Sunday, August 30, 2009

Hakkasan - Miami Beach

image via
Alan Yau, the pioneer of the Wagamama chain of noodle shops, opened the original Hakkasan in London in 2001. In many ways, it was a more contemporary take on the strategy coined by Michael Chow of Mr. Chow in the late 1960's and 70's: make Chinese food upscale, sexy and maybe a bit more accessible to Westerners. It worked phenomenally well, and has been a continuing success: Hakkasan London received a Michelin star in 2003, and is listed in the Pellegrino "World's 50 Best Restaurants." We were there a few years ago, and it's easy to see why it's popular. It's a slick-looking place, all black lacquer and silk, dimly but dramatically lit, carved up by wooden screens into intimate little spaces like a really elegant opium den; and the food was high quality, prepared well, and somewhat adventurous without being too intimidating. A good, fun place, though I have my doubts it really belongs on a list of the world's 50 best restaurants.

The Miami Hakkasan, the first U.S. outpost of the brand (Yau actually sold much of his stake in Hakkasan in 2008 but continues to be involved), opened in the Fontainebleau hotel in April of this year, riding the wave of foreign invaders who had plotted their strategies before the bottom fell out of the economy (Gotham Steak and Scarpetta, both also in the Fontainebleau; Mr. Chow and his evil twin Philippe; BLT Steak, Eos ...). The entrance to the Miami restaurant is not nearly as dramatic as its London cousin, which is sort of hidden away on a side street and takes you down into a mysterious basement space. Instead, you have to wind your way down a long but nondescript hallway nearly into the bowels of the hotel, then up an elevator to the fourth floor. But once you get there, the look and feel of the place effectively duplicate the cool vibe of the London original.

The menu likewise is pretty similar, if slightly shorter, than the London version. The most notable difference is that with the Miami Hakkasan only being open for dinner, it does not include the extensive dim sum menu available in London at lunchtime. That, my friends, is a serious bummer. But there are still a few dim sum offerings on the dinner menu, including a dim sum platter (featuring 2 each of 4 different dumplings) and grilled Shanghai dumplings. We tried both, as well as a duck salad, crispy Szechuan shredded beef, jasmine tea smoked chicken, Singapore noodles, stir-fried gai lan with salted fish and chili, and spring onion fried rice.

There is an obvious discipline and precision to the cooking here. When the lid of the steamer basket was removed from the dim sum platter, the dumplings looked like little jewels on display - shrimp har gow, green-skinned chive and shrimp dumplings, vegetable dumplings, and scallop dumplings topped with a sprinkle of golden tobiko each positively glistened. The fillings were fresh and steaming hot, and the dumpling skins were among the finest I've had, translucently thin and slippery but still sturdy enough not to fall apart upon being picked up. The "grilled Shanghai dumplings" were potstickers, not xiao long bao (soup dumplings), and were possibly the greatest bargain on the menu at $8 for an order of 6 (particularly compared to the $24 for the 8-piece dim sum platter). These were again expertly prepared, crispy on the bottom, steamy and soft on top, though I prefer a pork filling to the blander chicken they offer (there is also a vegetable option). A ginger-spiked black vinegar sauce helped perk these up some.

The crispy duck salad is listed among the appetizers (and seems pricy there at $22) but the portion we received could easily have served as a main course. My guess is that this is the duck meat left over once the skin is harvested for Peking duck, shredded and crisped briefly in a wok, and tossed with some greens, pea shoots and pine nuts. It was definitely my kind of salad, with about a 3:1 ratio of meat to greens.

The jasmine tea-smoked chicken had dark soy-lacquered skin and tender, delicately smoke-infused flesh; it was chopped in Chinese-style chunks but also nicely taken off the bone. The crispy "Szechuan" shredded rib eye was beautiful to look at but a disappointment to eat. The plate bore an artfully assembled tangle of strips of beef (more in the candied style of an orange beef than any Szechuan dish I've had), along with batons of mango and big slivers of red onion. But it had an awful lot more of the latter two than of the beef, and tasted much more of sweet than of any spice. The best part was probably the sticky cashews garnishing it, which had been rolled in sesame seeds (Little Miss F quickly snagged most of these).

The timidity of the Szechuan beef was all the more surprising because the gai lan (Chinese broccoli) dish we had clearly shows the kitchen does not shy from bold flavors. The gai lan, their stems slivered so they bent in a graceful tangle like the beef dish, were stir-fried with dry chiles, slivered garlic and thin crispy shards of aggressively salted dried fish. This was salt with an exclamation point, almost inedibly so, but clearly intentional and presumably a variation on a traditional recipe. The Singapore vermicelli were more moist and less curry-spiced than most versions I've had, but still quite good, speckled with green onion, slivers of red pepper, stir-fried scrambled egg, and a few shrimp here and there. The spring onion fried rice was unexceptional but provided nice ballast for the rest of the meal.

Desserts were unremarkable other than for their cost ($11). Little Miss F had a passionfruit-topped cheesecake which was paired with a bracingly sour passionfruit sorbet; Frod Jr. (predictably) had a warm chocolate cake which was indistinguishable from any other rendition.

Service was quite attentive and knowledgeable, with something of a team approach and everyone seeming to know the menu well. The only negative here was that, after having been seated at 6:30 p.m., it became fairly obvious towards the end of our meal that they were really pushing to turn the table by 8:00 p.m. I don't think I've ever been asked (seriously, with no "cute" mocking tone) "You don't want dessert, do you?" Truth was, I would have been perfectly happy to have gone and tried the gelato place in the Fontainebleau instead of ordering dessert; I think the kids did so just to spite the waiters who were trying to give us the bum's rush.

Overall I really enjoyed the food at Hakkasan (excepting the Szechuan beef and the desserts), but the price-to-value ratio is maddeningly inconsistent here. The grilled Shanghai dumplings are perfectly reasonable at $8 for an order of 6, and seem like a fantastic bargain compared to the 8-piece dim sum platter that costs three times as much. The duck salad would have been an expensive appetizer for $22, but was really a main course portion (and fairly priced for what you got). Meanwhile, the jasmine tea-smoked chicken for $19 may have been three times as much meat as the miserly strands of beef bedecked among the onions and mangoes in the $36 Szechuan beef. Sampling from their cocktail menu (at $14 a pop) will also quickly dispel any hope of coming away without serious financial damage, though a quick glance at the wine list suggested that there were actually many interesting options in a reasonable price range.
Which reminds me of one other interesting little touch. Our kids ordered lemonades, and what they got was a really unexpected surprise. Little Miss F's eyes lit up after her first sip and she exclaimed, "This tastes like key lime pie!" And indeed it did. A closer inspection revealed what looked to be freshly scraped vanilla seeds floating near the top of the drink. That is one fancy lemonade.
Clearly, Hakkasan is not the place to go for cheap dim sum or cheap anything, for that matter. But I remain convinced that if you order carefully and watch what you drink, you can actually have a very good meal and not break the bank. Even if you're not so careful, you'll probably enjoy it right up to the moment that the bill arrives.

4401 Collins Avenue
Miami Beach, FL 31340

Hakkasan on Urbanspoon

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Fifth Floor - San Francisco

Fifth FloorFor a place that's been able to maintain a high reputation for several years, Fifth Floor sure has had a revolving door in the kitchen. It was opened by George Morrone, but he left for other projects and Laurent Gras (now garnering oohs and ahhs at L2O in Chicago) took over around 2002. He left a couple years later, and was replaced by Melissa Perello, who earned the restaurant a Michelin star during her tenure and was nominated for a James Beard Foundation Best Rising Chef award. Then in 2007 she left, to be replaced briefly by former line cooks Charlie Kleinman and Jake Des Voignes (who managed to successfully maintain that Michelin star). Last year Laurent Manrique (until recently also the chef at the Michelin two-starred Aqua, which he's also left after problems with ownership) briefly took over, but now he's gone. Shortly before we arrived in San Francisco, the baton was passed to Jennie Lorenzo, who had worked with Laurent Gras when he was running Fifth Floor, and whose resume also includes stints at Blackbird in Chicago, time with Marco Pierre White and Gordon Ramsay in London, and a trip to the Far East at the Michelin two-star Ryugin.

That's a lot of turnover at the top, and frankly, Fifth Floor was not on our eating agenda for this San Francisco trip. But we happened to be staying at the Hotel Palomar, wherein Fifth Floor resides, and when we learned that they were promoting a 50% discount on the entire wine list, assembled by the highly regarded and aptly named Master Sommelier Emily Wines (who also did the wine list for Miami's Area 31, another Kimpton hotel), we quickly changed our plans.

When we made our dinner reservation they put us in the lounge area rather than the dining room, which I suppose was just as well, given that we had the kids with us. The lounge area adopts a very clubby, manly theme, with lots of wood and leather. There is one long communal table (which nobody was using), a couple other tables (including a large round one that we commandeered), and several low-rise two-tops scattered about. A quick peek into the dining room gave mostly an impression of beigeness; it looked like an elegant, somewhat generic hotel restaurant. A drawback to being in the lounge area was that service was somewhat sporadic - out of sight, out of mind, and with none of the waitstaff regularly passing through the lounge area, there were times we were somewhat neglected.

The menu is fairly short - no more than 10 appetizers and about the same number of entrees - but was supplemented by a bar menu of mostly simpler fare, which is where we often find things for the kids. The restaurant menu is geographically unplaceable, subtly drawing influences from all over (some Italy with a tortellini, some Japan with a tuna "zuke," some North Africa with a "b'stilla" sauce for foie gras...) but doesn't come off as silly for doing so. Collectively, we had starters of a crab "cappuccino," summer squash tortellini, and a caesar salad, followed by a stuffed quail, and a steak frites and a club sandwich off the bar menu. Things started off a little shaky but got better from there.

The tortellini starter brought three vividly green belly-buttons of stuffed pasta. They were filled with a tiny dice of summer squash, along with a tomato "marmalade" that was not sweet enough to merit the moniker, yet didn't bring much else in the way of flavor contrast either. The "garlic + bread sauce" the tortellini were placed upon had formed an unappealing skin on its murky brown surface, and its flavor didn't do much to enhance the somewhat bland squash filling. The crab "cappuccino" was much more successful, a big coffee cup of a creamy broth redolent with dungeness crab, picked up by a hit of ginger, and topped with a truffle foam duplicating the milky froth of the namesake. The only peculiar note to this one were strands of greenery lurking in the soup (wilted baby spinach?), not off from a flavor perspective but just an unexpected texture given the "cappuccino" descriptor. A caesar salad bore a pungent whiff of fishiness (and this from someone who is a big anchovy fan).

The quail, on the other hand, was pure bliss. The bird was perfectly roasted, the legs separately from the rest of the body, which had been boned out and stuffed with a slightly chunky and very flavorful forcemeat. It was served over a bed of a succotash of fresh corn, peas and piquillo peppers along with a scatter of pea tendrils, and then a Madeira sauce was poured tableside (the tableside finish possibly being either an allusion to or a remnant from the Manrique tenure, but either way a nice touch if somewhat incongruous while eating in the more casual lounge). Every single component of this was good on its own, and even better together.

The steak off the bar menu was also nice, a thin cut (the same as the rib-eye "paillard" on the regular menu?) which I suspect was cooked sous-vide and then finished with a quick sear, as it bore that method's typical red-to-the-edges coloration. It came with some gloriously crispy fries which had been given a drizzle of a bright green herb oil. One oddity was that the bar menu steak came at no notable discount from the one on the regular menu, a more composed and elaborate dish with persillade tater tots (tots!), cipollini onion, smoked sour cream and a cabernet reduction. I didn't try the club sandwich but noticed that between my wife and daughter it disappeared quietly and surreptitiously.

The real standout of the dinner, particularly with the 50% discount, was the wine - a 2003 Frederic Magnien Vosne-Romanee Les Suchots. What a treat it is to be able to get such a nice wine, with some bottle age on it, for about $85.

We closed out with one dessert, a warm chocolate pudding cake. Frod Jr. finds it almost impossible to resist the gravitational pull of a warm chocolate cake, but this one came with some unusual accompaniments - a lime cream, a coconut foam, and popcorn ice cream. It sounded pretty unlikely, but it all worked out just fine. Presented in a big old-fashioned glass, any sign of chocolate was initially completely concealed by a big white cloud of coconut foam. As we dug in, it all came together in surprisingly pleasing fashion, and Frod Jr. and I both particularly enjoyed the popcorn ice cream.

Though we experienced some missteps, the 1/2 off wine deal alone would seem enough to make Fifth Floor worth a visit. And if the rest of the menu can reach the level of the quail dish and the dessert we had, then San Franciscans ought to hope that Jennie Lorenzo sticks around a while.

Fifth Floor
12 4th Street
San Francisco, CA 94103

Fifth Floor on Urbanspoon

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Bruni's a Big Tipper

My favorite bit of advice from Frank Bruni in "Good Tips at the End of His Meals":
Scratch off the appetizers and entrees that are most like dishes you’ve seen in many other restaurants, because they represent this one at its most dutiful, conservative and profit-minded. The chef’s heart isn’t in them.
Scratch off the dishes that look the most aggressively fanciful. The chef’s vanity — possibly too much of it — spawned these.
Then scratch off anything that mentions truffle oil.
Choose among the remaining dishes.

More Bruni parting advice in the Diner's Journal.