Wednesday, June 16, 2010

PODZILLA! Cobaya Dinner

The last Cobaya event at Bourbon Steak was a pretty posh affair: beautiful long wood table, glowing candles, fine china, elegant plating. This latest one? Not so much. Coming together somewhat at the last minute, this one put together Chef Jeremiah Bullfrog, and his gastroPod (a mobile 21st century kitchen built into a shiny vintage 1962 Airstream trailer), with Chefs Kurtis Jantz and Chad Galiano, the masterminds of the Paradigm dinner series who cooked up Cobaya Gras a few months ago. Was it a bit rough around the edges? Perhaps. Was it rather steamy eating outdoors, even with a breeze blowing in off Biscayne Bay? Well, I finally stopped sweating about an hour ago. Did we eat some great food? Yes, and that's really what it's all about.

Lining up at the gPod

Our venue for the evening was Harvey's by the Bay, a bare-bones, divey bar in the back of the Harvey Seeds American Legion Post off Biscayne Boulevard and 64th Street. It was a somewhat fitting location given our theme, which was to celebrate American (loosely speaking, anyway) street foods. Given the chefs' propensity to tweak and fluency with contemporary techniques, I knew we could also expect some interesting twists. Here's the menu for the evening:

The event even felt a bit like a genuine street food experience, as Chef Jeremiah served everyone from the gPod, and Chefs Kurtis and Chad (and Mike Marshall, the zen master of fried chicken) did their service either right off the grill, or from a covered otudoor bar in Harvey's spacious backyard looking out on Biscayne Bay. I forgot my camera and so you'll instead have to put up with a few goofy "Hipstamatic" pictures I took on my iPhone, though you'll find better pictures and more recaps at Tinkering With Dinner, or a chef's-eye view from Chef Chad at Chadzilla.

Updated: another recap with lots of pics here at Wokstar.

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Tuesday, June 8, 2010

CSA - Reflections on a Season

It's been more than a month since I picked up the last box for our CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) share through Bee Heaven Farm. I've always been amused at how South Florida's growing season fades away right as the rest of the country's season begins: it was literally about a week after our last delivery that the rest of the blogosphere started to bloom with discussions of CSA programs and farmer's markets. For us here in South Florida, it's mostly mangoes, lychees and avocados until the fall.

For those who are unfamiliar, Community Supported Agriculture is a way of shortening the chain between farmer and end-consumer. Before the growing season begins, farmers sell subscriptions to a share of their product for the season; then over the course of the season, the customers get their share - whatever happens to be harvested at that particular time - direct from the farms. The Bee Heaven Farm CSA that I subscribed to actually consolidates the products of several local farms, and delivers them to several drop-off points throughout Miami-Dade and Broward Counties.

The season was for twenty weeks total, and you have the option of subscribing to a "full share" or a "half share." For those interested in the nitty-gritty details, the price of a full share was $630, the price of a half-share $375. With an extra $40 added for using a Miami-Dade pick-up location, our total cost for a half-share amounted to a little more than $20/week. To get an idea of what that gets you, you can look at the newsletter archives, which listed each week what was in the box. That may seem a bit steep, but during the season, the CSA basically supplanted our grocery store vegetable-buying (for a family of four who, I will confess, were not cooking at home nearly every night of the week), other than for staples such as onions, carrots and celery (each of which would make occasional appearances in the box, too).

This was my first season trying a CSA, and I'll admit I did so with some trepidation. I'm an enthusiastic but infrequent cook, and the notion of plowing through an entire box of vegetables every week was somewhat daunting. In addition, one of the mixed blessings of CSA programs is that it is quite literally market-driven. Unlike going to the grocery store, or even a farmers' market, where you can go in with a fixed notion of what you want to make that night, what's in the box - and what you'll be cooking - is dictated entirely by what the farms have planted and what's ready for harvest that particular week.

Miami has, for the most part, struggled to really support genuine farmers' markets. Often what style themselves as "farmers' markets" are really nothing other than folks who buy and resell produce from wholesalers, along with an assortment of vendors selling flowers, candles, and various knick-knacks. You'll often be hard-pressed to find an actual farmer, or even sometimes any produce that has actually come from local farms. That may be changing some with Bee Heaven and others' participation in the Pinecrest Farmers Market this past spring, and the nascent Roots in the City market in Overtown. But even in places where farmers' markets are better supported, the "Where's the Farmer?" question still comes up, and it may well be that programs like CSAs are, in some places, anyway, a more efficient means of doing business than farmers' markets.

I can't claim that I managed to cook everything every week. I also can't claim that I enjoyed everything. Truth is, while I am almost entirely omnivorous, there are some things I don't get too excited about: green peppers, zucchini, and yellow squash are a few of the things on that short list. On the other hand, we love just about any form of greens, and there were many which made regular appearances in the box: swiss chard, dandelion greens, collards, calalloo, bok choy and more. I adored the little French breakfast radishes we got occasionally, even if they were primarily an excuse to break out some butter and good salt. We learned that our resident tropical fruit maven, Little Miss F, loved canistel; though even she never got truly excited over black sapote.

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Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Zuma - Miami - First Look

The idea of a contemporary, upscale Japanese restaurant is not exactly a revolutionary one. Indeed, it's something Nobu Matsuhisa has been doing successfully for more than two decades, with many having followed in his wake. And yet Zuma, the newly opened restaurant featuring "contemporary Japanese cuisine" in the Epic Hotel, still feels like something of a breath of fresh air. If there are other restaurants like it, there are certainly none in downtown Miami. They officially opened last week and we paid our first visit Saturday evening.

Zuma comes to Miami by way of London, after having opened other satellite offices in Hong Kong, Istanbul and Dubai. The original outpost in London has earned a goodly amount of praise, including an appearance (at #66) in San Pellegrino's annual "World's Best Restaurants" list. It styles itself as a "sophisticated twist on the traditional Japanese izakaya." An izakaya is, traditionally, a drinking establishment comparable to the British pub which also serves food, typically in small portions often referred to as "Japanese tapas." Here, izakaya describes the menu much more accurately than it does the venue, which, unlike the typically humble Japanese drinking den, is lofty and ambitious.

Miami's Zuma, located in the lobby floor of the Epic, is a cavernous space done up in a modern style in many shades of beige. The room is open two, even three stories up in places, with square panels suspended from the ceiling to break up the expanse, and floor-to-ceiling windows that look out onto the Miami River. There's a sizable bar lounge area in front, behind which are tables (mostly rounds, and well-spaced) as well as a robata station and then a sushi bar. It's a visually interesting space even if it does still retain a touch of "hotel restaurant" feel to it.

The menu features selections of sashimi, nigiri and maki, a variety of small plates, as well as several more substantial main-course-sized items. Food comes either from the sushi bar, the robata grill, or the kitchen, and dishes are brought out to the table continuously over the course of the meal, rather than as appetizer and then entrée. If Sugarcane Raw Bar Grill had not opened several months earlier, or if Zuma had not already adopted this format at its other restaurants, surely someone would be accusing one of copying from the other. Instead, we can attribute it to a case of parallel independent development.

Our table's order covered items from each of the different kitchen stations. We started with their house-made tofu ($8), served with traditional D.I.Y. condiments - wasabi, ginger, green onions, toasted sesame seeds, as well as a savory barley miso (apologies, incidentally for the lousy iPhone pics). If you think you don't like tofu, this version may well change your mind. It has all the luxurious, creamy richness of a good burrata, yet remains light and clean-tasting. The barley miso was delicious, though it may have been too powerful a companion for the tofu. If this was not quite as good as the house-made tofu I had at Aburiya Raku in Las Vegas, it was certainly close.

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