Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Return to Nobu - South Beach

It had been years since I'd last been to Nobu, though, unlike Boris Becker, the reason for my extended absence was not the conception of a love child on the stairs between the bathrooms. For some time, Nobu had been a regular special-occasion venue for us; it was a big day when I graduated from celebrating birthdays at Benihana to celebrating at Nobu. But our last visit before returning a couple weeks ago - while it did not result in an unexpected pregnancy or a multi-million dollar divorce - was a frustrating and disappointing combination of lackluster and expensive.

It's entirely possible that our best meal at Nobu was the first one. I can no longer tell you when that was (the Miami restaurant, in the Shore Club hotel on South Beach, opened in 2001), but it was my first experience at the then-nascent Nobu empire, which now includes more than 25 restaurants in such far-flung destinations as Cape Town, South Africa and Dubai. The omakase menu then offered to first-time visitors featured a line-up that included many of Chef Nobu Matsuhisa's signature dishes: toro tartare, served in a pool of wasabi-infused soy sauce and crowned with a dollop of caviar; "new style" sashimi drizzled with hot oil; black cod given a three-day marinade in saikyo miso; beef toban yaki, cooked and served in a ceramic bowl. Many of these - along with a few others, like the tempura rock shrimp in creamy spicy sauce - have moved on to ubiquity, and versions can be found on menus the world over. As a result it's easy to forget the role Chef Matsuhisa played in popularizing them, and that his restaurants still may offer their Platonic ideals.

Some time later, the line-up I was served on that first visit became the aptly named "Signature Menu," while an omakase "chef's choice" option was offered separately. However, my last omakase experience, linked to above, was so pedestrian that it had the perhaps unintended effect of convincing me that those signature items remained the best things that Nobu had to offer. And while those dishes are indeed quite good, it became tough to get excited about paying a small fortune to have the same half-dozen items over and over again. The sushi, while certainly better than decent, was very expensive. Nobu South Beach's peculiar setting did not make it any more alluring: a noisy room with aqua tiles running up the walls, tables virtually piled on top of each other, which has the feeling of dining in the bottom of a crowded swimming pool. The atmosphere, and also the level of service, were inconsistent with the price tag. And another thing: there was no sushi bar. It always struck me as a bizarre, almost heretical omission.

Despite these misgivings, I decided it was time to recalibrate my opinion on Nobu, to see what was the same and what had changed, and so we went back a couple weeks ago.

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Thursday, May 20, 2010

Starving Artists Take Note

Here's a deal: Joey's in Wynwood is offering a $14 fixed menu "Artistic Duos" dinner Monday - Thursday (6pm-8pm), which includes a glass of wine, with a different option for each day of the week. The lineup, which they say is geared toward the artists, gallery owners and related riffraff that populate Wynwood features:

Chicken and Asparagus Risotto with a glass of Falanghina wine

Salmon and Ricotta Salata Salad with a glass of Pinot Grigio

Penne Bolognese, Radicchio and a glass classic Chianti

Spezzatino/Beef Stew over Polenta with a glass of Malbec

While you're there, you may want to try the pizza too, it had a good showing in our pizza crawl, particularly the "Joey" with the unlikely combination of tuna, spicy salame, gorgonzola, capers and spinach.

Joey's Wynwood
2506 NW 2nd Avenue
Miami, FL 33137

Joey's Wynwood on Urbanspoon

Saturday, May 15, 2010

Cobaya Experiment #6 - CobayaSteak at Bourbon Steak

Over the past few years, Miami has been the site of much culinary colonization. Several chefs with national reputations have set up outposts here; and as often as not, those outposts take the form of a steakhouse. Michael Mina's Bourbon Steak, Alfred Portale's Gotham Steak, Laurent Tourondel's BLT Steak ... It's a formula designed to capitalize on the name while minimizing the execution risk as they put others in charge of carrying the brand's flag in the far-flung colonies: given the inherently limited nature of a steakhouse menu, diners will expect quality, but not necessarily the same creativity or flourishes by which these big-name chefs garnered their reputation in the first place.

That's not to sell the steakhouses short. I've had some great meals at these places, and they have the capacity to serve as a springboard for younger kitchen talent (witness the nomination of Chef Sam Gorenstein of BLT Steak as a semifinalist for a James Beard Rising Star award this year). But the self-limiting format only gives so much wiggle room for the local chefs to show that they can do something other than grill a steak and cook potatoes.

That's in part what Cobaya is for: to give chefs a chance to showcase, or experiment with, things they may not be able to do in their "native habitat." When we met with Bourbon Steak's chef Gabriel Fenton and general manager John Riccardo, we told them that this was a no-holds-barred opportunity to cook whatever they wanted to make, and if there wasn't a single piece of steak on the menu, that was perfectly fine. And Chef Fenton - who spent several years as executive sous chef at Michael Mina's flagship restaurant in San Francisco - put together a beautiful meal in which a cow made only the briefest cameo appearance. We hardly noticed its absence.

The menu (you can see all my pictures from the dinner in this flickr set):

Michael Mina Cuvée Welcome & Gougeres

Michael's Classic American Caviar Parfait
House Smoked King Salmon, Dill Oil
Robert Weil Riesling Tradition, Rheingau, Germany 2008

Hawaiian Big Eye Sashimi
Aji Amarillo Chile, Cilantro, Lime, Chorizo
La Cana Albariño, Rias Baixas, Spain 2008

Hudson Valley Foie Gras Terrine
Strawberry, Grains of Paradise, Pistachio, Blue Basil
Royal Tokaji '5 Puttonyos,' Hungary, 2003

Line Caught Wild Alaskan Halibut
Baby Purple Artichokes, Meyer Lemon, Taggiasca Olive
Tablas Creek Esprit de Beaucastel, Paso Robles 2007

Columbia River Sturgeon
Short Rib Ravioli, Spring Garlic
Jean Louis Chave Cotes du Rhone, Mon Coeur, Rhone Valley, France 2006

Local Peach Sorbet
Ginger Gelée, Lemon Balm

Milk Chocolate Panna Cotta
Candied Kumquats, Almond Biscotti
Jorge Ordoñez & Co. Moscatel Seleccion Especial, Malaga, Spain 2006

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