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

Moonshine Patio Bar & Grill – Austin, TX

Today we’ve got another guest contribution. My little sister Sara just returned from an all-female food fraught fiesta out West, and she returned with tales of Moonshine, Texas style! We hope you all enjoy, and thanks to Sara for the review, our first one from the Lonestar State!

My girls and I recently went on a trip out West to Denver and Austin. The underlying excitement of the trip definitely stemmed from trying local cuisine, making sure to steer clear of any chains. When we landed in Austin, we met up with our friend who lived down the street from our hotel and immediately hopped on Yelp to find a decent place for a late lunch.  The first place that struck us, because of its incredible ratings, was Moonshine Patio Bar and Grill.

photo: www.moonshinegrill.com

We were escorted out to the covered patio and were informed by our incredibly polite and helpful server, James, that we had arrived just in time for happy hour. Half off drinks and appetizers! That definitely helped expedite the choosing process. For appetizers, we chose the Moonshine “Corn Dog” Shrimp with honey mustard and a blueberry swirl, the Southern Fried Chicken and Waffles with maple butter, warm syrup and chipotle gravy, Roasted Garlic Bulbs with goat cheese, roasted red peppers and toast points and the Baked Brie with cranberry-apple chutney and toast points. While we waited for our appetizers we each ordered a signature patio cocktail.  Since, for me, this was the first time being of age in Texas, I had to try my first Mint Julep.  It was smooth with that delicious bourbon bite, a real Texas Mojito.

 Mint julep & James

Shanna ordered the Ruby Slipper Martini, which consisted of vodka, grapefruit juice, grenadine and champagne. Lindsay ordered the Hard Lemonade with vodka, mint, fresh lemonade and a splash of Paula’s Texas Lemon. Even Diana, who detests even a hint of hard liquor, ended up ordering a Hard Lemonade herself.  It’s a dangerous but delicious drink that’s gone before you know it. James brought out two small buckets of popcorn dusted with some mysterious spice (I assumed it was Old Bay), which was a terribly addicting snack to place in the middle of five women.

 

Our appetizers were each incredible in their own way. The baked brie was melting and delicious and each component, the apple slice, caramelized onion and the melty breaded brie on a toast point, completed the dish. The Southern Fried Chicken was Diana’s choice and she stated that she would eat it by herself if no one wanted to share.  Of course when it made it to our table, none of us could resist digging in. The waffles were light and fluffy and went surprisingly well with the fried chicken tenders. I served myself a cut of waffle spread with the maple butter, then a cut of the chicken, drizzled on some gravy and the warm syrup on top of everything to make the perfect bite of Southern comfort food.  The roasted garlic was a no-brainer. It was drizzled with a thick balsamic vinegar.  This was another appetizer that required some assembly. First, a mashed clove of garlic on the toast point, followed by a shmear of smooth goat cheese, topped by a few bits of the roasted red pepper. The “Corn Dog” Shrimp was the first appetizer we heard about via Yelp so we had to order it.  Battered shrimp on a stick always sounds good to me.  The shrimp was cooked perfectly, just juicy enough, and the blueberry swirl in the honey mustard gave a nice zing to the dish. 

Roasted garlic & corn dog shrimp

In an attempt to be semi-healthy on the trip, I ordered The Bohemian wrap, which is Portobello mushrooms, grilled zucchini, red bell peppers, red onion, arugula, goat cheese and eggplant spread wrapped up in an herb tortilla.  It was the best vegetarian sandwich dish I have ever had. It’s rare when I can find a vegetarian dish that completely satisfies, but this sandwich blew me out of the water. As my side, I ordered the red beans and rice to complete my Southern theme for the afternoon.

The Bohemian & Big Red's bits

Diana ordered Big Red’s BLT, apple-smoked bacon, summer tomato and arugula on grilled farm bread.  Diana noted that the farm bread was incredibly buttery and the peppered tomatoes were perfectly juicy, as a bonus, both were locally sourced. I highly recommend this Moonshine to anyone visiting Austin.  After our meal was over, we contemplated going to Moonshine every day for lunch for the duration of the trip. A relaxed atmosphere, impeccable staff, and incredible food, what more can you ask for?

Moonshine Patio Bar & Grill on Urbanspoon

Cafe 118 – Orlando, FL

Allow me to lift the curtain a bit to expose the inner workings of the Eat a Duck empire. Please, for your safety, hold on to a hand rail or take a seat at your earliest convenience. After deliberating with our statisticians Billy Bean, and C3PO, it has come to my attention that….suprise! Eat a Duck spends much time discussing the pleasures incurred by eating pork products of varying preparations, fattened goose/duck livers, and deep-fried potatoes of many shapes and creeds.

The truth is, more often than not, (I am speaking for James as well) in our day-to-day lives eating at home and such, we eat more vegetables than meat. I love fresh fruits, vegetables, grains, nuts, and I often try to incorporate them into my meals.

When I found out, about a year ago, that Orlando had a 100% vegetarian/vegan, and raw restaurant I was intrigued. I was curious about how a chef could get away with serving a menu that is completely uncooked and make it palatable for the masses.

Photo courtesy of: www.lancearoundorlando.com

You see the  number “118” in Cafe 118 isn’t derived from an old cliché way of coming up with a name for a restaurant. That of generically using the street address to make it easy on would be patrons. Or from some abstract reference to the amount of times it took to perfect the hummus recipe. The number 118 stands for the commonly accepted temperature at which enzymes and the nutritional contents of raw plants begin to break down and become useless to body. Call me Bill Nye, or maybe just Mr. Google.

Like I said before, my family went a year ago and had an amazing meal. It changed the way I thought about the possibilities of food preparation and “cooking”. We decided to give Cafe 118 our business once again, just to make sure it was still as good as we remembered.

The menu consists of a list of different beverages including raw juices, smoothies, and shakes. I’m assuming these are consumed mostly by people wanting a quick meal replacement, because some of the concoctions are quite hearty. I opted to share a freshly made pineapple, celery and mint juice. I knew it was fresh because I could hear the industrial strength juicer roaring in the back. I don’t know about you, but I love that sound. The juice was refreshing and light, not too sweet and yet it didn’t overpower you with “celeryness”.

Café 118 spread

We decided to share three items between the two of us. The equation of 3=2+Dessert will help you make some tough decisions should you find yourself with a partner at Cafe 118. That’s the perfect ratio of menu items to create a full stomach when dining in pairs. Feel free to multiply for larger parties, as if this were a cookie recipe.

The first appetizer we ordered came almost instantly. I guess if you’re not cooking anything, there isn’t much choice in the matter. We got four huge vegetable spring rolls. The wrapper was a crunchy piece of collard green enveloping julienned carrots and red cabbage. The vegetables inside were tossed in a creamy lemon macadamia nut dressing. The fun begins when you dip the thing in a dish of sweet and sour sauce that comes on the side. The different textures of extremely crunchy combined with the creamy dressing and dipping sauce mingled together quite nicely. The spring rolls were delicious and very filling, but the dipping sauce was otherworldly to say the least. No joke, that sauce is better than most traditional house made sweet dipping sauces you would find anywhere else. Interestingly they don’t really describe the contents of is the sauce, it must be a secret. I’ll say I would love to dip a nice chunk of crispy pork belly from Ming’s Bistro in that sauce. Oh whoops I’m already slipping back to carnivore mode.

The next plate was baby sweet peppers stuffed with a cashew and almond puree, topped with what tasted like a red pepper aioli. Although we knew it wasn’t, since there would have been eggs in there somewhere. On top of that lay a sprinkling of chopped arugula to add some color to the plate. Then, for good measure, a few drops of truffle infused olive oil. This might have been the most shocking discovery in a while for me. I never thought to add truffle to my raw vegetables. It made it all the more complex and earthy if that’s even possible. Textures really take center stage when eating this way. It gave me the idea to add truffle oil to my hummus next time I make it to see how well it meshes. I don’t see why it shouldn’t after experiencing the triumph that was the pepper dish. Only two things down and I’m already getting full? Weird.

Finally, the main course of spaghetti with sun-dried tomato sauce arrived in all its glory. If you didn’t see the little flecks of greens that peeked through the sauce, coming from the ribbons of zucchini, it would have been hard to tell that the pasta wasn’t pasta at all! I believe that to get  zucchini to meet the shape and texture of pasta, they have to soak it so it begins to wilt a bit. Whatever it was they did, it tasted and felt al dente. I normally choose to pass on anything “sun-dried, but I’m glad I didn’t try swaying my wife to order something else. The sauce that coated the “pasta” was chock full of a sweet tomato, garlic and basil goodness that even Lydia Bastianich would have trouble wrapping her head around. To make it even more appealing to the uninitiated, you get a couple mini meatballs made from spinach and mushroom with a dusting of pine nut cheese to take the place of Parmigiano Reggiano.

They also do raw desserts and ice “creams” that are amazing. I ordered their take on s’mores, which was quite good. Thin graham wafers sandwiching an oozy marshmallow type sweetness and then drizzled with chocolate sauce. I only took one bite of that because I was already stuffed and satisfied.

The meal was a complete success in my mind. I really appreciate how they are trying to make this kind of food easily accessible to anyone. I would be so bold as to bring my Mom and Dad here and not even worry if they’d have a great dinner. Now here is a question for all of you out there, but mainly to those in smaller communities. Do you think something like Cafe 118, a restaurant  free of meat, animal products and ovens for that matter, could be a success in your town?

Café 118° Living Cuisine Café & Juice Bar on Urbanspoon