Via Verdi Cucina Rustica – Miami, FL

Authenticity as it pertains to food, has become an increasingly important quality to bloggers, and even critics over the years. After all, as people become more adventurous in their taste, their quest becomes all about finding the “most authentic” version of the cuisine in question. This is in stark contrast to how we thought about ethnic cuisine 50 or 60 years ago, when immigrants had to tailor their dishes to suit our timid taste buds. The clearest example of this phenomenon is Chinese food, a cuisine that historically exudes bold flavor, vibrant color and generous use of spices. Sadly, here in America, our inexperienced palates have transformed it into a bland parody of itself.

No cuisine is immune to the changes that inevitably take place when a dish reaches our shores for the first time. Chef Ed Lee, in a recent “Mind of a Chef” episode, explained that this isn’t always a bad thing, and that we shouldn’t necessarily be chasing authenticity, but embracing the new cuisines that spawn from this metamorphosis. These are, after all, what make up “American food”, not only burgers, fries and apple pies.

While I agree with Chef Lee, I also feel that it’s possible to find truly authentic food here in the States if you care to look. It may use local ingredients, but that doesn’t make it any less genuine, as all the best food cultures adapt to new surroundings. The search for such food however, is important, as those who can’t afford to travel regularly, shouldn’t be deprived of the wonderful flavors from faraway lands. Even if you can pony up for a trip, you shouldn’t have to jump on a plane to get a taste of your favorite dish.

Via Verdi spread

Thankfully there are others who share my crazy Utopian ideals, and luckily for me, they’re Italian. A couple of years ago, the exuberant Carro brothers, Fabrizio and Nicola, along with mixologist wizard Cristiano Vezzoli, opened Via Verdi, with the simple goal of serving authentic Italian dishes, with quality ingredients and an exacting eye for quality. It’s a recipe touted by many, but executed by few. This trio however, succeeded, and has created a restaurant with the rare ability to transport its diners with a single bite.

I hesitated to write about Via Verdi after my first two visits, not because they were undeserving, quite the opposite in fact. The meals impressed me so much, that I feared this shining star would quickly burn itself out. So many times after having a great meal, I’ll return, only to find out the chef has left for greener pastures, or the owners, smelling success, have grown too quickly, leaving the quality lacking. This hasn’t been the case at Via Verdi. The team, experienced from their time at Miami mainstays, Quattro and Segafredo, have kept themselves focused on the original mission.

The menu is simple, no need for a paragraph when a handful of words will do, the ingredients speak for themselves. The polenta with truffle Parmesan sauce, in its tiny cup, commands attention as the wonderful aroma of truffles fills the air. Other fried dishes like the beautifully crisp arancini, or the sumptuous veal polpettine highlight Via Verdi’s mastery of tomato sauce. Take note other Italian restaurants, this is how you make tomato sauce. You can tell just by smelling that sauce is on point. Whether it’s their classic marinara, or fiery arrabiatta, the distinctive tang of San Marzano tomatoes is present and complemented with the perfect touch of sugar and spices.

Tonnato di vitello, a dish easily ruined by low quality ingredients and overpowering sauce, is a must. Via Verdi’s is a graceful rendition of the classic Northern Italian dish, light and refreshing, with hints of citrus and a briny pop from the capers.

Via Verdi pasta

Pasta of course, displays the same rigorous attention to detail as the rest of the menu. From herbaceous spinach gnudi covered in that wonderful sauce, to strozzapretti in rich and gamey braised osso buco, quality reigns. Even the vegetarian choices like a pecorino and beet ravioli in a zucchini sauce, are excellent. Naturally, all the pasta is made in house.

But it wouldn’t be a true Northern Italian restaurant without Piedmont truffles, the knobby little nodules that bring grown men to tears as they empty their wallets in the hope of just one fleeting taste.  People like to throw the word truffle on the menu, but few actually show you the goods, fewer still trust their diners enough to leave said goods on the table unattended. I was fortunate to pay a visit to Via Verdi on a night when white truffles were indeed on the menu. A delicious but simple risotto dutifully served to deliver the tasty tubers, as you wouldn’t want anything to overtake the delicate yet assertive flavors that every great truffle bestows.

White truffle spread

While dessert , sadly doesn’t come with white Alba truffles (although I didn’t ask), it’s absolutely worth saving room for. Panna cotta with passion fruit and strawberries should be on the table if it’s available. Another fantastic option is the Bunet, a chocolate amaretti flan with caramel sauce that doesn’t kill you with sweetness, but leaves you feeling cozy and warm.

Via Verdi dolce

Is Via Verdi authentic? Absolutely. Does it matter? Heck yes it matters! That’s not to say that every restaurant serving ethnic cuisine needs to stick hard and fast to the rules of the homeland, but for those that do, and do it well, I applaud you. As I’ve said time and again, a meal, when done right, has the ability to transport you, and the boys at Via Verdi are offering flavor trips to Alba with every  dish.

Via Verdi Cucina Rustica Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Sugarcane Raw Bar Grill – Miami, FL

Here in South Florida, and really Florida in general, modern urban development has become dependent on the “village”. This concept of a pre-planned town center containing a smattering of shops, restaurants and maybe a theater or concert venue. In theory this sounds like a great idea, until you see identical copies sprout up in every town, the concept starts to grow stagnant, with all the personality of a spaghetti western set.

The problem with these villages is that the spontaneity that the great town centers all share from years and years of growth and change is lost. Every so often though, a restaurant rises above its pre-fab surroundings to deliver a truly interesting and delicious experience. The people behind Sushi Samba opened up Sugarcane Raw Bar, installed a menu that plucks the best dishes from Asia, the Caribbean and Mediterranean Europe, and seem to have broken the mold of lackluster eats that most villages offer.

Sugarcane Logo

Chef Timon Balloo (I’m going to take the high road here and avoid any Disney references), of Chinese and Trinidadian descent, showcases his wealth of experience and deep love for food in Sugarcane’s globetrotting menu. This was immediately clear in my cocktail, the Leche de Tigre, with coconut milk, yuzu, Kappa Pisco, simple syrup and cilantro. A mango purée and prosecco concoction joined the yuzu party with an added splash of Domaine de Canton, a French ginger liquor, fortified with eaux de vie and cognac.

Leche de Tigre & Mango bubbles

The menu at Sugarcane has a lot to absorb, with eight sections of tempting dishes to choose from. I homed in on the Crudo area and sprang for the scallop with apple, black truffle, lime and jalapeño as well as the akaushi beef carpaccio, sprinkled with pickled mushrooms and truffle ponzu. The dishes were a perfect compliment to each other, the scallop dish providing a shock of acidity, while the carpaccio brought things down to earth with grassy flavors in the beef and mushrooms.

Akaushi carpaccio and scallop crudo

My wife chose a winner of her own, a roasted kale and peach salad with fourme d’ambert cheese, walnuts and fennel. I’m not usually one to jump for kale dishes, but Chef Balloo has this dish locked with perfect seasoning and a satisfying crunch that had me inhaling the crispy greens like shrimp chips.

Roasted kale & peach salad

We sampled simple goat cheese croquettes with membrillo marmalade. Fried cheese with fruit spread is a no brainer and these little orbs served as a nice segue to the heavier dishes that followed.

Goat cheese croquettes

I’m talking about this masterpiece, the name of which made it an insta-order for me…duck & waffle, uh yes please. The fluffy waffle gets topped with duck leg confit and is then draped with startlingly bright fried duck egg. A mustard maple sauce added a sweet component to offset the richness of the duck and egg combo. Once pierced, the yolk creates a slurry with the syrup that is quickly absorbed into the waffle below, allowing the flavors to be enjoyed in perfect balance.

Duck & waffle

The bone marrow was another unanimous choice for my wife and I. A hearty veal cheek marmalade crowned each of the substantial leg bones. Another winner, this delivered a tongue coating flavor that satisfied our craving for meat.

Bone marrow with veal cheek marmalade

In between dishes, we happily noshed on a bowl of fried pig ears with BBQ spice. An unexpected favorite of my wife, these were packed up and brought home to continue the snacking session later that evening.

Pig ear with BBQ spice

I can always tell when I’ve found a great place, because my wife will suggest dessert, even after a procession of dishes like this. Of the half-dozen sweets on offer, the lemon pot de creme was the most enticing with its blueberry compote and brûléed peak. 

 Lemon pot de creme with blueberries & pie crust

The menu is so chock full of foodie buzzwords it can be difficult to cull down your choices. A few we had to pass on included pan seared foie gras, crispy pork belly, wagyu sliders with quail egg, five spice & honey spare ribs, rabbit paella and beef tongue carpaccio. Sugarcane thoroughly impressed, more with impeccable execution than trendy ingredients. The Samba group landed a great talent in Chef Balloo, who has elevated my opinion of what can be accomplished in the manufactured “village” setting. 

Sugarcane Raw Bar Grill on Urbanspoon

Sardinia Ristorante – Miami Beach, FL

Ah, the anniversary dinner. The one time of year I can be sure of having an amazing meal, since my wife always manages to sniff out something tasty as a present for me. This year, while a bit belated, was no different. It seems we’re in a different city for every anniversary, which increases the level of suspense, because I have no frame of reference to even make a guess at where we’ll be going. I’m a known addict of Italian food, so Ashley figured she’d scratch that itch this year and take me to Sardinia Ristorante on Miami Beach.

Now I won’t try to wax poetic about how Sardinia Ristorante captures the essence of the local cuisine from the island just south of Corsica, because frankly, I haven’t been there. Not even watching No Reservations Sardinia will help. In the end, it doesn’t really matter, all that matters, is that Sardinia Ristorante is pumping out some damn tasty Italian food. So let’s get to what everyone wants to see, the food.

We started out with a bevy of antipasti which arrived all at once, just the way I like it. Sfoglia di burrata hit the table first, accompanied by prosciutto di Parma and fresh asparagus. Ladies and gentlemen, I believe this may have been the best asparagus I have ever had. Bet you thought I was going to say something about the cheese. Well that was good too, but I have to say, the two sides may have overshadowed the main event. While the cheese was extremely fresh, I probably should’ve ordered the straight burrata and done without the cured meat rolled up with it. Next was a classic carpaccio of filet mignon, arugula, shaved parm, olive oil and lemon juice. The steak was pounded so thin that we didn’t even have to cut it, just place your fork down and pull. Perfectly executed, fresh and delicious.

A cheese trio of my choosing followed. My selections were: 18 month Grana Padano, Pecorino Tartufato del Mugello and Taleggio d.o.p. from Valtaleggio paired with a bowl of what we assumed was preserved persimmon as a palate cleanser. My wife and I are cheese hounds, and these three are some of our favorites. The gooey Taleggio will always be a staple on my top cheese board of my mind and anything containing truffles is on the list as well. The 18 month Grana Padano was also a must have because you just don’t find genuine aged Grana Padano in the States outside of specialty food purveyors and high-end Italian joints.

The fourth dish was cipolline al forno con funghi trifolati. The “al forno” part lead me to believe we’d be enjoying some piping hot, caramelized onions with a trio of mushrooms simmering in their own juices. So I was surprised when I bit into one to find it was actually on the chilly side. Not a bad thing though. They were sweet and refreshing and probably the best partner for the heavy, tongue engulfing cheeses. A bite of cipollini, a bite of cheese, heaven!

The fifth and final antipasto was a heavyweight. Animelle, veal sweetbreads with brown butter, aged pancetta, sage and brussels sprouts. Not the prettiest of plates I’ll admit, but dear lord did it pack in the flavor. I was a little worried that the mellow flavor of the sweetbreads might be overpowered by the ultra-salty pancetta, but it held up nicely. The sweetbreads were tender and juicy thanks to the nice glaze of brown butter. The big surprise of the dish, for me at least were the brussels sprouts. Never in my life have I tasted sprouts like these. No bitterness to speak of, savory and salty, almost meaty. They joined the other proteins and matched them note for note. There’s nothing I love more than having one of my preconceptions turned on its head. If all brussels sprouts could taste like this, you could call me a fan.

Honestly, that could’ve been a meal in itself, but this was an anniversary dinner, so we had to do it right. So we placed our entreé order, Colorado lamb shanks with porcini and Cannonau wine reduction for Ashley, and two half orders of pasta for me. The first, malloreddos, Sardinian teardrop pasta with ragu of braised Colorado baby lamb, followed by the orecchiette, with wild boar sausage, rapini pesto and roasted pinenuts.

The meat dish was akin to an osso buco, except with lamb. There was even a tiny morsel of buttery marrow at the end of the bone. It was more than fork tender, if you looked at it hard enough it would fall off the bone. The tender meat was flanked with just enough succulent fat to really drive home the flavor. Luckily my wife isn’t a big fan of straight animal fat, so I stepped in to take care of it for her. She was a little disappointed in the accompanying veg, as it seemed like an afterthought with very little seasoning, a little surprising given the amazing asparagus and sprouts we enjoyed earlier.

Now that I think back, these pastas are very similar to what I ordered at Perla up in New York City a few months ago. The malloreddos, which looked like little maggots, was tossed with the same Colorado lamb that Ashley was enjoying. They might have even just stripped the meat off the bone with some of the tomato sauce they used for her dish and mixed it in with the pasta. In any case, it was delicious, perfectly al dente and very comforting.
 The orecchiette with wild boar sausage, rapini pesto and pinenuts was also a winner. I’m really digging this pairing of pesto and gamey sausage. Maybe I’m late to the party, but I’ve just started to notice this combination appearing on Italian menus. In any case, the duo of sausage and bitter rapini is a great one. The bitterness isn’t overwhelming, but it’s just enough to counter the fat of the sausage, although boar is naturally pretty lean. I had to hold off and save the rest of this dish for lunch the next day.

For dessert, a chocolate almond cake with chocolate sauce and strawberries. The cake was a bit dry and fluffy for my taste. The frosting was delicious, but it made me feel like a dog who just got fed peanut butter.

It was another successful anniversary meal and while it’s going to be hard to ever beat our meal at Uni, it definitely made an impression. So if you’ve got a hankering for some serious Italian cuisine, Sardinia Ristorante is the real deal.

On a side note, there was a small negative that I want to address. I brought a bottle of 2011 Conundrum white table wine to have with dinner. Now I’m accustomed to restaurants adding a corkage fee, usually around $15 or so. Here’s what happened, I had my bottle put on ice to chill, a few minutes later, the manager comes to our table to let us know that they usually don’t allow people to bring bottles in that are already on their wine list, but that this one time would be alright. That was the key phrase for me, “this one time will be alright”. No mention of a corkage fee, nothing. We had mentioned prior to making our reservation that we were celebrating our 6th anniversary, so I figured she was waiving it for that reason. As the bill arrived at the end of the meal, I come to find she had a $30 corkage fee added to my bill. Now I’m not an unreasonable person, had I been made aware of this when she came to the table, at least I could’ve prepared. I would’ve been able to tailor the meal to cover that added cost, but no. It wasn’t like I cheaped out on dinner either, I went all out, the least she could do was waive a silly corkage fee. It was the one breakdown in service for the night, as the rest of the staff was very friendly, attentive and polite.

If you’re reading this ma’am, I want you to know that on my way home I actually considered never returning to Sardinia based on your performance, it came off as rude and sneaky. A customer should never be made to feel swindled, especially from the manager, and when a restaurant serves such amazing food, one would expect the service to be just as palatable.

Sardinia Enoteca Ristorante on Urbanspoon

Prato: Revisit

Nothing too fancy today. Logan and I had the chance to visit Prato again, our favorite new restaurant. I know I’ve already written a post on them (you can read it here), but let’s be honest, moderation isn’t Eat a Duck’s forté. So let’s not delay, on to the food porn!

Prato apps

Top: Beef carpaccio, grilled artichokes, pecorino sardo and agrumato

Left: Fig jam crostini, foie gras terrine and cocoa nib salt

Right: Mascarpone polenta, charred corn and hazelnuts

Top: Mississippi quail, lardo butter, Calabrian sausage and padron pepper conserva

Bottom: Prato meatballs, roasted tomato, cipollini agrodolce

tagliatelle-amatriciana-pancetta-tesa-caramelized-onion-pecorino1 widowmaker-caciocavallo-cavallo-nero-pancetta-farm-egg funghi-roasted-mushroom-radicchio-charred-onions-aceto

Top: Tagliatelle amatriciana, pancetta tesa, caramelized onions and pecorino

Middle: Widowmaker – Caciocavallo, cavello nero, pancetta and farm egg

Bottom: Funghi – Roasted mushrooms, radicchio, charred onions and aceto

Above: Nutella pound cake and roasted hazelnuts

The boys at Prato striking a pose. Keep up the great work guys! Big shout out to Zach, Jonathan and the whole crew down at Prato, thanks for yet another fantastic meal, we’ll see you all soon!

Morimoto – New York City, NY

As we get older, we get jaded, we inevitably take things for granted. Driving a car for example, once a dream experience, is now a mundane endeavor. Unfortunately, this applies to food as well. Even avid food lovers like Logan and myself can become apathetic about delicious cuisine now and again. It truly is a rare occurrence when you find something so delicious, so extraordinary, that it’s like you’re seeing things through the eyes of a child, as if for the first time.

This happened to me recently on a visit to Morimoto (88 10th Avenue, New York, NY 10011). My father and I met a couple of friends for dinner before a late night jam session. I’ve been wanting to visit Morimoto for some time, so I had high expectations. We began with a bottle of daiginjo sake, a couple Sapporos and a fine conversation.

Apps were as follows:

Upper left: Wagyu Beef Carpaccio

Upper right: Oysters Foie Gras with Uni and Teriyaki Sauce

Center: Spicy Tuna Pizza with Watercress

Lower left: Crispy Rock Shrimp two ways: Creamy spicy sauce & Wasabi aioli

Lower right: Alaskan King Crab with Spicy Sauce

Morimoto apps

While all of these were absolutely, “eyes roll in the back of your head” delicious, the best was yet to come. We ordered nigiri omakase for four. We made sure there would be adequate toro of various kinds as well as uni (sea urchin) and hotate (scallop). However, our waitress informed us that there was a special item that night, not found on the menu. It turned out to be Keiji Salmon. Now I skipped the descriptions of all those tasty apps, for the sole purpose of talking about this fish. First a little background, Keiji Salmon is basically the veal or the lamb of the salmon world. This particular salmon is exceedingly rare, only one or two per 10,000 caught are Keiji, so the chances of finding it at your local sushi joint, or any sushi joint for that matter, are unfortunately very low. Salmon mature at sea and are caught as they make their way upriver to mate. In rare cases, young, underdeveloped salmon will follow the adults to the rivers. The Keiji meat is higher in fat content but lighter in texture and has a sweet taste and absolutely no trace of a “fishy” odor. While a normal salmon would have  anywhere between 2%-15% fat content, the Keiji regularly reach 20%-30%. The mouth feel was very similar to toro with its slick, buttery texture, but had the most pleasantly sweet flavor, and was just indescribably tender. The difference here is that you can usually find toro anytime, the unpredictable nature of Keiji really makes for a piece of sushi that almost trumps toro as the King of Nigiri for me. Almost…but not quite! In any event, it was far and away the finest piece of salmon I have ever tasted, it was outrageously delicious. The four of us just looked at each other in disbelief, all realizing that this was a rare occurrence. You can spot the Keiji at the top of this photo, nestled unassumingly between the Uni and the ginger. 

Morimoto sushi

It truly was an eye-opening experience. While it was like having salmon for the first time, I feel that it was enhanced because of my previous encounters with the fish. I always dread having the best “insert transcendent foodstuff here” on my first try, because, where do you go from there? I feel privileged to have had the chance to sample this amazing feat of nature, although I hope there is an even more mind-blowing specimen swimming out there in the deep blue as we speak. Until we meet again Keiji!

Morimoto on Urbanspoon