Saturday, January 29, 2011

Sustain - Midtown Miami

[sorry, this restaurant has closed]

I've already repeatedly mentioned here how the contemporary Asian trope has taken hold here in Miami. But that isn't the only trend afoot. If restaurants weren't turning Japanese (or Chinese, or Korean) this past year, they were going green. "Farm to table," "sustainable," "eco-" this or that appeared in every other press release announcing a new opening. De Rodriguez Ocean pitched itself as a "sustainable seafood" restaurant. 1500° was a "farm-to-table restaurant with a heavy steakhouse sensibility."[1] Even the mega-chains got in on the act, with Darden Restaurants (the people who bring you Red Lobster and Olive Garden, among others) launching Seasons 52, which claims a "seasonally-inspired menu" but was serving asparagus in December when I visited their new Coral Gables location.

Some of this is just blatant greenwashing. And yet sometimes there is a genuinely serious commitment to working with local farms, sourcing top-quality, organic product, and running a restaurant in a way that is attuned to the environment. Of course, none of that really matters if the food sucks. Ultimately, people will come, and come back, to a restaurant because the food is good, not because the restaurant does good things. Sustain, opened last month in the stretch of Midtown Miami that already includes Sugarcane Raw Bar Grill and Mercadito, is getting it right on both fronts.[2]

When you call your place "Sustain," you better be serious about it. And this restaurant was literally built from the ground up with sustainability in mind. Fixtures on the ceiling are made from recycled aluminum. A captivating wooden "ribcage" sculpture along one wall is crafted from sustainable mangrove. The tables and chairs are reclaimed cypress, the fabrics are LEED-approved, the lights are energy-conserving LEDs. The menu is equally "green": Much of the produce comes from local farms, cheeses come from local producers, fish come mostly from local waters, meats are from stock that are pasture-raised on Florida ranches.

photo via Sustain
All of which may make you feel good about eating there; making it taste good is Chef Alex Piñero's job. After all, "sustain" also means to feed and nourish. Chef Piñero, who worked his way through Cheeca Lodge, The Strand (Michelle Bernstein's first Miami restaurant), Talula, Casa Tua and Fratelli Lyon before taking over the kitchen at Sustain, takes a low-key approach to the menu here. Preparations are mostly straightforward, and ingredients are front and center. This is not the kind of place to expect culinary pyrotechnics. Sometimes such minimalism equates to blandness, but Sustain mostly avoids that pitfall.

The menu starts with several "bites" priced at $4-6, and they are all worth sampling. The pretzel bites, little tater-tot sized nuggets, are pleasingly warm, crusty, and chewy, and come with ramekins of whole grain mustard and honey for dipping (best in combination, if you ask me). Fried chickpeas have an intriguing pop to their texture, and are napped with a light green herb oil. Meanwhile, corn dogs, featuring house-made mini hot dogs encased in a light cornmeal batter, are true to the carnival classic, a nostalgic start to a meal.[3] Tender pork and beef meatballs, served in a little cast-iron Staub pot, are draped with a rich mushroom gravy and dollops of creamy goat cheese. Those corn dogs and meatballs are also reflective of the restaurant's underlying ethos: the ground pork and beef that go into them are a way to use up the less-than-glamorous bits that do not become chops and steaks. Indeed, as you read through the menu you can reconstruct much of a cow and a pig along the way.[4]

Some of those bits also wind up in a charcuterie plate. The plate features a jar of pork rilletes (shoulder and belly meat cooked in its own fat and shredded to a fine paste) which were the best I've had in Miami, for a few reasons: they're unabashedly fatty; they're assertively spiced; and they're not served too cold. This last in particular makes a big difference: too often (locally anyway) rillettes are served dead cold, denying them all their unctuous appeal. A country pâté wrapped in bacon was serviceable but could use something to distinguish or enliven it, whether it be a more pronounced livery tang, or perhaps some fruit or nut in the mix. The plate is rounded out with some thinly sliced country ham from Allan Benton, which is simply marvelous stuff, as well as some house-made pickles, mustard and grilled ciabatta.

I'm not a big salad eater, but the "50 Mile Salad" is one that I actively crave. As the name indicates, the salad is composed of ingredients all sourced from within 50 miles of the restaurant.[5] It starts with a blend of baby brassicas (mustard greens, mizuna, kale, arugula) from Paradise Farms in Homestead (here you can read a bit more about their "Bx3 Baby Brassica Blend") which is the remedy to everything I typically find uninteresting about salads. Instead of grazing, cow-like, on a monotonous bowl of bland lettuce, there is a lively contrast of textures and flavors here, alternating sweet, bitter, soft, spiky, herbaceous, peppery from bite to bite. Then add an earthy bass note of roasted golden beets, carrots all blistered, caramelized and sweet from the wood-burning oven, tart-sweet heirloom tomatoes, tangy pickled onions, creamy fromage blanc from Hani's (there's more to read about Hani and his goats at Mango & Lime), a vinaigrette redolent with soft herbs, salt it well, and that's a salad I can enjoy.

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Saturday, January 22, 2011

BlueZoo - Orlando, Florida

Orlando is not exactly perceived as a dining destination. But we ate exceptionally well during our quick visit before the New Year. After finally making our first trip to The Ravenous Pig, we went the following night to BlueZoo in the Swan and Dolphin Resort. BlueZoo is nominally a Todd English restaurant, but given that there are more of those than you can count on all your fingers and toes, I'm not quite sure what that really means. What I do know is that Chris Windus is the Executive Chef at BlueZoo, and he put out a meal for us that was genuinely exceptional.

I met Chef Windus about a year and a half ago when he cooked with Chefs Kurtis Jantz and Chad Galiano for one of their much-missed "Paradigm" dinners. In fact, I got to spend the night in the kitchen with the chefs, an experience I wrote about in this epic three-part series. After that meal - more specifically, after tasting Chef Windus' ravioli with a liquid corn filling - I declared "One bite and I know where I’m eating next time I’m in Orlando." It took a while, but I finally made good on that vow.[1]

BlueZoo is a posh, swanky place which struck me as more Vegas than Disney (though it's sometimes hard to tell them apart). There's a long bar/raw bar along one side as you walk into the restaurant, with lots of blue mosaic tiles and a metallic school of fish swimming along the back wall. The centerpiece is their "dancing fish" grilling contraption, with spinning skewers circling over an open flame (and for display purposes, a poor fish being mercilessly torched throughout the night, like some piscine auto-da-fé). The main room is dramatically wide open with high ceilings, gigantic pillars and dangling glass sculptures throughout. It's designed by Jeffrey Beers, who is also responsible for the recent refurbishment of the grandiose Fontainebleau in Miami Beach.

The menu has a strong seafood focus - fully three-fourths of the items, both among appetizers and entrées, are aquatic - and yet Chef Windus has an abiding, if incongruous, obsession with charcuterie. After starting us with a beautiful simple amuse bouche of a silky, fatty hamachi crudo, topped with a leaf of perky, tangy red ribbon sorrel, he sent out a sampling of some of his latest cured creations: mangalitsa coppa (I've borrowed the picture below from Chris' twitpics); duck rillettes, wrapped with a strip of mangalitsa lardo (just in case it wasn't rich enough); and a house-made "hot dog," sliced in rounds and topped with some pungent mustard. They were all fantastic, some of the finest cured meat products I've sampled anywhere.

mangalitsa coppa - picture via bluechefs
We tried a few other starters. The "Broken Rockefeller"[2] was a deconstructed take on the classic Oysters Rockefeller: the oysters lightly battered and fried, and nestled back in their shells; the spinach, a vibrant green purée spiked with garlic and bacon, dotted around the plate; smaller dots of a gelled mornay sauce; and a sprinkling of tapioca maltodextrin-ed bacon powder (the picture below is a prototype version from Chef Chris' blog, bluechefs). Unlike many deconstructed dishes, which seem to do so just for the sake of doing so without attention to flavor, components here were actually enhanced in their own way (the delicately fried oysters and the smooth spinach purée in particular) while still combining with the same effect. I also thought it was a great touch to plate the dish with one traditional Oyster Rockefeller, like a reference point for comparing the original version to its contemporary recreation.

oysters rockefeller - picture via bluechefs
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Sunday, January 16, 2011

This One Goes to Eleven - Cobaya at Chow Down Grill 1.11.11

It's always an interesting experience planning these Cobaya - Gourmet Guinea Pigs dinners. The mission statement for the chefs is a simple one: cook exactly what you want, without limits, so long as it's on off-the-menu experience that diners won't find in a restaurant. That leaves much room for interpretation. The particular dishes, the menu format, pretty much everything is up to the chef. Ideally, it gives the diners a chance to experience something new and different, and gives the chefs a chance to explore ingredients, cooking methods or ideas that they might not have an opportunity to use otherwise.

Chef Joshua Marcus of Chow Down Grill (you can read my write-up of Chow Down Grill here) is one of those who "got it" immediately. When we decided to do a dinner together, he really got into the spirit, setting things up so that diners were brought in via the alleyway behind the restaurant through an unmarked door that led into the (tiny) kitchen, managing to squeeze 32 seats into his tiny space in Surfside, and bringing in a couple guitarists to play throughout the dinner. He also called out reinforcements including a sushi chef from Nobu to assist in the kitchen, and a friend who worked at BLT Steak to help with service (and also to play the "bouncer" at the back door). They put out 11 ("These Go to Eleven")[*] courses using some ingredients that several of our diners had probably never encountered before, some of which Chef Josh and his team were working with for the first time too.

You can see the menu here at the Cobaya site and all of the pictures in this Flickr set - Cobaya 1.11.11. Here is a more detailed rundown.

Birds' Nest Soup
Bird's Nest Soup
When we first started plotting this dinner, one of the goals was to showcase the house-made soy sauce that Josh and his sous chef Jason have been brewing for months and were finally ready to unveil. I knew that Chow Down Grill was making most of their sauces from scratch. I did not know, until this dinner, that they were also making tofu from scratch, and the house-made soy sauce was a product of having all those soy beans around and wondering what else could be done with them. The bird's-nest soup (made with a stock from squab bones, the rest of which would make an appearance later in the menu) was purposefully underseasoned so diners could use that soy sauce with it. The sauce was light and thin and pure in flavor (like an uzukuchi soy sauce) and not overwhelmed by the sweet caramelized notes of many commercial soy sauces. Bird's nest soup is more about texture than flavor (the nests, made from the stringy saliva of swiftlets, really don't taste like much), though the highlight here for me was the broth, pure and simple, rich in flavor without being in any way heavy or filling.

Ankimo with Aji Panca Sauce
Monkfish Liver
Ankimo, or monkfish liver, is often called the "foie gras of the sea," and it has a depth of flavor that justifies the moniker. This was prepared in-house and came out very nicely - creamy, rich, in many ways very similar to duck or goose liver, but with something of a marine tang that belies its source. Typically in Japanese restaurants it will be served cold, often in a bath of ponzu sauce and with a pinch of yuzu kosho. Here, it was run under the broiler to warm it, and served in a pool of aji panca sauce and dots of soy, the Peruvian pepper providing some spicy heat to cut the richness. One of my favorite ingredients, and a  really nice dish.

Giant Oyster with Habañero Pickled Cauliflower
Giant Oyster
The picture here gives little sense of scale, but these Pacific oysters were close to twice the size of most normal oysters, apparently shucked and briefly steamed, then topped with tiny florets of pickled cauliflower with a dose of habañero chile, as well as a sprinkle of golden pike roe. This was practically a knife-and-fork oyster, though I ambitiously downed it one shot. I found it had gotten a bit dried out from being warmed, and could have used maybe some light sauce or liquid to compensate, but this is a great product with just enough added to complement without detracting from it.

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