Friday, January 8, 2010

What's in a Name?

For several months now, Miami has played host to the ongoing brouhaha between Michael Chow, founder of the Mr. Chow restaurants (including a new one in South Beach), and Philippe Chow (supposedly a/k/a Chak Yam Chau), who started the Philippe restaurants (including a new one in South Beach), which Mr. Chow #1 says are improperly trying to capitalize on his good name. (Though after this review, perhaps they both should change their names). The lawsuit has been quite entertaining, including allegations that Mr. Chow #2 was a mere "chopping assistant" in a Mr. Chow restaurant before going out on his own, and that Mr. Chow #1 invented such dishes as chicken satay with secret sauce (look out, next he will be claiming to have invented the question mark).

Is it possible there's another naming kerfuffle on the horizon for Miami?  Recently opening up in Coconut Grove is "The Ivy at the Grove" (in the former Christabelle's Quarter space). There is a long-standing London restaurant called The Ivy which has been around in some form since 1917, though perhaps more famous these days for who eats there than what they eat. It would be natural to think they're affiliated (indeed, New Times initially reported that the local Ivy was a branch of the London restaurant before being corrected) - but they're not. Indeed, buried within The Ivy at the Grove's website is a quiet disclaimer, given with typical British reserve: "Please note that we are not affiliated with the Ivy in London nor the Ivy in Los Angeles" (though they are affiliated with the Raffles private club in Chelsea). About a month ago, Eater Miami did a bit more investigation (a couple phone calls!) and not only avoided the error New Times initially made, but found even more mystery.

Wow - in one story, two trends I wish would die a quick death: unaffiliated knock-offs of restaurants that were mediocre to start, and the restaurant/lounge "concept."

Thursday, January 7, 2010

Lüke - New Orleans

Even a successful restaurant has certain inherent limitations on its profitability. You can only squeeze so many butts into so many seats. You can only increase your prices by so much before you wander beyond whatever particular niche of the dining market you've captured. So for many - particularly in this era of celebrity chefdom - at some point there comes the urge to grow, which means adding additional venues.

There are at least a couple different approaches to such growth. Some restaurants take what I call the "clone and colonize" approach, bringing the same package to different regional or even international markets. Nobu has restaurants in nearly twenty different cities in a dozen different countries. Joel Robuchon (after basically retiring from cooking) has restaurants in Paris, London, Monaco, Hong Kong, Macao, Tokyo, New York and Las Vegas. A plethora of chefs have set up satellite offices in Vegas, and over the past couple years the influx of "invasive exotic species" has made its way to Miami as well. Even Thomas Keller has gone bi-coastal with Per Se in New York, plus Bouchons in Las Vegas and now Beverly Hills.

Other chefs stay closer to home, creating fiefdoms in their native territory. In Seattle, Tom Douglas has opened several restaurants all within a few blocks of his original flagship, Dahlia Lounge. Here in Miami, restaurateur Myles Chefetz has done much the same thing on the "SoFi" (South of Fifth Street) end of South Beach with Prime 112, Nemo, Shoji Sushi, Big Pink, and the latest addition, Prime Italian. Jonathan Eismann is looking to do the same in the Design District, where he recently opened PizzaVolante a block away from his flagship Pacific Time and will soon be opening Q and Fin right down the street. (Of course some chefs follow both approaches: Mario Batali has his chubby fingers in nine New York restaurants, three in Las Vegas, and a few in L.A. too).

Unlike the "clone and colonize" approach, which simply seeks to duplicate the same experience in a different venue, the "fiefdom" approach requires that there be something to distinguish one restaurant from another to reach different segments of the same geographic market. The easiest thing to do, particularly if you started with a high-end restaurant, is to do a lower-end, more budget-friendly place (note that David Chang did this in reverse, starting with Momofuku Noodle Bar and later opening the higher-end Ko); but then what? If you want to build an empire, the next step is to diversify the range of cuisines you offer.

That's what John Besh has done in New Orleans. Chef Besh's reputation was made at his Restaurant August, which I'd loosely characterize as contemporary French in style with a strong influence from the Creole and Cajun cuisines and native ingredients of Louisiana. Riding the waves of acclaim for August (to say nothing of other favorable attention including a strong appearance in Top Chef Masters), Chef Besh now runs no fewer than a half-dozen restaurants in New Orleans. They range from the inevitable steakhouse, to an Italian restaurant, Domenica, to the one we visited, Lüke.

Lüke is a brasserie with a curious Franco-Germanic (Alsatian?) tilt to it. The menu, picking up on some of the trends-du-jour (not necessarily a pejorative, I happen to be very much in favor of some of these), features lots of charcuterie and many varieties of pig parts. It also has typical brasserie items like moules & frites, roast chicken, steak & frites, and croque monsieur (or madame). The Germanic/Alsatian tilt manifests in dishes such as flamenküche (a/k/a tarte flambée),choucroûte, and an entirely unexpected matzo ball soup (!)

It's a somewhat rustic looking place with a bit of a turn-of-the-century feel, featuring a long bar with carved wooden pillars, tiled floors, a pressed tin ceiling, and fans operated by a pulley-and-belt system supposedly invented in the 1880s. We showed up early for our reservation and so started our meal at the bar, where we sampled their custom-brewed pilsner and some items from the raw bar.

The local P&J oysters were impeccably fresh and expertly shucked, and the Louisana shrimp were likewise fresh, sweet and tender. I generally prefer a smaller, tighter oyster like a kumomoto to a big sloppy one, but these were a happy medium - plump, firm and loaded with salty liquor. I might have hoped for something more adventurous to go along with them than cocktail sauce and horseradish sauce, but all they really needed was a squeeze of lemon anyway. Both the oysters and the shrimp seemed like a remarkable bargain at $7 and $11 per half-dozen, respectively.

Friday, January 1, 2010

A List For the New Year

First, a resolution: next year, I will do my "year in review" list before the actual expiration of the year. And next, a confession: I am terrible at "best" lists. I can tell you the high and low points of fifty different restaurants or dishes, but if you ask me to pick a favorite I am usually flummoxed. It's not just food. Favorite movie, song, author? I struggle with the superlatives. In fact, I'm so bad at it that when asked the simple question of what was my favorite meal of the year, I gave two different answers! If you ask me again, I might give still a different answer, particularly if I were to think back on our dinner at Arzak at the beginning of the year, or include our meal last week at Stella in New Orleans.

So, in no particular order, here are eleven (because these go to 11) thoughts on food over the past year:

1. Best Defense Against Foreign Invasion: 2009 started as the year of the invasive exotic species in Miami. Scarpetta from Scott Conant (actually opened December 2008), Eos from Michael Psilakis, BLT Steak from Laurent Tourondel, Gotham Steak from Alfred Portale (also a late '08 opening), all from New York, Hakkasan from London's Alan Yau, Au Pied de Cochon and Caviar Kaspia from Paris, Area 31 from Boston's John Critchley, Red the Steakhouse from Cleveland, Apple from L.A.'s Bryan Ogden, Mr. Chow from London by way of New York, and his evil twin Philippe, and surely others I'm not recalling, all opened in the past year (and some have already closed). But at year's end, it seems to be clear that the best cooking talent in Miami is still local-grown. Michael Schwartz with Michael's Genuine Food & Drink, and Michelle Bernstein with Michy's and Sra. Martinez, are still king and queen of the city despite the influx of foreign invaders. Kris Wessel and Red Light have hit on the right price point and vibe for the "new economy." Jonathan Eismann found Pacific Time's groove again in the Design District, branched out with PizzaVolante, and in the coming year will be adding a barbecue restaurant "Q" and a fish place "Fin" to his repertoire. No doubt some of the foreign interlopers are putting out some good food - Bourbon Steak (opened late 2007), Scarpetta, Hakkasan and Area 31 in particular - but the best stuff is still local.

2. Best Gastronomic Wonderland: San Sebastian. From high-brow to low, old-school to new, there may be nothing else like it in the world. Everything you have read or heard is true. Blocks and blocks of tapas bars with lavish spreads laid out on the counters, each more appealing than the next. Possibly the highest concentration per square mile of Michelin stars in any particular geographic area. Cutting edge cuisine, but still inextricably linked to longstanding Basque cooking traditions. I want to go back to there. Now.

3. Best Dining Phenomenon: Cobaya. Forgive me for tooting my own horn here a bit. Starting last year a group of Chowhounds started getting together for some great dinner experiences. Several months ago a couple of us began kicking around the idea of putting together something like the "underground dinners" that have taken root in other cities. The idea, very simply, was to gather up a group of adventurous, uninhibited diners who were willing to serve as guinea pigs for talented, creative local chefs to provide off-the-menu (and, sometimes, out-of-the-restaurant) experiences. Our first event brought sixteen diners together with Chef Andrea Curto-Randazzo and her talented Sous Chef Kyle Foster for a great meal at Talula (one of my favorite meals of 2009!). For our second experiment with Chef Jeremiah Bullfrog in a penthouse apartment in Midtown, we had so much interest we added a second seating. A group of guinea pigs also came out to Harvey's By the Bay in the American Legion Post for a pig-fest with Chef Jeremiah that was in part a testing ground for his new gastroPOD mobile food project. Our most recent dinner with Chef Jonathan Eismann at his not-yet-opened restaurant Fin in the Design District sold out 34 seats in less than two hours. The Cobaya Group now has over 250 members, and one of the most gratifying experiences for me over the past year has been seeing that there is in fact a like-minded community of eaters who will support and seek out unusual dining experiences like tripe risotto and trotter tacos.

4. Most Unexpected Discovery: NAOE. I stumbled across NAOE while browsing OpenTable and was intrigued by the brief description of an entirely chef's choice menu of "natural Japanese cuisine." After my first visit, I walked out not quite sure if what I had experienced was a dream. Repeat visits confirmed it was not all in my head. Seventeen seats, one chef, no menu. An omakase bento box with 4-5 items, followed by a procession of the chef's choice of nigiri until you cry uncle. Everything is either shipped overnight from Japan, bought that morning off the docks at nearby Haulover Marina, or unique items procured fresh from all around the country (like the best uni I've ever tasted, from off the Oregon coast). There is, quite simply, nothing else like it in Miami.