Thursday, March 23, 2017

Cochon 555 Miami - Sunday March 26

I'm not a regular on the food fest circuit, but there are a few events I always eagerly anticipate. One of my favorites is coming to town this Sunday, March 26 at the Ritz Carlton South Beach: Cochon 555. Started back in 2008, Cochon turns a spotlight on heritage pork producers with a simple formula: five pigs, five chefs, five winemakers – do something great with them. The chef who is crowned Prince or Princess of Porc goes on to the Grand Cochon, which pits the winners from ten cities against each other, with own becoming the Queen or King of Porc.

Cochon first landed in Miami in 2012 (you can see my pictures here), and the event has gotten more elaborate ever since (more pictures from Cochon Miami 2014 and Cochon Miami 2016, if you'd like to see). Now, in addition to featuring five South Florida chefs working with five heritage breed pigs, you'll find craft cocktails – including a rum cart, a margarita bar, a smoked old fashioned bar – charcuterie bars, farmstead cheesemongers, a pop-up ramen bar, a tomahawk ribeye bar (!), and more.

This year's competitors include Rick Mace and Clarke Bowen of DB Bistro, Tito Vargas of The Bazaar, Paula DaSilva of Artisan Beach House, Jeremiah Bullfrog and a contingent of the P.I.G. (Pork Is Good) crew, and John Gallo and Rene Reyes of Pinch Kitchen, plus lots of contributions from Cochon Miami alumni and several others.

You can see the full lineup here at the Cochon 555 Heritage BBQ Miami site.

There's a link on that page to buy tickets, or go straight here to get them at Eventbrite. General Admission is $125 per person, or $200 for the VIP pass which guess you early entrance before the madding crowd. And, stay tuned for updates on the twitter @frodnesor and the instagram @frodnesor – I may have a couple tickets to give away.

Monday, March 20, 2017

Sushi Deli / Japanese Market - an appreciation

Many, many years ago, when I first started writing this blog, I made a big mistake: I wrote about Sushi Deli.

It's not that my recommendation was off target. The once-tiny sushi counter[1] inside a Japanese market (called, simply enough, "Japanese Market") was the classic hidden gem, a place where, among the packaged ramen noodles and bags of rice and frozen fish and togarashi spice mixes, you could get ridiculously good sushi, some of it flown in from Japan every week, at an incredibly reasonable price. There is surely no place I'd visited more often, or that had been the source of more satisfying meals, despite the peculiar hours (closed Mondays and Tuesdays, and never open later than 6:30 p.m. – a closing time which moved progressively earlier over the years as the place became ever more popular).[2]

Truth is, a good portion of what I know and love about sushi, I learned sitting at that counter: the joy of the many different varieties of hikari mono, or silver-skinned fish, the differences in flavor and texture among uni from different parts of the world, the seasonality of sushi offerings and the sense of paying attention to what is best when. But perhaps most of all, I learned the importance of trust and loyalty.

I don't claim to be particularly close to Chef Kushi: our brief conversations across the counter would mostly be limited to what was good that day, or his last trip home to Japan, or how his golf game was doing, or – most frequently – how he was working too hard. But he knew how much I appreciated his food, and his passion; and I always felt appreciated there too. From what I can gather, the root word of "omakase" is "entrust." After several visits, I entrusted my meals to Michio, and more important, he trusted me enough to let me experience many things I might never have tasted in Miami otherwise.

You could go full omakase at Sushi Deli if you wished, which would often bring a procession of sashimi and other items. But my standard order was something of a variation on the theme: I would ask for six pieces of nigiri – whatever Chef Kushi chose[3] – along with a battera roll, an Osaka-style pressed sushi roll topped with vinegar-cured saba, a sheet of cured seaweed, and toasted sesame seeds, plus, usually, a "triple-egg" temaki (uni, ikura, and quail egg) for "dessert." And this was how I discovered any number of things: sayori (halfbeak, or needlefish), with a shiny strip of silver along its gorgeous translucent flesh, tai (Japanese snapper) lightly cured in kombu to enhance its flavor, kazunoko (herring roe), a new years' tradition. Often, these came adorned: grated fresh ginger, a daub of uni, a smidgen of yuzu kosho, a sprinkle of sesame seeds, a dot of miso or ume paste, a sheet of cured seaweed, a sliver of shiso.

(You can see several of these in this Sushi Deli / Japanese Market flickr set).

Though Michio is, in his way, very much old fashioned – I've tried, unsuccessfully, to count the dozens of signs posted around the restaurant warning customers not to use cellphones and not to take pictures, among other rules – these creative elaborations show that he actually was not particularly bound by tradition. So, too, does the fact that he had women working behind the sushi bar – including his daughter Erika, who, it's reported, is looking to open her own place in the neighborhood within the next year.

My mistake was that some things are perhaps better left unsaid. Not that I claim credit for blowing it up on the blog. FFT has never exactly raked in the page views, and I could probably name every person who visited the site in those first few months when I first wrote about Sushi Deli. And many folks with exponentially bigger megaphones than myself have been guilty of breaking what some of us eventually tried to make the "First Rule of Sushi Deli" (You do not talk about Sushi Deli), like chefs Michelle BernsteinJosé Andrés, Norman Van Aken, and Kevin Cory of Naoe. But that post is also among the top 25 in all-time visits here, many of those over the past few years, so I guess I'm guilty too.

As Sushi Deli became more and more popular the past couple years, I unfortunately found myself going less and less often (of course, considering there was a stretch that I made almost weekly visits, that was bound to happen). What had once been a place where we would just pop in on Sunday afternoons had become one where you had to show up a half-hour before they opened to get on the list for seats. When I was able to score a seat, Michio – who is now a very spry 68 years old – would be in non-stop motion, and often seemed as harried as a Tokyo salaryman.[4] Maybe, Sushi Deli should have stayed a bit more under the radar. Selfishly, anyway, it would have been better for me.

Chef Kushi himself always seemed ambivalent at best about Sushi Deli's increasing popularity. In fact, he often seemed to actively resist it. Those shortened hours, and all those rules, seemed at least partially designed to discourage customers – or certain types of customers, anyway. In a story last month which announced the impending closure, he admitted, "I wish I could choose the customers. Each of them."[5] And this isn't the first time he thought about calling it quits. A few years ago, he started a rumor that he was about to close – which may have been serious, or may have just been a ploy to try to get the restaurant listing off of Yelp.

But this time, it's for real. All the merchandise had been cleared off the shelves, and the several dozen folks who were lined up outside yesterday – some as early as 8:30 a.m. – will be Sushi Deli's last customers.

I will miss it dearly. I can't even begin to count the moments of quiet happiness I've had at that counter over the years, many of them shared with my family. But I am thrilled for Chef Kushi and his lovely wife to finally get to relax, as they so rightfully deserve. And I am incredibly excited for what's in store from the next generation ... but maybe I shouldn't say any more about that.

[1] Not that it ever got very big: over the years, they perhaps doubled the original capacity of about a dozen, if you counted a small table in the back underneath the Japanese video DVDs.

[2] It's entirely possible there's also no place where our kids ate more frequently than Sushi Deli, as we've been taking them from a very young age. Frod Jr.'s regular order at first was the salmon teriyaki lunch plate, and he eventually branched out to the rest of the menu. Little Miss F's regular order was the crunchy shrimp roll, though she came to like the battera roll nearly as much as her dad.

[3] On my last visit to Sushi Deli a couple weeks ago, another customer saw this coming out and asked Chef Kushi what it was. He opened his eyes wide and exclaimed "I don't know!"

[4] It is customary if you're drinking sake at the sushi bar to offer your itamae a pour, but a few years ago, Mrs. Kushi cut Michio off because the sake would slow him down too much in the afternoons.

[5] I was always baffled by the people who would wait an hour for a spot there, and then order a California roll and a spicy tuna roll. But maybe even worse were the ponderous blowhards loudly "educating" their companions about Japanese food, usually while drowning Chef Kushi's sushi in a viscous slurry of soy sauce and wasabi.

Wednesday, March 15, 2017

Cobaya SoBeWFF 2017 with Chefs Brad Kilgore, Jeremiah Stone, Fabian Von Hauske and Jean-Luc Royere

It was a little more than five years ago that we did a Cobaya dinner at Azul restaurant in the Mandarin Oriental Hotel which included a special guest: Andrew Zimmern of the TV show Bizarre Foods, who ended up featuring the dinner on the show.There was another special attendee that night, but he wasn't very well known at the time, and he wasn't in the dining room – he was in the kitchen. Joel Huff's sous chef at Azul was Bradley Kilgore, who had come to Miami to work at Azul after spending time with some of Chicago's finest: Alinea, Laurent Gras's L2O, Boka.

Brad was actually part of what drew us to Azul in the first place, with his online updates of what was happening in the kitchen. Zimmern has a pretty keen eye for talent too, and even though Brad was third in command in that kitchen, by the end of the night Zimmern had bestowed a nickname on him: "Wall Street," for the Gordon Gekko-esque slicked-back look he sported at the time.

Eager to see what Brad could do on his own, several months later a few of us organized a one-off dinner at Azul where we gave him free rein. He killed it – his "anatomy of a suckling pig" remains a benchmark for me when it comes to nose-to-tail utilization. Shortly afterwards, his career path took him away from Azul: a brief gig as head chef at a tough location on Key Biscayne, then to a much better gig at the St. Regis Bal Harbour for Jean-Georges Vongerichten's J&G Grill, then, nearly two years ago, to open his own place in Wynwood: Alter.

Brad Kilgore a/k/a "Wall Street" circa 2012
At Alter, all of his potential has been fully realized. The food is some of the best I've ever eaten in Miami, and recognition has been both voluminous and well-deserved: last year Brad was named one of Food & Wine magazine's Best New Chefs; and his restaurant, Alter, was a semifinalist for the James Beard Foundation Best New Restaurant award (a national category), and was included in Eater's list of the 21 Best New Restaurants in America.

Jeremiah Stone and Brad Kilgore, circa 2017
So for the third Cobaya dinner we've done in conjunction with the South Beach Wine and Food Festival, we orchestrated something of a reunion, bringing Brad back to Azul to cook for an evening. Kilgore looked pretty comfortable back in the kitchen where it all started for him in Miami, and even slicked his hair back for the occasion.

Joining him were the Mandarin's head chef, Jean-Luc Royere, and a couple New York City chefs whose careers have followed a very similar trajectory of late: Jeremiah Stone and Fabian Von Hauske, of Contra and Wildair.

Stone and Von Hauske were also included in that 2016 F&W list of Best New Chefs; their new restaurant, Wildair, was a Beard Best New Restaurant finalist, and was on that same Eater Best New Restaurants list (their first restaurant, Contra, was on the list in 2014 when it opened as well).[1] Kindred spirits.

(You can see all my pictures from the dinner in this Cobaya SOBEWFF 2017 flickr set).

Each of the teams contributed one of the passed appetizers which made their way around the room as guests arrived. From Royere, tranches of tuna cured in kombu and wrapped in fragrant shiso leaves, concealing tiny finger lime sacs that provide a citric pop as you chew. From Kilgore, a spoon of greenish-hued olive oil "snow," garnished with green apple, a sliver of serrano chili, and a dollop of caviar – a lot of flavor in one bite.[2] And from Stone and Von Hauske, a local specialty – stone crab claws – garnished in an unorthodox way, with smoked pepper and feathery flakes of chicharrones.[3]

Once everyone was settled into their tables, dinner got started with Stone's course: raw shrimp and lobster, hidden away under a mosaic of thinly sliced butternut squash and sage leaves. It was an odd dish, and I say that with a fondness for odd things. The seafood was sweet and soft and fatty, the squash – still raw, or if cooked, just barely – was firm and earthy, and the sage's strong, camphor aroma cut its way through every bite.

Brad followed with a super-soigne version of an izakaya staple: kama, or fish collar. Here, he used kanpachi, a smaller variety of amberjack, which he smoked and flavored with koji miso (Brad told me it was quite a process to gather enough collars for the 80+ covers at our dinner). The collar meat may be the most lush and fatty on the fish, and here it came out all supple and silky, like a cross between smoked sable and Nobu's famous miso cod. Even better, he topped each plate with a big, puffy black truffle cracker, made with tapioca and a pound of Urbani truffles. I was dubious that the flavor would carry through in that format, but I guess it works out just fine if you use enough truffles. It was a great dish.

Royere's Azul crew had been tending to slabs of beef on Korin binchotan charcoal grills for a good part of the evening, and we finally got to see the result. Fat, crimson slices of lush Japanese A5 wagyu beef were anointed with a miso bordelaise, and plated with roasted maitake mushrooms, a purée of golden caramelized onions, and a light smoked potato espuma. My only disappointment was that after a week of eating while on vacation (we got back from Paris the night before the dinner), I lacked the appetite to finish it.

Dessert was turned over to Fabian Von Hauske, who handles the pastry chef responsibilities at Contra and Wildair. Like Stone's course, this was odd, in a good way: halved grapes and a sweet-tart grape soup (not quite viscous or sweet enough to be called a syrup), with a dollop of a rich, pink-hued coconut and grape semifreddo, simultaneously fruity and creamy and tart, dappled with some olive oil for a little extra richness.

There was something particularly fitting about having Brad back in the kitchen at Azul, where he started in Miami and where Cobaya had its fifteen minutes as well (OK, not quite that, maybe ten minutes of airtime). The only one missing was Zimmern (who cooked for our first two Cobaya / SOBEWFF collaborations), though he made his own visit to Alter a couple weeks later.

It was even better to have the wonderfully creative talents of Jeremiah Stone and Fabian Von Hauske sharing that kitchen, along with our gracious host, Jean-Luc Royere, and the rest of his crew at Azul (some of whom, at least in the front of  house, were veterans of our Cobaya dinner from five years ago). Thanks as well to Jeffrey Stambor, director of winemaking at Beaulieu Vineyards, who supplied the pairings for the evening, to the crew at SOBEWFF, and as always, to the guinea pigs whose interest and support make these kind of events possible.

[1] We were supposed to have Curtis Duffy of Chicago's Grace as well, but he backed out.

[2] In a nod to the great Quince iPad Plate Kerfuffle of Late 2016, these spoons were served from iPads which had a rotating display of logos from SoBeWFF and the chefs' restaurants.

[3] The printed menu also listed sumac crackers with blood and Flagsheep cheese, which sounds awesome, but either I missed them or they never made it out.