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

Momofuku Noodle Bar – New York City, NY

Waiting in line is rarely enjoyable. I know from experience how baffling it can be for some to fathom that you’d ever choose to wait, and for something as simple as food no less. Somehow though, certain places continuously attract throngs of people to form incredibly long lines with the hope of securing a meal. There’s a soup kitchen/first world problems joke in there somewhere, but I’ll let that one lie.

Momofuku Logo

I ran into this situation recently in New York. It was getting close to dinner time and, as is usually the case, I’d procrastinated and failed to procure a reservation. It’s Saturday around 5 pm, we have to make it to Governor’s Island in a few hours for a show, hey why don’t we try to get into Momofuku! Brilliant.

Momfuku crowd

We arrived at quarter past to a line of more than 30 people eagerly waiting for the doors to open like so many suburban garage sale hunters. Not long after we assumed our place at the back of the line, we were approached by a German tourist and his family. “So is this place worth the wait?”, he asked, “these people certainly seem to think so”, I replied with a gesture to the patient crowd in front of us. Apparently that answer was enough for him to stick around, good man.

If you manage to pass through the doors, and if your party is small enough, you may be seated at the bar. I highly recommend this if you have any say at all, as the entertainment value of watching the chefs assemble the various dishes of the moment is worth the wait alone. We managed to catch a beautiful bowl of shrimp and grits being plated with military precision right before our eyes.

After my recent experience with shrimp and grits on our Orlando crawl, I wish I would’ve ordered it here, but I have no regrets. My choice of buns, in the shiitake and shrimp variety were more than satisfying. The former dressed simply with hoisin, scallion and shreds of cucumber was like a vegetarian Peking Duck. The latter topped a seared shrimp patty with spicy mayo, tart pickled red onion and crisp iceberg (I’m not usually a fan, but it worked here, well-played Mr. Chang).

Momofuku apps

Not to be overlooked were the pig tails which give you everything you want in a pork product. Fatty, gooey flavor packed cartilage hanging precariously off shards of crisped flesh.  A humble sprinkling of scallion and chili is enough to highlight the taste and wake up the tongue. The small bowl of pickled Asian pear helped to calm the spice with a little sweetness. Little did I know how much I’d miss those soothing pears as the next two dishes whipped my little gaijin behind.

Momofuku chilled spicy noodles

This bowl here, it’s sneaky. Do not be fooled by the word “chilled”. There’s nothing chilled about this dish except for the temperature of the noodles and maybe the nonchalant manner of the waitress as she places it in front of you knowing full well what you’re in for.

The chilled spicy noodle bowl is one of those dishes that lures you in with addicting flavors, sweet glazed cashews and savory bits of Sichuan sausage. You feel a small burn starting in the back of your throat, but it won’t stop you from greedily shoveling more of that taste into your mouth. But the burn keeps building with each bite, and not even the perfectly fresh spinach can quench the inferno that’s engulfing your insides…and yet, you return to the noodle siren as it calls you back again and again, no regrets.

Momofuku rice cakes

There’s a saying about fighting fire with fire. I can tell you, it doesn’t apply to food, as ordering a spicy dish and following it up with an even hotter one, is ill advised. Momofuku’s rice cakes are like little Japanese gnocchi from hell. They arrive piping hot and drenched in an angry red chili sauce that will turn your tongue to ash. Ok so it’s not quite that hot, but popping a couple of these guys in your mouth while it’s still in re-entry from the atomic noodles is not a smart idea. David Chang doesn’t mess around, he’s managed to balance the flavor and spice so carefully so that you won’t be able to stop eating it no matter how much you wish you could. Pro tip, do not order these two dishes back to back, but definitely do order them.

For all the hype, Momofuku delivered a meal that met, and at times exceeded my expectations. This is simply Asian fare done right, and if you appreciate that sort of thing, a 45 min wait is no big deal. I look forward to visiting Chef Chang’s nearby hideaway, Momofuku Ko, but there are no cameras allowed, so no post for you!

Momofuku Noodle Bar 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

Simple Japanese Tofu Soup & White Bean Hummus

A bitter cold snap ravaged the South this week and left frigid Floridians in its wake. Temperatures plummeted down to the mid 50’s for much of the day on Friday. There was nothing that could have been done. No mitten would soften and warm the piercing chills of that gentle breeze. Nothing maybe except a nice bowl of soup.

I love both of the stereotypical soups you can choose from when you find yourself eating at any Japanese restaurant. It doesn’t matter if you are going to the most terrible of cookie cutter (insert random restaurant name deriving from generic Japanese landmark here) establishments. Or you are going all out at any of the high priced havens around the country ie; Nobu, Masa, Matsuhisu, or Jewel Bako. The one constant is this. They will have some version of either miso or clear soup.

This is my take on a marriage of the two styles.
It’s super easy and can be ready in minutes. I changed some of the ingredients around for personal preference but you can do what you like. Also to make this organic is not going to cost much more than conventional.

20111106-091929.jpg All you need is
48oz chicken broth. You can buy a quart and a pint size at the store.
4 oz shitake (sliced)
4 oz crimini (sliced)
I package silken tofu cubed
I bunch of baby spinach. You can sub in seaweed if you like
5 green onions
2 cloves garlic
4 tablespoons or more Tamari
Fried shallots

ShitakeBasically, you chop all your vegetables and pour the broth in a pot. Throw in everything but the fried shallots. Put on simmer for about 30 minutes or as long as you can stand it. The aroma will be amazing and hard to resist. The longer you let the flavors build the better it will be. It’s worth giving it some time to let the mushrooms release their flavors and allow them penetrate the tofu and broth. I’m not huge on seaweed so I used spinach. Play with it. Make it your own. If you want, adding a squeeze of white miso paste wont hurt but would change the flavor a bit, making it a more complex soup. Once you’re ready to eat, taste and make sure it’s seasoned to your liking. Then pour in a bowl and sprinkle fried shallots on the top. Makes about 6 servings.

The next extremely easy dish I’ve made recently is white bean hummus. I made this for a family get together and it went over very well. It came together due to not having any extra money at the time and just using the things in my pantry and fridge.

20111106-100135.jpg

Take all these in items and pulverize in a food processor:

2 cans drained and rinsed Cannellini beans
3 green onions
4 cloves garlic
2 tbsp sesame seeds
1/4 cup lemon juice
1/2 tsp cumin
1/4 tsp chili powder
Salt to taste
3 Tbsp Olive oil

It will probably take a little tweaking to get the flavor spot on, but you’ll end up with a nice creamy dip. I used sesame seeds, partly out of necessity and partly out out liking them more than tahini.(sesame paste) Tahini is quite pricey, around $6.50 a can, and I don’t have many uses for it. Plus I don’t really like it that much. I actually like the pop of the sesame seeds mixed with the creamy hummus.
To serve place in bowl and make some divots with a spoon drizzle more Oil on top to create little ponds of liquid gold. Sprinkle with a touch of cumin and coarse salt. Serve with rice or tortilla chips.
I wouldn’t say this if I didn’t believe it to be absolutely true. Anyone can make either of these. I have faith in you.