sushi menu. Myumi's rice was quite good: it holds together without being gummy or clumpy, preserving the distinct feel of each individual grain. And the fish is very good by Miami standards. I was particularly struck by the silver-skinned, pink-fleshed kanpachi (amberjack), dabbed with spicy, zesty yuzu kosho, which had a certain "snap" to the flesh.

Spaghetti VongolegastroPod (Wynwood Miami) (see all my pictures from gastroPod)

After dinner at Myumi, I popped next door to the gastroPod and had a chaser that turned out to be another of the best things I'd eat all year: Chef Jeremiah's version of spaghetti vongole. This is a product of his "Noodlehead" concept, a lineup of a few different kinds of fresh noodles that can be paired with an assortment of sauces, broths and other accompaniments. The "vongole" was a sort of Italian / Chinese hybrid, featuring briny fresh chopped clams in an XO-like paste of spicy chiles and fresh herbs.

(continued ...)

Thursday, December 17, 2015

best dishes of 2015: part 1

With the calendar winding to its end, that means it's list season. Not Santa's list; I'm referring to the annual tradition of "best" lists among food writers. Locally, we already have "2015's Best Dishes" lists from the Miami Herald and Miami New Times, plus "Best New Restaurants" lists from both as well (Herald; New Times). In the larger universe, the New York Times' Pete Wells has his "Top Ten Dishes" and "Top New York Restaurants," Eater has Robert Sietsema's "15 Best Dishes of 2015," The Guardian has an intriguing survey of several chefs' and food writers' "favourite meals this year," and Alex Balk has an – unusual – "Top 5 Memorable Meals" list over at The Awl (#2: "Two cough drops, Hoyt-Schermerhorn stop").

Before we all get full on lists, here's mine. Unrestrained by page limits or editorial discretion, this one goes to 45 (or something around there – we'll see), which is actually down from last year's 60. I must have become more discriminating in the past year. Some of these dishes come from ultra high end tasting menus; others are from simple, bare-bones joints. Geographically, more than half were home-grown here in South Florida, with most of the rest coming from multiple trips to the Bay Area this past year. Yes, the title of the post says "best," but such superlatives are of course meaningless; it's just a list of some personal favorites that stood out over a year of good eating. Here goes Part 1, which starts with a dessert (these appear in roughly chronological order):

Pistachio Cake, Fennel Panna Cotta, Roasted White Chocolate – Vagabond Restaurant (Miami MiMo District) (read my thoughts and see all my pictures from Vagabond)

Vagabond closes strong. The pistachio cake is among the best desserts I've had in Miami. The emerald green cake is pulled apart and crumbled over a fennel panna cotta, then draped with crumbles of roasted white chocolate and ribbons of candied fennel. There are such vivid, bright flavors here, and an interplay of textures that keeps you coming back for another bite. I'm not usually big on desserts, but this was excellent.

Smoked Mullet DinnerTed Peters Smoked Fish (St. Petersburg) (read my thoughts and see all my pictures from Ted Peters)

The picture does not quite convey the size of this gorgeous whole split fish, the skin and exposed flesh burnished golden-brown from the smoke, which perfumes but doesn't overwhelm. This, for me, is a happy meal: sitting on a picnic bench, picking sweet, smoky meat away from a fish carcass until all that's left is a pile of bones and a shell of shiny skin. If  a whole fish is too fiddly for you, the smoked fish spread is a generous serving for only $7.99 and is served with about a sleeve's worth of Saltines – but you may still want to get a side of that potato salad, liberally punctuated with bits of bacon.

The 4 Selection - Fodder & Shine (Tampa) (read my thoughts and see all my pictures from Fodder & Shine)

Maybe the best of the things we ate at Fodder & Shine were the vegetables, available either as side dishes, or a choice of four to make a meal. Lima beans, cooked down into a thick stew with onions and old sour, had a depth of flavor that belied their homely appearance. Beets roasted with cane syrup highlighted the root's natural sugars without being cloying. Greens braised with bacon were tender, smoky, salty and sweet. And possibly my favorite were the turnips and cabbage braised in butter, giving the humble vegetables a texture like rich velvet. From early reviews, the restaurant is getting a bit of grief for its prices, but the $15 we spent on this vegetable plate may be one of the best dining investments I will make all year.

Cauliflower, Harissa, Iberico Bellota, Roasted Pork Broth - Proof Pizza & Pasta (Wynwood Miami) (read my thoughts and see all my pictures from our Cobaya dinner at Proof)

This course was, for me, unexpectedly one of the best dishes of the night, and one of the most flavorful I've had in recent memory. A couple varieties of cauliflower florets were nestled over a creamy purée and draped with a slice of silky, salty, nutty jamón ibérico de bellota, given a jolt of heat from harissa and an enveloping richness from a dollop of roasted pork broth. I'm a firm believer that vegetable-centric dishes need not be austere (or vegetarian for that matter), and this was a great example.

Carolina Gold Rice Pudding, Honey Tangerine, Pork Skin "Churro" - gastroPod with Husk's Chef Travis Grimes (Wynwood Miami) (see all my pictures from gastroPod 2.0)

The "Charleston Ice Cream" served at Sean Brock's restaurant McCrady's – a simple dish of bay leaf infused Carolina Gold rice, perfectly cooked, garnished with a few fresh greens – was one of the best things I ate in 2012. So I'm not surprised to see this dessert, from that same great grain, from a collaboration between the chef de cuisine at Brock's second Charleston restaurant, Husk, and Chef Jeremiah of the gastroPod, on the list this year. This pudding tasted first of the grain, then of the sweet cream binding it together, with a sweet-tart contrast from honey tangerine segments and an airy, crisp pork skin "churro" to top things off.

(continued ...)

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Who Wore It Best?

In a post earlier this year, I mentioned a recent experience I had at St. Petersburg's Dalì Museum: seeing some of the artist's early works, what was most striking about them was how derivative they were. Several of Dalì's paintings from the late 1920's looked like lesser works of whichever contemporary he was currently in the thrall of, including many that bore remarkable similarities to Picasso's and Miro's works. It was not until the following decade that one of the most distinctive artists of the twentieth century actually found his own style – when Dalì started making paintings that looked like Dalìs.

The delicate subject of inspiration versus copying in the cooking world is one I've explored often here. Few, if any, artists start their careers with a fully formed vision of their style together with the technical ability to execute it. There's plenty of exploration, experimentation, and, yes, copying, that usually comes first. And I suspect it's much the same in the kitchen.

The complicating fact is that in the restaurant world, chefs generally aren't doing it in the privacy of cloistered artists' studios: they work in a public setting, serving up their creations on a plate to paying customers. Does it matter if those "creations" are sometimes very similar to dishes actually created by other chefs? If the primary focus of a restaurant meal is flavor, then perhaps not: a great-tasting dish tastes great, regardless of who thought it up first. And indeed, many outstanding dishes are the product of one chef taking another chef's idea and making it even better.

Some chefs unabashedly fess up to copying others. The Mission Street Food (the pop-up precursor to Mission Chinese Food) book talks about how they did "homage" dinners centered around their "phantom culinary heroes" including Rene Redzepi. Not having actually been to Noma, they had to "piece together our recipes by poring over images online and culling bits of information here and there, not unlike teenagers learning about sex from porn."  In Fancy Desserts, Del Posto's punk rock pastry chef Brooks Headley talks about how it can even happen subconsciously. He draws a cooking:music analogy between Noma and the Dead Kennedys as having unique and "un-rip-offable" styles, then notes how that didn't stop everyone – including himself – from trying to copy Noma: "For a long time, seeing sorrel and sea buckthorn berries on fine dining menus really pissed me off. (You can't rip off the Dead Kennedys, man!) But then I realized that I was doing it, too. I was so guilty, and I didn't even realize it." The incriminating evidence: pickled green strawberries.

So there shouldn't be any shame in it. But if you are copying (or paying homage, depending on how negative or positive a spin you wish to apply), how much, if any, credit ought you give? Should you do like David Kinch does when he serves an "Arpege egg" at Manresa? Can you be coy, like Pubbelly when it lists "dates AVEC chorizo" on the menu? Or is it sufficient to just assume that knowledgeable diners will be in on the joke (and oblivious diners won't care)? And with creativity an increasingly common component of the marketing pitch for new restaurants, what of Ferran Adríà's maxim, "creativity means not copying"?

I don't know all the answers. But I do know when something looks and/or tastes a lot like something I've had before. So, inspired by Us Weekly (and with a hat tip to JSDonn), here's my version of "Who Wore It Best?" Let me know what you think.

Who Wore It Best? (Round 1)

1. Roasted baby carrots, mole, hazelnut, yogurt, za'atar at Vagabond Restaurant, Miami.

2. Roasted carrots with mole poblano, yogurt and watercress at Empellon Cocina, New York.

My latest mantra is that "carrots and yogurt" is the new "beets and goat cheese" – a combination that seems to appear on every new menu in some form, and which despite its increasing ubiquity I'll still order because it's usually pretty darn good. But the similarities between a dish at chef Alex Chang's new Miami restaurant, Vagabond, and Alex Stupak's Empellon Cocina in NY go further: not just the carrots and the yogurt, but also the distinctive use of Mexican mole sauce, plus the tepee presentation, though some other components differ. (Note: Empellon has been serving this dish since at least 2012).

(continued ...)

Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Best Dishes of 2014 - Part 3

We're in the home stretch. Here is Part 3 of my favorite dishes of the past year. This last set includes several more welcome additions to the Miami dining universe: N by Naoe, Oolite, L'Echon Brasserie, Mignonette, Proof, Seagrape, plus dishes from chefs Diego Oka, Danny Grant and Brad Kilgore. There's also a few items from visits to the Northeast (Toronto, Boston, Maine and Quebec) and a couple great meals in Chicago a couple months ago. In case you missed it: Part 1 and Part 2. You can also see all the pictures in this Best Dishes of 2014 flickr set.

Bento Box – N by Naoe (Brickell Key, Miami) (read my thoughts and see all my pictures from N by Naoe)

A few minutes after you're seated, a three-tiered bento box is brought to your table. It's unpacked to reveal six compartments, each stocked with several different items – similar in style and quality to the elaborate bento that starts a meal at Naoe.

So what's inside? This day: a battera roll of madai (sea bream) and pickled kombu with fried canistel (a/k/a eggfruit); tender braised pork jowl with mustard and miso, with boniato, white asparagus and local green beans; house-made jackfruit seed tofu topped with Hokkaido uni, with junsai (a/k/a water shield, a sort of slippery aquatic plant); a bit of Maine lobster with avocado and pea shoots; grilled black-bellied rosefish (a local deepwater fish in the scorpionfish family) with key lime; the same fish in a different preparation, simmered, with roasted eggplant and okra; sashimi of snowy grouper with komochi kombu (herring roe that have been laid on seaweed) and delightfully sticky aori ika (big fin squid) pressed with nori. Also, in typical Japanese fashion, a rice bowl (studded with bamboo shoots), pickles (eggplant and kombu), and soup (corn miso with slivers of daikon radish and leek).

Snapper Crudo – Oolite (Miami Beach) (see all my pictures from Oolite)

I was crushed when Kris Wessel closed his beloved Red Light a few years ago. He wrote a beautiful menu for Florida Cookery in the James Hotel, but didn't stay long in the kitchen. Then this summer he resurfaced at Oolite, a new spot off Lincoln Road with a pronounced focus on healthy eating. There are still some old Red Light classics – Wessel's fantastic New Orleans style BBQ shrimp, and his smoked, guanabana glazed ribs – and some great new things too.

One of my favorites in the latter category is Oolite's snapper crudo:  lean, sweet pinkish-white slivers of local fish, bathed in ginger-infused citrus juices, and garnished with floral, sweet lychees or rambutans and chewy green pumpkin seeds.

Raie a la Grenoblaise, Cervelles de Veau MeuniereL'Echon Brasserie (Miami Beach) (read my thoughts and see all my pictures from L'Echon)

You can go old-school [at L'Echon]: there are seafood platters, pâté de campagne, steak tartare, moules and frites. Or you can find things more unconventional: hamachi crudo with black garlic soy, crushed tomatoes and olives, pan-roasted veal brains with brown butter and blue crab tartar sauce, a tartine topped with foie gras and nutella. There's also plenty in between, like this skate wing a la grenobloise, prepared with brown butter, capers, slivered grapes, and dried cranberries over a celeriac puree.

(continued ...)

Monday, December 29, 2014

Best Dishes of 2014 - Part 2

Picking up where we left off in our Best Dishes of 2014 – Part 1, here are the next twenty. The end of Part 1 coincided with the last days of our two week, twentieth anniversary trip to Japan. Part 2 here starts in Los Angeles, where I took Frod Jr. during his spring break for a quick college tour. I've never spent much time in LA and never particularly wanted to – I've always envisioned it as embodying some of Miami's worst features, on steroids. But I'll say this: there's some good eating there.

This set also includes a few great new additions to the Miami  restaurant landscape – BlackBrick, Zak the Baker and Niu Kitchen – and some outstanding one-off dishes from the increasingly deep pool of local talent, including Jeremiah Bullfrog, Timon Balloo, Brad Kilgore, Conor Hanlon and Giorgio Rapicavoli.

Jeremiah and I happened to be in NYC at the same time in June, and lucked into a last-minute seating at Atera – which was one of the best meals I had all year.

(You can see all the dishes in my Best Dishes of 2014 flickr set).

Chicken Gizzards with Beets and Endive, Agnolotti Alla VaccinaraBestia (Los Angeles) (see all my pictures from Bestia)

There are some combinations that sound so absurd that they have to either be fantastic or complete train wrecks. Needless to say, when I see them on a menu I'm drawn to them. The pan-roasted chicken gizzards with roasted beets, Belgian endive and capra sarda cheese at Bestia is a perfect example. There's nothing about this that makes sense, and yet it works beautifully, a compelling combination of assertive, often bitter flavors and substantial textures that I thorougly enjoyed.

The agnolotti at Bestia was not quite as far out there, but still was another bold – and delicious – dish: glossy pillows of pasta filled with silky braised oxtail, dyed the color of dark chocolate with cacao mixed into the pasta, and napped with a lush butter sauce speckled with pine nuts and currants.

Country Ham, Hushpuppies and Honey ButterSon of a Gun (Los Angeles) (see all my pictures from Son of a Gun)

Son of a Gun is the seafood-focused second restaurant of Jon Shook and Vinny Dotolo, who opened their first restaurant, Animal, to much acclaim in 2008 (South Florida connection: they went to culinary school in Fort Lauderdale and worked for Michelle Bernstein at the Strand before heading out to LA). We ate a lot of good things at lunch there – hamachi crudo with tart apples and crunchy sprouts topped with a kalbi vinaigrette, their brilliant little lobster roll – but  the surprise hit was a platter of salty-sweet Broadbent country ham served with a pile of hot, crispy hushpuppies and a swath of creamy honey butter. Wrap a slice of ham around a hushpuppy; swipe through the honey butter; and smile.

(continued ...)

Friday, December 26, 2014

Best Dishes of 2014 - Part 1

Sixty dishes? Really?

Well, it's been a really good year. 2014 started with a snowed-in fairy tale of a weekend in New York City. In February, Mrs. F and I celebrated our twentieth anniversary with a two-week trip to Japan that was every bit as thrilling as I had hoped, and then some. The next month, college visits for Frod Jr. over spring break provided a good excuse to visit Los Angeles for the first time in ages. Then the summer included a quick return to New York as well as visits to Toronto, Boston, Maine and Quebec. A brief Chicago jaunt in October served up a couple of my best meals of the year.

In between all of that, my hometown Miami has had a great year too. Several new restaurants have quickly become favorites, a new generation of young talent is starting to emerge, and established chefs have added to their repertoires. This may have been as good a year for Miami's food scene as there has been in the five years since I started writing this blog.

These dishes are presented in the order I ate them (this first batch is pretty Japan-intensive); you can see a full set of pictures in my Best Dishes of 2014 flickr set.

Whole-Roasted Chicken for TwoThe NoMad (New York) (see all my pictures from NoMad)

We arrived in New York just after New Years Day as a massive snowstorm was overtaking the city. Safely ensconced in the NoMad Hotel, we scurried around the corner for oysters and a carta di musica at the John Dory before settling in for drinks at the NoMad bar and then dinner at Daniel Humm's restaurant. The NoMad chicken is famous, and justifiably so: it is among the best birds I've ever eaten. The gorgeously burnished skin holds a layer of foie gras, brioche and truffle stuffing which perfumes the tender breast meat. The legs are made into a rich ragout with morels, a soft egg, and a tangy hollandaise. We awoke the next morning to an eery silence: not a single car on Broadway, all the streets still blanketed with snow. I can't imagine a better way to start the new year.

Ikura15 East (New York) (see my pictures from 15 East)

As a sort of warm-up for our upcoming Japan trip, we spent one of our nights in New York at 15 East for an omakase sushi fest with Chef Masato Shimitzu. It may not get the same attention as the astronomically priced Masa or fashionable upstarts like Sushi Nakazawa, but it was one of the best sushi experiences we've had outside of Japan. All the fish was excellent, but the standout was the ikura, glistening like jewels, enhanced but not overwhelmed by a dashi, soy and mirin cure.

Egg Salad and Mojama on Matzo; Mussels EscabecheEstela (New York) (see all my pictures from Estela)

For the past year, everyone in New York has been going nuts over Estela. From the outside, it was hard to tell exactly why. The dishes drawing raves sounded, and often looked, so plain. But having paid a visit, I now understand that Chef Ignacio Mattos likes to deliberately conceal the restaurant's charms. Descriptions are minimalist; his plating style is often almost aggressively unphotogenic (to say nothing of the dim, candlelit dining room). And yet his food is unique and delicious, in a trend-less way that is a welcome respite from the cookie-cutter approach you see in many restaurants around the country these days. We especially liked his rich, creamy egg salad served over crisp matzo garnished with a generous shaving of dried, salt-cured tuna; and the mussels escabeche served with a garden of herbs and vegetables over olive-oil drenched toast.

Pastrami TartareJosh's Deli (Surfside) (read my thoughts and see all my pictures from dinner at Josh's)

I unabashedly love what Joshua Marcus is doing at Josh's Deli. He cures his own corned beef, smokes his own salmon, bakes his own bagels; but despite the anachronistic focus on all house-made everything, this is not just a nostalgia trip. Classics share space with esoterica like "Jewban" sandwiches and zucchini latkes topped with tzatziki and salmon roe. On and off this past year he's rolled out a dinner menu that was very much in the same spirit. The best thing I had was this pastrami tartare, topped with a raw quail egg, bound with an oyster caesar dressing, and presented with a crisp bagel chip for scooping.

(continued ...)

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Help Kickstart Zak the Baker's Wynwood Bakery and Café

There are few things as elemental as bread. And yet there are few things as hard to find in Miami as a great loaf of bread. For me, that changed when I discovered Zak the Baker. For the past couple years, Zak the Baker (a/k/a Zak Stern) has been making beautifully simple natural leaven country bread. I got turned on to Zak's bread via Chef Michelle Bernstein, who has been serving it at her restaurant, Michy's. I rejoiced when my CSA farmer, Muriel Olivares of Little River Market Garden, started selling it on Saturdays at the Upper Eastside Farmers Market at Legion Park on Biscayne Boulevard. His bread is almost intensely crusty, its interior crumb is pocked with big airy holes, its flavor is hearty and rich. His bread has character, maybe even - dare I say it - soul.

(You can read more about Zak and his backstory in this feature in Edible South Florida, or this profile in Miami New Times).

For me, these are the kinds of things that elevate a food community: the folks who dedicate themselves to a particular craft, who focus on making one thing as best as they possibly can. Miami has plenty of glitzy restaurants with multi-million dollar investments behind them. It is still very much a work in progress when it comes to the network of farmers, bakers, butchers and fishmongers who can supply both restaurants and individuals with great products.

Sometimes, your community is what you make it. Here is one of those opportunities.

After spending a couple years gradually building up his business, working out of a variety of makeshift facilities, usually from early evening until late the next morning, Zak is making a big leap: he will be opening a bakery, retail outlet and café in Wynwood. And he's using Kickstarter to raise some of the capital needed to open the place. I said it a few weeks ago when I made my pledge:

With a week to go, Zak is more than 75% of the way to the additional $30,000 he is hoping to fund through Kickstarter. I don't normally use this platform for these kinds of purposes, but I'm doing so now: please help.

For a little insight, I dropped by the space yesterday to talk to Zak about what he envisions. Unfortunately, I didn't record our conversation or take notes, so this is more in the nature of loose impressions than an interview, but here is what I learned:

(continued ...)

Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Best Dishes of 2013 - Part 2

In the wee hours of last night I started on Part 1 of the Best Dishes I ate in the past year. Here, in chronological order, picking up right around mid-year, is Part 2, starting with a couple great things at the sadly now-closed BoxPark, then a trek through the Pacific Northwest, including the magnificent Willows Inn (my favorite meal of the year), along with a brief visit to New Orleans and several more great dishes here in Miami.

(You can see pictures of all of them in this 2013 Best Dishes flickr set).

Everglades Gumbo - BoxPark (Brickell) (my thoughts on BoxPark)

Chef Matt Hinckley’s version [of gumbo], like a lot of things at BoxPark from the house-made charcuterie to the “Brickell Pickles,” uses almost all locally sourced ingredients, some from rather unusual places. He makes his own andouille sausage using invasive feral pigs trapped by local farmers. Ruby red shrimp are seasonally harvested from deep waters off Florida’s east coast. Those “nuisance gators” that are often removed from local golf courses and swimming pools also go into the pot. Okra comes from independent Homestead farms. The sassafras for the gumbo filé is supplied by a small local family farm, then dried and ground into a powder at the restaurant. Even the salt comes from solar evaporated seawater harvested in the Florida Keys.

The result is not much to look at: a ruddy, roux-thickened stew studded with various bits and pieces. But what it lacks in beauty it makes up for in flavor: the tender, curled shrimp, the mildly aquatic alligator meat, the spicy, intensely porcine wild boar sausage, the vegetal snap of the okra, the subtle, complex aroma of sassafras, all supported by a backbeat of peppery heat and bound in a velvety, tomato-speckled broth. It’s a perfect combination of surf and turf and earth that is truly of this place.

Charcuterie - BoxPark (Brickell) (my thoughts on BoxPark)

Hinckley's charcuterie was also exceptional - more rustic in style than that at DB Bistro, which also made my list, but every bit as flavorful. This platter included duck prosciutto, porchetta di testa, lonza, saucisson sec, biltong, and some silky duck rillettes. Last I heard, Hinckley and partner / pastry chef Crystal Cullison were moving to New York - which is a real loss for Miami, but I'm eager to see what they do next.

Crepe with Salmon Roe, Maple Cream and Chive - Willows Inn (Lummi Island, WA) (my thoughts on Willows Inn)

A crisp delicate crepe shell wraps itself around a filling of salmon roe, maple cream and chives. It is creamy, salty, and sweet, the fresh green herb complimenting the roe's marine brine. It is also head-smackingly delicious.

Blackberries with Juice of Herbs and GrassesWillows Inn (Lummi Island, WA) (my thoughts on Willows Inn)

And then, for the first course, a dish that captures a sense of place possibly more perfectly than any other I've had. Plump blackberries rest in a pool of an emerald green juice of herbs and grasses, garnished with more of those same delicate herbs and their flowers. It is, very much literally, the landscape right outside the restaurant, on a plate.

Smoked Sockeye SalmonWillows Inn (Lummi Island, WA) (my thoughts on Willows Inn)

That salmon: reefnet caught, alderwood smoked, sockeye salmon, glistening, vibrant red, faintly warm, fatty, rich, smoky and sweet. You eat it with your hands. You want to go slowly, and savor every bite, but it's hard to resist. You surreptitiously watch your kids to see if they're going to finish theirs. You consider asking for more, even though it's a generous portion. You realize: this is the best salmon you are ever going to eat in your life.

(continued ...)

Best Dishes of 2013 - Part 1

As the year comes to a close, it's time for New Years' resolutions, and "Best Of..." listicles. I think one of my resolutions last year was to publish my "Best Dishes of the Year" list before the calendar turned, so if I can get this post up, I will have kept at least one resolution. The "lose 20 pounds" resolution will have to wait till next year.

2013 was a good year: trips to New York, Montreal, Vancouver, Seattle and New Orleans provided some great dining opportunities, but so did hometown South Florida. Here, in chronological order, are some of the best things I ate this past year:

(You can see all the dishes in this 2013 Best Dishes flickr set).

Vegetarian Ramen - Momi Ramen (Brickell) (my thoughts on Momi)

Though Chen has been reluctant to expand his offerings, if the vegetarian ramen I tried is any indication, he shouldn't be so worried. It was fantastic. It's not swimming in broth so the noodles can really shine, along with softened kombu (which the server explained that the chef harvested himself in Japan), menma (bamboo shoots), fresh enoki mushrooms, and scallions. The broth, a kombu dashi made from white kombu (loaded with glutamates) and okra juice, was a delicate, translucent yang to the yin of the hearty tonkotsu, but still had a serious umami punch.

Foie Gras - Eating House (Coral Gables) (my thoughts on Eating House)

I had this dish at the beginning of the year, shortly after Eating House reopened as a full-time restaurant. It was fantastic. Creamy foie gras mousse was frozen and then pulverized into little pebbles, which covered nuggets of roasted beetroot, dotted with beet purée and ripe blueberries, with a scatter of baby sorrel leaves and a hint of pink peppercorn.

Fava Bean Salad - Oak Tavern (Design District) (my thoughts on Oak Tavern)

One of the best things I've had from this corner of the menu is a dish of warm fava beans, piled in a happy tumble along with plump golden tomatoes, a poached egg, slivers of duck prosciutto, and shards of pecorino cheese. I particularly enjoy that the dish is focused around the vegetable, not the protein, with the other components the complementary players.

Pan con Lechon - Bread and Butter (Coral Gables)

Alberto Cabrera's Bread and Butter is a place I hope to get know a lot better in 2014. Cabrera's latest project - and seemingly the most personal he's ever done - seamlessly merges traditional Cuban flavors with contemporary style, and his "Pan con Lechon" is a perfect example: tender roast pork shoulder is nestled within a puffy, doughy Chinese style bao bun, drenched in mojo criollo and crowned with sautéed onions and fresh scallions.

Charcuterie Platter - DB Bistro Moderne (Miami)

I think DB's charcuterie is the best that can be found in Miami - and, indeed, some of the best I've had anywhere. The board usually features a couple different salumi, a few different pâtés, ruby-hued slices of cured ham, a half-moon of lush, silky foie grass mousse, an assortment of pickled cornichons and onions, and if you're lucky, crackling-crisp nuggets of pork rillons, like croutons of pure pork belly, or maybe rich duck rillettes, glistening with translucent duck fat.

Steak Tartare Slider - PB Steak (Miami Beach)

Much like the famed "Little Oyster Sandwich" at The Dutch that it appears to be modeled after, the Steak Tartare Slider may be one of the food world's perfect bites. A mound of bright ruby-hued raw chopped sirloin is tucked into a fluffy sesame-seed flecked bun, along with a dab of truffle mustard and some crispy shoestring fries. Pair it with their ceviche taquito or mini-lobster roll and you've got the ideal surf-n-turf appetizer.

(continued ...)