Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Norman Conquest

Overall, it has been a pretty good year for additions to the Miami restaurant landsacape. The past several months have seen the openings of Sugarcane Raw Bar Grill, a star in the making; Sakaya Kitchen, a treasure for low-budget, interesting eats; plus Mandolin Aegean Bistro, AltaMare, Gibraltar, Q American Barbeque, Smoke'T, Mercadito, Morgans, The Forge, Water Club, Zuma, First and First Southern Baking Co., Sparky's Roadside BBQ, Chowdown Grill, the Shake Shack invasion ... it's a pretty impressive list.

I have a hunch it's going to get a lot more impressive in about another week, when Norman's 180, the new restaurant from Chef Norman Van Aken in the Westin Colonnade Hotel in Coral Gables, opens its doors. I've long been a big fan of Chef Van Aken's cooking. Though I never got down to Louie's Backyard in Key West when he was in its kitchen, I still have vivid memories of a meal I had at his first Miami restaurant, A Mano in the Betsy Ross Hotel on South Beach. I celebrated my 25th birthday there, and I can still tell you what I ate: a Flintstone-esque cowboy-style rib steak, and a dessert of bananas with rum and chiles.

From there he moved on to what became his flagship, Norman's in Coral Gables, where I had a number of other memorable dishes: his orange and saffron inflected conch chowder, with a coconut "cloud" floating on top; his "Down Island" french toast, topped with foie gras and tropical fruit caramel; salmon rolled in smoky lapsang souchong tea, in a dark "Mer Noir" sauce which was like a liquid mar y montana or surf and turf, layered with flavors of bacon, seafood liquor, red wine and meat stock. It's been three years since Norman's closed, and it's like I can still taste them.

This is what Chef Van Aken has always been so good at doing: creating dishes that tug at the memory, that tell a story. So I'm looking forward to finding out what new stories he will have to tell at Norman's 180. Though Van Aken is generally thought of as one of the godfathers of "New World Cuisine," I've always found that his culinary reach extended all over the map, while still having local roots. And though Norman's 180 is not setting out to be the high-end fine dining experience that Norman's was, a look at the preview menu suggests he still has a few more stories in him:

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Monday, June 21, 2010

TV Dinner

I've been watching a lot of food-related television programming lately. Truth is, I've always been a regular watcher of Top Chef, but this season has particular appeal, with local hero (and one of my favorite chefs) Andrea Curto-Randazzo, of Talula and the newly opened Water Club, on as a contestant. Let me be clear: I hate "reality TV." I like cooking shows. Though Top Chef may skew more towards the former than the latter, there's still enough real cooking going on to hold my interest, and though there are a good number of contestants each season who are clearly Starfleet Red Shirts, it has provided an opportunity to highlight some genuine talent as well.

The season premiere for Top Chef Season 7 was this past Wednesday, and though it didn't feature much of Andrea, she did move on to see another day. If, like me, you didn't get enough Andrea during the episode, you can find some more on YouTube, where she's uploaded a three-minute interview (wine glass in hand) she calls "I'm Just Sayin'."

In it, she gives fellow contestant Kenny Gilbert, a/k/a "Kenny G," yet another nickname, dubbing him "Twenty G" for having won the initial $20,000 Quickfire; considers giving some grief to another fellow contestant, Angelo Sosa, for being cocky, but decides better of it since it was so obvious to everyone; proceeds to give Padma Lakshi a lesson in "Miami 101" for not recognizing the "Miami" in her Elimination Challenge dish,[1] a chorizo-infused gnocchi with slow-roasted pork, calabaza, manchego and orange gremolata, suggesting that maybe instead she should have served a blackened mahi-mahi with mango salsa; and closes out by making me spurt my drink through my nose with a "Jam out with your clam out, rock out with your cock out" sign-off.

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Friday, June 18, 2010

goes around ... comes around - milkshake edition

Richard Blais, former Top Chef contestant and present proprietor of Flip Burger Boutique, with locations in Atlanta and Birmingham (no relation to the Flip Burger Bar just opened in North Miami - and just wait till he gets wind of that) is all up in arms that a burger joint in Denver is serving a milkshake that he thinks bears a more than passing resemblance to one served at Flip Burger. He's so upset his hair is standing on end!

The details: Flip Burger's menu features several liquid nitrogen-chilled shakes, including one with Nutella and burnt marshmallow. A place in Denver called H Burger (Blais didn't name it, though Eater quickly figured it out) lists on its cocktail menu a liquid nitrogen-chilled "Nutella Marshmallow" shake with vanilla vodka, hazelnut liquor, nutella, and vanilla ice cream topped with roasted marshmallows. Though Blais' column noted the similarities between the two - that is, Nutella and burnt marshmallows, liquid nitrogen, and a similar presentation ("right down to the pint glass and red straw," which, I've got to say, doesn't exactly sound as novel or unique as, say, the peacock used at Alinea) - he omitted that H Burger's, unlike Flip Burger's, is an alcoholic libation.

Anyhoo, Blais thinks H Burger is ripping off his steez: "On the street, you don't copy someone else's style." He's so mad "it makes me want to load up my smoking gun and do a mother fucking drive-thru drive by." Of course, Blais is smart enough to know, and acknowledges, that recipes can't be copyrighted or patented. He's also smart enough to know, and acknowledges, that he didn't invent either the ingredients or the techniques involved in his particular concoction:
I didn't invent liquid nitrogen, or its use in food preparation. Shit, chemistry teachers have been making LN2 ice cream in classrooms for 30 years, at least. I didn't create marshmallows. Or Nutella. Or milk shakes. Or straws and pint glasses for that matter.
So what's he all bent out of shape over? Perhaps it's a matter of credit or attribution. He says:
I have been so sensitive to the topic, that if I find a dish of mine is similar in spirit to one I've seen, I'll denote it a "remix." Maybe it's in my blood. I don't think Wylie Dufresne is going to find me on a corner and put a cap in my ass. But that's how I approach it. Inspiration is a funny thing. Sometimes you can't remember exactly how you got there or who helped, but I believe you know if you're completely ripping someone off.
All right. So Chef Blais thinks his milkshake brings all the boys to the yard, and damn right it's better than yours. But this all gave me a strange sense of deja vu. And then I remembered why. A couple years ago, I came across press blurbs about Blais' "creation" of something he called a "Popcornsicle," a ball of popcorn frozen with liquid nitrogen and served on a stick. The press blitz came complete with photos of the chef blowing liquid nitrogen smoke from his nose and mouth as he ate one. Well, other than the stick, Chef Blais' "creation" just happened to be identical to an item that was regularly served at José Andrés' minibar, where it's called "Dragon's Breath Popcorn," and where I'd just happened to have eaten a week earlier. And I said so. That prompted a discussion on Chowhound about the nature of "copying" when it comes to cooking. Back then I noted:

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