Showing posts with label the best jerry. Show all posts
Showing posts with label the best jerry. Show all posts

Sunday, February 18, 2024

The Best Things I Ate in 2023 (Round 2)

February isn't too late for "year in review" posts, is it? Not too late for me, anyway. Round 1 of my favorite dishes of 2023 actually made it up within a week of the new year. This sequel has experienced some delays, but is now resuming regular service. In the first post, we ventured through Oakland, Scotland, London, Lisbon and Marrakech before finding our way back home. Here, we pick up where we left off back in Miami – with one of my favorite new local restaurants.

bluefin tuna tiradito - Maty's (Midtown Miami)

How gratifying was it to see a huge picture of this beautiful dish splashed across the landing page of New York Times' list of "America's Best Restaurants 2023"? This was the year the national media really caught wind of the great things the Chang Gang are doing down here, as I noted in Round 1 while singing the praises of Nando's spot, Itamae. It took me a few months after it opened to get to sister Val's new restaurant, Maty's, but by the time I visited it was absolutely firing on all cylinders. While Itamae skews more towards the Japanese influences on Peruvian cuisine, Maty's sticks with a more "traditional" repertoire - cebiches, tiraditos, jaleas and saltados feature prominently, but done in a finessed and contemporary way. 

scallop cebiche - Maty's (Midtown Miami)

Pretty much every dish felt like a highlight, but I was especially fond of that tiradito which made the NYT cover, of bluefin tuna in an aji limo leche de tigre with canary beans for some earthy grounding and beads of finger lime to provide a little extra acidic pop. Also, this cebiche of delicate scallops in a scotch bonnet leche de tigre with cilantro oil and coins of slivered grapes for a sweet-sour contrast. Great ingredients, lots of legumes and vegetables, and bright flavors that almost ripple with electric energy. This was one of the most exciting, invigorating meals I've had in a while. 

tostada de anchos - Bar Gilda (Miami Beach)

Over the summer, chef Juan Garrido was popping up Mondays and Tuesdays at Tropezon on Española Way with a pintxos-themed menu called "Bar Gilda". The rotation would change a bit from week to week, featuring staples like the namesake gilda,[1] tortilla española, patatas bravas, and bocatas de calamares, with occasional detours. I thoroughly enjoyed every single bite – especially these delightful toasts of Cantabrian anchovies, fancy butter, and a sharp, fresh parsley-garlic dressing, mounted over crisp puff-pastry crackers. A classic combination, and an ode to really good ingredients. Having now recalibrated my pintxos-meter with a visit to the motherland later in the year, I can say that this as close to a real-deal Basque pintxos bar as I've experienced in Miami.

le homard - L'Atelier de Joel Robuchon (Miami Design District)

It had been a minute since I'd last visited L'Atelier, the Joel Robuchon outpost in the Design District, and the only Florida restaurant which has been bestowed two stars in the Michelin Guide. The design of the Atelier restaurants is consistent throughout their locations around the globe, and for me anyway, there's still something slightly surreal about encountering the distinctive shining black, red, polished wood and gleaming chrome dining room and open kitchen here in Miami. There are a few ways to experience the Miami L'Atelier – the "Evolution" tasting menu, a shorter seasonal menu with a couple options for each round, some classic "specialties" that can be added on, and even a straight a la carte menu on weekdays. From an early fall seasonal menu, my favorite dish was this spiral agnolotti with lobster and chanterelle mushrooms, swimming in a rich, powerful lobster bisque.

Comparing the ratings of the Ateliers around the world is a curious exercise. The "flagship" Atelier in St. Germain, Paris has one star, as does a second location in Etoile, Paris as well as the Tokyo outpost. Meanwhile, the Miami Atelier has two stars, as do the ones in Geneva and Taipei. The Atelier in Hong Kong has three stars! The ones in London, Madrid and Dubai have none. What does it all mean? That you can get a better meal at an Atelier in Hong Kong or Miami than at one in Paris? That Michelin is grading on a curve when it awards stars in different cities? That maybe the stars are kind of arbitrary? Inquiring minds want to know!

akamutsu, buro - Mila Omakase (Miami Beach)

Miami has seen a boom in high-priced omakase venues over the past few years, and I am far from convinced that they all are capable of delivering on their sometimes vertigo-inducing tariffs.[2] So I approached Mila Omakase with a healthy degree of skepticism. Also, Mila, the main restaurant in which it makes its home, seems like a douchebag magnet? But after clearing our way past the hostess stand and entering the insulated inner sanctum of the omakase room, where a cherry blossom tree overhangs the sushi counter, I was very pleasantly surprised. Chef Reiji Yoshizawa and his crew show some solid technique and use some very good ingredients, but what I was particularly enamored of were the occasional flashes of Filipino flavors that appear here and there (Chef Yoshizawa grew up in Manila). It showed up in one of the opening bites, a canape with creamy kinilaw flavors in a crispy round shell. And it came around again with a nigiri of lightly torched akamutsu[3] topped with a daub of buro, a rich, funky fermented shrimp and rice paste, which nicely complemented the pleasingly fatty fish.

spiny lobster chawanmushi - EntreNos (Miami Shores)

Maybe the most exciting newcomer of the year for me is EntreNos, an extended pop-up at Tinta y Cafe in Miami Shores by chefs Evan Burgess and Osmel Gonzalez. The two chefs both did time at Michael Beltran's Ariete, and Evan's resume also includes Miami's late great Alter and Chicago's Boka restaurant group, while Osmel spent time on the west coast as sous chef at one of my favorite places, SingleThread in Healdsburg. Back home and together, they are focusing on local products through a short, tightly curated menu with a dedication and creativity I have rarely seen here. A crudo uses blue runner, a dark-fleshed local fish in the jack family used more often as bait than as dinner, but which when sourced and handled well, as here, is deliciously rich and meaty. Accompaniments include a carambola vinaigrette, local leaves and blooms, and another thing I've never seen done with a local product — mango "olives" made by brining young, unripe mangoes. Oysters from Sebastian Inlet are grilled and topped with brown butter chimichurri. Desserts include a tomme cheese panna cotta topped with a sorbet of sea grapes, a ubiquitous but rarely used local product. I've had a couple different variations of their chawanmushi – one with smoked grouper, and another, pictured here, with spiny lobster. A creamy, frothy onion foam blankets the egg custard, hiding nuggets of savory confited potatoes underneath. This simultaneously triggers memories of seafood chowder (lobster / cream / potato), tortilla española (egg / onion / potato), and maybe even carbonara with the smoked grouper version (smoked fish playing the role of bacon). Regardless of what associations you may draw, it is flat out delicious.

(continued ...)

Saturday, January 6, 2024

The Best Things I Ate in 2023 (Round 1)

"Year in Review" and "Best ..." posts are tired and lazy. I know. But in their (my) defense, they're also an opportunity for some reflection and perspective, a change of pace from the ephemeral but unrelenting blare of most food media these days. When writing these posts, I'm not just trying to tick off some boxes – there's some thought that goes into deciding what dishes really brought the most pleasure and inspiration over the past year, and effort in trying to find words that capture what was special about them, occasionally even some consideration of how they might fit into some grander scheme. Plus, once a year seems to be about the pace I'm capable of maintaining here at FFT these days.

2023 was a big year for Miami dining, as far as recognition beyond our borders. Bon Appetit magazine pronounced Miami its "Food City of the Year," and followed up by naming Val Chang's new Peruvian restaurant, Maty's, one of its Best New Restaurants of 2023. The New York Times included Maty's, along with Smoke & Dough, among its Best Restaurants of 2023 (with a huge splash shot of Maty's tuna tiradito on the cover). Esquire magazine followed suit, including Maty's and Niven Patel's new Erba in its 50 Best New Restaurants. Val and brother Nando (soon to be reopening Itamae as an omakase counter inside Maty's) were both among Food & Wine magazine's Best New Chefs. And for whatever it might mean, Miami entered its second year of being a Michelin-rated town, with one addition (Tambourine Room) to the ten one-stars selected last year, and everyone else retaining their stars (including two-starred L'Atelier de Joel Robuchon).

That kind of attention draws a lot of big-money operators. Major Food Group started with a Carbone clone in South Beach in early 2021, and soon two hands may not be enough to count all their Miami restaurants. Clubster David Grutman (LIV) has become a restaurateur, with over a half-dozen venues under the umbrella of Groot Hospitality, including a team-up with Tao Group on the new Casadonna. Stephen Starr and Keith McNally opened a recreation of their New York faux-French bistro Pastis in Wynwood. Thomas Keller opened a Bouchon Bistro in Coral Gables. Chicago group Lettuce Entertain You opened the Mediterranean Aba in Bal Harbour. Toronto's INK Entertainment Group (which also runs Byblos) opened the Mediterranean Amal in Coconut Grove. Everyone and their brother opened a Mediterranean restaurant with a two-syllable name containing at least one, and preferably two, soft-a sounds in it, this past year.[1] Then their cousin opened an omakase counter with a $200+ price point.[2]

But that's not remotely the most interesting segment of the Miami dining universe these days. For me, anyway, what is most exciting to see is the resurgence of small, adventurous restaurants that don't fit into any particular mold. And not just the spots that have (justifiably) gotten so much media attention recently, like Maty's and Erba and Boia De, but pop-ups like Spanish-Japanese QP Tapas, locally-focused EntreNos, pintxos-themed Bar Gilda, Southern brunch specialist Rosie's, and pop-up-turned-permanent Vietnamese gem Tam Tam, plus quirky spots like New Schnitzel House, and Lion and the Rambler, and Aitor Berasaluze's new Edan Bistro in North Miami. Can we swap out some of the "clubstaurants" for more of these? What is the exchange rate?

As is usually the case, I'm way behind the curve. Between travel and returns to old favorites, I made it to about twenty new restaurants in Miami over the past year. Yet the "to-do" list – which is not everything that has opened, only those that actually look interesting to me – still grows ever longer. Roughly half of the dishes on this year's list are locally grown; the rest come from a variety of places we were lucky enough to visit in 2023: Northern California, England, Scotland, Lisbon, Marrakech and Spain.[3] (You want itineraries? I've got itineraries.)

Without further ado ...

ugly mushroom pasta - Pomet (Oakland)

Early in the year we did an all-East Bay trip to Northern California, making the Moxy in Oakland our base camp and only passing through San Francisco to get to and from the airport. This is not one of those "San Francisco has become a cesspool" screeds (not that Oakland is spared from that stuff), but rather a recognition that some really interesting creative stuff is happening on the other side of the Bay Bridge (also Frod Jr.'s in Oakland). We had a great meal at Pomet, which turns the farm-to-table trope on its head: the restaurant was started by Aomboon Deasy, who runs K&J Orchards and wanted a place to highlight their fantastic produce. She recruited chef Alan Hsu to do the cooking and the results are pretty wonderful, highlighted by this "ugly mushroom" filled pasta smothered in an assortment of trumpets and other mushrooms and some Shared Cultures mirepoix miso butter. An umami bomb in a silky, delicate package. 

Hong Kong egg tart - Snail Bar x Gizela Ho (Rich Table) (Oakland)

Our weekend visit to Oakland happily coincided with a pop-up dinner with Gizela Ho, CDC of San Francisco's Rich Table, at the culinarily overachieving wine bar Snail Bar. My favorite thing on the night's menu were these decadent egg tarts, flavored with chamomile and hazelnut oil, topped with oscetra caviar, and adorned with a garland of marigold petals – a traditional dish twisted in the service of new flavors. What is maybe most refreshing about the wave of new spots in the East Bay – like Pomet, Snail Bar, Day TripBurdellLion Dance Cafe – is that they aim for a more casual vibe and lower price point than the high-end temples of gastronomy that have become increasingly common in S.F., while still maintaining the focus on interesting, delicious cooking with high-quality ingredients.

Pintxo Matrimonio, Txangurro - Jaguar Sun x Ernesto's (Miami)

Back home, but sticking with the pop-up theme: early in the year, Carey Hynes and Will Thompson of Jaguar Sun did a great series of collaboration dinners at Understory in Little River. The couple I made it to were both great experiences – a seafood-themed one with Ben Sukle of Oberlin in Providence, R.I.[4], and this Basque-themed one with Ryan Bartlow of N.Y.'s Ernesto's. There were lots of good things this night, including gambas de Palamos and a rice with rabbit, mushrooms and truffles, but what really resonated for me was this very traditional pintxos platter: a "matrimonio" of black and white anchovies over a puff pastry baton, and a "txangurro" tart filled with sweet, tender blue crab cooked with a sofrito of tomato and onion. These were every bit the equal of the pintxos we had during our end-of-year trip to San Sebastian.

Celeriac, Brown Crab & Apple - Inver (Strathlachlan, Scotland)

Some meals are inseparable from the environment in which they are served. Sometimes it's because the kitchen is dedicated to sourcing from surrounding lands and waters, creating a literal connection to the environment. Sometimes it's because the locale itself is so special that it is indelibly attached to the experience. And sometimes it's both. Inver Restaurant & Rooms, in Strathlachlan, Scotland, is one of those that fits both descriptions. Our drive to Inver, situated along the Loch Fyne a couple hours west of Glasgow, proceeded along an increasingly narrow road that at one point became so wee I wasn't sure I hadn't somehow detoured onto a hiking path. Upon arriving, we found ourselves at the foot of a marsh, gazing out onto the water with the ruins of the old Castle Lachlan in the distance. What a setting.

Lodging is provided in very comfortable, contemporary bothies along the marsh; dinner is served in a spare, simple house at the end of the path. It is all exceedingly local and exceedingly delicious, like this dish with a sort of mille-feuille of celery root topped by a rich mousse of brown crab, batons of celery root and apple alongside. I could have just as easily gone with maybe the most humble, straightforward dish I was served all year: a cup of a frothy bread and butter broth with an incredibly deep, savory flavor.

You can find tasting menus stuffed with foie gras, caviar, and wagyu in just about any metropolitan city, and so many of them are going to feel exactly like each other no matter where they are. You can find roughly a dozen omakase venues just in Miami which serve fish and seafood shipped direct from the Japanese markets. What is truly rare, and special, is the meal you simply cannot get anywhere else. This is the kind of restaurant experience I'm increasingly drawn to: a place with a sense of *place*.  

(continued ...)

Tuesday, January 10, 2023

The Best Things I Ate in 2022 (Round 2)

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

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

kohada - Uchi Miami
Kohada Nigiri - Uchi Miami

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

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

(More pics from Uchi Miami | Wynwood).

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

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

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

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

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

(More pics from Porto | Chicago).

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

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

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

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

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

(continued ...)

Thursday, December 29, 2022

The Best Things I Ate in 2022 (Round 1)

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

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

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

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

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

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

(More pics from Angler | San Francisco).

Celery Salad - Day Trip
Celery Salad - DayTrip

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

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

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

(More pics from DayTrip | Oakland).

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(continued ...)

Saturday, April 16, 2022

The Best Things I Ate in 2021 (Round 2)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Butcher's Feast - Cote (Miami Design District)

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


Sunday, April 10, 2022

The Best Things I Ate in 2021 (Round 1)


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Sunday, December 27, 2020

The Best Things I Ate in 2020 (Bonus Round)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Saturday, December 26, 2020

The Best Things I Ate in 2020 (Part 3)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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