Tuesday, June 3, 2008

Best Buddies Event at Glass

Haven't posted in a while. Here's something to do on a hot, sweltering Saturday night.

Monday, April 21, 2008

When Crayons and Chicken Nuggets are Key

My fiancée and I recently hosted her brother and his family for a week, which included a very intelligent and outspoken three (almost four) year old and a boundless source of energy and troublemaking in the form of his brother, a one year old. Usually when dining out food was the main focus of the decision for the destination, followed by atmosphere and décor along with service. I learned when dining with the under 4 crowd, crayons can have an affect on where you dine. Décor does also, but in this case it has to do with tablecloths, in that a lack of them is ideal as it gives the one-year old nothing to grab onto and yank and cause irreparable damage to everyone else’s clothes when glasses and food go flying. Chicken nuggets are also key. They appear to be the food of choice that adults order their kids when out on the town. I don’t know what the equivalent food was when I was growing up, but the prevalence and importance of chicken nuggets in today’s society cannot be overestimated.

We wanted to give the brother and his wife a taste of Miami but we had these two lovable limitations. Here’s where we ended up:

Oasis Café (Key Biscayne) – we usually take visitors with young kids to the beach at Bill Baggs because the water is calm and I can take a walk along the trails if I need to get away. After crossing the causeway I realized we had empty stomachs and figured a pitstop for some Cuban sandwiches was in order. Both adults and kids loved them making this a stop on our second visit to the beach. Thumbs up.

Jaguar – although they don’t take reservations, you can call ahead and get your name on the wait list so you’re table is ready when you arrive. Obviously, with youngins in tow, we arrived too early for this to be an issue. Although Jaguar had no crayons or chicken nuggets and plenty of tablecloths, the meal went off well. We were given the most isolated table in the place which was perfect. The kids were entertained with the tortillas and baked pita that comes to the table first thing. We also had a bowl of decorative fruit at the table which the waiter said we could help ourselves to, but decided peeling oranges while smartly dressed was not a good idea. The waitstaff was very accommodating at getting us extra plates (the kids basically ate from what each adult donated, I was a little jealous as they got churrasco, ribeye, and chicken tacos). I’d give this place a thumbs up.

The Daily – for breakfast before our day at Jungle Island (formerly Parrot Jungle Island, formerly Parrot Jungle in Pinecrest). I’d never been for breakfast and only once for lunch. I really like the place. Ingredients seem fresh, menu is varied but everything came out well prepared. Another thumbs up.

Café at Books and Books (Beach location) – the stop after our exhausting day at Jungle Island. Although seating is outdoors and there’s some kids selections on the menu, the uncomfortable (for kids) chairs and the cumulative distractions of Lincoln Road means a fussy three-year old who barely touched his melted cheese sandwich (we had to fake it because he didn’t want a grilled cheese sandwich from the kids menu so we got him a melted cheese sandwich from the adult menu…at the kid menu price). Although I love the place, the food, etc., it’s not a place for the 4 and under set. I’d have to give it a thumbs down.

Hard Rock – on a side trip to Orlando. The place was noisy and not really much for kids to do. Kids were also exhausted. Not a bad choice, but not a great one. Then again, we’re stuck in Universal Citywalk and the pickings are slim.

Havana Harry’s – Cuban restaurants are mainly family restaurants and they handled the kids with ease. Mamey shakes came in disposable cups with straws, bread was brought out quickly and replenished even quicker. Only drawback was no kids portions, but with the size of the adult portions, the kids could’ve been fed from our plates. It was here, and at a visit to my parent’s house, that the three-year old discovered his love for Cuban food. He loved black beans and rice, roast pork, the mamey shake, flan…you name it. Unfortunately he and his family are from Sacramento and from various visits there I know that good Cuban restaurants, or any Cuban restaurants for that matter, are non-existent. Guess uncle L2M will have to do some cooking next time he’s out there.

So that’s my experience with the four and under set. It’s an entirely different world when dining with kids. Luckily the (almost) nephews were well-behaved and receptive to trying new things – more so than their parents in some cases! I don’t know if there’s a tried and true method for picking a restaurant to take kids, but I think we did pretty well avoiding the crayons and chicken nuggets rule and still having a good time.

Friday, April 4, 2008

Red Light. Go!

It's a restaurant attached to a once down-and-out motel trying to clean itself up, across a crummy canal from a strip club that alternates between straight, gay, black or white performers and on a street that's been under construction since before the U.S. invaded Iraq. A recipe for success if I've ever seen one.

Kris Wessel has taken one of the biggest gambles in the city outside of the multi-million dollar Karu & Y space in, well, wherever it is. Judging from the crowd there this Friday night, his gamble looks like it's initially paid off. Everyone seemed to know each other but I knoew no one except Douglas Rodriguez who presided over the first booth by the entrance. Red Light is a small space (I hate the word cozy, but that's what it is) with booths in an "L" shape along the windows that face the aforementioned street, canal, and performance space. The bar, with cool vintage orange bar chairs, runs parallel along the booths. The outside area isn't quite done, but when it is I see many lazy Sunday spent there.

But believe it or not we went to Red Light tonight not for the location, but for the food. The menu is very limited and there's only about 5 or 6 dishes in appetizer sizes available. Apparently these dishes will be the basis for the upcoming full menu. 5-hour braised rabbit with carrots in a freaking insanely good stew sauce, bbq shrimp in an even more insanely good sauce and a savory oyster pie were the dishes we chose. I'm not much for sopping up sauces with bread, but we didn't leave an ounce of sauce on the plates of the rabbit and shrimp dishes. We skipped on a fish chowder, ceviche, and frog legs. We saw most of these dishes come out and watched people's faces as they ate. No negative reactions at all. There shouldn't be. The food came out freshly prepared and piping hot. Desserts were limited to a key lime pie and homemade banana rum ice cream which was more banana than ice and cream (so I used it as an excuse to count it towards my fruit intake for the day).

There's the obvious kinks in service but you get the feeling that when they get worked out this place is going to be really, really good. It's the kind of neighborhood place every neighborhood should have (which we had when Michael's and Michy's first opened and before the national media took notice) and I'm glad it's in mine. Yet another nah-nah-nahnah-naaaah to South Beach.

Foodie and Drink Event for a Good Cause

Thursday, March 27, 2008

No Swill Zone - Cameron Hughes Lot 26

I’d seen these wines lying around Costco before. Same looking label on the same looking bottles, the only difference being the color of the label, the contents of the bottle, and the “lot”.

Turns out Cameron Hughes does not make wine by vintage or vineyard but by “lot”. See, Cameron Hughes’ wines are made from excess grapes sourced from wineries worldwide and most are a one-time deal. Like a Syrah from the Edna Valley? Buy up because it might be the only one he’ll ever make. Not to worry, most lots are enough that if you like a particular wine you’ll probably be able to get your hands on some. But after that, it’s gone forever.

My particular run in came when we got some clams (farmed in FLA by the way!) at Costco and realized we needed a wine to go with them. With my girlfriend braving the checkout line I ran to the back of the store to pick something out. Again I’d seen these wines at Costco before but never thought twice about them until now when I was hurried, panicked and noticed the $10.99 price tag. It was Lot 26, a Sauvignon Blanc sourced from vineyards in Marlborough, New Zealand.

With wine and mollusks in tow we headed home. Initially we were going to have clams with pasta but my girlfriend felt too tired to cook so it was up to me. Since I’m not a pasta fan I braved to find a different method to make these puppies. I picked up The New Spanish Table by Anya von Bremzen (one of my favorite cookbooks) and sure enough there was a recipe for clams braised in butter with serrano ham. ‘Nuff said.

Clams were made and wine was opened. I didn’t think the wine would outshine the clams, but damn! The wine and clam pairing was horrible, in fact awful. The clams were buttery and salty and smoky and were excellent. The wine blew up with kiwi and grapefruit but drank a little drier than I’d imagined. Together not so good, but we couldn’t stop drinking it. For $11 the quality of the wine was way above its price range. As for pairing it with some smoky clams, it was a bad idea. But given that summer is coming up and lighter meals are on the menu (like clams in broth without Serrano ham and pimenton) it’s a perfect with our Floridian snapper, shrimp etc. Buy this stuff up while you still can. When it’s gone, it’s gone.

My take: get out and buy as much of this as you can but leave some for me!

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

We're #4!

At least Michael's Genuine is on the NY Times' Frank Bruni's list of the top restaurants outside of New York. Congrats to Michael and staff for showing Miami dining isn't just about 6 1/2 foot tall hostesses in drag and pick-your-meat and add mango salsa to it entrees.

Sunday, March 9, 2008

Direct Wine Shipping to Florida in Jeopardy

I knew this was coming up soon. Another sign of the apocalypse or at least another sign that Florida is destined to take as many backward steps possible in making this an advanced and progressive state. Heck, we just allowed evolution to be taught in schools (but only as a scientific theory, which is more than can be said for creationist theory. What’s their proof?).

A few years ago the Supreme Court struck down protectionist laws regarding direct wine shipping. In a nutshell, the Court said that states could not discriminate between in and out of state wineries shipping to citizens within a state. In Florida for example, the few wineries which we have in the state were allowed to ship their product to individuals; however, wineries from out of state were prohibited from shipping directly to consumers and had to go through retailers via distributors. After the Court’s decision Florida had no choice but to open its borders and allow all U.S. wineries the ability to ship directly to Floridians after filing regulatory and tax-related paperwork. This was a boon to Floridians who could now get wine from their favorite wineries regardless of the state in which they’re located.

But now we’re about to pull the typical Floridian ass-backwards move. There a not one, not two, but FOUR bills in the legislature (two in the House and two in the Senate) which impose all sorts of restriction on direct wine shipment. One thing all have in common however is a restriction on the size of the winery where a Floridian can order wine from. The winery can only produce a maximum of 250,000 gallons of wine, which is a heck of a lot of wine. However, with holding companies buying more and more boutique wineries, it gets to a point where even a teeny tiny winery, if part of a big conglomerate, would not be allowed to ship to this state.

Who’s behind all this? Why should so many state legislators care about direct wine shipment? Well, Florida is home to Southern Wine and Spirits (SW&S), the largest wine, beer and liquor distributor in the state (as well as the country). They’re based in Miramar but have distributorships in most major states. So who’s sponsoring these bills? They happen to all represent the districts of Southeast Florida! They’re Representatives Rene Garcia (Hialeah) and Ellyn Setnor Bogdanoff (Fort Lauderdale) and Senators Gwen Margolis (Eastern Miami-Dade/Southeast Broward) and Steven Geller (Broward County). Research shows the following donations to each individual’s previous campaigns:
Steven Geller ($500 each from SW&S of Florida and South Carolina, and Gold Coast Beverage Distributors),
Rene Garcia ($500 from Diageo, SW&S of Florida and South Carolina, Harvey Chaplin (founder SW&S), and Florida Wholesale Spirits),
Ellyn Bogdanoff ($6,500 worth of donations from the Food & Beverage industry including 2 donations from SW&S of Florida, SW&S of South Carolina, Gold Coast Beverage Distributors and Florida Wholesale Spirits),
Gwen Margolis ($500 each from SW&S of Florida and South Carolina, and Gold Coast Beverage Distributors).

So there you go. All four bills have been introduced by persons whose districts basically cover Miami-Dade and Broward counties and who have received donations from various liquor distributors. Arguments against direct shipping include the possibility of those under 21 years of age ordering wine and the effect of direct shipping on local distributors who have spent millions setting up legal distribution channels. Counterarguments for both issues are easy. Delivery services are required to have someone 21+ sign for packages containing direct-shipped wine so chances are it’s easier for an underage person to acquire alcohol at their local liquor store than via mail (and what teenager do you know would get drunk on Screaming Eagle or Seasmoke?). As for distributors, the amount of wine ordered direct is so miniscule compared to that any effect on their business would be negligible.

What this bill effectively does is give local distributors the decision as to what you can buy on the shelves of your local wine shop or supermarket. If a winery doesn’t have a distributor in FLA, you’re not going to get their wine. For small wineries this will make Florida off limits because our giant distributors will avoid wineries that can’t fulfill large orders for their retail clientele.

So what can you do if you care? If you’ve read my rant this far you might as well help me fight the power! Write to the introducers of these House and Senate bills, write to your local Representatives, and write to Governor Christ. Lookup information on Free the Grapes (a non-profit organization trying to lift wine shipping bans in all 50 states). Keep Florida from reverting back to a backwards Puritan state. And order some wine from another state before it’s too late!

Gwen Margolis e-mail
Steven Geller e-mail
Rene Garcia e-mail
Ellyn Bogdanoff e-mail

Wednesday, March 5, 2008

NY Times Discovers Rueda

Not that they've just discovered it, but they've devoted an article and a tasting to it. Why should that matter to us? Rueda, a D.O. northwest of Madrid, specializes in crisp whites from the verdejo grape. Being from Spain these wines are very easy to find in Miami. Being easily quaffable, food friendly whites, they'd be welcome during our lovely hurricane season which is just around the corner. Two of my favorites, Con Classe and Basa, were featured. There are tons available at Happy Wine, Total Wine, Xixon and many other wine shops and Spanish food shops. Do yourself a favor keep some of these bottles on hand for as soon as the temps start creeping up.

Monday, March 3, 2008

Dining at Abokado (and yes, I used spellcheck)

I'm usually pretty wary of anything with an intentionally misspelled moniker, 'N Sync being the perfect example. When it comes to restaurants, gimmicky, misspelled names already drop my expectations of a place. Abokado is such a place. Recently opened in the sprawling Mary Brickell Village, where restaurants are popping up much like the weeds and garbage along the unkept streets surrounding it, Abokado sits all alone in a large plaza that will soon house Blu (of the South Miami Trattoria Sole family) and not much else.

We showed up Friday night after calling to put our name down on a wait list. After having to get to MBV from the UES via the Rickenbacker Causeway exit on 95 due to the Calle Ocho 8-K (who the heck does a race on a Friday night anyway?) we still arrived before our scheduled time. There was some confusion and it turned out to be on their part since they neglected to tell us that the entire restaurant, save two tables by the front door and the entire sushi bar, were off limits due to a private event. Why they didn't shut the place down for this event I have no idea, but open and half empty it was and we were given the choice of the worst seats in the house. We opted for the sushi bar, if anything to avoid facing the participants of the private event for which we never found out the occassion.

Menus arrived, drinks were ordered and off we went. The menu focuses on Japanesy preparations with decidedly western influences. Here are the winners and losers of what we sampled:

- Small squid are stuffed with chorizo - loser in that it arrived lukewarm. Squid were tender and not overcooked which is a plus.

- Nachos - this is apparently a signature dish but it needs to lighten up. Basically two shiso leaves are dipped in batter, then seemingly dipped in batter 3 more times before being fried, cooled, and topped with spicy tuny. The breading was just way to much for the shiso leaf. Maybe shiso tacos where the leaf takes the place of a soft corn tortilla would be better?

- Spicy tuna roll - my gauge for how much a place really wants to differentiate itself. Here the addition of baby greens and the thinnest layer of sushi rice I've ever seen hold a roll together makes me think this place does not want to be middle of the road.

- El Diablo roll- crab salad roll topped with spicy mayo and sea bass, torched, then topped with tobiko. Pretty good, then it reminded me of the Dynamite Roll at Shoji, then I didn't like as much because I used to really, really like the roll at Shoji (Chef Chin, if you're out there, we miss you!).

- Forgot the name roll - which is probably a good thing because the roll was unmemorable. It was wrapped in thin soybean paper which added not much. Rest of the roll was fairly flavorless. I only ordered it to avoid ordering the roll wrapped in flour tortilla after the chef insisted that I should try a roll wrapped in something and tortilla was his preference. I don't think I'll get either.

For a newly opened place Abokado had its act together. Service was on and the sushi bar was humming. Rolls are interesting enough but a bit on the pricey side ($8 to $10 for basics, $12 to $24 for more elaborate ones). There's a section of entrees as well (the ususal miso cod, sesame tuna type stuff) that were fairly reasonable. This place won't knock your socks off, nor will it be a neighborhoody place where you can drop by when you feel like it (they already had the dreaded chain-restaurant type beeper/buzzers ready to go). My advice would be to stick to the basics and be selective when venturing into the realm of "fusion".

Friday, February 29, 2008

SET event

This deals with the "drink" side of my "food and drink" blog. It's for a good cause (and my girlfriend is on the committee that's putting it on). Take a break from the film festival or unwind after a long workweek and come out and support Best Buddies.

Thursday, February 28, 2008

Why does the Herald's Food section suck so bad?

We live in one of the most culturally diverse cities in the world. We have a restaurant sector that's booming and more and more new places are opening than any time since I've lived here. And what does the Herald decide to spotlight on the front page of its Food section? Casseroles! Not only that, the picture on the front page is a casserole with tater tots! Where are we, Des Moines? Can you imagine the NY Times front paging a tater tot casserole? Miami is about 5 years behind the rest of the country when it comes to educated dining (local sourcing, sustainable farming, etc.) but this paper, and especially this food section, is about 50 years behind the times. There's even a section for "Quick Suppers". Who the heck uses the word "supper" anymore?! Food Editor Kathy Martin has to go and the Herald needs to find someone about 80 years younger to refresh this section and bring it at least up to the 1980's.

Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Now we'll never get into Michael's without a reservation!

Michael's Genuine Food & Drink continues to rake in the accolades landing on NY Times' Frank Bruni's list of the 10 best new restaurants in the U.S. (outside of New York, we all know it's special and better than wherever we live, right?). Chef Schwartz's place beat out the likes of Michel Richard's Central in D.C. and Guy Savoy's eponymous place in Las Vegas. Holy crap!

The list includes restaurants in several cities (including my old stomping grounds of Culver City, just outside of L.A.). What jumps out is the restaurants Bruni left out. Ad Hoc (Thomas Keller's French Laundry Lite in Napa) and Comme Ca in L.A. were eagerly anticipated openings that missed the cut.

This is a huge achievement for Michael's. Not only has he brought local recognition to the dead-by-night Design District, he's brining nationwide recognition to Miami. But damn, it's going to be hard to get a table at this place.

Thursday, February 21, 2008

An Offal Weekend

In an effort to exact my revenge on the throngs of out-of-town avid boaters and crafty people here for the Boat Show and Coconut Grove Arts Festival, I decided to skip town and bother the good citizens of New York City with skreechingly annoying questions like “which way is the Empire State Building?” and “what time do I have to get to Rockefeller Center by to be able to see Ann Curry up close?” Unfortunately, our hotel was in Midtown and I could see the Empire State Building from it and we woke up too late every morning to see the Today show taping. New Yorkers were saved.

In an effort to entertain myself more than in past weekend getaways to NYC I decided to try to have a theme for this trip. Since it was a surprise for my girlfriend I got to plan where we’d be eating (actually, even when it’s not a surprise trip I end up selfishly planning our dining picks, God bless her for her patience and understanding). For some reason I thought about a trip revolving around offal. Most major culinary destinations are well unto the offal bandwagon that started with Fergus Henderson at St. John (although the consumption of offal goes back thousands of years before Mr. Henderson served a bone marrow). Even though here in Miami we’re able to get offal fix from mondongos and callos a la madrileña, there are few non-ethnic restaurants serving up tasty innards (Michael’s and Michy’s are two that come to mind). So my quest began to hunt down offal in the Big Apple.

We started off at Momofuku Noodle Bar. There’s been a lot of talk and press about this place and I’m a little late to the party. Chef David Chang cranks out pan-Asian dishes with Western additions and techniques. Lunch started off with pork belly steamed buns. More like fluffy tacos, the sauced pork belly was wrapped in a light, doughy wrap that was like eating a cross between Wonder bread and Marshmallow Fluff. The next dish was the requisite offal. Fried sweetbreads were tossed in a light breading and served with a sweet chili sauce. The sweetbread nuggets (I hate that word, but that’s what they were) were light as clouds. Seriously, these were amongst the best sweetbreads I’ve ever had. Luckily there were two of us to make it through the order. Lastly were our entrees. Momofuku ramen was a rich, smoky broth with typical ramen accoutrements which included shredded roast pork and pork belly and rice cakes with oxtail ragu, the rice cakes rolled to resemble gnocchi, but a little heavier.

For dinner we decided to brave the cold and the 2 hour waits and hit the Spotted Pig. Known for better-than-your-neighborhood-bar bar food the menu contained tasty treats like calves liver and pig ears. Unfortunately the pig ears were off the menu the night we went, but the chicken liver toasts were there. We ordered them once, then again after our entrees arrived. The livers were left chunky and with minimal fillers (butter, cream, etc.) and tons for seasoning. Most excellent and perfect with the cask ales served.

Breakfast was going to be a challenge but I figured sausage counts as offal-eating since who knows what is in any particular link. Prune provided both my girlfriend and I a tasty, offal tinged breakfast of homemade lamb sausage (for me) and, in a dish I have to give props for originality for, the Hostel plate. It reminds you of food you ate when, well, you were hostelling around Germany and the Netherlands. The plate consisted of liverwurst and hard sausage along with various pastes in tubes along with grain breads and other accoutrements. Definitely some offal to be found somewhere in this dish. And great with Prune’s Bloody Marys.

Our last two stops didn’t offer as much offal as I though, but by then I’d about had it. Boqueria had great tapas and croquettes better than I find in Miami. And brunch at Clinton St. Bakery was all about every breakfast food excess.

So the offal weekend can be considered a partial success. A true measure would’ve been to check my cholesterol count before and after the trip, but insurance co-pays are getting excessive and I don’t like my doctor enough to see him twice in four days. And the fact that I’m thinking of going vegetarian for a few days makes me think that all that fat and cholesterol is still running around my system. But heck, at least I know I won’t be iron deficient for a while!

Monday, February 11, 2008

No Swill Zone - Inaugural Edition

Given the state we're in, and particularly the location in the state that we're in, it's no wonder that Miami is a crossroads for many things. Banking, the arts, food, and, this recurring post's subject, wine. Florida is, according to who you ask, the second or third largest wine consuming state in the nation. But given Florida's three-tiered distribution system, and the fact that we're home to the largest alcohol distributor in the country, our choices in wine are sometimes limited.

We do, however, enjoy the benefits of being a crossroads which wine-wise means we excel at having a having a diversity of wines that reflect our region's culture. This means wines from regions with Latin influences, with Spain, Chile and Argentina leading the way, as well as from our neighbors way West and Northwest. A recent study found that if you live east of an imaginary line going from Ohio to Texas, it's actually better for the environment to purchase wines from Europe that are transported by ship (versus wines from the West Coast which come by truck). Given that much ofwhat we buy comes from Asia, and China in particular, I figured I'm probably ruining the environment more by buying plastic forks made in China versus Pinot Noir grown in Oregon. So when it comes to drinking wines, destination and environmental concerns take a back seat.

National wine reviews are great, but many times it's tough, if not impossible, to find the wine in Miami because it lacks a distributor. There's a few local wine critics in our daily or weekly rags, and most seem to pander to those searching for everyday value wines from large, well known producers. The reviews are usually basic but it's an almost certainty that the wines reviewed can be found fairly easily.

Where do I fit into all this? I'm not necessarily sure. I'm not a wine expert by any means, but I figured if I end up liking a wine, maybe someone else in MIA can take it as a suggestion to try something they normally wouldn't. And one thing is that with almost complete certainty the wines that will appear in the No Swill Zone will have been bought in, or accessible to, South Florida. And I can assure with complete certainty that there will be no swill. And as for scoring the wines, I hate the point system, I hate the star system so I haven't decided what it'll be. I'll try some out in the coming months and see what sticks.

One such wine which we opened the other night is the 2005 Prima from the Toro denomination in Spain. Toros have been getting a lot of press recently as Robert Parker has seemingly fallen in love with some woman from Valladolid or they have some dirty pictures of him somewhere and they've blackmailed him into awarding the 2004 Termanthia a rare 100 points accompanied by a host of others receiving high 90's. With Spanish wines so popular in South Florida we're flooded with Toros and have easy access to the 100 point giants as well as smaller producers.

Toros are knows for being big, bold wines ("toro" meaning "bull" in Spanish) so they're not for swishing in a backyard picnic in July. But as our weather is a little more temparate this time of year, it's the perfect time to pop this baby open. Prima delivers what you'd expect, bold dark flavors yet a little mellow at the end. It's still a bit tannic so a bit of aging might help it (or some decanting prior).
Prima can be found easily around town. The distributor has been doing tastings at Sunset Corners and Bin no. 18. I'm sure other retailers carry it as well.
So here's the lowdown:
Wine: 2005 Prima, D.O.C. Toro, Spain
Producer: Bodegas y Vinedos Maurodos
Purchased: Sunset Corners, $19.99
And something timely for the rating:
Randy: "Yes", Paula: "Yes", Simon: "Yes". Congratulations Prima, you're going down my gullet!

Thursday, February 7, 2008

You like us, you really, really like us

The Herald bursts out of it's ink and paper shell and runs down a list of local food blogs.

Plugged-in palate: S. Florida's online dining community

Wednesday, February 6, 2008

Locavore Experiment #1

...failed miserably. My objective was simple, for one week make my (and my fiancee's) evening meals with as much locally sourced products as possible. After my weekend runaround I figured I had enough food to get me through the week. Well, I lasted a day and I'm proud of this wonderous accomplishment. Day 2 failed due to (1) a late night at work meant an easy meal was in order and (2) I really wanted salmon and live salmon does not come anywhere near Florida.

But at least I got a little creative on my one locavore day. We had tons of tomatoes and herbs from "la viejita" so I thought tomato sauce. So a simple tomato sauce was created with tomatoes, thyme, oregano and rosemary (all from FLA), garlic and olive oil (from somewhere else) topped off with parsley (from FLA). So the sauce was at least 90% local. I wanted to add some kind of meat (I'm a meatball fanatic) but wasn't sure where my local Publix's ground beef came from. We had some rock shrimp in the freezer (rock shrimp from FLA!) and figured they're about the size of small meatballs. A few minutes later tomato sauce with rock shrimp "meatballs" served with fresh pasta from Mr. Pasta (on Collins near 71st St. on MB).

We had tons of produce that we'd purchased over the weekend and had I really wanted to make this locavor week successful I couldn've just eaten salad every day (or bought more substantial produce). That obviously didn't happen. What did was this salad made from arugula (la viejita) and heirloom cherry tomatoes and radishes from Redland Organics. 100% South Florida salad (with the exception of the olive oil obviously).

My last use of local ingredients failed miserably. We had two canistels (eggfruit) and, after reading Carolina's mother's experiment on the Menupages blog I decided to give canistel ice cream a shot. I've made simple ice cream from mamey and figured canistel, with its similar consistency, would come out pretty much the same. So into the blender went the canistel, milk, demarara sugar, vanilla and a little salt. From blender to ice cream maker then the addition of sum rum-soaked raisins (basically a ripoff of Gaby's Farms Creme de Canistel ice cream). The results were strange. On first tasting the ice cream was delicious, rich and creamy even though milk was the only liquid used. But the aftertaste, which hit about 3 or 4 seconds later, was awful. It was rough and bitter, kinda like the taste you get when in college you take a shot of some alcohol that you don't really know what it is, but it's alcohol so you down it anyway. We couldn't eat it. It's sitting in my freezer waiting for some inspiration to hit me on how to save it. If anyone has any suggestions, please let me know!
So what did I learn from the locavore experiment? That it's probably possible to get through a week of dinners using mostly local ingredients. We have access to local produce, fish, seafood and eggs. The only thing missing that I haven't been able procure is local meat.
Considering the number of pig roasts I've been to I know it's possible to get a local whole piggie, but not sure where to get local beef or chicken. Once that's covered I think the locavore experiment will have a much higher chance of success.

Monday, February 4, 2008

Attack of the Heirloom Tomatoes (this weekend's run around)

This weekend was spent searching for the best stuff we could find at some of our local farmers markets. Saturday was our local Upper Eastside market. The usual suspects were there (Chef Michael Schwartz with a box of mozzarella and ricotta, the cookie guy, the brownie woman, etc.) and the pickings are getting better and better. For us the winner was baby bok choy at the Market Company booth. They looked fresh and crisp and were 4 for $1. Can't beat that.

Sunday we headed over to the Gardner's farmers market in Pinecrest. Tomatoes, tomatoes everywhere. We stocked up on regular sized heirlooms from Teena's Pride for $5 a box, mini-heirlooms from Redland Organics for $4.25 a pint, then we went a bit crazy at the Redland Organics booth where we got mizuna, canistels, and purple beans (like the green ones, but purple and much cooler looking).

Last stop was la viejita (the old lady). It's a patch of land just south of the Costco in Kendall which has u-pick tomatoes, strawberries and herbs. In a frenzy there we picked up strawberries, arugula (large and baby bunches), thyme, purple basil and cilantro.

Considering that a just few years ago I was buying the vast majority of my (inferior) produce at Publix, I can't believe how far we've come to getting local produce into everyone's hands. Granted, I'm running around town like an idiot wasting gas and spewing ozone-depleting emissions, but it's such a difference come dinnertime to know that what I'm having has come (predominantly) from a few miles away. But our choices are getting better, our restaurants are sourcing locally (with Chef Schwartz leading the charge), the CSA is doing bang up business and the popularity of the brand new UES farmers market shows that people in the area are caring more about what they eat and where it comes from. Granted, I still think that people are being duped by vendors that basically sell wholesale imported produce at these markets (not that there's anything wrong with that) or maybe these people don't really care where their food comes from and just want to buy their produce in the outdoors. Fine with me as long as locals keep coming with their produce so that someday I won't have to write about running around South Florida to procure my fruits and veggies.

Now, I'm wondering how long someone could go making meals using primarily locally sourced ingredients from South Florida? I started last night (I'll post later on what I made) so let's see how far I can take it.

Friday, February 1, 2008

Rogue Beer Dinner at Lola's on Harrison

Thanks to Sara at allpurposedark for posting about the Rogue Charity Beer Dinner at Lola’s on Harrison yesterday which, with my lapsing memory, I had totally forgotten about after hearing of it just two weeks ago.

I’d been meaning to go to Lola’s for a while and this seemed like the perfect opportunity to schlep past the county line. After turning onto Dixie highway and waiting at a light which never changed (literally, I never got a green light), we saw Lola’s on a pretty desolate Harrison St. I’m not sure why the area isn’t more developed. Lots of shuttered storefronts dotted the street with a few occasional signs of life (basically Lola’s and the wine shop across the street, Hollywood Vine).

Parking was easy and after picking up a few bottles at Hollywood Vine (small store, great prices) we went to Lola’s. The restaurant is fairly small but they’ve done a great job with space. Bright white tabletops set off against dark fabric on the chairs and banquettes. There’s a small bar where our hostess/waitress/bartender (and probably valet if we needed it) Rachel held court. We were offered menus but said we were here for the Rogue beer dinner. [For those of you not familiar with Rogue beers, it began as a small operation in Ashland, Oregon and has grown to become won of the most well-known specialty beer brewers in the US. Our favorites include the American Amber and Chipotle Ale (which has disappeared off the shelves of all shops in South Florida it seems).] Seeing as we were just sitting down and everyone was on dessert and coffee we knew we’d close the place (10:00, which by our Miami training, is still early).

Prior to receiving our first course we were given some literature on Rogue (history, philosophy, etc.) and a description of the beers being served. A good time killer until the first course arrived, coriander crusted scallops with a ginger butter sauce paired with a wheat beer (Half-e-Weizen). Great pairing of sweet scallops, rich sauce and a light, refreshing wheat beer. Personally I like my scallops a little raw in the middle but these were cooked through without being overdone. Great presentation and a great way to start the meal.

The second course was a juniper brined pork loin with a raspberry chipotle sauce and a mango and arugula salad paired with a Juniper Pale Ale. When I saw we’d have pork followed by beef I figured we’d be in for a heavy meal. But the pork was sliced thin and dollopped with the sauce which, even though I’m a fan of heat, was a little too spicy and took away from being able to taste the juniper in the pork. The mango and arugula salad was good enough to make my girlfriend like mangoes again. The pork and salad went well together and the beer was used more as something to cool our tongues than to bring out the juniper in it and the pork. The third course came soon after, a buffalo short rib with hazelnut gremolata and smashed fingerlings paired with the Hazelnut Brown Nectar. This was probably the most successful pairing thus far of dish and beer. The rib was beefier than any I’d tasted (maybe due to it being buffalo) and the gravy and gremolata were excellent. Where the dish failed was with the potatoes. The entrée came in a bowl to hold the sauce/gravy and hidden in there were some fingerling potatoes, some smashed, some not, some underdone, some done just right. It seems as if they’d been roasted and then tossed into the short rib braising liquid. I figured the potatoes would come a little more smashed to soak up the liquid but we actually had to use knives to cut through them. Even though the dish was not the prettiest the flavors worked and my homemade short ribs will be forever compared to this dish.

We were given a few minutes to rest before the dessert course, a stout chocolate cake with chocolate stout frosting paired with, well, Chocolate Stout. By far the best pairing. The cake was moist and dense, somewhere between my preferred Latin-style, rum-soaked cake and my girlfriend’s drier, Anglo-style marble cake. The frosting probably contained cream cheese and some stout to give it a tannish color. The cake and frosting worked great and the beer was like an adult chocolate milk. We must’ve had that look of glee on our faces because Rachel gave us another round of stout on the house.

Our experience at Lola’s was great. We’ll definitely be back to try the regular menu. The beer dinner has turned into a monthly event (last Thursday of each month) and February brings Dogfish Head to town. Even thought it’s a haul to get to Hollywood, the food and service at Lola’s is definitely worth it.

Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Check, Please! South Florida Premieres

The South Florida edition of the Chicago-born series Check, Please! premiered last night on WPBT Channel 2. Along with San Francisco, South Florida becomes one of three metro areas with the program which picks three diners from different walks of life and has them pick their favorite restaurant to review. All guests on the show dine at all three restaurants (at different times). The three meet at the show's taping and discuss their picks as well as those of the other guests.

Tonights premiere episode featured a beauty pageant president, an assistant librarian, and a skydiver (didn't know that was a profession). Restaurants reviewed were Sheba in Miami, Cafe Maurice in Miami Beach, and Jeff's Beach House Grill in Fort Lauderdale. Info on the show, restaurants, guests, etc. can be found here.

Instead of the restaurants, I wanna focus on the episode itself. Michelle Bernstein hosts the show and without her presence I think it would crash and burn. Last night at least, she was the most personable person at the table. She was trying to extract whatever information she could with friendly questioning; however, the skydiver guest just seemed uptight. You could tell whenever he was asked a question that his mind was tinkering to come up with something witty but it never happened. The other guests were friendly and chatty but not very sophisticated when it came to dining at least. One described having a "California wine" with dinner and it was spectacular. How's about telling us the wine?! But the show is exactly what it purpots itself to be, three people off the street sharing places they like, trying new ones and talking about them. Michelle, either throught questions or comments, gives a much more educated dimension to the show, whether it's explaining kofta or embellishing on a guests description of a restaurant's decor.

I just hope enough South Floridians tune in and keep the show going. It gives a great cross-section of our community and culinary landscape which many cities don't have and it's something we should show off.

Monday, January 21, 2008

Weekend run around town

This weekend I took advantage of the research and recs from fellow bloggers to run around town and stock my pantry. Here's what I found:

- The Upper Eastside Greenmarket is growing. Even though farmers remain non-existent, it's turned into a meeting place for locals living off Biscayne. The cookie guy sold out fairly early and, according to Danny at Daily Cocaine, local UES chefs made appearences to either cook or buy. I'm still holding out hope that farmers will show up, but it seems unlikely according to a few posts on Chowhound which the Chow police deleted.

- This year's first Coral Gables Farmers Market happened on Saturday (great review and pics from mango & lime). Some of last year's participants were there (the guy who buys wholesale and packages everything to look "farmer-like", the bakeries, the honey guy, the citrus family, etc.). What was exciting were the new vendors: Le Boudoir (which forgot to bring their tent, resulting in very unhappy workers and melting macaroons), a tea and spice vendor and, the biggest surprise of all, Paradise Farms, the Homestead farm that supplies many of Miami's top restaurants with fresh produce, was doing a trial run at the Gables market. The produce was pristeen but ridiculously expensive. Greens were sold by the ounce! There were a lot of takers which will hopefully mean they'll return but one employee I heard said they had to actually convince Paradise's owner, Gabriele Marewski, to allow them to come to the market. Now for someone who extolls organic produce and allows people to pay $150 a pop to come to her farm to have dinner prepared by some of Miami's best chefs you figure she'd want to get her product to as much of the public as possible. Hopefully this experiment will go well and Paradise Farms will continue to sell to the public.

- The Homestead Farmers Market brought to our attention by Critical Miami is just as described. It's a barnlike building with fruits and vegetables next to a flea market selling 5 pairs of white socks for $5. The vast majority of the vendors and customers were Mexican or Central American. There were, however, the occassional bikers on their way to the keys, and me. The produce is insanely cheap and there were tons of things not found at your local Publix (or most markets around you for that matter) including: fresh garbanzo beans in their pods, fresh squash blossoms, epazote, dried chiles and bitter melon. More common produce looked better than what I get at my BiBo Publix and much cheaper (onions and beets $0.60 a lb!). It's worth a trip when your crisper is bare.

-My last stop was the fruit stand at Knaus Berry Farm. The cinnamon rolls seem to have grown from last year, and so have the lines. Still, it's a great excuse to drive to the country.

Thanks all for the finds. Next time I'll have a camera in tow.

Friday, January 18, 2008

It takes Five Guys to make a decent burger

Having grown up in Southern California I've had my fill of excellent burgers. In-n-Out, Tommy's, Apple Pan (the restaurant Johnny Rockets knocked off, but minus the charm). Car culture allowed drive-ups to proliferate and LA was car culture central.
On the East Coast I have yet to find a better burger. Sure we've got Boloud and Bouley (and now Michael Mina's American Kobe burger), but local burger places are awful. One place that's heavily mentioned is Jack's Old Fashioned Hamburger in Ft. Lauderdale. The place is old and hasn't been kept up so the charm is gone. As for the burgers themselves, well, when you order one you get a plastic baggie with lettuce and tomato to use as you wish when preparing your burger. Very sterile. So South Florida has given us Jack's and In-n-Out and Southern Cal gave us In-n-Out. Edge to Southern Cal.
But one place looking to bring some of that squeaky clean, fresh to order burger experience recently landed at the Shops at Midtown. Five Guys Famous Burgers and Fries is an East Coast creation from Virginia. Upon entering you'll be greeted with an unintelligible greeting that I still haven't figured out. Make your way past the boxes of potatoes that act as line barriers to the counter and check out the menu. It's extremely simple which is a good sign. You either get a regular burger (two patties), a little burger (one patty), or a hot dog. As for toppings, the only ones that are extra are cheese and/or bacon. All other toppings, including freshly thin-sliced jalapenos, and the usual lettuce, tomato, etc. are free. French fries are made with fresh sliced potatoes (look for the wipey board stating the provenance of that day's spuds), fried in peanut oil and topped with just salt or cajun seasoning.
The quality of the burgers are excellent. Patties are fresh, not frozen. Toppings are fresh and clean. The bun is a little dense (especially when compared to the sponge bun at In-n-Out) but you'll need it to hold in the burger and toppings. The quality of the fries has differed on occassion. One time they were undercooked and a little raw in the middle, but most times they've been well done. The restaurant itself doesn't have much of an atmosphere and I find it a little dark. However, I recommend eating in house since taking them to go will result wilted toppings and fries that are steamed from their own residual heat. Plus the place has malt vinegar, perfect for fresh cut, peanut oil-fried french fries.
Whether Five Guys could hold its own in Southern Cal I'm not sure. But given the dearth of competition here it should do well. A second Miami location will be opening soon in Kendall Village.

Thursday, January 17, 2008

Thursday Dining Roundup for January 17

I've figured if there's something already being done right, why improve on it? Carolina at the South Florida Menupages blog recaps dining reviews of the week similar to what my dining roundup did. From now on I'll defer to her to be the local roundup source. But I'll still comment on some of these reviews from time to time. But thanks to Carolina for taking the time to put this together week after week.

Wednesday, January 9, 2008

Thursday Dining Roundup for January 10

Lee Klein reviews Michael's Kitchen in Sunny Isles and doesn't like it. When the chef actually states that the restaurant is "all about the show" you know you're in trouble. Luckily Lee took the hit for us and waded through what appeared to be vast quantities of highly caloric food. But what first gave me warning about Michael's Kitchen was seeing Chef Michael Blum on a Food Network Challenge show where contestants had to make dishes representing Miami's culinary heritage. He was the only local in a competition taking place in South Beach. It was embarassing. His food came out on wood planks with flowers and palm fronds. All it was missing was sparklers. Now the city of Sunn Isles is ready to let a landmark like Rascal House go (here's a link to a petition to save it) but they're willing to put up with a mediocre, pseudo-chain restaurant?

Also in the New Times, Pamela Robin Brandt checks out Sushi Club in North Beach and compares it to Hiro's. Considering that Hiro's is pretty mediocre there wasn't much to look forward to in the review. At least it was well written.

Two Chefs Too and Jason's at the Harrison open according to South Florida Gourmet. Both are run by chefs with South Florida ties. Two Chefs continues running but Chef Jason McLaine's other ventures haven't panned out too well. I wish him luck.

Normally nocturnal-focused Lesley Abravenel's Miami Herald column, Velvet Underground, takes a detour towards the culinary side of nightlife and looks in on Il Gabbiano, Joley, Segafredo Brickell, Domo Japones, Kobe Club and, something having nothing to do with food but it sounds cool anyway, the Stoli Hotel.

Victoria Pesce Elliot heads south and reviews Village Chalet in Cauley Square.

And a story that doesn't have to do with restaurant critiques but it's worthwhile for anyone who loves the unique produce we grow in South Florida, Maricel Presilla writes about the plight of farmers growing typical Cuban produce in Redlands and their battle against cheap imports and development.

Linda Bladholm visits a home for Ecuadoreans called Latitude Zero Cafe. And if the food is as good and the people are as friendly as in Ecuador it should be a winner.

Miami Danny himself gives an awesome roundup of the farms and other stops in Redlands and Homestead. Robert is here is missing though, along with Knaus Berry Farm and the Homestead Farmers Market. But heck, it'd take more than a day to hit up all of these places. Great job Danny.

Tuesday, January 8, 2008

Chowhound Best of Florida Post

Someone spent a lot of time putting this together so I figured I'd dissemenate the info here as well. Frodnesor posted this list of the "Best of" and "Top" lists in the Chowhound Florida message board. It's pretty comprehensive and hopefully it'll cut down on the "I'm coming to South Beach with some friends, where can I go to get good food and a cool atmosphere?" posts. The Greater Miami Convention and Visitors Bureau should be kissing the feet of Frodnesor, tpigeon, netmover and the other regular posters on the Chowhound board. Better yet, why doesn't the GMCVB make their own board for visitors to post their questions and locals give their responses? It'd go a long way in improving the "Miamians are rude and unfriendly" stigma that we have.

Friday, January 4, 2008

The Vegas-izing of Miami Continues...

I recently either read an article or a blog post or something about the Miami becoming like Las Vegas in its luring of out-of-town chefs with national and international cachet to run restaurants where they'll step foot in them about once or twice a year. Get ready for the latest addition. According to Gayot, Jean-Georges Vongrichten is opening an outpost of his tribute to Asian street food, Spice Market. I'm not complaining about it. If any city can be bereft of actual street food yet support a restaurant devoted to reimagined and overpriced versions of it, Miami would be it. Opening is sometime in 2008 but I haven't heard anything of a location. Let's take a guess, in a hotel maybe?

Au revoir Philippe!

For years when I worked in Coral Gables I'd head north on LeJeune a couple of times a month to have a quick lunch and stroll the ridiculously narrow and crampped aisles of Best Time Wine. This shoebox of a wine shop on 8th St. a few blocks from LeJeune was probably the most atypical wine shop around. Compare it to Wolff's on Miracle Mile or Total Wine in NMB? No way. This place was not about presentation. It was about good wines at low prices.
Due to a run-in with the landlord, Best Time Wine closed up shop and moved a few miles west under the guise of Happy Wine. A little bigger space, but the same concept.

The man behind both of these establishments, Philippe Douriez, is taking a back seat to pursue other interests. I can't tell you what this guy has done for the wine scene in Miami. His specials are outrageous. It got to the point where my friends and I referred to him as "the back of the truck guy" because we figured that in order for him to sell at the prices he did, he had to get his inventory off the back of a moving truck. But it wasn't only the prices that had us going back. Best Time, and then Happy Wine, was a constant party. Go any time of the day or night and there are people eating, drinking, and sometimes dancing. And among them with the biggest smile is Phillippe either pouring someone another glass or making suggestions for bottles for an upcoming party. I'll miss Phillipe, but according to his goodbye, the staff at Happy Wine will continue the tradition. I wish them, and Phillipe, good luck and success and hope that the party won't end.

First 2008 Thursday Dining Roundup

Yes, like many I slacked off last week with the holidays. Now back with renewed energy here's the first roundup of 2008:

Victoria Pesce-Elliot kinda blasts Kefi in Aventura. The owners run the cafeteria at my girlfriend's company and she says that although they're great at salads and sandwiches, she's wary of how they'll do running a fine dining establishment. We wish them well.

I always meant to give Sunfish Grill a try when it was in Pompano. Now that it's got nicer digs and much closer in Fort Lauderdale I have no excuse. The food sounds good too, though I hate it when critics describe anything as "delightful".

Lee Klein at the New Times reviews Escopazzo's organic, slow food-centric cuisine. I'm a fan of the restaurant and I'm glad to see it's on the cusp of the organic, slow food movement in Miami. Chef Giancarla Bodoni is cooking at the Pardise Farms Dinner in Paradise event on March 9 with Michael Schwartz, but alas, it's sold out.

Bill Citara pushes readers out of their comfort zones and into the Thai section of the menu at Sushi Siam. I'm not really a fan of the chain, but it serves it's purpose. But after eating Northern Thai food at Lotus of Siam in Las Vegas, I'm spoiled forevermore.

Lastly, from the Biscayne Times, a look at Sweet Tooth chocolate store and factory. It's all chocolate, all handmade, and all kosher. L'chaim!