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

Blackbrick – Miami, FL

I think it’s high time we got back to our roots here at Eat a Duck. I mean it’s been what, TWO posts since we featured dim sum around here! Well not to worry, we’d never let the dumplings disappear for long, and neither will Richard Hales, chef and owner of Blackbrick, Miami’s sorely needed dim sum mecca. Chef Hales, best known for the popular Korean joint, Sakaya Kitchen and its mobile counterpart, Dim Ssam a GoGo, clearly saw the gap in Miami’s dining landscape. Until now, finding truly great dim sum was a chore at best, and nearly impossible at worst.

Sure, you’ve got Mr. Chow on Miami Beach, but who wants to drop $13 on a plate of siu mai? Alternatively you could make the trek out to Tropical dim sum on Sundays for one of the only dim sum cart services I’m aware of, but neither of these options are ideal. What Miami needed was a centrally located spot, within a few minutes drive and preferably near other like-minded restaurants for obvious food crawl possibilities! Chef Hales found the perfect spot, nestled right in between the design district and Wynwood, two of the hottest neighborhoods in town.

Blackbrick spread 1

At first glance, the large Target shopping center where Blackbrick is located may seem like another bland, prefabricated Florida “village”. Clearly though, someone did their homework. Instead of bringing in the typical corporate restaurants like Brio, P.F. Changs and Cheesecake Factory, they opted for independent, local talent. Granted, there’s still a Five Guys and a World of Beer, but for the most part, the dining options in Midtown are something to be excited about.

Blackbrick is one of the places warranting the most excitement, not only for the crew of Eat a Duck, but for food lovers around the country, even being nominated for Bon Appetit’s 50 Best New Restaurants in America. The reason behind the buzz is no secret, as Blackbrick combines tradition and creativity seamlessly.

Blackbrick dim sum

Their dim sum selection, while not exhaustive, is of a quality you won’t find anywhere else. Each item is cooked to order, so while the wait may be more than some veteran dim sum-o-philes are used to, the resulting flavor makes it all worth it. The wrappers of the har gow and pork siu mai are perfectly cooked, tender and toothsome. The fillings are equally well executed. The shrimp and scallop dumplings are fresh, leaving none of the low-tide aftertaste some lesser establishments might offer.

A couple of instant favorites are the fried pork cheek dumplings (pictured in the first spread) with its succulent filling and drizzle of slightly sweet sauce, and the jade Peking duck dumpling, an idea which I’m upset I haven’t found until now. Both of these manage to find their way to my table during each visit. Do we have any bao fans? Blackbrick makes a mean steamed bbq pork char siu bao with that wonderfully sweet meat filling. A couple of these for breakfast would start any day off right.

Blackbrick spread 2

But Blackbrick isn’t simply a dumpling house. Looking for some comfort food, why not take a look at their selection of fantastic fried rice that will expand your opinion of what the dish can be. Not content to match your neighborhood Chinese take out joint, Chef Hales spikes his rice with things like rock shrimp, lobster tail and duck. Another exciting option pairs bacon with kim chi made by sister restaurant Sakaya Kitchen.

The Chinese brunch, once dominated by dim sum alone is now joined by a bevy of options including a breakfast fried rice of sausage, eggs and country potato, shrimp and grits made with cornmeal congee, bacon and a poached egg, and my personal favorite Chinese fried chicken and fortune cookie waffle with a scallion, ginger maple syrup. Don’t forget the salt and pepper tots! Here they’re prepared simply with peppers and onion, achieving a level of spice that gets your brow moist but keeps you coming back for more.

My favorite dish however, might be Blackbrick’s take on Dandan Mian, a Sichuan dish usually consisting of a spicy, chili oil tinged sauce, minced pork and scallions. Here it resembles a Chinese version of ragu alla bolognese. This is one of those dishes I could eat for the rest of my life and be a happy man. Chef Hales chose bucatini, a stout noodle that can stand up to the mountain of fiery pork and scallions.

Blackbrick spread

After a half-dozen visits to Blackbrick, it’s solidified itself in my pantheon of go-to Miami restaurants. Over the past few years, the food scene in there has grown by leaps and bounds, leaving behind the tired, stodgy cuisine of the late 1990s and early 2000’s in favor of a vibrant blend of traditional fare, executed well and bold new creations destined to become classics. Blackbrick is indicative of this trend and stands among the leaders of great dining establishments in South Florida.

Click to add a blog post for Black Brick Chinese & Dim Sum on Zomato

Eat a Duck Weekly Recap #7

Every so often, the boys of Eat a Duck are bestowed with incredible meals in rapid succession. Sadly we couldn’t share in any food-ventures over the last few days, but if the spread below is any indication, I’d say we still had a successful week in eating.

The wife and I snuck in a visit to Boca: Kitchen, Bar & Market in Tampa and Café Boulud in West Palm Beach before heading down to Miami to see my parents off for the summer. If I’m not eating with Logan, I’m probably eating with Jep, and we did some fine work this weekend. Dim sum at Blackbrick, incredible Japanese spiked Peruvian fare at La Mar and a long-awaited trip for pizza Napolitana at Stanzione 87 were all on the menu. A simple dinner at home with some home-made pesto over fusilli and antipasti of burrata, heirloom tomato and prosciutto from San Daniele.

Logan made his rounds to some of the best eats in Lakeland with Vietnamese from Pho Tan, and BBQ from Fat Maggie’s. Concord Coffee and their Poor Porker supplied pastries seems to be a weekly affair, and who can blame him? The food scene in his town is really starting to show some promise, so I’m sure you’ll be seeing a lot more Lakeland restaurants making their way into the recap in the weeks to come.

Look out for some full length pieces in the next few weeks featuring some of the new Miami joints we’ve teased here!

EAD Weekly #7

Proof Pizza & Pasta – Miami, FL

I’d been in this situation before. It’s a Friday night, I’d just arrived at MIA for a weekend visit with my parents, and we needed to find a place for dinner. A quick check on OpenTable is worrying, as many of the choice spots are jam-packed. After some hurried discussion, we make a bee line for the design district, an area that, in the last two years, has experienced a flood of great restaurants moving in. They can’t all be full right? Right?! These types of frenzied searches usually end in disappointment, but in an area so well stocked with top-notch restaurants, for once, the odds were in our favor.

Proof spread 1

Proof Pizza & Pasta had been on my radar for a while. Seeing those double zeros while driving up and down Miami Avenue was enough to make my list. They were speaking food code, and I was listening. Just to give you some context, Proof is right in the middle of a mealtime maelstrom with heavy hitters like Blackbrick, Sakaya Kitchen, Sugarcane and Salumeria 104 within a stones throw. That means there’s no room to slack when it comes to the food, if you’re not on your game, you’ll be out within a year. The brisk, but informative introduction we received from our server piqued my interest. All of their pizza and pasta dough is made fresh, in-house every morning and is cooked to order. They also support local produce whenever possible. OK great, but I’ve been burned before by restaurants that think they can fool their patrons with clearly store-bought ingredients, so the “prØØf” as they say, is in the pudding, or in this case the gemelli beef bolognese.

But before this pasta hound could get his mitts on his favorite food, mom insisted we get some vegetables. Fine. I spied a tasty looking duck confit gnudi, and hey, it comes with a porcini pureé and fresh herbs, that counts right? Or what about the burrata with sorrel pesto and pea shoots? While both would have been automatic for me, my mother had other ideas, the dreaded sprouts. At Proof they serve their Brussels sprouts raw, shaved and dressed with apple cider, gorgonzola, pecans and dried cranberry. I was devastated by how delicious this salad was. My entire childhood had been a lie, and to find out at 30 that this tiny cabbage, which had caused me so much angst, had the potential to be so tasty, absolutely crushed me. Why doesn’t every mother make the sprouts this way?! Well they’re on my personal menu now, better late than never I suppose.

Proof Pastas

Chefs Justin Flit and Matt DePante, both Miami natives, gained valuable experience in big league Manhattan kitchens DBGB and Gramercy Tavern, which they brought back to their hometown when they decided to open Proof. The attention to detail and quality control that is expected of any top shelf New York restaurants, is clearly seen in this menu. The aforementioned gemelli beef bolognese pairs the deep meat sauce with delicate whipped ricotta and shreds of fresh basil, and was just as good if not better than the version I tried at Beauty & Essex. An equally impressive angel hair with succulent chunks of fresh crab, spiked with Calabrian chili and lemony breadcrumbs displayed the seaward side of the pasta spectrum. Each dish showcased the incredibly fresh noodles which held an elasticity that you only get from a homemade product.

Proof Pizza

The pizza at Proof delivers (excuse the pun) on all fronts. Slightly charred crust, fresh toppings and solid structural stability are three basic traits every great pizza should embody. At Proof, they’re doing their bags of double zero flour justice. We chose two pies, the Salumi and the Oxtail, which like the pastas we selected, highlighted two very different sides of the pizza game. The former could be thought of as simply a vulgar “meat lover’s”, but it has so much more to offer. Joining the pepperoni and sausage are paper-thin slices of prosciutto, added after it’s been fired so as not to ruin the delicate meat by crisping it up. All this protein manages to coexist with Proof’s fantastic red sauce, here spiked with chili oil and a hint of cumin which added an interesting twist on an otherwise familiar flavor profile.

The latter satisfies with a generous spread of braised oxtail infused with thyme, dollops of mozzarella, copious amounts of black garlic and gelatinous caramelized onions. I suggest eating your fill of one pizza and then moving to the other to fully appreciate the depth of flavor achieved by each. As I sit here thinking about them both, it’s difficult to recall a better pizza in Florida.

Proof Jep

When you happen to land in a place like Proof on the spur of the moment, with little planning and double zero expectations, you kind of have to order dessert. That night there was a chocolate sponge-type cake, filled and topped with chocolate hazelnut mousse and crispy chopped hazelnuts. It was a nocciola kind of night, and for this Nutella fiend, the perfect ending to the meal. Chef’s Flit and DePante have crafted a real gem in the design district, a worthy addition to the pantheon of great restaurants that have recently sprung up there. I’m feeling less and less inclined to make the trek to the beach for meals when I’m in Miami. With restaurants like Proof on the mainland, it’s no wonder.

Proof Pizza & Pasta on Urbanspoon

Cuban Sandwich Festival 2015: Uncensored – Ybor City, FL

It’s been a few weeks since we attended the 2015 Cuban Sandwich festival. We milled over this piece a little too long to be timely, but our opinions are up to date, so it’s still a good read for any of you trying to find good Cubanos in Tampa. Especially true if you’ve already viewed the list of winners. Here goes:

The Cuban sandwich is a masterpiece, likely born out of necessity. Various cultures blended what little they had to create one cohesive, bread based package, although exactly when this occurred has never been proven. We feel things because we want to believe in them, we love a good food story and we try to let history justify our feelings toward the stories we hold dear.

I have every reason to believe that the Cuban sandwich as it is known today was curated right here in Ybor City. You can believe it’s from Miami, Cuba or even Geneva, Switzerland for that matter, but until you bring me some notarized or patented paperwork, there’s nothing to discuss.

I will not accept a Cuban sandwich as being traditional unless it contains salami. For those who want to argue this point, you’ll always come up lame, just like Miami’s sad salami-less imposter. I’ve asked many Miami residents, and contest participants to give one solid reason why the lack of a delicious cured meat would ever detract from it, but they never, ever respond with a good reason. Maybe because they know better, or maybe it’s just unwarranted geopolitical pride. Being too prideful in a weaker product is what brought down Ming Dynasty isn’t it?

One argument of note is from Sergio’s in Miami, who says on the subject of salami on a Cuban, that some people like pickles on their cupcakes. That’s weak. It’s as weak as Steve Rodgers pre-gamma ray. Salami is a complimentary flavor that only enhances the end result of the sandwich.

I think the results of this year’s Cuban sandwich proved, if nothing else, that the greater Miami population doesn’t really know what they’re doing with the sandwich they, for whatever reason, like to tout as their own. You did invent something, something awful. From the exclusion of one of earth’s most precious prizes, that being salami, to your hardtack version of Cuban bread, just about everything I’ve sampled on the Miami Cuban sandwich front has been sub-par. I do however have a deep admiration for Versailles in little Havana. They do a chorizo and manchego sandwich that would make even the mighty Jose Marti put off his activism for at least a day or two.

7705410_orig

My Cuban sandwich love is strong, which is why I just went off on a 500 word tangent, even after recently completing a lengthy three part Cuban sandwich competition of our own, where I thoroughly pontificated on the subject.

Let’s get to the festival itself. This year’s version, if you are talking on an all around enjoyment level, was a huge success. So many festival attendees got to experience rich, Cuban culture through music, dance and of course food. I give the founders of this event a sincere bow of respect. Not only did tens of thousands attend, but the proceeds went to fund a great cause.

As far as the competition, I held a judging position in the Non-Traditional category, in which competitors were asked to get creative, while still keeping things recognizable as a Cuban. They were encouraged take on the challenge by flipping the usual Cubano on its head.

I’d like to share my comments as well as the ranking for each entry. I was only able to match a handful of sandwiches to their respective entrants, so the others will remain a mystery, possibly due to shame, but most likely from lack of any social media presence.

The ranking was 1 to 10.  I still don’t know all 8 competitors, so here goes.

1

1. It’s just a Cuban sandwich. I think this got put in the wrong category. Looks like someone tripped and spilled chopped cilantro all over the top. Struggling to find what makes this non-traditional. Kind of really sweet now. Struggguuuuhhhhlinnnnng. (Maybe La Septima, 1st Place) 2 Stars

2

2. At least they tried to do something different after what #1 was. I see coleslaw. There is Mango. Smells like garlic bread. Very tropical. Outstanding, flavorful roast pork. Soggy. (Wheelhouse Deli 2nd Place) 3 Stars

3

3. It’s just a Cuban sandwich with a cherry tomato and an American flag stuck on top. Tomato of any kind, no matter where you put it, makes it non-traditional. This is non-good (Maybe La Septima, 1st Place) 1 Star

4

4. I don’t know what to call this thing. A Cubanpanada? I didn’t appreciate the hot sauce shower I got when I raised the lid from the box it was housed in. However, being assaulted by Crystal sauce is pretty non-traditional if you ask me. An empanada with Cuban sandwich filling is a great idea. The dough wasn’t very stellar, the mayo/mustard/mojo dip was. Inside, a little dry but great effort. 6 Stars

5

5. With all that green inside, I was expecting a chimmichurri or pesto bomb. Instead, it was like the time my dad made a ham & Swiss melt with a heaping scoop of hot dog relish. Extra 2 stars for nostalgia. Tried it twice to make sure I was tasting it right. Still tested positive for hot dog relish taste overload. 4 stars

6

6. Should be noted that all the meat is poultry. The switcheroo on animal proteins made this an “OK” non-traditional, I suppose. I think the spice coming from the pulled chicken really stands out. Everything else just reminds me of a bologna sandwich. I like bologna. Good sandwich. 4 Stars

7

7. If you’re going to be the 2nd dog in a two dog Cuban sandwich coleslaw king of the ring dog show, you have to bring it. They brought a better slaw with less sweetness, properly drained and more vinegar based acidity. In addition, they switched Swiss with something aged and nutty (Parm or Manchego?) to attack the enemy. Enough to come out victorious in Slaw Wars: Episode 2 – Attack of the Coles. (Dochos Concessions) 6 Stars

8

8. I couldn’t tell what, what was going on???! Sweet, sweet, sweet pickle or something else really sweet. What could be the roast pork part, was a really nice shade of mahogany and was pretty fatty so maybe they went with a braised beef brisket or short ribs instead. Who knows? I know. Too sweet. (The Dude and His Food) 4 Stars

After seeing the top three finishers in each category, I understood why many were upset with the results, as they ended up with very few of our proven favorites. The winners were a real hodge podge. “Head scratching” is what one on-looking fan was quoted as saying after seeing the final result in the four major categories of the weekend. I have a decent hypothesis about how this came about. Any given place can win if they make the best sandwich on that specific day. And to them go the spoils. They garner attention because they can say, “Hey we have one of the top three Cuban sandwiches around, and we can prove it with our award.” Then when you go get the sandwich at the restaurant, deli or truck, in reality it’s nowhere near the quality it was the day of the contest. That’s a bamboozle and I think we got a touch of that this year. It’s just a theory though. My only proof is that I’ve eaten at almost all of these places and a lot of them just aren’t very good. The only truly accurate ranking is that the Miami Cuban fell so far off the face of use earth in competition that people were holding candle lit vigils due to the disappearance.

To tell you the truth, I was pretty bummed out to not be included as part of the Best Cuban Sandwich in the World category. Even so, I took my assignment seriously, something I can’t say for my fellow judges who I have a sneaking suspicion weren’t even aware of the category, as a very, very traditional sandwich was the eventual winner. I got pretty annoyed once I found out what they did to put their twist on the original. Mayonnaise, allegedly infused with guava was the only thing that was different. I absolutely didn’t taste guava and guava is in my DNA.

Still, it was an honor to be a judge. Team Eat a Duck is hopeful that we can come back and judge with the big boys in the most important category. Shoot, we just hope to get asked back next year after the competition complaints  we made, which again, have nothing to do with the fantastic organizers.

Here’s what needs to happen. I love the categories of competition. I just ask that all participants who enter the non-traditional category to please try to have a semblance of creative expression. Dip your Cuban in a sweet and spicy batter then deep fry it. Make the vessel a glazed donut then griddle the outside so that it’s nice and caramelized. Turn it into an oozy quesadilla or make a savory pop tart, croissant or scone even. Why not use a different set of ingredients all together, that still pay homage to the classic. Sort of like Buddy Brew did with their version during the #apuercolypse. In the immortal words of Busta Rhymes, “Gimme sum mo, If you want it lemme hear you say, gimme sum mo.”

Cuban creativity

Challenge yourself and the judges. Don’t let us get confused, thinking we’re judging a different competition, because that’s another issue all together.

If you want to read about who we firmly believe has the best all around Cuban sandwich in Tampa, check out all 3 #Apuercolypse articles here (1, 2, 3). Oh, and if you think your favorite place stacks up to our list, let us know why and we will give it a shot!

Eat a Duck’s Top Meals of 2014: Part II

I finally had the opportunity to travel a good amount in 2014 after years of being grounded. Naturally this led to of amazing meals. Apart from the food which, let’s face it, I wouldn’t be talking about if it weren’t unbelievable, the company with which I shared these dishes is really what bring these dishes to the forefront of my mind. While these five dishes run the gamut of price from nearly free to exorbitant, each one delivered something new and special. I chose my list based on how badly I want to go back and have them again. It was a difficult task, but here are my entries for the best of 2014!

  1. Spicy Chive and Pork Dumplings at Shanghai Dumpling King – San Francisco, CA

spicy-chive-pork-dumplings

Very few dishes bring a smile to my face as easily as steaming hot dumplings. Shanghai Dumpling King served up this beautiful bowl of tender, savory and spicy pork and chive dumplings, swimming in a sea of sesame and chili oil and it was a wonder to behold. They’ve got their mixture down perfect and it’s habit forming as all great Chinese food should be. Logan may not believe in umami, but that’s exactly what we experienced that night in San Francisco.

  1. Thresher Shark Nugget at é – Las Vegas, NV

Thresher Shark Nugget

Have you had thresher shark? Have you had any shark? Yeah neither had I. I’m usually one to question the ethics of killing such a beautiful animal, sadly however, my moral compass went haywire when this thresher shark nugget, fried in a sherry vinegar tinged batter was presented to me. Think pork belly, but just the fat. That’s what this was like, gelatinous but tender with a depth of flavor rarely seen in most seafood.

  1. Veal Sweetbreads with Gnocchi Parisienne at Rooster and the Till – Tampa, FL

Sweetbreads

I feel like we talk about the “Anton Ego” moment around here a lot. How that one bite of food can instantly transport you through time. This veal sweetbread dish from Rooster and the Till did just that. As it touched my tongue I was somehow taken back to my mothers turkey dinner, albeit with much more finely composed flavors. Very few dishes can match the balance of flavors and textures that this one achieved.

  1. Basil Pesto Ravioli at Beauty & Essex – New York, NY

Basil Pesto Ravioli from Beauty & Essex

Speaking of flavor, these precious little pockets of pesto contained a flavor so intense you’d be forgiven for thinking you were eating basil straight out of the garden. Aside from the freshness, who puts tomato sauce and pesto together? Chris Santos, that’s who, and it works so shut it. Too bad it’s not on the menu anymore!

  1. Sea Cucumber Roe at NAOE – Miami, FL

Sea Cucumber Roe from NAOE

Sea cucumber gonads…are you listening? The reproductive system…of a sea cucumber. Just so you understand how incredibly delicious this delicacy is, I’m going to completely ignore the beautiful tongue of uni sitting just to its right. This tiny morsel gave me an experience that I haven’t felt since my first taste of foie gras. A completely new and luxurious flavor like nothing I’ve ever eaten, silky, sweet, melt in your mouth, like if foie and crème brulée had a baby. I seriously considered a move to Hokkaido so I could hoard these little guys for myself, as if they aren’t rare enough as it is.

Chef (2014)

I was a 15 years old year old kid who loved music and was a pretty fair dancer. I grew up listening to big band, jazz, jump blues and swing standards from my grandfathers collection. I watched the movie Swing Kids in theaters and then bought it on VHS as soon as it became available. I learned all the moves and tried my best to emulate my friend peter and swing heil. Then came Swingers. That movie, though I’ll admit it was too adult for me at the time, introduced me to a whole new way of looking at the culture. It taught me that you don’t have to like something because it was trendy, hip, hep or rooted in nostalgia. Music is timeless. The work of Count Basie, the Stray Cats or even Hepcat is timeless for me. Why? Because it’s good music. Swingers highlighted a culture synonymous with Southern California in the mid-90’s, as a teenager, I never knew existed. Although the subject matter strays from the music more often than I’d prefer, it’s still one of my all time favorites. Never would I have imagined that Jon Favreau would ever create a film that spoke to me in such a similar way, to a point where I felt he had a clear window to my psyche.

Chef Banner

That was until I watched Chef. Obviously, I love food. Jimmy and I write or talk about it daily. Everything we eat may not make the cut, but food is a constant topic of conversation in my circle of friends. My love of food has given me opportunities I never would have gotten without it. It sustains us and brings us together. The entire process of cooking delicious food makes us happy and is oddly therapeutic. As the title character (played by Favreau himself) helps us all to appreciate. As his life is turned upside down, his mantra continues to be “I don’t care what everyone says, I don’t care about the bad things that happen, or the money, I just want to cook great food.” When you are a cook, you will never lose that love, no matter how life unfolds. Another important lesson I took to heart is that you always take the ones you love along for the ride. No matter how you perceive your mundane chores or you days spent taking care of ordinary tasks. If someone wants to be your accompaniment, you let them. That reevaluation had nothing to do with food.

Chef 2014 scenes

The other poignant topic to hone in on is that of negative critiquing. Although, I feel the arrogant food critic, the type that is going to bash so that followers laugh at their contrived venom, is slowly becoming obsolete, this movie helps you understand the power of such words. On that note, it also points to the dynamic influence social marketing has on the consumer both on negative and positive fronts. The power of one voice could crush someones business just as easy as it could trebuchet it into stardom

I don’t want to go into minutiae of the all the food loving tidbits liberally sprinkled throughout the storyline. I’ll leave them for you to discover, but prepare yourself for massive amounts of food porn. Aside from a couple of logistical issues involving mobile food licensing (It’s a sore subject for me ok!) that felt simplified for storytelling purposes, it was a masterpiece. No wait. It was a KC Master-piece!

Have you ever heard a film nerd speak excitedly about all the nods that occur in every super hero movie? It’s pretty impressive, especially since I love comics and I still miss half of the stuff until I watch them 6 months later on the Screen Junkies YouTube channel after a night of heavy libation consumption. If you’re sharp and pay attention throughout the film, you’ll find lots of food related easter eggs, not to mention all the references and cameos along the way. I left smiling from ear to ear. Even the soundtrack is well thought out. I hope you all search it out and  enjoy the movie half as much as me and Jimmy did. We both agree, for us, it’s a film that will be on constant rotation for years to come.

Chef 2014 at Franklin BBQ

I realize the initial buzz for the film has probably been reduced to a low simmer. That doesn’t matter here. We just want to share our thoughts with you guys. I for one am so glad I waited to see it at the exact moment I did, in a half full theater just outside of Norman, OK. There were audible gasps of delight and wonderment when food that was clearly not the norm in this area was served on screen. It was a great reaction and I felt proud. As the movie’s theatrical run is all but over over, look for it on demand as well as a DVD release on September 30. Or…use other nefarious ways to procur a viewing. I

Before I go, I have to say one thing, because I know it will be a sore subject to some. If you’re reading this and you saw the movie, you’ll understand. Yo Favreau! Where’s the salami bro?

NAOE – Miami, FL

I’ve long bemoaned the state of sushi in Florida. You’d think a state surrounded by ocean on three sides would be more discerning when it comes to seafood. There are myriad establishments where one can enjoy a maki roll, perhaps drizzled with a fruit infused syrup and blanketed with tempura crispies. There are even a few places that offer omakase at the bar, but when it comes to traditional Japanese kaiseki dining, well, until recently, I had given up the search.

Thankfully, my good friend and occasional food cohort, Mr. Todd Sturtz, threw me tip a few months back about a little sushi bar on Brickell Key called NAOE (pronounced nah-o-ay). Ever since, I’ve been trying to make a reservation, to no avail, tables are usually booked straight through their 3 month window. A couple of weeks back though, I was making my regular check of OpenTable (the only place you can reserve a table), and found a table for the second seating (NAOE only has two seatings a day) the very next evening! I couldn’t book it fast enough for fear of some sushi sniper snaking it out from under my scallop loving nose.

Naoe Interior

What you see above is the entirety of the restaurant, not counting the private dining room off the entrance (the design of which was enough to get this architects juices flowing), so it’s easy to see why they’re booked solid for months in advance. You’ll receive the warmest of welcomes from Wendy, who plays the dual role of maître’d and tour guide throughout the meal, answering questions and explaining dishes and their ingredients.

Our seats at the bar afforded us an unobstructed view of Chef Kevin Cory’s immaculate kitchen. You’d be excused for thinking you’re in a showroom, until Kevin enters from behind the curtain to begin a solo performance that transforms it into a stage.

The first act was a bento box, with a beautifully composed assortment of seasonal ingredients, many of which I’ve never tried before. You can check out the detailed menu here. Each quadrant had something unique to offer, a creamy chawanmushi with geoduck and shimeji mushroom, tangy and sweet boniato potato rice with daikon pickled with koji, a rice mold used in the making of sake. A striking bowl of cobia sashimi, two tiny kombu and roe “sandwiches” on shiso and freshly grated wasabi was a favorite. The upper right corner displayed a smattering of fresh seafood, game, and produce. Small fried chunks of kisu (small fish often used in tempura) rolled in poppy seed, fried gingko biloba nuts with firefly squid, and roast duck breast with local green beans were just a few of the items. At the time I didn’t know what I was eating, even after Wendy’s masterful explanation. This allowed for the rare experience of trying something new with absolutely zero expectations. It was truly an adventure in eating.

Naoe Bento

Soon after our boxes were cleared, we were presented with a handsome broiled kasugodai (baby red snapper) with king trumpet mushrooms, spinach and meyer lemon. The texture was pillowy, like a gently cooked marshmallow, but not sticky. The flesh is sweet, offset by a soft touch of salt from the skin. Pro tip, don’t stop eating once the body is consumed, grab that head and dig out the fluffy cheeks on either side, you’ll be in for a treat. As we patiently made our way through the kasugodai, Wendy entertained us with stories of past diners apparent discomfort with eye contact, who attempted to hide the fish face under a napkin. Welcome to America.

Broiled Kasugodai w: Trumpet Mushrooms

Now what I’m sure you’ve been waiting for, the sushi. The procession lasted for 11 courses and was, if I’m honest, the most amazing sushi I’ve ever had in the States, hands down. Taste, color, smell, touch, each sense was able to enjoy the superlative freshness that the fish displayed. Both my father and I were speechless as each piece was presented, how the heck do you keep this stuff so fresh traveling all the way from Tsukiji?! While everything was outstanding, there were a couple of particularly bright spots. In the top right square is a baby golden ring octopus, paired with poached lobster and pea tendrils, atop a slice of Florida avocado. I wish I’d had the gall to ask for a whole bowl of this octopus, the flavor was addictive to say the least, it even beat out the lobster in my opinion. The second moan inducing piece is in the square just above the logo. Both look like uni, but on the right is something called konoko, which are, wait for it, sea cucumber ovaries! Dear lord this was the most delicious thing I’ve put in my mouth in some time. I’d take this over uni any day, and I’m an uni man through and through.

Naoe Sushi

From the oyster, to the live scallop, two preparations of unagi, the Seuss sounding red bluefish, it was a tasty parade of sea life this Floridian has never experienced.

For dessert Kevin started us with a palate cleanser of locally grown ugli fruit, caimito and sapodilla. Those last two were new to me, the purple and white slices were the caimito, also known as star apple. The taste and texture were reminiscent of lychee. The sapodilla on the other hand was more like a pear. All the fruit was sourced personally by chef Cory from local grower Robert Is Here in Homestead, FL. 

Ugli fruit, Caimito & Sapodilla

Our next dish was brought with a challenge, guess what’s in the ice cream. After a half-dozen bites of it paired with the kasutera (Japanese sponge cake made with milk and honey) I was stumped. It was delicious to be sure, but I just couldn’t figure it out. Then Jep blurts out, “it’s soy sauce!”. A round of applause please for a fantastic palate. Sure enough the ice cream was infused with soy sauce straight from Oono, Japan where chef Cory’s family has owned a shoyu brewery since 1825.

Matcha tea soup and a healthy chunk of mamey, another unknown fruit, was the final dish. Mamey is related to mangosteen, although the two are nothing alike. It was creamy and sweet, more custard than fruit, so soft you could slice it with the provided toothpick. We enjoyed a refreshing frozen sake, again provided by chef Cory’s family.

Naoe dessert

NAOE has easily made its way into the top ten meals of my life (the top 5 was getting a little restricting, sue me). In my opinion, this place easily stands among the greatest restaurants in the country, and the world for that matter.

Now I must share a few disclaimers to anyone considering a visit here:

  1. Don’t bring anyone who’s unwilling to try new things, this is not the place for them. Unless you’re ready to taste everything without preconceived notions or squeamishness, don’t bother.
  2. Allow 2-3 hours for dinner, don’t be like the couple sitting next to us who got up and left halfway through the sushi courses. For a restaurant that only has two seatings a night, you have to be a pretty big douche to snub the chef like that (although we did get to eat their eel…serves ’em right).
  3. When you make the reservation you pay for dinner up front, $200 a head, while it is more than worth the price for what you get, it’s something to keep in mind. NAOE would be a fantastic venue for an amazing anniversary dinner or other quiet special occasion.

Well there it is folks, a top of the top-notch Japanese restaurant right here in Florida, but don’t tell too many people, I still want to be able to get a table!

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

Joe’s Stone Crab – Miami Beach, FL

Making new friends is a wonderful thing to be sure. It’s exciting to discover their hidden talents, to understand their unique personality quirks, the things that drew you to them in the first place. But it can be easy to forget about your old buds, the ones you’ve counted on countless times, the ones who’ve been there for your consistently, without fail for years, decades, possibly even a century. Ok, well most friends don’t stick around that long, but every so often, a restaurant does. However, doing so requires a staying power that can prove elusive, even to the hardiest of establishments. We’re talking Mick Jagger level, Paul McCartney even. There aren’t many dining halls that ever achieve such a feat. They fall for one reason or another, to any number of unforeseeable occurrences.

Joe's Menu

Somehow though, Joe’s Stone Crab has managed the impossible. This year marks the 100th anniversary of the legendary crab house, started by the humble Joe Weiss back in 1913. I’m not sure if Mr. Weiss had any idea what his lowly lunch counter would become a century later, but I have to imagine he’d be proud.

Joe’s, as it sits today is an icon, an institution in every sense of the word. It wouldn’t be too far of a stretch to say that every other stone crab joint in South Florida owes a little something to Joe’s. Understandably then, there’s an incredible demand for tables on a nightly basis. As you arrive and wade into the hungry mass, you’d better hope you know someone who knows someone, or you’ll be in for a long and tiring night standing at the bar. Joe’s doesn’t accept reservations, but don’t let that deter you. The crab is easily worth the wait. If you’re really in a hurry, there’s a take-out window next door, but for the full Joe’s experience, get a table.

Let me give you a little background on these choice crustaceans. Stone crabs are, as the name suggests, as hard as a rock. Therefore they arrive at the table pre-cracked, so you have easy access to the sweet flesh within. My favorite tidbit about these little guys is their Wolverine-like healing ability. As the claws are harvested (only one at a time so that the crab still has some defense against predators) they grow back, reaching full size again in 1-2 years.

stone-crab-wolvie1

But enough learning, let’s get to the food! When you finally reach your table, waste no time with the rest of the menu (unless you’re allergic to shellfish, in which case, what the heck are you doing here?) strap on a bib and order yourself a couple dozen claws. They come in four sizes: medium, large, jumbo and colossal. Obviously the price jumps relative to the size, but honestly, you can’t go wrong. There are few events that can bring joy to an entire table like that of a platter of enormous stone crab claws being plunked down, ready to be devoured.

Stone Crab

If you’re in the mood, jump for some sides like fried whole belly clams, golden onion rings, or my personal favorite, Joe’s roasted tomatoes. They don’t get cute with fancy ingredients here or goofy gimmicks, just great food, traditionally prepared and executed to perfection. Like their key lime pie. Even I, whose love for key lime pie would barely nudge the needle past lukewarm, can appreciate a cool slice of their signature dessert.

Rings, Clams, Tomatoes, Key Lime Pie

My dad has eaten at Joe’s since I was born and thanks to him the rest of us have enjoyed warm welcomes and rock star treatment on every visit. When I was young, I foolishly refused the restaurants namesake, turning my nose up at crab in general. I’ve since learned from errant ways and have come to appreciate just what Joe’s represents. They’re a stalwart of tradition, loyally continuing in the path Joe Weiss blazed 100 years before. It’s no wonder then, that Al Capone and his goons made Joe’s a daily ritual. If it’s good enough for Scarface, it’s good enough for you, and it doesn’t get any more “Miami” than that!

Joe's Stone Crab on Urbanspoon