Friday, August 24, 2012

(Miami) Spice of the Week

I've missed the first few weeks of Miami Spice season while on vacation, and frankly, after two weeks in Hawaii, could use some bargain dining. We go over this every year here at FFT, so here's the short-form version of my "Spice Rules":

(1) there's no reason to bother with restaurants where the Spice menu is not a meaningful discount from their regular prices (though, of course, go to them if you like them; just don't do so because they're offering a Miami Spice menu);

(2) the infamous chicken breast / farmed salmon / churrasco (or substitute short rib) "trifecta" is usually a tell that a restaurant doesn't have its heart in it; and

(3) look for food that actually interests you. If a restaurant doesn't excite you the other ten months of the year, it is unlikely there's going to be something really inspiring on their Spice menu.

The Miami Spice format is a bit different this year. There are now two categories: "Luxury Dining" and "Fine Dining," with different price points: $23 lunch / $39 dinner for "Luxury Dining," and $19 lunch / $33 dinner for "Fine Dining." And if you can remember which is which five minutes from now, you're smarter than me.[1]

I decided to do something a little different myself this year as well. I set out to see if I could come up with a "Week of Spice" - a Spice lunch and dinner for each day of the week that satisfied my "Spice Rules." Then for the real bargain hunters, I've added for each day an alternate dinner choice in the lower-priced "Fine Dining" category.[2]

Not that I would actually do this: I sure don't need to eat two desserts every day, nor do I really need to spend $60+ on restaurant meals every day. But it was a good exercise in picking what look like the seven best lunch and dinner menus being offered, including on Fridays and Saturdays (when some places have elected not to offer their Spice menus).

This is not a complete listing of each restaurant's menu (and menus change regularly anyway), just my personal picks of what sounds best. These are not listed in order of preference, and indeed some of the best are saved for the end, so I'd encourage you to wade your way all the way through.

(For an alternative take on this year's Spice menus, don't miss Miami Rankings' "2012 Miami Spice Awards")

(continued ...)

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

A Key West Weekend

Maybe it's the three hour drive that sloughs away petty worries and aggravations, as south Miami suburbia gives way to Homestead farms and nurseries, which in turn give way to islands and open water. Maybe it's the people, the motley historical confluence of traders, fishermen, treasure seekers, drug dealers, Cubans, Bahamians, gays, hippies, writers, musicians and miscreants of all sorts that make it feel so different.  Maybe it's just that feeling of being completely enveloped by ocean, the Atlantic on one side and the Gulf of Mexico only fifteen blocks away on the other. Even for a native Miamian like myself, Key West really feels like something of an escape.

Key West is an easy trip from Miami; still, it's also one I find strangely easy to overlook in favor of other more exotic, more distant destinations. But with nearly 5,000 miles of air travel coming up (we headed down there the weekend before taking off for Hawaii for two weeks) and a couple days free, it was the perfect getaway for a couple days of rest and relaxation. Here are a few brief snapshots from our Key West weekend.

(You can see all the pictures in this Key West flickr set.)

Home base was the Southernmost House, a late 19th century Queen Anne Victorian literally on the very southern tip of Duval Street. The property has a great history: Thomas Edison designed the electrical system,  it served as a speakeasy during Prohibition, and its visitors in later years, when it was the "Café Cayo Hueso," included the usual cast of Key West characters: Ernest Hemingway, Tennessee Williams, Gore Vidal, Truman Capote.

Today it has comfortable, updated rooms and a pool that practically spills right into the ocean. It's also on the quieter, more remote end of Duval Street, away from the hubbub of the center of town and the yahoos who sometimes populate it.

Our late arrival Friday evening had us hunting for dinner somewhere close by, which brought us to nine one five. This is a restaurant that was oft-recommended, and while it looks much like many other places in Key West with its Victorian trim and wrap-around porch, it was somewhat more ambitious than your average coconut-shrimp intensive tourist trap. (Note: a conspiracy of bad lighting and dead camera battery meant pretty much no food pictures for the weekend). Appetizers outnumbered entrées on the menu by nearly two to one, and our order was similarly inclined, sharing a few starters and one main course between the two of us.

(continued ...)

Monday, August 20, 2012

Summer Reading List


Well, I forgot to hang the "On Vacation" sign out before leaving, but indeed I've been gone - in Hawaii for most of two weeks, with too-brief stopovers in San Francisco on the way to and from. Some reports from the islands - Maui and Big Island in particular - will follow. We also ate incredibly well in our few days in San Francisco, starting with State Bird Provisions (named Bon Appétit's "Best New Restaurant of the Year" a few days after our visit), AQ, and finishing our trip with a Lazy Bear underground dinner. Lots of pictures are already up on flickr if you're interested in a preview.

To phase back in gently, here is the tried and true crutch of those lacking the energy to write their own material: the "What We're Reading" list. It just so happens that there were a number of interesting things I read over the past couple weeks which seemed worth sharing (and, it's easier than writing my own right now):

Top 50 Best New Restaurants (Bon Appétit) - by most accounts (and from my experience at State Bird and AQ, anyway) a very solid list.

Vacation (Michael Laiskonis' Notes from the Kitchen) - the mightily talented Laiskonis has been doing a lot of writing lately, and this description of a "perfect" meal is a great example with an apropos title.

What Danny Meyer's Customer Tracking System Really Says About You (Grubstreet New York) - an expansion of a fun New York Times piece on restaurant code (my favorite: "s'ammazzano," or "killing themselves," for a diner planning to propose), explaining how Meyer's Union Square Hospitality Group keeps dibs on good - and bad - customers.

Repetition Defines Us (Michael Hung, Inside Scoop SF) - a simple essay on the nature of being a cook that seems to have particularly resonated with those in the business.

Would YOU Want to Have the New York Times Restaurant Critic Over For Dinner? (Adam Sachs, Bon Appétit) - a funny piece about a food writer cooking for present and former New York Times critics Pete Wells and Frank Bruni.

Should a Wine List Educate or Merely Flatter You? (Eric Asimov, New York Times) - a smart retort to a Steve Cuozzo column complaining about wine lists that go over his head, advocating the virtues of the unfamiliar and esoteric.

And for some longer reads:

The Raw and the Cooked (Jim Harrison) - I'm not sure why it took me so long to get around to reading Harrison; I'm glad I finally did so. He's a gutsy, passionate writer with a gargantuan appetite for food and life, and a real pleasure to read.

Kafka on the Shore (Haruki Murakami) - not a food book (though Murakami habitually notes what his characters eat for each meal), just a magnificent, surreal, transporting kind of novel that was the perfect reading material for several long flights.