Tuesday, January 11, 2011

The Ravenous Pig - Winter Park, FL

Ever since rave reviews began appearing a couple years ago on Chowhound, I've been meaning to get to The Ravenous Pig in Winter Park, just outside of Orlando, Florida. It sounded like my kind of place: it's got "Pig" in the name, it styles itself as an "American Gastropub," its menu shows a strong focus on locally sourced product and in-house charcuterie - what's not to like? It took a while for the stars to align, but they finally did a couple weeks ago as we took a two-day jaunt up to Orlando before New Years'. All the raves proved completely justified: this is a place that does what it sets out to do exceptionally well.

The Ravenous Pig doesn't really look all that much like a pub, rather more like a tony suburban restaurant: lots of burnished wood, brick walls, and taupe fabrics. There is indeed a lively bar as you walk in, though, with overflow perching itself around a long bar-height table. A second dining room is more civilized and peaceful, with an assortment of booths and tables. Winter Park is apparently far enough away from the amusement park tourist magnets that the crowd seemed to be made up much more of locals than out-of-towners. And the menu holds pretty true to the "gastropub" concept. It's an assembly of mostly hearty, straightforward dishes, using carefully selected ingredients and prepared with panache. Much of the produce comes from local farms, many meat products are cured in-house.

We were torn on whether to start with the house-made soft pretzels or the gruyere biscuits, and so opted for both. The pretzels were good - toasty, with a litle bit of crispy bite to the outside while still pleasingly chewy within, and served with a grainy mustard and a tallegio-porter fondue for dipping. But they were outshined by the biscuits, warm and perfectly flaky, with a nice whiff of salty, nutty gruyere, almost like cheese gougeres. The smoked sea salt butter that came with them was a superfluous but welcome addition. Salads include a "Farmer" or a "Gatherer" - the former turned out to be a frisée aux lardons in drag, with some sprightly bitter greens tossed with house-smoked bacon and a Caesar vinaigrette, crowned with a perfectly poached egg and a dusting of grated parmesan cheese. It was, according to Mrs. F, the best frisée aux lardons she's ever had, and that is not a short list.

There was a charcuterie plate, all house-made, and really quite impressive. It featured several different thinly sliced cured meats - a soppressata, a coppa, a salami redolent with spiced orange - as well as a nice rich country pork terrine, topped with some stout-macerated cherries. The plate was rounded out by a couple different cheeses (one a rich triple-cream, the other not quite as memorable), some nice mustard, pungent house-made pickles, and grilled bread draped with melted lardo. It was all very well done, nearly on the same level as the boucherie plate I'd had at Cochon in New Orleans.

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Wednesday, January 5, 2011

PubBelly - South Beach

PubBelly styles itself an "Asian inspired gastropub," but I'm not convinced that's entirely on the mark.  With its semi-open kitchen, a menu dominated by small plates, and an overt pork-centricism, PubBelly's Western influences seem much more Iberian than Anglican in derivation. If anything, PubBelly strikes me less like an English gastropub, and more like a well-mixed mashup of a Spanish tapas bar and a Japanese izakaya - which, it should go without saying, is far from a complaint.

PubBelly also claims to be the first of its type in Miami, and I'm even more certain that's not the case. As has been noted here seemingly ad infinitum, the contemporary casual Asian meme has clearly taken hold in Miami, and did so well before PubBelly opened its doors around Thanksgiving. But I've also said that I think there's plenty of room in this particular sandbox, provided the food is done well and there's something to distinguish one place from another. And happily, that's mostly the case with PubBelly.

The smallish room is centered around a long communal table, on either side of which are scattered several 4-tops. There is more seating at stools lined up around a small bar which doubles as a cooking station. Brick walls and rough wood furnishings that look like they could have come out of an Ikea catalog give something of a D.I.Y. aesthetic. The soundtrack is primarily 90s and early 21st century alt.rock - Oasis and New Pornographers figured prominently on my last visit, turned up perhaps a notch louder than would invite any intimate conversation. It's a tight, noisy, friendly place, where everyone seems to know each other - and if they don't, are still often happy to talk, particularly about whatever you just ordered. It was also fairly crawling with restaurant industry folk when I popped in recently on a Sunday evening.

They're coming to sample from a menu that features mostly small plates - about a dozen or so cooked items, supplemented with a selection of raw and cured items from land and sea, a handful of vegetable dishes, rounded out by a few larger noodle and rice bowls and a short list of large plates. It's a diverse lineup which appears to be changing, around the edges, anyway, on a pretty regular basis. At least three or four dishes had come and gone or metamorphosized between my two visits, only a couple weeks apart.

The name and the pig head logo are good hints to what this place is about: pork belly, the newly fashionable cut, makes appearances in multiple dishes. Indeed, if you should wish, you could easily craft a "7 Courses of Pork Belly" variation on the traditional Vietnamese "Bò 7 Món," or 7 Courses of Beef: start with some pork belly rillettes, followed by pork belly dumplings, then perhaps the pork belly with butterscotch and pumpkin, a McBelly sandwich, a bowl of ramen garnished with pork belly and shoulder, a side of mofongo with pork belly, and finish up with the soft-serve ice cream with brownie and bacon crumbles. This is a menu that really puts the slogan "Everything's Better with Bacon" to the test.

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Saturday, January 1, 2011

2010 by the Numbers

I remember, back when I used to have more functioning brain cells than I do now, how much I used to enjoy reading the "Harper's Index" that was in every issue of the lefty-leaning Harper's magazine. As a final sendoff to 2010, here's my take on the year just past in the same format, except I may have made up at least 50% of the statistics in this list (including that one):

Food For Thought's Index

South Florida restaurants (or food trucks) written up in FFT in 2010: 38[1]

Non-South Florida restaurants written up in FFT in 2010: 18[2]

Cobaya - Gourmet Guinea Pig dinners written up in FFT in 2010: 7

Number of dinner experiences in 2010 I enjoyed more than III Forks: 364

Number of contemporary Asian restaurants opened in Miami in 2010: 9[3]

Percentage of restaurants opened in Miami in 2010 that are contemporary Asian restaurants: 79%

Number of steakhouses opened in Miami in 2009: 8[4]

Number of steakhouses opened in Miami in 2010: 3[5]

Number of seafood restaurants opened in Miami in 2010: 6[6]

Number of big-name outsiders to open restaurants in Miami in 2009: 11[7]

Number of big-name outsiders to open restaurants in Miami in 2010: 3[8]

Number of South Florida food trucks on Twitter in December 2009: 2[9]

Number of South Florida food trucks on Twitter in December 2010: 35

Percentage of South Florida food truck menus featuring burgers and/or tacos: 90%

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