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

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.

da Campo Osteria – Ft. Lauderdale, FL

The first time I met chef Steven Acosta, we were in the bowels of a glorified furniture store. Naturally this is where most people go to see chefs demonstrating the process of mozzarella making. Strange setting aside, I was captivated by the pearly white cheese, stretching ever so gently between Steven’s hands. Looking around, I got the feeling that most of the people in the room didn’t really appreciate what they were seeing, an observation that would explain a lot…but I’ll get to that.

After the demo, I introduced myself to Steven and told him how much I enjoyed the delicious morsels. We chatted a bit about food. I mentioned my recent visit to Scarpetta, a restaurant that Steven says he uses as a measuring stick, a lofty aspiration to be sure, but I could tell he wasn’t kidding. I ended up leaving with a card and an invitation to drop by and sample da Campo’s full repertoire. Fast forward a couple of months, and I finally had the perfect opportunity to visit. My newly minted food friend Todd Sturtz was back in town, so I gave Steven a call, and we made our way to da Campo Osteria.

da Campo Osteria logo

I had never heard of da Campo before this, it used to be one of the many eateries by star chef, Todd English before Steven took the helm. As usual I had studied the menu beforehand and was excited by the offerings. We took our seats and our host arrived table-side to welcome us. We were given a choice, pick our meal a la carte, or leave ourselves in his capable hands. Only a fool would choose the former. With the game plan in hand, he disappeared into the kitchen to get us started.

First to arrive was the bread and sauce. A simple balsamic/olive oil, a sweet tomato marmalade and garlic spread. Naturally my favorite combo, and the first to disappear, was the focaccia with a slathering of the garlic sauce. For me, tomato option was a little sweet to be served so early in the meal when your taste buds are gearing up for savory.

Bread n' Spread

A small plate with a lone bacon-wrapped date with a shmear of aioli arrived to our delight. The bacon was gently glazed and wonderfully smokey, the sweet date and salty pork was a natural match and was a table-wide winner.

 da Campo Osteria wrapped date & chef Steven Acosta

Shortly afterwards, things got serious. Chef rolled out a table, and I knew what was coming. It was mozz time, and I was ready. Before Chef Acosta began, he asked if we knew what burrata was. We all immediately answered in the affirmative, slightly taken aback that he needed to ask. I later found out that many of the diners in the Ft. Lauderdale area are not the most adventurous eaters. Let me just say to anyone reading, if you like mozzarella, you’re gonna like burrata, trust me on this.

With our love for cream filled mozz expressed, Steven got to work, and I got a front row seat. He starts with fresh curds and adds hot salted water, slightly below the boiling point, to get the curds to melt. After much stirring, stretching, filling and tucking, a bright white orb was presented atop a mountain of local heirloom tomatoes and house made croutons.

Fresh burrata & heirloom tomatoes

In my lifetime, I’ve probably consumed over 100 lbs of burrata and mozzarella. If I were to rank them all, this would break the top five no problem. The exterior is firmer than the mozzarella you can buy in water and it’s also served just above room temperature. This caprese, panzanella salad whatever you want to call it, had some of the boldest flavors. The best part of the dish? The ridiculous slurry that formed at the bottom of the bowl from the cream, balsamic, tomato caviar and garlic infused oil from the croutons, so addictive I’m almost getting withdrawal.

We were obviously smack dab in the “delicious giant sphere” part of the meal, because two softball sized “jumbo” meatballs arrived. Chef assured us that these meatballs were practically newborns, they’re rolling up the fresh ground mixture of veal, beef and pork, and browning them one at a time. I hate those dense, flavorless, overcooked meatballs you get at many a mediocre Italian joint. These were on the other end of the scale, moist, tender, and packed with flavor, something you’d imagine that ideal Italian grandmother would make. The zippy tomato sauce offset the heft of the meat, with copious amounts of parm and basil to finish out the rustic theme. In my bachelor days, I would’ve ordered two of these to go and made a night of it.

da Campo's jumbo meatball

Things slowed down a touch with a couple of small plates. Crispy eggplant with apricot-chili agrodolce and veal cheeks braised in a barolo reduction with purple cauliflower and an artichoke chip. Normally I like my eggplant sliced thin and pan-fried in olive oil ’til crispy. This was a new preparation for me, cut into cubes and deep-fried. The eggplant retained its moisture beneath the seasoned crust, which saved the veg from the blandness that often results from too thick a cut. As for the cheeks, so tender they hardly required silverware, the natural flavor of the veal was the star, accented by the subtle barolo reduction. A bite of artichoke chip (which Steven needs to put in bags and sell they’re so good) added some salt that highlighted the veal even more.

Crispy eggplant & braised veal cheeks

At this point in our Italian feast, we were all ready for a pasta dish. Chef did not disappoint with three, hockey puck sized short rib ravioli topped with his signature tomato sauce. This was another favorite dish of the table, although anything with short ribs is bound to excite. The photo speaks for itself, this was Italian comfort food at its best.

Braise short rib ravioli

The last of the savory dishes was something of an experiment for the boys on the line. It was da Campo’s take on a “surf n’ turf”, with crispy pork belly and seared ahi tuna. It was served with roasted fingerling potatoes and brussels sprouts. Let me just say, the concept of this dish is fantastic, pair two moan inducing proteins on one dish and let the food do the talking. That being said, I think it still needs some tweaks. While the flavor of the pork belly was great, it was a little tough, and the skin was more chewy than crispy, not the usual wobbly, unctuous piece of fat I look for.

** UPDATE ** I had a chance to visit da Campo and Chef Steven again recently. I’m excited to report that the “surf n’ turf” has indeed been tinkered with, if not reworked completely. Steven killed it with this iteration, scrapping the seared ahi in favor of sweet jumbo scallops. The textures work perfectly now, the pork belly was cooked just right this time, achieving the fatty jiggle that was missing before, and the plump scallops are the perfect partner. The fingerling potatoes and sprouts have also been tossed, with chanterelle mushrooms, a few schmears of black garlic mascarpone and light dabs of tomato agrodolce in their place. I managed to pull the chef off the line for a moment to make sure he never changes this dish! Get to da Campo NOW and try this, though I doubt it’ll be leaving the menu anytime soon.

"Surf n' Turf" Pork belly & Tuna

The second suggestion might just be my opinion, but I’ve never been a fan of searing a wonderful piece of tuna, give it to me raw with a little olive oil and a sprinkle of salt and I’m good. I think there’s a lot of potential here with a little reworking.

For the finale, we were given a choice for dessert, but my ears turned off after I heard tiramisu soufflé, which just begs to be combined into tiramisoufflé. It arrived all puffed up with eggy braggadocio with a crown of powdered sugar and accompaniments of mocha ice cream and mascarpone. A quick poke with a spoon paved the way for the ice cream and mascarpone to mingle at the molten core. We were all beyond full at this point but as is always the case, the dessert stomach allowed multiple mouthfuls of the sweet soufflé. The bottom layer of lady fingers and a smattering of chocolate chips pushed this dish over the edge. A word of warning, don’t attack this bad boy without friends, this is serious business.

Tirami-soufflé

We had a chance to chat with Chef Acosta after the sumptuous siege came had ended. He is truly passionate about his food, with the creativity and drive to deliver some top-notch cuisine. When he rattled off a few of the more adventurous dishes he’s come up with, we all perked up, only to find out that he hesitates to put them on the menu since earlier experiments didn’t sell. Unfortunately, as I feared at the mozzarella demo, the demographic of Ft. Lauderdale just doesn’t seem to be receptive to the new and exciting. The menu at da Campo already sports dishes like squid ink tortellini stuffed with king crab, or suckling pig confit with chanterelle mushrooms and sheep’s milk ricotta, that will impress if you’re willing to give them a shot. To all locals out there, I implore you, widen your horizons beyond mozzarella and ravioli, try something you’ve never heard of, give the guys free rein to flex their culinary muscles and I guarantee you’ll roll home with a silly grin.

As for the comparison to Scarpetta, I’ll say this, I had two completely different experiences at each restaurant. At Scarpetta, while the food was absolutely amazing, I got the feeling that there was a little laurel leaning going, and rightly so. They’ve figured out their recipes and they can crank them out night after night, but somehow the soul of the restaurant gets lost.

At da Campo, you can feel the creative energy, the attitude, resulting in food that is rustic, bold, and top shelf delicious. The menu is a constant work in progress, with unbelievable items that I hope never leave, and others that are diamonds in the rough waiting to be refined. So to the crew at da Campo, I beg you to hold on to that hunger to create, don’t let the timid eaters discourage you, because there are other true food lovers like me looking for places that can surprise and delight our jaded palates, and da Campo Osteria is that place.

Rebel House – Boca Raton, FL

For something to make an indelible impression on my mind, a truly impressive feat has to be achieved. I am speaking, quite cryptically, about my experience at Rebel House in Boca Raton. It was a momentous occasion indeed, and though it was over 3 months ago, it still resonates in my lobes, both cerebral and the fatty lobe my liver has been transformed into. A transformation that would cause a rag-tag gang of mutants to assemble to fight for the greater good of mankind.

Rebel House interior

So here goes an attempt to wax poetic about something that happened such a long time ago. An evening in which I have no historical, pictorial, electoral or maybe even pectoral data for that matter, to back up my braised and brazen proclamations of excellence. Luckily, James was there to document the occasion.

The beef essences that transferred from popped corn to lips, was an amazing introduction between two new acquaintances, myself being the lesser in the relationship of human and tallow. I had studied this menu online for months, to the point of obsession. Ever since Rebel House opened for business, I had eyed it as a potential food suitor. However the daunting three hour drive stymied our would-be affair. But if you want something bad enough, all you need is an opportunity. To get just one foot in the door. Who knows what could be if distance didn’t separate us?

The table ordered around 12 dishes. We were all drawn to the left side of the menu that harbored the smaller plates meant for sharing.

Rebel House spread

I will say that I wasn’t blown away by my first taste of voluntarily ordered food (the beef popcorn was a gift and a welcome amusement). Homemade tater tots filled with cheeses of varying viscosity. I feel in hindsight they were ordered more for the little man at the table. They weren’t completely ready to come out of their hot oil bath, but things drastically rocketed skyward when my Korean BBQ lamb ribs arrived. With each bite, the thick sweet soy heavy sauce struggled valiantly to remain on the bone with caramel-like tension. The meat had no problem. It was willing to make the ultimate sacrifice. As I often do, I was mindful of the techniques and time it took to achieve such complex flavors. Though lamb ribs are a protein usually forgotten, this dish bestowed it with a distinct personality. That, along with the rice vinegar quick pix (pickles) that served perfectly as a pairing to the ribs, I quickly forgot the miscues of the first course. I was then tapped on the shoulder due to excessive pondering. Next course, sweetbreads with citrus, frisee, and fennel. There hasn’t been an odder couple working so harmoniously since the powerhouse duo of Sylvester Stallone and Estelle Getty. I have to say, Rebel House is quite the flavor matchmaker. The tart citrus sliced scimitar-like through the rich, crispy morsels.

Then came the fried rice. In the back of my mind I was worrying. I worry that restaurants sometimes stretch themselves too thin. Giving me too many cuisines to choose from in one meal gets me nervous, as is my eyes will rebel against my better judgement resulting in a muddied dining experience.

Rebel House spread 2

The fried rice at rebel house is a complete meal all on its own. I may not have appreciated it as much as I should have, based on my fullness level at that point. The combination of the fresh springtime vegetables, with crispy bacon, a fried egg oozing a spellbinding golden yolk all over the plate, ribbons of spicy mayo intertwined with crispy fried red onions being the last bow atop this mound of mouth-watering magnificence. I mean, you can’t find it this in any modern Chinese establishment. Stop looking, it’s over Johnny. Some other items we sampled were a dish of grilled asparagus, drizzled with hollandaise and shaved cheese, pork potstickers in a sweet hoisin-like glaze and a dish of ravioli with snap peas, roasted mushroom ragu and shaved parm.

Ravioli with Shaved Parm and Roasted Mushrooms

The table enjoyed two amazing ice cream desserts for our last cattle call. It was just about time to go to slaughter. These marvels of modern science in sundae form were presented to us in gigantic goblets fit for King Ralph.

I can’t exactly remember what they were but one had chocolate, praline, pretzels and candied almond. While the other, had a cinnamon roll at the base with bacon bits, caramel, and walnuts swarming the perimeter.

Rebel House dessert

You have to try this place if you are ever within 50 miles of Boca Raton. It’s worth the drive. This place has gotten a lot of buzz as being stiff competition to its counterparts over in Miami, and for good reason. And when you do go, because you will, bring your story of rebellion back to your hometown and demand that a place like this find its way into your city streets.

Rebel House on Urbanspoon

The Dutch – Miami Beach, FL

There was something very comforting about the time I was able to spend living up in New Jersey. Being born in New York must have imprinted some sort of regional familiarity on my mind. Moving back down to Florida after almost a year of hanging out in and around Manhattan was not easy. There’s no need to list the innumerable facets that make the atmosphere in the city so unique. Unsurprisingly, one of the things I miss most, is the access to amazing food around every corner (not that much of an exaggeration). Luckily for me, my destination, not far from Miami, also happens to be the nesting ground for many uncompromising Manhattan snowbirds, weary of the frigid winters but unwilling to sacrifice the food, even for a few months out of the year.

Naturally, this migration brings with it the demand for said food. Thankfully, many Manhattan eateries have followed the flock and set up shop in Florida to sate the appetites of the hungry expats. One of these, from chef and restauranteur Andrew Carmellini and his partners Josh Pickard and Luke Ostrom , is The Dutch. The Miami outpost, at 2201 Collins Ave inside the posh W Hotel (along with another New York institution, Mr. Chow) opened just seven months after the original.

The Dutch Miami Beach

My family, all very attached to New York City in some way, made plans to visit The Dutch together on a recent weekend. Despite all my time in the city, even passing The Dutch on the way to work day after day, I never was able to partake. Here though, was my chance to remedy that. It was refreshing to see that they didn’t try to create some false “New York” atmosphere with the decor. It manages to tread the fine line of chic Miami style without straying into Florida kitsch. We took a seat in an outdoor booth on the patio and dove straight into the menu.

the-dutch-miami-beach-interior

The first thing to catch my eye were the offerings from the raw bar. 2013 has been the year of the oyster for me so far, Garde Manger started the trend and The Dutch kept it going with incredibly fresh bivalves by the dozens, we secured ourself a dozen each of P.E.I’s and Kumamotos. The oyster selection changes often based on what’s fresh or in season, so it pays to visit multiple times if you want to sample other varieties. Joining the oyster tower was a crispy lamb, squared and perched on a landing strip of cous cous with tomato, olive and caramel. Classic corvina ceviche with avocado and fresno chile, sides consisted of creamy parmesan polenta with bacon bits and green onion and a cast iron skillet overflowing with roasted mushrooms, garlic crouton and parsley.

The Dutch Miami apps

You could tell that each dish was constructed with care. That same care was taken to make sure that the flavors were balanced. The tomato and olive didn’t overpower the subtle gaminess of the lamb, and the cous cous lent an added texture and creaminess. The ceviche, which could have easily been ruined by a heavy-handed use of chile, was spot on. The fish was fresh and bright paired with the avocado that brought a silky mouth feel. Roasted mushrooms and polenta are always sure to bring that cozy home cooked aspect to any meal, the green onion and bacon bit accoutrements gave a slight nod to the classic baked potato.

For the second course, the group split between choices from land and sea. The mature individuals at the table chose the more sensible dishes, namely a steamed red snapper in a coconut curry broth with mint, and Scottish salmon with beets, horseradish crema and caviar. Us foolish young’uns went for the more audacious choices, a fiery Jamaican jerked chicken with peas, rice and pineapple chutney and ravioli formaggi with mushroom bordelaise, and blanketed by freshly sliced winter truffle. As you’d expect, the truffle dish was mine, after all, I have a reputation to keep.

 The Dutch Miami entreés

The consistently fresh and balanced flavors continued through with the entreés. Both fish dishes were perfectly cooked and broke into smooth flakes at the touch of the fork. The salmon was especially tasty with its beet “relish” and horseradish crema. I’m a notorious loather of cooked fish in most instances, but my motto continues to hold up, when it’s done right, everything can be delicious. The guys and gals behind the scenes at The Dutch are proving that point on a nightly basis.

As usual, the time came where our waiter left us with that difficult question…dessert? Were we full? Yes. Could we leave without trying their banana cream pie and homemade dark rum donuts? Of course not. Both were delicious, the donuts winning out slightly over the pie for me, simply because of the bowl of fresh raspberry jam. I allowed everyone a small dunk after which I hoarded the rest for myself to greedily slather over the remaining donuts. I’m a raspberry whore and I’m not afraid to admit it.

The Dutch desserts

As we left satisfied, I felt that familiar feeling wash over me, like a piece of New York had broken off and planted itself in the south, awaiting my arrival. Not to take anything away from the amazing eateries Miami calls its own, but The Dutch fills a specific culinary void that I felt when I first moved down. Hopefully other New York establishments will see the demand and follow suit, opening up their own branches south of the Mason-Dixon line.

The Dutch on Urbanspoon

The Refinery – Tampa, FL

“Good food is a necessity.”

I think we can all agree with that 100%. Good food is one of the many things The Refinery aims to offer their patrons week in and week out. The team at The Refinery also believe that being able to eat well should not depend on the thickness of your wallet. It’s easy to see that the people of Tampa share in this belief. Looking out into the small dining room, up the stairs to the quaint bar and finally to my destination, the rooftop patio, there is a veritable cornucopia of demographics all dining together as one. Everyone is all smiles (including my buddy Phillip and myself), as they enjoy the chefs fare for the weeks of May 3-16. You see, the menu is not set. As the availability of the foods from local sources come and go, so do menu items. I couldn’t be happier that the chef plays with that double-edged sword.

Photo: www.pietriphotography.com

It reminds me of a recent interview the New York Times had with one of the pioneers of avant-garde cooking in the states, Wylie Dufresne. He recently decided to gut his menu and change it completely. To avoid the “Stairway to Heaven” effect of people coming to his restaurant only for the familiarity of a “signature” dish instead of the anticipation of an entirely new experience. Honestly, I would have called it the “Life is a Highway” effect, but whatever. The Refinery doesn’t need to worry about that little issue, because probably, the things you’re reading about here will either be tweaked, or not in season by the next menu cycle.

Before I start things off talking about specific menu items, I’ve got to applaud the front of house. Had I been responsible, I would have made a reservation far in advance. What I did do was call 40 minutes before dinner service the day of, in an attempt to procure a spot. Although, Michelle the manager informed me, it was the worst possible day to try to get a table in the main dining hall due to a local college graduation, she graciously welcomed us to dine at the bar or the roof, and that we could still order whatever we wanted off the menu.

At the bar, Phillip and I enjoyed a beer and an appetizer while it was still relatively hot outside. I selected a salad of olive oil poached oysters, atop ribbons of shaved carrot and cucumber. A little extra touch of the ocean was added by some strands of seaweed. It was topped with a citrus truffle vinaigrette and sprinkles of togarashi chili powder. The salad was the right start to the meal, due to the high alcohol content of our brews. The only thing I would critique (before we can get back to me completely falling all over myself with compliments) is that the oysters and the truffle in the dressing didn’t add much in the way of flavor. However the plate was visually pleasing, the other flavors were brilliant and the slow burn from the chili was gorgeous.

Photo: www.pietriphotography.com

We made our way outside to enjoy the rest of the meal. The sun had begun to fade and a slight breeze was stirring. I ordered two more starters instead of a main course. Phillip chose a single large plate entrée, reminiscent of something you would be served at a family dinner. Of course, in this scenario your mother is April Bloomfield. A thick hunk of crispy roasted pork shoulder, with a stuffing of grain mustard and sweet onion was presented. The meat was not overly tender, it bounced back a little when bitten into, but was still as moist as could be. All the little islands of fat as we call them, surrounded the meat in flavor on one hand, and created a lovely crisp crust on the other. The potatoes lived up to their creamery name and provided a classic accompaniment to the meat. The green beans….were not ordinary, they were phenomenal. They were pickled in some sort of red wine solution and then warmed throughout, unlike anything I’ve had with a similar meal. I was definitely impressed by that combo, it was one of those ideas you have to steal for private use.

My first dish was lamb belly and pork terrine with a grapefruit marmalade. As opposed to the traditional toast point, green radishes were provided to serve as the vessel for a paté to mouth coupling. I loved it. All that “lamby” goodness and the range of spices from sage to coriander and peppercorns, instantly took me to the French countryside. A place I’ve never been to but it seems quite nice in my head.

Photo: www.pietriphotography.com

I then received what looked to be a giant wonton. I could have sworn I ordered a ravioli. The menu lists it as fried beef tongue ravioli. I must have completely misunderstood. Some of the worlds greatest mistakes turn out to be triumphs, and this was one of them. I mean really, either way it would have worked. How could it not with a luscious mousseline of beef tongue inside that deep-fried gigantic piece of noodle? Underneath lay intermingled pools of thinned out tomato aioli and green onion pesto. When dishes are this delicious, it can be sad knowing, due to the ever-changing menu, that you’ll probably never see them again. Although without this temporal shift, you may not be enjoying that very plate! On to bigger and better things!

Photo: www.pietriphotography.com

I really like their approach to dessert course. Every, and I mean every time I look online at the menu, dessert has a savory component to compliment the sweet. To my memory, the best desserts, or at least the most distinct, involve some abnormal combination. This time the key ingredient was thyme. It was laced throughout a salted caramel sauce that laid inside the crevices of a soft, pillowy, individually sized polenta cake. The cake was then finished off with a few slices of macerated peaches and a generous helping of ganache. I think this, more so than any of the other fine menu items that stood on The Refinery’s list, was a case of either, “you fall in love with this cake so much you want it to be a part of your life” or “you hate it and never want to see its ugly face again”. I can’t really argue the point of not liking it. I get it. Savory sweets aren’t for everyone. You’re either all in or your out.

Photo: www.pietriphotography.com

I’m in on The Refinery. It’s a great spot bringing complex yet welcoming dishes to the masses. These kinds of establishments need our patronage as much as we need them to widen our culinary horizons. We should all show our gratitude toward those in the kitchen working to keep things inovative and fresh, so that we as diners don’t lose interest and move on. I let far too much time pass between visits. Who knows what amazing creations I missed out on and could have been inspired by? I can tell you one thing, it won’t happen again if I have anything to say about it.

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Paris Part I: Maison de la Truffe – Worth It’s Weight in Tubers

Less than a fortnight ago, I returned from an eight-day jaunt to Paris, France. As we all know, Paris is one of those food “meccas” I’ve mentioned in past posts. Since the amount of photos, restaurants, and general food related goodness is just massive, I decided the best way to tackle the documentation would be to split it up into pieces. Think of it as a tasting menu of Paris itself. I figure I’ll start with the best first, just to shake things up, the incomparable Maison de la Truffe. Enjoy.

Maison de la TruffeRight: Le Petit Journal Left: Travel in Happiness

A strange irony exists in the world of gourmet cuisine. Born from the unsavory beginnings that many of the most highly sought after foods share. Take truffles for example, small, knobby, black tubers that grow underground and are up-rooted from the soil by the snouts of pigs and dogs. Yet, they demand a staggering price at fine restaurants around the world. One of these, Maison de la Truffe in Paris, builds it’s reputation around the filthy growths.  The old cliché, “the diamond in the rough” comes to mind when a stunning plate of burrata and heirloom tomatoes with copious amounts of shaved white truffles was placed before me.

Maison de la Truffe apps

The chefs at Maison de la Truffe daily transform little lumps of earthy fungi , into some of the most diabolically delicious dishes one can find. Every plate on the menu can include truffles  if desired. Choices range from seasonal truffles, black Melanosporum, or white Alba truffles. This also causes the price to balloon from about $35 to almost $100 for the same dish depending on the tuber of your choice. Maison de Truffe has many of the traditional standbys of French cuisine (albeit buried in truffles) like Tartare de Boeuf (which Ashley had and was amazing), Filet of Sole, and Steak Frites. However, the real treat comes from the strange and surprising combinations they have come up with. For instance, a truffle gazpacho with cucumber sorbet, or a truffled crème brulée, which had the most intense truffle flavor and blended perfectly with the vanilla, both were unspeakably delicious. The latter seems to cross some sort of imaginary boundary but is possibly the most delicious crème brulée one can find.

Truffled creme brulee

Also on the menu for the night was a Risotto covered in white Alba truffles, Ravioli with summer truffles and truffle cream, and Tagliatelle with white Alba truffles and truffle cream. Needless to say, not a single morsel of truffle was left on the plate.

Maison de la Truffe entrées

Establishments like Maison de la Truffe represent the reprehensible and sometimes downright disgusting origins of our most luxuriant food items. Whether humans are drawn to food with humble beginnings or pigs have impeccable taste, one can be sure that truffles will always be on the menu.

Menu and truffles