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

Beauty & Essex – New York City, NY

There’s something special about flying into New York City late in the evening, watching the skyline shimmer as you prepare to touch down, knowing that at the end of the journey lies a dinner reservation with tasty implications. You crane your neck to catch a glimpse of the neighborhood where, in minutes, you’ll be sharing a tartare or bone marrow of some sort with a loved one.

I miss New York, it felt like coming home, and one of my favorite things about returning to one of my old towns, is checking out all the new eats that have popped up in my absence. Beauty & Essex happens to be one of those, having opened mere months after I had flown south. After a delayed flight caused me to miss my much-anticipated table at Alder, I made some last-minute adjustments to my itinerary and somehow managed to land a table at  Beauty & Essex for 11:00 pm. “That’s a safe time”, I said to myself, “the crowds should be dying down by then.” I couldn’t have been more wrong.

Beauty & Essex spread photo: Jason Michael Lang

I met my little sister outside an unusually busy pawn shop storefront, complete with bouncer. We were pointed past the glass cases containing antique wristwatches, and through a door way surrounded by vintage guitars. The next room exploded with sound and energy as if the threshold we had just crossed was a time warp to Studio 54 circa 1977, only with more dubstep.

We were escorted through room after room like a Flintstones panning shot until we arrived at the dining area, plush and filled to the brim with hyper-hungry diners.  The noise level is substantial, it takes a mild scream to get anything across the table or even your server. This might be a negative to some, I found it energizing. The contrast of high energy dance club atmosphere in a decidedly high-end dining setting was an experience, but could the food sustain the same level of controlled chaos and still deliver the impeccable quality we’ve come to expect from this city?

Though we sampled eight dishes, it only took a couple to answer that question.

A soothing amuse bouche of warm pumpkin and mushroom soup arrived just in time to distract us from the adjacent table of posers doing their best Pauly D and Snookie impressions. The incredible din all but disappeared as we snacked on luxurious, bite sized toast with Hudson Valley foie gras terrine with smoked peach jam and homemade corn nuts. Steak tartare on chive and sticky rice cakes and crispy mustard was a refreshing take on an old classic.

Beauty & Essex apps

The tasty canapés ramped up our appetite for a succulent roasted bone marrow with a punchy rioja braised shallot marmalade. Six spoons filled to the brim with tangy tomato soup presented a floating dumpling of gooey cheese and smoked bacon. A creative presentation with flavors that were instantly familiar.

Beauty & Essex bone marrow and grilled cheese dumplings

Naturally I had to sample two of the pasta dishes. Basil pesto ravioli with blistered heirloom cherry tomato were outstanding. The tart broth and perfectly cooked pasta created the perfect foundation for a pesto which was clearly made that day with fresh picked basil as the grassy, citrus notes were front and center. I’ve sampled enough pestos to know how quickly the flavor can deteriorate. Equally impressive with a completely different personality was the garganelli with spicy veal bolognese and a mountain of whipped ricotta from Little Italy. The veal and cheese played good cop, bad cop with my taste buds, at once decadent and delicate. A subtle drizzle of balsamic balanced the dish with a touch of sweetness.

Beauty & Essex pasta

You’re spoiled for choice when it comes to dessert. For the PSL crowd, there’s a pumpkin pie bread pudding with cranberry compote. Chocolate fiends can sample the devil’s food layer cake with dark chocolate glaze and concord grape sauce. Haven’t had enough booze? Try the fireball hot chocolate shot with cinnamon whisky and vanilla marshmallow. For me, there was only one option, the box of doughnuts. Dueling trios of vanilla beignets stuffed with chocolate hazelnut creme and raspberry jam fought for my affection. It was like picking your favorite child, it just couldn’t be done.

Beauty & Essex box of doughnuts

I left Beauty & Essex in an even better mood than when I arrived. Some purists might rag on Chris Santos for appearing on Food Network shows from time to time, but my experience at his joint in the Lower East Side solidified my opinion. It was top shelf food in a city known for top shelf food. Eat here, now.

Beauty & Essex on Urbanspoon

Max’s Harvest – Delray Beach, FL

Once again I find myself in a new town, with new food to discover. Hopefully this time I’ll stick around a while longer. As always I’ve tried to get out there and see what there is to be had as far as interesting eateries. So far, I’ve visited a handful of places, but none had really caught my eye until I found Max’s Harvest. Well, actually my wife found it, no surprise there since she was the one who rustled up Uni and Sardinia, two of my favorite meals of all time.

Max’s Harvest, the latest venture from the well known restaurateur Dennis Max, is a cozy little storefront just off the main drag that is Atlantic Ave. The area is nice and quiet, the perfect environment to enjoy some of their “farm to fork” fare. This tag always catches my attention because it’s one of those things that other restaurants without the commitment to the principle, will use to get people in the door, only to disappoint them with sub-par dishes. Max’s Harvest walks the walk. Before I even glanced at the food I noticed their list of partners, various local farms, fisherman and dairies that provide them with fresh ingredients each day. As you’d expect, this means their menu changes often, everyday in fact. Naturally they never have any specials because everything is a special! Aw it feels like I’m in elementary school again. But this is no gimmick, from what I experienced, everything is as fresh as possible, most of it procured the morning of, with the menu being written up just hours before service.

MaxsHarvest_Exterior

photo: Max’s Harvest

Speaking of the menu, it’s split in three sections, Little Big Tastes, Start Small and Think Big. If you like you can do a “make your own prix fixe” for $45 and pick one dish from each section, or a small, large and dessert. I love this idea as I usually want to sample one of everything anyway, so this gives me an avenue to do that, while also saving a couple bucks by bundling my meal.

I chose a trio of Italian dishes, starting with the Heritage meatballs with a velvety San Marzano gravy, basil ricotta and Pecorino. It arrived in a piping hot cast iron skillet with a couple hunks of crusty bread as utensils. Absolutely delicious, tender and tangy, there are few things better than a perfect meatball, especially when its made with grass-fed protein. The basil ricotta was a welcome addition, adding a creamy freshness to the powerful tomato/meatball duo.

Heritage Meatballs

For my second course, I chose a natural follow-up to the meatballs, Burrata from Broward County paired with a giardiniera salad of tomatoes, carrots, artichokes, olives, greens and a few slices of salumi. Again the crusty bread joined the party for an added texture. It also allowed me to make mini panzanella bites with the hulking ball of oil slicked burrata. The cheese oozed like a poached egg at the touch of the fork, both my wife and I let out small “ooohs”. We enjoy a good burrata, I mean who doesn’t? The acidic salad was a perfect pairing for the gentle flavor and texture of the cheese.

Broward County Burrata

After two courses, I was sold on Max’s Harvest. When a chef is given amazing ingredients and has a passion to display those ingredients at their full potential, it shows on the plate, clear as day. Chris Miracolo, the restaurants executive chef is clearly enjoying himself in kitchen and the food reflects this. As I was coming down off my burrata high, my third course arrived. Three healthy Maine diver scallops over a bed of golden butternut risotto with peas, wild mushrooms, onions and…diced apples? Yes, apples.

Maine Diver Scallops w: Butternut Risotto

I’m not usually a fan of sweet fruit making its way into dishes like this. It’s as bad as sushi restaurants trying to incorporate strawberries into their rolls. I have to say though, the apple really worked here. It wasn’t overly assertive, the scallops took their rightful place as the star of the dish. I sliced them open with ease, they were well cooked, almost translucent inside. They reminded me of tiny sea-going filet mignons. The apple served to enhance the natural sweetness of the scallop, combine that with the risotto and it was a surprisingly luxurious dish.

All the while my wife was enjoying her own little feast. She chose a nice spinach and brie dip which was the epitome of comfort food. For her entrée, an Akaushi skirt steak with garlicky greens and what I believe was a jalepeño, potato croquette. This dish right here, and forgive me a cheesy cliché, was a flavor bomb. It may have been a touch on the salty side, but it was a hit for my palate. The spicy fried croquette was an enigma, we couldn’t quite decipher if there was some cheese in there or just a very creamy potato/cream mixture. In the end it didn’t matter, it was delicious and was devoured in no time.

Spinach & Brie Dip

Grilled Skirt Steak w: Jalepeño Puff

It’s always a pleasure to enjoy a delicious meal at a newly discovered eatery. The pleasure is enhanced when it’s barely five minutes from your house. I was a little nervous about the food scene in Delray Beach at first, but Max’s Harvest has put my mind at ease. I plan on returning many times to share this wonderful neighborhood joint with family and friends.

Max's Harvest 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!