Tuesday, January 10, 2023

The Best Things I Ate in 2022 (Round 2)

Happy New Year, all! I actually managed to post Round 1 of the Best Things I Ate in 2022 before the calendar flipped over, so that's progress over last year. This is how I intend to approach 2023: be grateful for any tiny modicum of improvement. Round 1 started in the Bay Area before making its way back to Miami, then returned west to L.A. as it wrapped up. Round 2 starts off back in Miami again at an old favorite with a new look, and makes detours to Chicago, the Pacific Northwest and Iceland before finding its way home.
Seafood Platter - Michael's Genuine
Seafood Platter - Michael's Genuine

I'll confess that Michael's Genuine had fallen off my radar for a while. But over the past year it's made its way back into the rotation, with a major remodel of the space, and new chef de cuisine Dillion Wolff (who worked his way up from line cook over several years), bringing some new energy.  My most recent meals have been some of the best I've had there in several years, highlighted by this fantastic seafood platter featuring cold, briny oysters, tender poached Florida-harvested shrimp, a ceviche of whatever is fresh with citrus and kimchi flavors, crunchy crudites, and on this visit, an especially delicious king crab tostada. MGFD, Michael Schwartz, and exec chef Bradley Herron have achieved a lot, but maybe the greatest accomplishment is keeping a restaurant fresh and relevant and true to itself over 15+ years.

kohada - Uchi Miami
Kohada Nigiri - Uchi Miami

Miami has seen an absolutely insane influx of omakase sushi options over the past few years. For a long time, unless you knew who to ask and when, it was pretty much Naoe or bust. Now, I can count over a dozen spots that, if not exclusively omakase venues, offer some variation on the theme. On one hand, this is a good thing: done well, this is one of my favorite dining experiences. On the other hand, several of these spots can seem like cynical machines designed to separate spendy customers from their money with maximum efficiency, where less attention is paid to technique and flavor than to flashy, status-y items that are often torched or sauced (or both) beyond recognition by relatively inexperienced hands. Better quality ingredients have been easier to come by as True World Foods (the primary distributor of Japanese products in the U.S., and here in Miami)[1] has facilitated access to suppliers from Tokyo's Toyosu Market. So it has become more of a question of how you handle them and what you choose to do with them.

Uchi Miami has a whole section of their sushi menu devoted to "Toyosu Selections" which can run over a dozen deep, on top of a roughly equal number of selections from the regular menu. At the sushi bar they use a judicious but creative hand in how those selections are treated, with garnishes that complement rather than overwhelm. On a June visit we ordered almost exclusively from that list, and enjoyed everything, but especially this kohada (gizzard shad), one of my favorite neta, which was given a delicate vinegar cure, sliced and twisted into an elegant braid, and topped with a daub of minced ginger and slivered scallion.

(More pics from Uchi Miami | Wynwood).

Matrimonio - Porto (Chicago)
Matrimonio - Porto (Chicago)

Tomato & Escabeche - Porto (Chicago)
Tomato & Escabeche - Porto (Chicago)

More shiny little fish! I was intrigued by Porto when we booked a reservation during a short visit to Chicago; and I was truly wowed by the whole experience, which far exceeded my expectations. The restaurant is run by a group that has about a dozen venues under its wing, which makes its particularly focused and quirky vision all the more surprising: Porto is devoted to the flavors of Portugal and Spain's Galician coast, and more specifically to both the fresh and the high-quality preserved seafoods of that region, which exec chef Marcos Campos, CDC Erwin Mallet, and even pastry chef Shannah Primiano manage to work into just about every dish.

It is a gorgeous space, with a choreographed riot of colors and patterns on nearly every surface from floors to walls to ceiling. The main dining room is dominated by a long, three-sided "chef's island," while a second dining room in back has an almost outdoor feel, anchored by a huge, active cooking hearth. The tasting menu brings about a dozen rounds: marinated mussels crowning crispy potato cubes (served on a platter fashioned from a dehydrated flatfish carcass); a duo of oysters, both cold-smoked with a sea bean escabeche, and also poached in seaweed broth, then bathed in a cava emulsion; La Brújula sea urchin conserva atop toasted brioche along with smoked cauliflower purée and creamy Sao Jorge cheese. One of my favorites bites: this "matrimonio," a spin on a traditional tapa typically featuring white and dark anchovies, here done with house-pickled white anchovies and cured brown anchovies, served atop a delicate garbanzo bean cracker laced with stripes of red piquillo pepper and green dill and garlic purées.[2] And another, this brain-teaser of a dessert of pastry chef Primiano, with tomato panna cotta, a San Simon cheese shortbread, sweet pimentón, plankton olive oil, plum and apricot jam, and a strawberry and mussel sorbet, all nestled into a crab carapace. I'm a big fan of savory desserts, and this is just about as far as I've seen that envelope pushed, in an incredibly successful way.

This was a sensational meal, and the most surprisingly great experience of the year for us.[3]

(More pics from Porto | Chicago).

Salt Roasted Beets - Lion and the Rambler (Coral Gables)
Salt Roasted Beets - Lion & the Rambler (Coral Gables)

I remember ten years ago seeing an intriguing preview menu for a spot that was opening as a pop-up in a little café space on the northern edge of Coral Gables. The spot was Giorgio Rapicavoli's Eating House, which after a lengthy run left its original home, and recently reopened in a new location on Giralda Avenue. Meanwhile, a new spot with a peculiar name and an intriguing preview menu showed up in that original location. The spot is Michael Bolen's Lion & the Rambler, where we had a really promising first visit earlier this year. The food lineup actually reminds me quite a bit of EH's early days – creative, flavorful, fun, and adventurous, but not so far out there as to alienate anyone.[4] The house-baked breads (usually two choices are offered) were a highlight, and vegetables get their due, including on our visit maitake mushrooms drowning in a pool of neon-green parsley sabayon, and grilled broccolini under a blanket of mimolette fondue with nubbins of pickled kohlrabi. I was especially fond of these salt roasted beets, cubed and paired with ripe black velvet apricots,[5] crumbled pistachios and a frothy mousse of horseradish-spiked goat cheese.[6] Yeah, beets and goat cheese. It still works.

Chopped Aji Nigiri - Mr. Omakase
Chopped Aji Nigiri - Mr. Omakase (Miami)

To continue a theme here: way back in 2015, I was bemoaning the absence of good omakase options in Miami, while describing my first visit to Myumi, a food truck that set up shop in a vacant lot in Wynwood. Myumi offered a 12-course, $60 omakase served by chef Ryo Kato,[7] which you would eat piece by piece perched on a stool at a counter running along the truck's open side window. It was surprisingly good, and by the following year, the nigiri of chopped aji (horse mackerel) Chef Kato served at Myumi was one my favorite dishes of 2016.

Flash forward to 2022, and Ryo is now running Mr. Omakase, a sushi counter downtown which offers three different "experiences" ranging from $89 - $149 for between 10 and 18 courses. We went with "the works," and given the going rates these days, it is also one of the better omakase price-to-value ratios available in the Miami market. My favorite bite? That same nigiri of aji chopped with ginger and scallion to a fine tartare, and topped with toasted sesame seeds.

(continued ...)

Thursday, December 29, 2022

The Best Things I Ate in 2022 (Round 1)

Hang on a minute, folks, just need to dust this off a little bit, maybe move some things around, look under this pile over here ... there it is! Found it. My blog. Hasn't seen any action in about half a year, but seems like it still works. Let's take this thing out for a drive.

It's an annual tradition here at FFT to recap the best things I ate over the past year, even if sometimes it doesn't get posted until months after the calendar flips over. So this year's is actually somewhat ahead of schedule by my standards! For many – for us, anyway – 2022 marked something of a return to normal, or at least a "new normal," after a couple very strange years. It certainly marked a return to recreational travel, as we tried to make up for lost time with visits to the Bay Area, Southern California, Chicago, Seattle, Oregon, and Iceland (!!!) over the course of the year. As a result, my 2022 list skews more heavily toward out-of-town places than South Florida – a disparity which is ironic, given that it has been a year of pretty exciting debuts for Miami restaurants. I constantly keep a "to-do" list of local restaurants I intend to visit, and it is as long as it has ever been.[1]

I'll try to rectify that balance in the coming year; in the meantime, here's a look back at a year's worth of good eating in 2022:

Angler Private Batch Caviar
Angler Private Batch Caviar & Banana Pancakes - Angler (SF)

Soft Serve Sundae - Angler
Soft Serve Sundae - Angler (SF)

Our first trip of 2022 was to the Bay Area, kicked off by a visit the night of our anniversary to Angler in San Francisco. With so many places to try in the city, it's unusual for us to keep going back to the same spot. But Angler makes me really, really happy. Fantastic ingredients, treated thoughtfully, with a simplicity of presentation that belies the care and labor that goes into their preparation, usually involving some form of exposure to smoke or fire. It's a tasting menu kind of experience in an a la carte package (albeit with prices that skew more toward the former than the latter). This was my first time getting the "Angler Private Batch" caviar, which they source and process on their own, and which proves to be entirely worth the effort. If the accompanying banana pancakes are too weird for you (they're great, but I get it), then I highly recommend getting an order of the Parker House rolls as an alternative. I highly recommend doing so regardless, actually. And I can't visit Angler without ordering the soft serve sundae, with embered caramel and cacao nibs, a very grown-up version of a McDonald's classic.

(More pics from Angler | San Francisco).

Celery Salad - Day Trip
Celery Salad - DayTrip

Thai Chili Dungeness Crab - Day Trip
Thai Chili Dungeness Crab - DayTrip

We met up with Frod Jr. the following evening at DayTrip in Oakland, which completely won me over. Flavor-forward, interesting, shareable dishes, an adventurous in-house fermentation program, lots of tasty natural wines, an anarchic, playful attitude, and a real spirit of genuine hospitality. It was somehow not a big surprise to make a cross-country connection that wine director Jenny Eagleton was a friend of Bianca Sanon, the wine maven at North Miami's Paradis. Small world.

This celery salad doesn't look like much but bursts with flavor: the stalks thinly sliced, doused in a dressing redolent with lemon verbena oil, bright green with chlorophyll, spicy with habanero, and then showered with shavings of funky Sardinian sheep's cheese. If I may make a weird analogy: not that anything about this dish tastes Thai in any way, but it does the same thing that great Thai cooking does by going in a bunch of directions at once (with Thai, sweet / sour / salty / spicy – here, grassy / lemony / spicy / funky) while still feeling like a unified dish. On the other hand: this Dungeness crab did actually venture into Thai territory, doused in chili garlic sauce, and a melting puddle of good butter spiked with fish sauce. I was still enjoying it long after the rest of the family grew weary of watching me pick at the shells.

(More pics from DayTrip | Oakland).

The Whole Crab - Harbor House Inn
The Whole Crab - Harbor House Inn

Fort Bragg Sea Urchin - Harbor House Inn
Fort Bragg Sea Urchin - Harbor House Inn (Elk, CA)

We'd spent time along California's Mendonoma Coast before, but this was our first visit to Harbor House Inn in Elk – about three hours due north of San Francisco, about a half hour shy of Mendocino. I know they "only" have two Michelin stars, but this place is "worth a special journey" in every sense. We stayed two nights, had an in-room dinner one night (and excellent breakfast) before doing the tasting menu in the restaurant the following night, and I did not want to ever leave. Chef Matthew Kammerer and crew do magical, wonderful things with the local bounty – mostly seafood, seaweeds, and vegetables grown and foraged on-site and nearby. It is one of the most beautiful meals, in one of the most beautiful places, I've experienced.[2]

Two highlights here: first, "The Whole Crab," a Dungeness crab offered up three different ways: (1) a mound of sweet, salty, tender picked lumb crabmeat dressed with a tangy gelée and allium flowers; (2) the crab's legs, rubbed with a fava bean miso; and (3) maybe most evocative, a broth made from the crab carcasses, an incredibly pure and powerful essence of the ocean. And second, sweet lobes of sea urchin (sourced from just up the coast in Fort Bragg) draped over custardy koji toast, nestled in a pool of a tart, rich ume sabayon. This is a version of a dish that I'd had years ago, the sea urchin toast at Saison, where Kammerer was exec sous chef for several years before opening Harbor House. Maybe it's just a matter of being closer to the source, but this improves on perfection.

(More pics from Harbor House Inn and Elk, CA).

Hotaru Ika - Itamae
Hotaru Ika - Itamae (Miami Design District)

Torta Helada - Itamae
Torta Helada - Itamae (Miami Design District)

Back home, I found myself scoring a solo seat at the counter of Itamae while Mrs. F was out of town. I said last year that every meal with the "Chang Gang" has been better than the last, and that trend continues. A couple items in particular stand out: a plate of hotaru ika (tiny, tender firefly squid, a spring seasonal specialty in Japan) served tiradito-style in a bath of squid ink, urfa biber pepper, and swirls of green chive oil; and a sensational dessert from Maria Gallina (who, alas, has since moved on) which used a traditional torta helada as a starting point for a composition that featured some of my favorite locally grown-tropical fruits: a floofy[3] canistel mousse, topped with a gooseberry gelée veil and anchored by a sponge cake soaking in mamey pit infused milk, giving that same intriguing whiff of noyeaux / almond extract as you get from crushed peach or cherry pits.[4]

(continued ...)

Saturday, June 4, 2022

Michelin Comes to Miami

The fat man’s coming to Miami. After various state and local tourism agencies paid the Michelin Guide undisclosed amounts which could exceed a million dollars, the star system will start coverage of Florida, with a big announcement of its ratings scheduled for June 9 in Orlando. So of course inquiring minds want to know: which restaurants will get the coveted recognition?

In theory, the Michelin Guide claims to rate restaurants based on five criteria: “quality of the ingredients used, mastery of flavor and cooking techniques, the personality of the chef in his cuisine, value for money and consistency between visits.” In practice, the Michelin Guide has long championed a certain type of restaurant: Euro-centric, fussy and expensive. While the focus is understandable given the guide’s origins – a traveling companion published by a tire company as a marketing tool to get people to drive their cars around Europe – it is not necessarily representative of the best that any particular region has to offer these days, especially outside of Europe. But if you look at the U.S. restaurants that have received multiple stars,[1] they fit a certain profile: they are almost universally high-end, tasting-menu venues. They are also overwhelmingly of the “Contemporary American” genre, with some French, Italian and Scandinavian thrown in the mix. Of 49 restaurants in the U.S. that have received 2 or 3 stars, there are less than ten that stray from these genres.[2]

So I’m not at all sure Michelin is going to find what it’s typically looking for in Miami. Theirs is not a style that has had much traction in South Florida for the past several decades.[3] We may like flashy, but we don’t particularly like stuffy. And IMO, the best dining in Miami these days is not necessarily at the highest end venues, but rather at places that are putting out great, inspired food without a lot of pomp and circumstance.

My predictions?

(1) No Florida restaurant will receive three Michelin stars.

Michelin currently has a three-star rating for at least one restaurant in every region it covers. (There are six in California, five in New York, one each in Chicago and DC). That streak will end in Florida, where as much as I am a champion of the local scene, I can’t think of any place that fits the Michelin Man’s vision of a three-star restaurant.

(2) There will be no more than three two-star restaurants and possibly none.

Chicago had only four restaurants receive two Michelin stars. DC managed only three. My guess is that Florida gets three at most, and that’s a stretch. The most likely Miami candidates, IMO (I know nothing about Orlando or Tampa, which appear to be the other Florida cities Michelin has focused on): L’Atelier de Joel Robuchon, Ariete, and Naoe. Wild card: Ghee. L’Atelier seems like the most viable candidate, since five Ateliers in other cities have already received two or more stars.[4] If the inspectors pay attention to the more ambitious facets of Ariete’s menu (the Versos Diarios tasting menu, the Canard a la Presse), they may well find what they’re looking for. I think Naoe is possibly in contention, but I also think that Michelin has devalued many outstanding Japanese restaurants in the U.S. The only ones to crack the one-star ceiling are Masa in NY (3*), and Hayato, n/naka and Sushi Ginza Onodera in LA (2*), which is kind of crazy given the options available in LA and NY these days. Niven Patel’s wonderful restaurant, Ghee, nails every single one of the Michelin guide’s criteria, but I have little faith that they’ll give two stars to an Indian restaurant in Kendall using local ingredients from Homestead farms.

(3) There will be 15-20 one-star restaurants from this list:

The “shoo-ins”:

These are places which I’m almost certain will get a star because other locations have already received stars. So, yes, I’m cheating to make my predictions by checking the answers from elsewhere.

Carbone (1* NY)
Cote (1* NY)
El Cielo (1* DC)
Fiola (1* DC)
L’Atelier de Joel Robuchon (3* Hong Kong; 2* Tokyo, Shanghai, Taipei, New York, 1* Paris)
Le Jardinier (1* NY)
Surf Club (3* French Laundry CA, 3* Per Se NY).[5]

The “better be there or I’m slashing your tires”:

These are places that are unquestionably deserving of recognition IMO, and if you miss them your credibility is shot, Roly-Poly Tire Dude.

The “pretty sure they’ll make it”:

These are places that I could easily see picking up a star.

The “on the cusp” candidates”:

Some of these I have “on the cusp” because they may be too casual for Michelin’s tastes (MGFD, Amara), or too new (Orno, Luca, Kojin). Others are parts of restaurant groups that Michelin appears disinclined to recognize with stars (Bazaar, Bourbon Steak, La Mar).[6] I’m not saying these are any worse (or better) than others listed above – or that all of these are any better (or worse) than other local restaurants I’ve not listed at all – only that I have less confidence they’re going to make it into the little red book.[7]

Let’s see how my predictions fare on June 9. But more importantly, let’s not lose sight of the fact that Michelin really doesn’t know bupkis about what makes dining in Miami unique, special and great.

[1] Michelin currently publishes guides for New York, California, Chicago and Washington DC. If you're keeping score at home, I've made a chart with all the U.S. restaurants to receive Michelin stars.

[2] There are four Japanese restaurants (Hayato, Sushi Ginza Onodera, and n/naka in LA, Masa in NY); two Korean (Atomix, Jungsik, both in NY); one each for Chinese (Benu, SF), Mexican (Californios, SF), and Indian (Campton Place, SF). My "genrefication" of many of these places is both reductive on my part (most are not strictly bound to a particular regional cuisine), and also symptomatic of Michelin's biases (even those places with Asian or Latin American inspiration that make their way into the guide generally are reflecting it through a "Contemporary American" tasting menu prism).

[3Ironically, the chef who was most likely to have earned the Michelin inspectors’ attention no longer has a restaurant open to the public. Brad Kilgore’s Alter both was the kind of place and was executing at the kind of high level that could have picked up two stars. But sadly Alter was a pandemic casualty, and Kilgore is currently running Verge at the Concours Club, a members-only restaurant within an automotive club for people with very expensive cars who want to drive them very fast and find other ways to flaunt their wealth. I'm very glad Brad is relieving them of some of their cash, particularly since he just became a proud new papa (Congrats!). Selfishly, I hope he makes a return to the public restaurant world someday.

[4] 3* for Hong Kong, 2* for Tokyo, Shanghai, Taipei and New York, though curiously, none of the Paris locations have received more than 1*. Since it’s hard to believe that the satellite Ateliers in the far-flung quarters of China, Taiwan, Japan and New York are better than the home offices in Paris, I take this to mean at least one of two things (likely both): (1) Michelin is grading these other regions on a curve; and/or (2) Michelin’s ratings bely a Euro-centric chauvinism that favors French restaurants even in Asian countries, i.e., “Our scout team is better than your starting roster.”

[5] Keller has 3* on each coast with French Laundry and Per Se, but Surf Club is far less ambitious, and its parallel in NY, TAK Room, was not recognized by Michelin, though it may have closed before it could make it into a guide.

[6] Jose Andres’ minibar in DC has 2* and Somni in LA had 2*, but Bazaar in LA was not starred, so I don’t put Bazaar Miami in the “shoo-in” category. Michael Mina (Bourbon Steak) had 1* for his namesake SF restaurant, but not for any of his other restaurants.

[7]Edited to add: I forgot that Michael White, who earned 1* at Marea and Ai Fiori in NY,  is now at Lido at the Surf Club, which could certainly be in contention. And consistent with my general blind spot for expensive Italian restaurants, I also left out Forte dei Marmi and Casa Tua, which for all I know could be in the mix (I've never been to either).