Showing posts with label tapas. Show all posts
Showing posts with label tapas. Show all posts

Wednesday, July 9, 2014

first thoughts: Niu Kitchen - Downtown Miami

About a month ago I stumbled across a short blurb on Eater for a "new Catalan-inspired eatery" that had opened in downtown Miami: Niu Kitchen. "A little intriguing," I said. Then several good reports came back from folks who had visited. A couple weekends ago, I finally made made it in to see for myself.

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

Niu Kitchen turns out to be a shoebox-sized restaurant squeezed into a small space in a central but nondescript stretch of downtown Miami, a block south of the Miami-Dade College campus. Seating maybe twenty five, it was clearly decorated on a tight budget but succeeds in feeling both homey and contemporary, with its reclaimed wood paneled walls and exposed bulbs hanging from the ceiling.

It also turns out to not just be "Catalan-inspired," but the actual real deal. Chef Deme Lomas was a chef in Barcelona (I believe this is the place) before making his way to Miami, where he first found work as a line cook at Barceloneta, then joined Niu Kitchen. His menu mixes traditional Catalan dishes like trinxat ($10), a potato and cabbage pancake bearing an uncanny similarity to the classic English "bubble and squeak," topped here with butifarra sausage and pancetta, with more extemporaneous items like his gamba tartare ($13), a mince of translucent, sweet shrimp over diced tomatoes and confited potatoes, presented with the shrimp's head so you can squeeze its juices onto the dish.

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Saturday, November 9, 2013

Tapas - Spanish Design for Food @ The Moore Building

According to Penelope Casas' excellent book "Tapas: The Little Dishes of Spain," the original tapa was a slice of cured ham or chorizo, served compliments of the house, and - according to some - placed over the top of the customer's wineglass to keep flies out of the sherry. In other words, it was a simple, effective, and delicious confluence of food and design.

The exhibition "Tapas - Spanish Design for Food," currently on display at the Moore Building in the Design District, explores and celebrates that confluence, using Spanish tapas as the springboard. Organized by Acción Cultural Española, and curated by Spanish architect Juli Capella, it's a fascinating glimpse into the circular relationship of cuisine, art, design and culture.

The displays are divided into sections - "The Kitchen," "The Table," and "The Food" - with a well-selected compilation of objects created for each. They range from the utterly pragmatic - a set of cookware designed by José Andrés - to the entirely whimsical - a cutting board with a chute for bread crumbs connected to an outdoor bird feeder. Here are just a few of the fun things I saw at a media preview yesterday:

(You can see all my pictures in this Tapas - Spanish Design for Food flickr set).

"Jamón de la Crisis" - designed by Julí Capella, produced by Vinçon - one of the most famous of Spain's culinary icons, but in consideration of the recent economic collapse, rendered in recyclable plastic and "filled with pure, Spanish mountain air." "Cured in 2008, on sale in 2013."

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Sunday, April 28, 2013

Oak Tavern - Miami Design District

Turns out, I'd been stalking Chef David Bracha for decades without knowing it.

Go back about twenty years, and a couple of my favorite restaurants were Norman Van Aken's A Mano in the Betsy Hotel on South Beach, and his more casual Stars & Stripes Café in the same property.[1] A few years later, a romantic little spot opened up in the Harrison Hotel on Washington Avenue, called "411." (Remember when using the address number was the big trend in restaurant names? What was everyone thinking?) We loved 411, which felt like an elegant, secret hideaway, but it didn't last very long.

Not long after 411 closed, I remember eating at Fishbone Grill, a casual seafood place next to Tobacco Road on Miami Avenue. There was a dish there - crabcakes served with a cherry and apple slaw, and a smoked almond tartar sauce - that was identical to one of my favorite dishes at 411. "They copied the dish!" I thought.

Well, you've probably figured out what it took me several more years to deduce: it was all the same guy, Bracha - who helped Van Aken open A Mano, then went out on his own with 411, and later opened Fishbone Grill, which later made way for the very popular River Oyster Bar at the same spot. And indeed, you can still find that same crabcake dish on the menu at the River.

More recently, Bracha opened Oak Tavern in the Design District, in one of those spots that's seen a procession of restaurants come and go - the old Piccadilly Garden, then the reincarnated Pacific Time, most recently a Spanish place whose name I've already forgotten (probably because the food was equally unmemorable). Bracha's made the venue more inviting than its prior incarnations. A huge live oak tree is now the centerpiece for the outdoor courtyard, which is a comfortable, placid place to dine when temperatures permit. Inside, a long communal table divides the bar from the dining room; a rough stone wall along the back, lined with leather banquettes, as well as four tall lamps clustered in the center of the dining room like a stand of trees, provide some visual relief from the low-slung, box-like feel of the space.

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

Where the River is primarily a seafood place, Oak Tavern is more omnivorous in its approach. Though the oyster selection is not as varied as at the River, there are usually at least a few varieties on offer, plus about a half dozen other various crudos and ceviches. There are about an equal number of charcuterie choices, including occasional house-made items (I'm disappointed that the coppa di testa I tried on my first visit hasn't resurfaced since). Like Design District neighbor Michael's Genuine, small plates are a big focus. But any number of larger dishes from land and sea are available too, as well as several pizzas from a wood-burning oven, and a few pastas as well. It's a long, and fairly ambitious menu. So where are the highlights?

I've yet to go astray among the small plates. The crostini in particular have been consistently great. Picked stone crab over a shmear of avocado is bright and fresh, while boquerones with roasted peppers, kale and ricotta provide a more pronounced taste of the ocean. Bacon "marmalade" spread over some Rogue Creamery Caveman blue cheese offers a great interplay of salty, sweet, meaty, funky and creamy.

Some of my other favorites among the "small plate" options have included a verdant, spicy gazpacho verde, creamy deviled eggs topped with paddlefish caviar, and silky foie gras mousse with a crown of fresh strawberry jam. "Banh Mi" sliders stuffed with pork belly, more of that foie gras mousse, and pickled vegetables are a carryover from the River's bar menu, and a worthy one at that.

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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.

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Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Estiatorio Milos - Miami Beach

I started this blog with the purpose of sharing great dining experiences in the Miami area, but I'll admit it: there are times that I'd like to keep some things to myself. There's a certain pleasure in having secrets, particularly when they're small, intimate places that for an hour or two you can sort of claim as your own.[1]

Estiatorio Milos

Estiatorio Milos, the newish Greek restaurant from Costas Spiliadis on the SoFi[2] end of South Beach, is far from a small, intimate place. To the contrary, Milos (which has siblings in Athens, New York, Montreal, and Las Vegas) is built on a grand scale. It seats a couple hundred in a breezy wide-open space with billowing white curtains and natural blond wood all around. The back of the dining room has an extravagant display of fish and seafood, flown in overnight from the Mediterranean and packed on ice. They're so impeccably fresh that even right next to the display, the only fish you smell are the ones cooking nearby in the open kitchen, on massive open grills with grates that can be wheeled up or down to control their proximity to the heat.

fish case

(You can see all my pictures in this Estiatorio Milos flickr set, or click on any picture to view it larger).

The menu at Milos is minimalist: basically, you can choose from among a few raw seafood items, several typical Greek meze, salads and vegetables. Then go pick your fish and decide if you want it grilled or perhaps baked in a salt crust. There are lamb chops and a few steaks for the landlubbers. And that's it.

But the menu also has prices to match the grandiosity of the venue: The "Milos Special" appetizer, a tower of fried zucchini and eggplant with cubes of kefalograviera cheese and tzatziki, is around $30;[3] four little slices of avgotaraho (cured mullet roe) on crostini ran me $32; those fish you see have price tags in the $40's and $50's per pound. These tariffs quickly add up to make Milos one of the most expensive dining propositions in town.

Whether it's worth it depends a lot on how passionate you are about über-fresh seafood: yes, it's very pricey, but the red mullet (barbouni, for the Greek) we had one visit was so fresh it seemed still ready to jump back into the water.[4] An item rarely seen around these parts, this is one fish they elect to delicately fry instead of grill, and it was fantastic: plump, firm flesh with an almost crustacean sweetness. And there really is something inspirational about that display case: my 12-year old daughter has seen me pick apart plenty of whole fish, but was never inclined to do so on her own until she saw those mullets.

Curiously, Milos is both one of the most expensive restaurants in town and one of the most affordable depending on how you do it: while the regular menu is borderline prohibitive, they also offer a much more wallet-friendly three-course lunch special (recently increased from $20.12 to $24.07), and a $49 four-course dinner special from 5:00-7:00 pm (and all day on Sunday).[5]

But I'm not really here to tell you about the regular restaurant.

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Tuesday, July 24, 2012

The Bazaar for Dummies

So let's say you want to eat at Bazaar South Beach, but you don't have the patience to wade through 4,000 words and 19 footnotes to figure out what to order. Here's my version of "The Bazaar for Dummies" - a simplified (and opinionated) guide to the 60+ item menu. For more details, consult the long-playing version.

Must Have:[1]

Papas a la Huancaina - Peruvian potatoes, sea urchin
Baby Japanese Peaches - fresh burrata, hazelnuts, arugula
Black Rossejat - paella-style pasta, squid ink, shrimp, aioli

Really, Really Good:

Kueh Pai Ti - Singapore's favorite street food - shrimp, peanuts, chili sauce
"Colada Cubana" Yogurt - coffee with foie gras
Almond Yogurt - tomato granite, fresh almonds
Smoked Oysters - ice and smoke, apple mignonette
Jamon de Toro - salt-cured fatty tuna like Spanish jamón with picas
Yuca "Churros" - with peanut butter and honey
Ajo Blanco - mango, sherry ravioli, king crab, fresh almonds
Butifarra Flauta - piquillo peppers, aioli, piparra
Frozen Blue Cheese Sandwich - lemon marmalade, walnut bread
Mediterranean Mussels - olive oil, sherry vinegar, pimentón
Sautéed Catalan Spinach - apples, pine nuts, raisins
Pa amb Tomaquet - Catalan-style toasted bread, tomato
Patatas Bravas - fried potatoes, spicy tomato sauce, aioli
Escalivada with Blue Cheese - Asturias meets Catalonia, José's two loves!
Sea Urchin - butter, black pepper, toasted bread
José's Taco - caviar, jamón Ibérico
Banana Mojito - mojito sorbet, mint and caramelized bananas
Key Lime Pie - José's way

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Monday, July 23, 2012

The Bazaar - South Beach

If it wasn't the most eagerly anticipated restaurant opening in Miami, The Bazaar was certainly the most long-awaited. Speculation that Chef José Andrés might be opening a Bazaar in Miami started all the way back in early 2009, shortly after the original Bazaar Los Angeles opened, when the SLS hotel chain started work on the Ritz Plaza hotel on South Beach.[1] The patter continued in 2010. And then we waited. And waited. And waited, as is the customary Miami style.

Finally last month, Bazaar South Beach opened. It was worth the wait.[2]

I've not been to The Bazaar in L.A., but I've been to several other of Chef Andrés' establishments - Washington DC's Jaleo several times, minibar back in 2008, the now-closed Café Atlantico, plus more recent visits to é and China Poblano in Las Vegas. (For more background on Chef Andrés, read my post on é.) The Bazaar borrows bits and pieces from each of them. There are traditional Spanish tapas, many of which are mainstays on the Jaleo menu. There are more contemporary dishes, often derived from items that started as part of the minibar and é multi-course extravaganzas. And there's even a section of the menu described as "Miami Meets the World," an unusual conglomeration of Singapore street foods, ceviches and "nigiri," and several more items with Latin American flavors, similar to the Asian / Mexican mash-up he does at China Poblano.[3] It is a sprawling, ambitious menu - perhaps even more so than the original Bazaar in L.A.

The venue itself is not quite as grand as I might have anticipated, though it's growing on me. The Ritz Plaza is one of Miami Beach's old Art Deco hotels, built in 1939, and like many of the Art Deco properties, it doesn't really have a separate space set aside for a restaurant. What this means is that as soon as you pass through the hotel doors, you've stumbled into the "Rojo" room, the first of two dining rooms of The Bazaar, with the hotel's check-in desk off to the other side of the entrance.

(You can see all my pictures in this Bazaar - South Beach flickr set).

Done up in traditionally Spanish red and black colors but with a contemporary feel, this is the more casual of the dining rooms. Two- and four-tops line the near wall, while larger tables, some bar-height, occupy the middle of the room, flanked on the far wall by a bar and open kitchen.[4] A taxidermied bull's head wearing a lucha libre mask, by artist Mikel Urmeneta,[5] looks out from one wall, while above the bar is a mural by local artist Claudio Picasso that hearkens back to the hotel's original Art Deco style.

On the other side of the bar and kitchen is the "Blanca" dining room, simultaneously a little more posh and a little more cozy. Much of the seating is on well-cushioned sofas; knick-knacks and antique photos adorn ledges on the walls; a massive shell-encrusted chandelier hangs from the ceiling. It looks like it could be your abuela's living room, if your abuela hired Phillippe Starck as a decorator.[6]

A good way to start a meal is with a LN2 frozen caipirinha, a fun bit of tableside cryotechnics by which the traditional Brazilian concoction of cachaca, lime and sugar is mixed with super-cold liquid nitrogen in a dramatic billow of steam to a perfect slushy consistency.

At $5 each, it's also the "Joe's Fried Chicken"[7] of the Bazaar menu, even if the portion size has been tapered back a bit since my first round.

You could alternatively start with "The Ultimate Gin & Tonic," which at $18 is no bargain at all, but is still a very fine drink. Spaniards are obsessed with the "gintonic," and this version plays up that obsession by reintroducing the botanicals typically used in the spirit: Fever Tree tonic, juniper berries, fresh herbs and flowers, and lime mingle in the glass along with your choice of gins.[8]

This will also give you some extra time to peruse the menu, which you're going to need. With over sixty items - even more if you count the selections of Spanish hams and cheeses - it's a fairly daunting prospect, even for an avid menu decoder like myself.[9] Almost exclusively tapas-style small plates, the choices divide into two main themes - "Miami Meets the World" and "Spain Yesterday and Today" - which each get further broken down into several subdivisions. The "Miami" section includes a "Singapore Connection," "Yogurts and Cones," "New Generation Nigiri and Ceviche," "Seafood," "Fruits and Vegetables," "Meats," and "Some Little Sandwiches." "Spain" includes "Latas y Conservas," "Jamones y Embutidos," "Quesos," "Verduras Tradicional," "Pescado y Marisco," and "Carnes."

Ready? Let's dive in.

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Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Barceloneta - South Beach

I was sure I was going to love Barceloneta. I have a long-abiding passion for Spanish food, so when the team behind Pubbelly set out to create a restaurant inspired by the markets and bistros of Barcelona, it seemed aimed for my sweet spot. Indeed, even at Pubbelly, which styles itself as an "Asian-inspired gastropub," it was the Spanish influences I was most drawn to, and I found myself wishing they would just open a straight-ahead Spanish tapas bar.


Wish granted. Playing off the success of Pubbelly, its owners have taken over most of the rest of the short block around the corner from Purdy Avenue, heading in a more Asian direction with Pubbelly Sushi on one end, and in a distinctly Spanish direction with Barceloneta on the other, where Chef Juliana Gonzalez runs the kitchen.

So is it everything I hoped for? Almost, but not quite.

In my head, I imagined a Barcelona tapas bar like Chef Carles Abellan's Tapaç 24, a place with lots of small dishes served at a big bar. Barceloneta's layout is instead dominated by one long communal table that stretches most of the length of the room; and while there are other seating options - several 2- and 4-tops inside and outside, a few barstools around wine barrels - only about six of them are actually at the bar, which regularly gets crowded with people jostling for drinks while waiting to be seated.


(You can see all my pictures in this Barceloneta flickr set; apologies for the wonky lighting in several of them).

The menu, likewise, is not really a tapas bar format. Instead, it's divided into two sections: "Mercat" and "Bistro." Though it makes up the bottom part of Barceloneta's menu, let's start with the "Bistro" category, as it comes closer to the tapas bar of my imagination, featuring both some very traditionally Catalan dishes and others with more contemporary twists, though with portion sizes (and prices) that skew somewhat larger than customary tapas offerings.[1]

pulpo a feira

As to the more contemporary dishes, one of my favorites was the Pulpo a Feira. Traditionally a Galician dish of boiled octopus sprinkled with paprika and served with boiled potatoes, Barceloneta's version takes a number of liberties. First and foremost, its initial appearance reveals no octopus at all, as it's hidden beneath a veil of thick potato foam. Also lurking within are bits of chorizo, piquillo peppers, and confited tomatoes, the surface then dusted with pimentón de la Vera and drizzled with chorizo oil. The peppers and tomatoes provide a nice bright contrast to the potato foam, which otherwise might overwhelm the dish with its richness.

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Monday, January 9, 2012

é by José Andrés - Las Vegas

é by Jose Andres

If Ferran Adrià is thought of by many as the great inventor of contemporary Spanish cuisine, than José Andrés is surely its great ambassador. Where Adrià, chef of the now-closed el Bulli, has dedicated his culinary career to the relentless pursuit of creativity and creation, Andrés (who trained with Adrià at el Bulli) has been equally dedicated to the promotion of both traditional and contemporary Spanish cooking in the U.S., and has perhaps achieved more recognition and success in doing so than any other chef of the past twenty years.

Andrés opened Jaleo, a tapas bar and restaurant offering a wide range of traditional Spanish regional dishes, in Washington DC in 1993. Before the decade had closed, he was recognized as a James Beard Rising Star Chef, followed in 2003 with an award for Best Chef: Mid-Atlantic. That same year, he opened minibar, which showcased some of the products of the culinary revolution that was overtaking Spain, spearheaded by Adrià and others.

The format of minibar was unique. Described as a "restaurant within a restaurant," physically it was really nothing more than a six-seat sushi bar tucked into a corner of an upper floor of his Café Atlántico restaurant, with a few kitchen tools (circulator, blender, fryer, a couple portable burners) jerry-rigged behind it.[1] The menu of 25+ small dishes, many of which were one- or two-bite "munchies" or "snacks," was undoubtedly inspired by the sprawling tasting menus of el Bulli. So were many of the dishes themselves, some of which had direct antecedents in Adrià's work. But the "minibar" format also brought another intriguing element - interactivity, with two chefs working directly in front of the diners to do the final preparation and plating of the dishes. With only six seats and only two seatings a night, minibar is perennially one of the toughest reservations to score in DC.

Since opening minibar, Andrés has expanded the geographic scope of his ambassadorship, moving into Los Angeles with The Bazaar in 2008, and into Las Vegas in 2010 with a branch of Jaleo along with China Poblano, both in the Cosmopolitan resort. Also tucked away within Jaleo is é: an 8-seat "restaurant within a restaurant" featuring only a set degustation menu, very much along the same lines as minibar. Virtually nothing is done to promote é: there's just a one-page website listing an email address for reservation requests; it's not even listed on the website of the parent company for Andrés' ventures, Think Food Group. But it's definitely worth knowing about.[2]

(You can see all my pictures in this é by José Andrés flickr set).


Unlike minibar, where you're literally sitting in a corner of the main dining area, é gets its own private room within Jaleo. The centerpiece is the kitchen bar, a rounded arc with eight seats circled around an open "kitchen" (though it's really more plating than cooking that goes on here).[3] The effect is decidedly theatrical, and the sense of having stepped into the middle of some sort of performance is enhanced by a space that feels more theater set than dining room, walls lined with card catalog drawers and various knick-knacks. A team of three chefs performs final preparations and plates each of the dishes, which are then handed directly to the diners.[4]

Much of the cooking at é is what got called, until recently, "molecular gastronomy," and now seems to have taken on the sobriquet of "modernist cuisine." In other words, there's liquid nitrogen, and foams, and lots of other textural transformations at work. I'll circle back to the issue of whether, as some might claim, this style of cooking is already passé in light of the advent of what gets called the "New Naturalism."[5] I bring it up here only to note that the interactivity and intimacy has an interesting effect: the ability of the diners to see the preparations, hear the story behind each dish as it's presented, and ask questions of the chefs, creates a connection to the food that might not be otherwise established in the same way. It won't necessarily make a dish taste any better, but I think it demystifies food that some find alienating and inaccessible, without taking away any of the novelty of its presentation.

We visited é in late December and they were serving a special holiday menu loaded with luxury ingredients (and priced quite a bit more than the "regular" menu), so the meal you see here may not be entirely representative. Even so, some of my favorite dishes were those with the humblest components.

gin & tonic

The meal started, as good meals often do, with a cocktail: a "Gin and Tonic," to be precise. With evaporating liquid nitrogen billowing across the workspace, one of the chefs prepared a gin sorbet a la minute, which was then topped with a tonic froth and a grating of fresh citrus zest - a refreshing rearrangement of the traditional drink.


A collection of little snacks followed.

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Saturday, September 24, 2011

CobayaJeremiah with Chef Jeremiah Bullfrog


Though our Cobaya - Gourmet Guinea Pigs events are sometimes called "underground" dinners, that's probably a bit of a misnomer, since we happily have some events in operating restaurants. But we really do strive for each of them to be an experiment. What we want, very simply, is for both chefs and diners to see it as an opportunity to try something new and different, to take chances.

Chef Jeremiah Bullfrog of the gastroPod has been one of our most steadfast supporters and facilitators since we started doing these dinners two years ago. He didn't cook our first dinner, but he did do the second one, and has lent a hand and sometimes even a kitchen to several others. So when Jeremiah came back from a trip to the MAD FoodCamp in Copenhagen and a stage at Noma[1] restaurant full of inspiration, we were glad to line up another dinner.

There were several firsts for this dinner: it was our first time trying staggered seatings, with rounds of about 8 diners being seated every half hour instead of one big communal table; it was our first time using this particular space, which had some temperature challenges;[2] and it was our first time with a tasting menu this ambitious, more than 15 courses all told. The idea was that the smaller seatings would let the cooks focus more on each plate as it went out instead of cranking out 35-45 plates at once.[3]

You can see all my pictures from the dinner in this CobayaJeremiah flickr set.

the dining room

The dinner started with a cocktail: the "Fernet Sour" mixed clarified Fernet Branca with clarified grapefruit juice, cooled with a blast of liquid nitrogen. Fernet is a profoundly, eye-crossingly bitter digestif, one of those concoctions of roots, twigs, spices and herbs that tastes like it must be either really good for you or poisonous. It is the epitome of an "acquired taste" - one that I sometimes enjoy after a heavy meal for its seeming purifying powers, but not one I've ever had to start a meal. Here, I suppose it could be seen as having the same kind of palate-cleansing effect as Heston Blumenthal's nitro-poached green tea and lime mousse at the Fat Duck. But I couldn't finish a full flute of it.

snack: pickles

There followed an extensive progression of various "snacks," starting with a pickle plate clearly inspired by the Noma aesthetic. Pink radishes were topped with paper-thin, faintly crisp shards of (Benton's?) ham. Pickled okra was coated in a light tempura batter and fried. And tiny beets were halved and pickled, served with a sphere of rosewater-infused yogurt spheres resting on a nest of noodle-like beet strands. I liked the bold flavors, the interplay of salty and sour, the variation in textures, and the communal presentation on a long plank.[4]

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Saturday, August 27, 2011

Coba-Yakko-San - Cobaya Dinner with Chef Hiro-San

Tuna and Salmon Sashimi Salad

There is no restaurant I have eaten at more often than Hiro's Yakko-San. I literally can not count the times: for the past five years we've been there probably an average of once a month, but often as frequently as weekly, with Sunday dinner at Yakko-San being something of a family tradition. So yeah, I kind of like it.

Our kids grew up on their chicken katsu and kurobuta pork sausages, later finding their own favorites among the more than 100 items on the menu (for Little Miss F: kimchi tofu, octopus ceviche, seabass miso, lotus root kimpira; for Frod Jr., edamame, salmon onigiri, yakiniku don, shoyu ramen). For years Yakko-San was located in a hole-in-the-wall on Dixie Highway where the waits for tables often flowed out the front door. Recently they moved to a bigger, fancier location on 163rd Street Causeway which has more than enough room for everyone. It also has room to set aside a space for 30 guinea pigs, giving us an opportunity to do a Cobaya dinner there.

The Cobaya "mission statement" is pretty much parallel to what the Japanese call "omakase," or "It's up to you, chef." That's what we told Chef Hiro-san, and he prepared a seven-course meal, many of which had multiple components. I will be candid in saying that I was hoping it might be more adventurous - this was more crowd-pleaser stuff - but especially for those who had never been to the restaurant before, it was a good introduction to Yakko-San's" izakaya-style (often called "Japanese tapas") repertoire.

You can see all my pictures from the dinner in this CobaYakkoSan flickr set. Here is the menu, with further descriptions and pictures below:

Chamame Edamame
Plum Wine
Tuna, Salmon Sashimi Salad
Crispy Fish Onion Salad
Nigori Sake
Shrimp Spicy Mayo, Fried Oyster
Hitosuji Junmai Sake
Kalbee Yakiniku and Spinach Butter
Akita Junmai Ginjo Sake
Seabass Miso Yaki
Kikuizumi Dai Ginjo Sake
Uni Garlic Pasta
Assorted Maki
Iki na Ona Dai Ginjo
Green Tea and Orange Mochi Ice Cream, Strawberry with Mint Cream
Dessert Pear Sake

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Tuesday, May 31, 2011

City Snapshots: Washington DC Dining

Over the past couple months we've done a bit of traveling and, as we always try to do, some good eating along the way. Memory, notes, and photos are not necessarily as good as might be hoped, and so instead of full recaps of meals, here are some quick thoughts on some of the places we visited. I don't begin to pretend that a brief few days can begin to capture the dining zeitgeist of a city; rather, these are more in the nature of personal travelogues. First, a trip to Washington DC over the kids' spring break.

Possibly my favorite of the places we dined at was Palena. Located a bit northwest from central DC, but easily accessible by the DC Metro, Palena has a more formal Dining Room with a prix fixe menu, and a more casual Café with a la carte offerings. With kids in tow, we went the latter route. The food is Italianate (Chef Frank Ruta's family hails from Abruzzo), but not in a way that insists on banging you over the head with it. An appetizer of baby calamari was quickly cooked with Sicilian flavors of tomato, caperberries and chilies. Both roasted and raw slivered beets were paired with hazelnuts in a salad. A steak was cooked over a wood-fired grill that lent a touch of smokiness to the meat, served with an elemental salad of bibb lettuce and blue cheese and nicely crisp fries. But the real standout for me was an absolutely pitch-perfect bollito misto, with tender, deeply flavored veal tongue and corned beef in a soul-restoring broth, rounded out by a coddled duck egg and a few root vegetables. It's deceptively hard to do "simple" foods well; Palena made them shine.

3529 Connecticut Avenue NW
Washington DC

Palena on Urbanspoon

I was hoping to take the whole family to José Andrés' minibar, but we were unable to score a reservation. Instead we made a trip to his more straight-ahead tapas restaurant, Jaleo, as well as a visit to Café Atlantico for its "Nuevo Latino Dim Sum Brunch."[1] Jaleo is something like a living encyclopedia of tapas, with nearly 70 tapas selections, along with several paellas for those with even more robust appetites. They range from ubiquitous classics like pan con tomate and tortilla de patatas, to regional specialties like the Canary Islands' papas arrugas and Catalan esqueixada, to more unique items like calamares with pine nut praline and a Pedro Ximenez reduction, or seared salmon with a cauliflower purée and raspberries.

We found that some of the best items were those that hewed more closely to tradition, where Chef Andrés creates what may be close to the platonic ideals of classic Spanish dishes. An order of pan con tomate brings toasted but not completely crunchy bread, spread with softly tangy puréed tomato, a  generous drizzle of olive oil and sprinkling of salt completing the composition. His croquetas come to the table hot, with a crisp fragile shell encasing molten bechamel and shredded chicken. Buñuelos de bacalao achieve the same balance, with a honey aioli to play against the salty fishiness of the dried cod. Another contrast of sweet and salty is played out by the berenjenas a la miel, the feathery light fried eggplant glazed with a drizzle of honey.

Ensalada rusa, the curiously named Spanish potato salad (what's Russian about potatoes, peas and carrots bound in mayo?), is given double richness from a generous hand with the mayonnaise and luscious canned Spanish tuna, plus an extra layer of flavor provided by strips of piquillo peppers. I am a huge fan of ensalada rusa and this was one of the best I've had. Fried dates wrapped in bacon are accurately described in the menu as "como hace todo el mundo" (that you will want to eat every day). And those papas arrugas - wrinkly, generously salted marble-sized baby potatoes served with a pungent mojo verde reminiscent of an Argentine chimichurri - are equally addictive.

Surprisingly, the dishes we found to be less successful were the more creative ones. Those calamares with sweet pine nut praline and a Pedro Ximenez reduction couldn't successfully bridge the gap between seafood and sweet. The same was true of the salmon with a (vanilla-touched?) cauliflower purée and raspberries. On the other hand, a dish called Arroz de Pato "Jean Louis-Palladin," after the legendary DC chef, featuring rice with duck confit, topped with a seared duck breast, and drizzled with a foie gras cream, was an overdone layering of rich upon rich.

But Chef Andrés deserves culinary sainthood if for no other reason than that he was instrumental in enabling the import of Spanish jamón ibérico into the United States. Jaleo was the first place it was served in the U.S., and there is possibly no more perfect dish than a plate of jamón ibérico de bellota. Priced at $22 at Jaleo, it's a worthwhile indulgence.[2]

480 7th Street NW
Washington DC

Jaleo on Urbanspoon

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Friday, September 24, 2010

San Sebastian Pintxos - Casa Senra, Mil Catas, Hidalgo 56

Casa Senra is not the most celebrated of San Sebastian's pintxos bars. But after a couple of visits, it's proving to be one of my personal favorites. Senra is not in the scenic Parte Vieja, but in the more business-like Barrio Gros,[*] and its layout is simple and utilitarian: a long bar stacked with platters of pintxos, along with several picnic-style benches along the wall, plus a few tables outside. Its pintxos are perhaps not as adventurous or inventive as some you might find. But the staff is friendly, the quality of the ingredients excellent, and the croquetas - well, they're possibly the best I've had anywhere.

The two pintxos closest to the foreground in this picture were a couple of my favorites: bacalao mousse topped with shavings of serrano ham and caramelized onions, and then behind those, soft bacon topped with escalivada-style grilled peppers, fried eggplant, Swiss cheese, and some more onions. Though these are out on the bar for the taking, the bartenders will quickly shepherd them back to the kitchen to warm up before serving.

Additional warm items are prepared by the kitchen as they're ordered, and we tried a couple of these:

Txipirones, served over a bed of chestnut purée, with some confit potatoes, all generously drizzled with a jet-black squid ink sauce, and topped with some frizzy fried leek greens. The combination of squid and chestnut seemed unlikely, but could perhaps be seen as a play on the longstanding tradition of mar y montaña (surf 'n' turf) dishes so common throughout Spain. It was a dramatic-looking dish with equally bold flavors.

Possibly even richer was the "Champi con Foie," with mushrooms and seared foie gras cloaked under a creamy aioli, with some reduced vinegar and a drizzle of green herb sauce for a bit of contrast.

But those croquetas! Available with fillings both customary (jamón ibérico) and perhaps not (almejas con salsa verde, morcilla), these delivered everything you should be looking for in a croqueta: crisp, not overwhelmingly greasy exterior; molten, lightly textured creamy interior; and a generous amount of the chosen filling. The croquetas filled with clams and green sauce were possibly my favorite, though it would be difficult to choose between them and the morcilla ones I had last year.

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Wednesday, September 22, 2010

San Sebastian Pintxos - A Fuego Negro, La Cuchara de San Telmo

There are enough Michelin stars in and about San Sebastian to make up a constellation, but some of the best eating in this food mecca can be found in its many bars and their seemingly infinite selection of pintxos. We first visited San Sebastian about a year and a half ago, and sampled several excellent pintxos bars. We had the good fortune to be back in San Sebastian recently, and made return visits to several of those same bars, and some new ones as well.

Last year's post conveys my genuine awe at the culinary wonderland that San Sebastian is, and so I won't repeat myself here. I also won't dare try to recount each of the many morsels we sampled, which would be well nigh impossible. Rather, this is just a list of some of the highlights. Before diving in, though, a couple observations that are hopefully not duplicative of my comments from last year:

First, one of the things I found so remarkable is that even with the plethora of pintxos bars in the town - surely well more than a hundred over just a few square miles - it seems that virtually all of them have their regulars. We couldn't sit down in the homiest little hole in the wall for more than fifteen minutes without somebody showing up who the bartender knew (and usually also knew their drink order). Another thing I found interesting is that there is no firm division between "traditional" and "contemporary," at least as far as the customer base is concerned. Even in the most modern bars, serving the most contemporary, unusual bites, you would find bushy-moustached Basque old-timers enjoying a bite next to tattooed, serially-pierced hipsters. If the food is good, that's all that matters to these people - and most of the food is very, very good.

As I did last year, I'll divide my notes between the Parte Vieja (the "Old Town") on the west side of the Urumea River, and the more commercial Barrio Gros on the east side, running into the Zurriola beach. Our exploration of the Parte Vieja was somewhat limited this time around on account of the Bandera de la Concha, a very popular boat regatta which is apparently celebrated by massive crowds of sloppy drunk teenagers afterwards by crowding into the Parte Vieja, strewing about thousands of broken plastic drink cups, and urinating in the streets. Ah, to be young again ...

A Fuego Negro is a slick looking place done up mostly in shades of black and red which offered some of the most creative and delicious dishes we experienced on this trip. They feature both contemporary takes on some Spanish classics, as well as some more esoteric choices in miniature pintxo form. The menu starts with "Txupitos and Apertifs," clever combinations of a bite and a drink in one little item.

Here, "Fino & Ajo Ibérico" took the form of half-frozen "cloves" of ajo blanco, the classic Spanish garlic soup, with cubes of fino sherry gelée and a fine dice of apple.

"Salmorejo Txerry Sobre Migas Ibéricas," meanwhile, was served as a orb of the gazpacho-like soup, infused with sherry, in sorbet form, nestled in a little bed of bread crumbs, and sprinkled with a bit of pimenton. Both of these were wonderful, invigorating bites.

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Wednesday, March 10, 2010

El Rincon Asturiano - Miami

"Vale." It's a word we heard throughout our travels in Spain, with no precise definition we could discern, potentially meaning "OK," or "So...," or "See?", or "Voila," depending on the context. Apparently more European (and possibly Castilian, more specifically) than Latin American, it's a word I almost never hear in Miami, despite the abundant Spanish-speaking populations. We heard it almost immediately, and regularly, upon sitting down at El Rincon Asturiano this past weekend. I took that to be a good sign, and I was right.

jamon iberico

Rincon Asturiano is a small restaurant in Little Havana near the corner of Flagler Street and SW 17th Avenue, not particularly noticeable from the street. There are several outdoor tables under a covered patio, as well as a small tapas bar and several more tables packed inside, including a narrow bar-height two-top that we squeezed into on a Saturday night (the place was filled). Asturias is an autonomous community of Spain on the northern coast by the Bay of Biscay, a couple hundred miles west of the Basque Country. The region is known for its seafood, its ciders, and most of all for the bean and sausage stew known as fabada. Rincon Asturiano's menu offers some of these specialties (the daily specials in particular seem to focus on Asturian dishes) as well as a broader selection of typical Spanish tapas, together with some heartier main courses and a variety of paellas.

Our server, in between "Vales," spoke only in rapid-fire Spanish and I struggled to keep up as she recited the day's specials. But with my dog-like ability to understand those words essential to my universe, I got the gist of most of it. For instance, I understood enough to know that she disapproved of my choice of wine, and recommended the Muga Rioja Reserva 2005 (at roughly the same price as my original choice) instead. I'm glad I listened, as it was a wonderful wine and a great value (at $36, less than 2x average retail).

As for food, we stuck with the tapas, and ultimately had to do something of a plate-juggling act to make room on our tiny table. We started with Chorizo a la Sidra, with chunks of pleasantly soft chorizo sausage cooked in cider stained bright red from the paprika in the sausage. Like New Orleans style BBQ shrimp, this is a dish that's as good for just dipping bread into the sauce as for the star ingredient itself (and the bread here is nice crusty Spanish style bread). The next item to hit the table was one of the only disappointments of the evening, Pulpo a la Gallega, the traditional dish of boiled octopus with potatoes, drizzled with olive oil, sprinkled with paprika and served on a wooden platter. But this was solely a matter of personal preference - boiling rather than grilling leaves the exterior layer of the octopus with a very slippery texture, and I prefer it grilled. But the preparation was absolutley authentic.

A slippery texture I do like is that of tripe, and so I couldn't pass up the Callos a la Asturiana. Callos is a Spanish stew featuring tripe and usually other miscellaneous parts. Though for years I only knew from Callos a la Madrileña, I've more recently learned of different regional variations, including a Sevillan version and this Asturian version. While Madrid's version, as I've seen it, often involves garbanzo beans in addition to chorizo and morcilla sausages and various other pig and/or cow parts, in a thick rust-colored stew, this Asturiano version omitted the beans, and had an intriguing spice note to it on top of the paprika - maybe nutmeg or even cinnamon? It was chock full of mysterious unctuous bits and pieces in a densely flavored gelatinous broth. Apparently the Asturians may be even more hardcore about their callos than the Madrileños: it seems that every year in the town of Noreña, they have a callos festival where more than 30 restaurants cook more than 7,000 pounds of tripe for about 10,000 visitors.

But it's not all about the nasty bits. The Patatas Bravas here were the finest I've had outside of Spain, the cubed potatoes cooked perfectly to have a bit of crispness on the exterior, while still being pillow-soft and hot in the middle (presumably the result of a double-frying technique similar to those used for good French fries), and were served with both a pungently garlickly and thick aioli, and a spicy tomato "bravas" sauce. The latter initially came on too sweet and ketchup-y, but that initial impression was quickly corrected by a pleasingly spicy follow-through.

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.

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Su Shin Izakaya - Coral Gables

Su Shin
"HELLO HOW ARE YOU?!?!" Invariably, this is the greeting you will receive when you walk through the doors of Su Shin Izakaya - usually at a decibel level that will make you jump, even when you're fully expecting it. It's the owner's Americanized variation on the Japanese tradition of welcoming customers with a shout of "Irashaimase!"

Su Shin's menu is something of a mix of Americanized and traditional, too. Yes, you'll find your California rolls and salmon and cream cheese "JB rolls"[1] here. But if you're looking for something more authentic, don't let this dissuade you. The real draw here is not these inexplicably ubiquitous standards, but rather the extensive selection of "izakaya" dishes.

An izakaya is, as I understand it, sort of the Japanese equivalent of a pub: a place to drink beer or sake, often in copious amounts, and which serves food, often in smaller tapas-size portions, to accompany those libations. Hiro's Yakko-San in North Miami Beach is an izakaya style of restaurant which, as I've noted before, always requires explanation to first-time visitors that it is not a sushi restaurant: no nigiri, no maki (though there is sashimi). Su Shin, though, goes both ways, offering both the typical panopoly of sushi and sashimi, teriyaki and tempura, as well more varied fare, both on the regular menu and on a blackboard that stretches across one long wall of the restaurant, typically featuring roughly a dozen or more daily specials of both raw and cooked dishes.

Since I work in Coral Gables, Su Shin is typically a lunch stop for me, when it is typically busy. There are a half-dozen lunch specials featuring miscellaneous permutations of the usual suspects for $8.75, as well as a mysterious additional list, written only in Japanese. During several visits we've asked about or randomly pointed at some of these, but have yet to encounter anything tremendously exotic. Rather, one of my favorite mystery lunch items is buried away in the "Makimono" (cut rolls) section of the menu, under the name "Porque Mt. Fuji" with the description "Not a roll, let us surprise you." Needless to say, as soon as I noticed this I had to try it.

Thursday, November 5, 2009

But Wait There's More ...

Another interesting opening, Olé Tapas in the Four Seasons on Brickell Avenue. With opening hours 7am - 7pm, this will be tough for anyone other than Brickellites to get to, but the menu, with a solid lineup of traditional tapas, all priced under $10, looks good to me.

And let's welcome a new face to the neighborhood: Eater Miami, a branch of the new, megalithic Eater National, edited by local scenester Lesley Abravanel. She's clearly been busy, with about a bazillion posts already up just in the past 24 hours!