Thursday, December 24, 2015

first thoughts: Pao by Paul Qui in the Faena Hotel - Miami Beach

Of the many big-name Miami restaurant openings of late, the one I've been most curious about is Paul Qui's Pao in the Faena Hotel Miami Beach. I've followed the chef since he was in the kitchen at Austin's Uchi, watched him dominate a season of Top Chef and win a James Beard Award in 2012, then go on to open both a tasting menu format restaurant (Qui) and several ragingly successful food trucks in Austin (East Side King and its sibling Thai-Kun, which was on Bon Appetit's list of best new restaurants of 2014).

Pao is Qui's first venture outside of Austin, and it's a big one: the Faena is perhaps the most ostentatious and over-the-top of many recent ostentatious, over-the-top Miami developments. The billion dollar project includes not only the hotel, where rooms start at $900 a night, but also a Norman Foster-designed condominium where units are selling for an average of $3,000 per square foot (including a $60 million sale to a billionaire hedge fund manager) and the Rem Koolhaas-designed Faena Forum, a multi-disciplinary arts exhibition center.

It is both exciting and, in a way, alienating. In many respects, I simply don't recognize this as the city where I was born and have spent nearly half a century. Faena, and other recent projects like the expansion of the Design District into what seems like a living catalog of the holdings of LVMH, are designed as playgrounds for the über-wealthy, international jet-set; they have little connection to the locals who actually live here.

But if it brings chefs like Qui to Miami, then who am I to complain?

Oddly, despite all the hullabaloo over Faena, details on Qui's restaurant have been somewhat hard to come by, even as it opened at the beginning of this week. I heard the food would be "modern Asian" with "Filipino, Spanish, Japanese and French flavors;" I heard a lot more about the $6 million Damien Hirst gold-leafed unicorn sculpture ("Golden Myth") that is the centerpiece of the dining room. But that's OK: so many restaurants put out so much pre-opening hype these days that I grow tired of hearing about them before they've even opened. By contrast, I didn't have much of an idea of what to expect heading into Pao. So here's a first look.

(You can see all the pictures from my first visit to Pao – including shots of the menu, which is not yet available online – in this Pao by Paul Qui flickr set).

The menu starts with four choices of fish crudos, along with a "binchotan service" featuring several items that can be grilled tableside over Japanese charcoal. It then moves through about a half-dozen choices of small plates, several rice dishes and a selection of several larger-format plates meant for sharing.

The first item on the menu points toward Qui's Filipino heritage: kinilaw, the Philippines' version of ceviche. Slices of hiramasa (a/k/a buri, yellowtail, amberjack) are bathed in coconut milk and coconut vinegar, garnished with hearts of palm and slivered red onion, and dappled with Spanish olive oil. It's richer, and less acidic, than a typical ceviche, and I found myself wishing the vinegar was turned up a little louder than the coconut milk. The other crudo we tried, a carpaccio of Japanese sea bream, was plated with a puddle of smoked soy sauce and leek oil contained within a ring of kumquat jam that tasted as bright and vibrant as its vivid orange hue. The quality of the fish was excellent, but I was somewhat surprised that of the four crudos offered, none came from local waters and two featured endangered bluefin tuna.[1]

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Tuesday, December 22, 2015

best dishes of 2015: part 3

We're in the home stretch now. Here are the final fifteen of the best things I ate in 2015. Still hungry? Check out part 1 and part 2, and you can also see all the pictures in this Best Dishes of 2015 flickr set. This final group splits time between Miami and Northern California, starting with what was, for me, one of the most unexpectedly exciting – and unfortunately, short-lived – restaurants that opened (and closed) here in 2015.

Once again, despite the title, this makes no claim as being the "best" of anything other than the things I had the good fortune to eat over the past year. There are oodles of intriguing new restaurants just in South Florida that I've not yet made it to, or only started to get to know, much less the broader dining universe out there. These appear in roughly chronological order.

Gordita, Haitian Griots and Pikliz, Cotija, Raw Vegan Verde - Centro Taco (Downtown Miami) (see all my pictures from Centro Taco)

This Mexican-Haitian mash-up was darn near perfect: a crisp, corn-y masa shell filled with tender, burnished-edged fried pork, a tangy, spicy cabbage slaw, a dollop of salsa verde and a sprinkling of cotija cheese. Before my first visit, I was by no means convinced that Miami needed another taco shop. But it can always use more like this. (I guess I was wrong – Centro Taco closed after only a couple months, but Chef Richard Hales is looking to reopen in another spot. I hope that happens soon.)

Cape Canaveral Prawns, Tajin Crust, Grits, Mole Verde, Lime Crema, Huitlacoche - Alter (Wynwood Miami) (read my thoughts and see all my pictures from Alter)

I found another favorite dish on a visit to Alter in August: the tajin-crusted Cape Canaveral prawns, strewn over a bed of creamy corn grits lashed with stripes of mole verde, lime crema, and huitlacoche. It's a beautiful combination – like a next-generation Mexican shrimp 'n' grits – but what really elevates it is the quality of those prawns, tender and juicy underneath their chile and citrus coating, their heads bursting with oceanic goodness when chewed or squeezed.

Caviar, Smoked Oil Poached Egg, Creme Fraiche; Celtuce, Just Dug Potatoes, Comté, Burnt Hay, Tarragon; Musk Melon, Coconut, Lemon Flavors - Coi (San Francisco) (read my thoughts and see all my pictures from Coi)

Here are three dishes from a meal at Daniel Patterson's restaurant Coi, shortly after the chef announced that he would stepping out of the kitchen at the end of the year. He's bringing in a wonderful chef to take over – Matthew Kirkley, who served me a great meal at Chicago's L2O late last year – but I'm glad to have had a chance to experience Patterson's cooking at Coi. From Patterson's book:
Coi is part of a well-established tradition of restaurants that serve expensive tasting menus. We are mindful of that history, but there are some aspects of an haute cuisine dining experience that feel more symbolic than heartfelt, like building the menu around a procession of luxury ingredients. Products like truffles and caviar are expensive, but they aren't hard to find or challenging to prepare. They don't carry any particular emotional value for me, just the wan connotation of a bygone era when waiters wore white gloves. Nothing wrong with that, it's just not how I cook.
Well, sometimes exceptions can be made. I, for one, would never turn down this mound of caviar, served over a poached egg yolk nestled next to some silky creme fraiche sprinkled with chives. Again there's another little surprise: the gooey yolk has been imbued with the flavor of the smoked oil in which it was poached, the combination of roe and smoke bringing to mind the grill-smoked caviar served by Victor Arguinzoniz at Etxebarri.

Another dish from the Coi "greatest hits" collection. The primary ingredient is celtuce, featured both in thickly sliced discs and thin ribbons of its stalk. It has the hearty snap of a broccoli stem, and a delicately bittersweet flavor somewhere in the neighborhood of lettuce, celery and asparagus. Freshly dug potatoes are cooked until just tender, and crowned with caps of nutty, buttery melted comté cheese. These sit over an oil blackened with powdered burnt hay. Those black and charred aromas are brought back to green and fresh by a few wispy leaves of tarragon. "Coi" is an archaic French word meaning "quiet," and Patterson's cooking voice can be quiet, subtle, understated. Sometimes you have to listen closely. If you do so, in this dish maybe you'll hear something that sounds like a field of grass blown by the wind, with all these variations on the vegetal tastes of the pasture.

Then the next bite soothes. Gorgeously fragrant, sweet cubes of musk melon swim in a soup of their juices, intermingled with lemon flavors (something herbaceous here: lemon verbena?) and topped with a scoop of coconut sorbet. It's simple. And stunning.

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Monday, December 21, 2015

best dishes of 2015: part 2

Last week I kicked off part 1 of my "Best Dishes of 2015." It started with a dessert at the new Vagabond Restaurant on Biscayne Boulevard, one of my favorite new Miami restaurants, and ended with a brunch at Oakland's Boot and Shoe Service. Today, we pick up with another of my favorite additions to Miami's dining lineup, on the same stretch of Biscayne Boulevard as Vagabond, and spend some more time in Miami before a brief excursion to Chicago. Again, these are not "ranked" but listed in rough chronological order, and despite the title, make no pretense of really being the "best" of anything – only my personal favorites from a year of good eating in 2015.

Rice with Shrimp PasteCake Thai Kitchen (Miami MiMo District) (read my thoughts and see all my pictures from Cake Thai Kitchen)

I've often bemoaned the cookie-cutter nature of most Thai restaurants in Miami. Cake Thai Kitchen is something different: chef Phuket Thongsodchareondee, who previously worked at Makoto, serves fresh, vibrant Bangkok style street food unlike what you'll find pretty much anywhere else in town. I'll mention two dishes, since my favorite (the rice with shrimp paste) is no longer on the menu.

Let's start by talking about their pad thai (top center). This is a dish I usually order for the kids. I've never experienced one I liked, usually finding it sticky, sweet and insipid. Cake's version is revelatory: smoky crushed dried chilies, tangy tamarind, funky dried shrimp, briny head-on tiger prawns, savory ground peanuts, crisp fresh bean sprouts all jockeying for attention. Several of the components are nestled into corners of the container, requiring some last-minute DIY assembly. Toss it all together: now, the dish makes sense.

The rice with shrimp paste (top right) is another DIY project, and another favorite of mine. The low-tide funk of shrimp paste permeates the rice, which you toss with cubes of rich, salty-sweet pork belly, shredded omelet, crisp dried shrimp, bits of tart green mango, slivered raw shallots, fresh chilies, and a squeeze of lime. It's a great dish.

Royal Red Shrimp, Florida Seaweeds, Beef Tendon, Chicken Jus; Elderflower, Reduced Whey, Cucumber, Tomatillo – Cobaya Chang at Vagabond (Miami MiMo District) (read my thoughts and see all my pictures from our Cobaya dinner with Chef Alex Chang)

Foraging is not exactly a new thing – the influence of Rene Redzepi's Noma has turned chefs around the world into hunters and gatherers – but it's still not found its way into many Miami restaurant kitchens. Chang is looking to change that: here, he dusts royal red shrimp with dried seaweeds (foraged from along Key Biscayne) to bump up those oceanic flavors. The shrimp were served over a verdant sea purslane purée (another foraged ingredient), together with speckled lettuce leaves, crispy puffed beef tendon for a bit of crunch, and a reduced chicken jus for just a hint of richness. This was another great dish.

I've been pretty consistently wowed by the desserts at Vagabond (Chang doesn't have a pastry chef and does the desserts himself), and this was no exception: a creamy ice cream of reduced whey infused with elderflowers, together with a bright green cucumber granita, a sweet, tangy, just slightly vegetal tomatillo jam, and a sprinkle of elderflowers over the top. This is the kind of dessert I love: bright and refreshing, not too heavy, not too sweet, with a great contrast of textures.

Kanpachi SushiMyumi (Wynwood Miami) (read my thoughts and see all my pictures from Myumi)

Myumi is not your typical sushi bar. In fact, it's a truck – a converted FedEx delivery truck, stationed in a lot in Wynwood when I visited (it's since hooked up with the Wynwood Yard project and is working on a brick-and-mortar location) – serving an omakase only sushi menu. Myumi's rice was quite good: it holds together without being gummy or clumpy, preserving the distinct feel of each individual grain. And the fish is very good by Miami standards. I was particularly struck by the silver-skinned, pink-fleshed kanpachi (amberjack), dabbed with spicy, zesty yuzu kosho, which had a certain "snap" to the flesh.

Spaghetti VongolegastroPod (Wynwood Miami) (see all my pictures from gastroPod)

After dinner at Myumi, I popped next door to the gastroPod and had a chaser that turned out to be another of the best things I'd eat all year: Chef Jeremiah's version of spaghetti vongole. This is a product of his "Noodlehead" concept, a lineup of a few different kinds of fresh noodles that can be paired with an assortment of sauces, broths and other accompaniments. The "vongole" was a sort of Italian / Chinese hybrid, featuring briny fresh chopped clams in an XO-like paste of spicy chiles and fresh herbs.

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