Monday, October 21, 2013

The Best Things I Ate in Israel

Just returned from another epic trip to the Holy Land. Been three years since I'd checked in and yes, things have changed. Jerusalem is still the chaotic-lovely-congested-quiet-filthy-picturesque bag of contrasts that I love. But it's definitely gotten a bit more posh in certain areas, like the revamped "Tachanah," or Old Train Station with its industrial-cool restaurants and artisanal food market. The once-seedy Mahane Yehuda produce market is now on its way to being a cosmopolitan nosh-nexus similar to Seattle's Pike Street Market and San Fran's Ferry Building. Now amidst the stalls hawking nuts, pickles and figs there are trendy pasta restaurants and even a fish and chips place. I tried Georgian food for the fist time and was impressed with the strong flavors and hints of Eastern spices and influences. And while this trip was by no means an exhaustive tour of all that is current and trending in Israeli cuisine (I was traveling with two toddlers, meaning, I drank about a gallon of wine every night and it was a miracle my iphone was not covered in hummus and phyllo grease by the end of the trip), I was able to taste some spectacular things.

Herewith, my culinary adventures in pictures.
The menu at Azura, a Slow Food-approved spot and the first stop on my Sephardic soul food pilgrimage. It's a no-frills spot hidden inside the Mahane Yehuda market..
Nanuchka, Tel Aviv, home to Georgian cooking and funky decor.

Fantastic Khinkali - meat dumplings at Nanuchka.

Lunch at Hamotzi restaurant - owned by Avi Levy, winner of Israel's Master Chef (like Top Chef in the US).

Fried battered fish in a spicy Moroccan sauce at Homotzi.
Oh, just a little feast our Aunt Shoshana whipped up (while recovering from knee surgery no less!) consisting of homemade techina, fried eggplant, tomato salad and kubbeh soup (semolina dumplings, beets, lemon)
Fresh-pressed pomegranate juice at Mahane Yehuda market.

A salad topped with fried haloumi cheese - this one needs to make it on to the next Saffron Supper Club menu!
The beer garden and food court at the revamped Old Train Station in Jerusalem.

Epic baklava selection at the Old Train Station.

Look! Paletas in Israel.

Sunday, October 06, 2013

Miami Attractions Month

Had a blast this weekend hanging out with the manatees, sea lions and dolphins at The Miami Seaquarium in honor of Miami Attractions month. From now until the end of October enjoy buy 1 admision, get 1 admission at places like Jungle Island, Vizcaya, and yep - the Seaquarium. The Seaquarium appeals to me because it still retains its mid-century charms with period-era signage and architectural curiosities like the geodesic dome covering the sea lion stadium. And they still put on the "Flipper" dolphin show with Beach Boys songs. It's the perfect soundtrack to a throwback Miami day.
The iconic golden dome stadium designed by Buckminster Fuller in 1960.

Preservation, Sunny Isles

The motto of Preservation is “cured, pickled, smoked.”  Yes, this new spot in Sunny Isles is all about the brine. When I found out about this spot thanks to culinary super-sleuth Wokstar I was excited: finally a place that is as obsessed with pickles as I am. And indeed Partners Nicole Richaud and Ryan Harrison are interested in producing honest, well-sourced food that is both upscale and refreshingly unpretentious. They revamped a strip mall space into a stylish, slightly-zen dining room outfitted with reclaimed wood tables, concrete walls pressed with leaves and nine flat screen TV’s. A small retail area in the front stocks the kitchen’s homemade pickled vegetables and fruit preserves.
The menu comprises modern American cooking with a focus on smoked and cured meats. All bread is made in-house, including rye for sandwiches and buns for burgers. Smoked fish, sausages and condiments like ketchup, mustard and their house preserves are all house made. Harrison is the chef and has worked with John Besh in New Orleans as well as the Smoke Truck in Philadelphia. Prices are in keeping with artisanal fare with starters $8-$16, and mains $12-$25. A meal starts with battered pickles with a grain mustard dipping sauce. From there it’s on to the smoked tomato soup with basil mousse or the smoked salmon platter with dill cream and topped with bright pink pickled onions. Sandwiches include a brisket cheesesteak and a pastrami with smoked pickled slaw. Blackboard specials can include homemade ravioli stuffed with lamb or a Scottish salmon with sake glaze and a preserved Meyer Lemon quinoa. The place also excels at desserts, as exemplified by this towering carrot cake, which, like most of the offerings at Preservation was well-balanced and fresh.

Saturday, June 15, 2013

Cipriani Downtown, Miami's Latest Swanky Spot

"I like rich people. I like the way they live. I like the way I live when I'm with them."
                                                            - Max Detweiler, The Sound of Music

Sitting at Cipriani Downtown, the latest glossy outpost of the famed Italian empire occupying a cavernous space in the Icon Brickell building, I couldn't help but churn the above quote in my head. Designed by Florentine architect Michele Bonan, the restaurant feels like the dining room of a glitzy cruise liner with portholes at the bar and windows that frame spectacular water views. There’s a gleaming wooden bar, sofas clad in royal blue and grand Murano glass chandeliers. The white-jacketed waiters add to the throwback vibe with plenty of tableside service. And on the third day open the place was packed. Apparently $17 for a bellini is no biggy these days.
And yes, if you're a sugar daddy with a Russian girlfriend half your age, this is definitely a place that will impress her. But good news for the rest of us that care about food -- it's actually good.
The menu here is practically identical to other Cipriani outposts with a few seasonal and local ingredients thrown in like heirloom tomatoes and fresh catch. Prices are high with most starters averaging $17 and mains $23-$39. The restaurant is famous for a few dishes so it’s best to start off with a round of Bellinis, the house drink (prosecco with peach puree) along with the crisp breadsticks and baguette that are offered. Among their noteworthy dishes: the baked tagliolini with ham and the iconic carpaccio, sliced raw beef with a mayonnaise dressing, first created by Arrigo Cipriani’s father Giuseppe in 1950. This is also the spot to try their Asian "Yotto" menu, featuring a sashimi beef with yuzu ponzu. Other starters include tuna tartar and a mozorella and heirloom tomato salad. Pastas include a risotto primavera and a homemade spincach ravioli. Mains include branzino, braised short ribs and roasted duck. Desserts keep with the over-the-top vibe with vanilla meringue cake and a pillow tiramisu.
My take: sky-high prices and an air of exclusivity shouldn’t deter you from basking in the legendary restaurant’s classic comforts.

Wednesday, June 05, 2013

Miami's Top New Restaurants

Kouzina, in the Design District
People love top ten lists (just ask David Letterman and USA Today) and since I'm constantly keeping tabs on the local dining scene I decided to offer up a tenner of hot new spots.
1. Cipriani Downtown – Spectacular water views and old school service at this Italian icon.
465 Brickell Ave Miami, Florida 33131, (786) 329-4090
2. Lucali – The purest pizza made by a Brooklyn perfectionist.
1930 Bay Rd Miami Beach, FL 33139, (305) 695-4441
3. Tongue and Cheek – Jamie DeRosa’s upscale home cooking with a great happy hour.
431 Washington Ave Miami Beach, FL 33139, (305) 704-290
4. Umami Burger – The California cult burger with its signature “savory” taste.
1080 Alton Rd Miami Beach, FL 33139, (305) 672-4334
5. S3 – A splashy Ft. Lauderdale beach newcomer with sushi, steak and seafood.
505 N Fort Lauderdale Beach Blvd, Fort Lauderdale, FL 33304, (954) 523-7873
6. Kouzina - Reasonably-priced Greek small plates.
3535 NE 2nd Ave, (305) 392-1825
7. Wolfgang’s Steakhouse - Massive slabs of beef from a Peter Luger alum.
315 S Biscayne Blvd, Miami, FL 33132, (305) 487-7130
8. Gold and Pepper - Italian food...with golf flakes on everything.
101 Washington Ave Miami Beach, Florida 33139, (305) 397-8362
9. Icebox Café - The Lincoln Rd fave now in a bigger space on Purdy.
1855 Purdy Ave Miami Beach, FL 33139, (305) 538-8448
10. Barley and Swine – Porky gastropub down South.
 9059 SW 73 Ct, (305) 678-8903

Tuesday, June 04, 2013

Oceanaire Seafood Room: A Briny Adventure in Brickell

Alaskan halibut, PEI mussels, Kumamoto oysters from Washington.
The bounty of the sea. All of it yours for the taking at Oceanaire, a polished seafood joint in Brickell.
If you've spent time in Massachusetts or summered in Maine, you'll recognize the feel. it's the kind of über-sourced fish house that a die-hard New Englander (yes, I am one) can appreciate.
Walking in, you’ll immediately be hit with the clean, fresh scent of oceanic goodness mingled with mustard sauce and key lime. Breathe it in. Then, sink into one of the leather booths circling the room—or grab a table near the bar, which will be buzzing during happy hour. And here's what you'll find: flawless seafood and a bustling atmosphere.
Tempura lobster lollipops.
A glistening raw bar sums up the spot's ample charms: oysters from the Pacific Northwest, lobsters from Maine, lump crab and line-caught fish hauled in daily from local fishermen. (It's like an underwater cavalcade of stars.) And if you’re dining with landlubbers, there are also turf-ables like a 16 oz. bone-in ribeye and a hefty burger with caramelized onions and bacon.
Blackened grouper with pickled pineapples and sweet potatoe.
But Oceanaire isn't just a cathedral of crustaceans and power dinners, it's also a family-friendly spot that easily accommodated me and my underage entourage (ages 4 and 1 -- that's how I roll, yo). A platter of crudite with carrot sticks, celery and pickes hits the table as soon as you are seated -- the perfect thing to keep the little ones busy while you peruse the wine list and prepare for the bounty of the sea. And the matchstick fries, while not something the restaurant is famous for, were damn near perfect. And here's another secret: during lunch the Oceanaire offers a Miami Spice feel with the “Executive Lunch”, which includes a three-course meal for $22.
900 S Miami Ave Miami, FL 33130
(305) 372-8862

Saturday, March 23, 2013

Le Pine: Great Lebanese in Bay Harbor

It's hard to find good Middle-Eastern food in Miami. So I was excited to find Le Pine, an elegant and upscale neighborhood spot tucked away on the otherwise sleepy Kane Concourse in Bay Harbor Islands. Since it opened last year I've been there half a dozen times for lunch and dinner. Since I rarely have time to dine in my own neighborhood, that's saying a lot. This place is good. This is proprietor Hassib El Zein’s first restaurant and it is neatly outfitted with maroon couches, tables bedecked in white linens and a roaring brick oven from which fluffy homemade pita bread and crispy baklava emerge. There’s also a handful of sidewalk tables that provide a pleasant outdoor option. The name refers to the ubiquitous pine nut that shows up in many dishes on the menu and the pine trees of Lebanon.
Chef Fayssal Karout is from Beirut (by way of Michigan) and helms a kitchen that marries the predictable (hummus, kabobs) with the exotic (stuffed pickled eggplants, raw kibbie). All sauces are made from scratch – the tahini, hummus, babganoush and garlic aioli that flank the kabob platters. Prices are reasonable with small plates ranging $6-$8 and mains averaging $20. There’s Lebanese wine on hand - Chateau Kefraya and Chateau Kasara – both from the Bikaa Valley as well as Lebanese and Moroccan beer.
Dinner starts with house made pita bread and a small dish of olive oil mixed with za’atar, the herbaceous blend of wild thyme, sumac, and sesame seeds. The mezze sampler is a great way to enjoy a bit of everything – with small bowls of homemade hummus, babaganoush, falafel and stuffed grape leaves. The “bakery” section includes empanada-like “pies” stuffed with spinach, cheese or ground meat. The house made Labneh, is a thick and tangy yogurt easily scooped up with wedges of pita. Specialties of the house include the Makanic, a ground beef and lamb sausage and the Arayes, a toasted pita stuffed with ground beef, onions and pine nuts. All entrees are served with either couscous or Mediterranean “pilaf” rice and include colorful platters of shish kabob made with tender hunks of lamb, moist chicken and “kofte,” ground beef mixed with parsley and onions. Side salads of tomatoes and onions dusted with sumac round out the fragrant dishes. Dessert is a simple affair – a glass of tea and a small plate of baklava served two ways, the traditional wedge or the “round” cookie-like sweet made with walnuts and pistachios.

Wednesday, March 06, 2013

Celebrity Reflection: Nitrogen Cocktails and Posh Bites

The culinary team in the main dining room.
It's obvious that Celebrity Cruises takes their culinary program seriously. Two years ago they tapped John Suley, a 2010 James Beard Foundation “Rising Star Chef” nominee and former Gotham Steak chef, to head up culinary operations. And their latest ship,The Reflection, is awash is "specialty dining" outlets. That's cruise-speak for smaller, more upscale restaurants where passengers dine for fee (usually $5-$40 per person) as an alternative to the usual buffet and mass dining rooms also available on the ship. We hopped on board to sample the goods at the "Taste of Modern Luxury Event" as part of the South Beach Wine and Food Festival. The event was a round-robin of venues whereby event goers visited six spots on the ship and got to sample a dish, a cocktail and chat with the chef.
In a sign that cocktail culture is gaining traction in mass-appeal circles, the culinary roster also featured Junior Merino who goes by the name "The Liquid Chef." He developed the cocktail program for the ship's Molecular Bar and gave a crash-course on how he uses liquid nitrogen, fresh squeezed juices, and specially created syrups to put together drinks for guests who prefer not to pound 32-ounce daiquiris (not that there's anything wrong with that).
Junior Merino aka "The Liquid Chef"

At Blu, the Mediterranean-influenced spot espousing lighter "spa cusiine," we sampled lump crab martinis and blackened ahi tuna on Forbidden Rice.
Blue and white tables set the tone at Blu.

Lump crab martini, anyone?
The entrance at Tuscan Grille has the cave-like feel of a wine cellar, and the focus is Italian. There are authentic meat slicers and a bevy of cured meats available. The carpaccio di manzo with sun-dried tapenade and arancini risotto balls with basil ailoi greeted us here.
Arancini at Tuscan Grille.
Qsine is more of a whimsical spot with funky place settings, iPad menus and playful food presentations. There we sampled grilled zahtar lamp chops and almond-crusted French toast.
Funky place settings and furniture at Qsine.
We were pretty full but saved room for a bit of ducle de leche crepes at Bistro on 5, a dainty creperie offering half a dozen sweet and savory stuffed pancakes. As the event wound down and everyone gathered in the main dining room, I felt a little bit of envy towards the passengers we saw filing in for their seven-day excursion. Based on what we tasted that day, it was clear they'd be going on a culinary journey as well.

Monday, March 04, 2013

Gnocchi-Making With Fabio Viviani

Fabio Viviani gives good gnocchi.
Probably the only thing that could get me out and at Casa Tua at 9am the morning after the Burger Bash was the boisterous Italian chef Fabio Viviani. Along with a dozen other groggy food writers I settled in at the rustic communal table framing the open kitchen at Casa Tua to catch the former Top Chef star (and now Bertolli endorser) share some culinary wisdom and make gnochhi.
The finished product: pillowy dumplings.
First, there was lots of Italiano chit-chat: "I don't want to be an Iron Chef, I want to be your Italian grandmother," which sums up his approach to celebrity chef stardom and his choice to push homestyle cooking via Bertolli and his restaurants rather than shoot for more TV fame.
Then, some cooking tips. The first rule of gnocchi-making: "Buy the cheapest, nastiest potatoes you can find." Second, let's the dough sit overnight. "You need to be patient. Making gnocchi is like foreplay."
And he's still planning on opening a Miami spot, though he wouldn't divulge where or when. "It will be like my Chicago place Sienna Tavern but we're going to Miami Vice it," he explained.
And an added bonus: olive-oil poached sea bass with pesto and mango.

Casa Tua -- keeping it classy.

Sunday, March 03, 2013

Burger Bash 2013

I don't have many photos from the Burger Bash, the annual burger-off put on by the South Beach Wine and Food Festival. That's because I was too busy double-fisting glasses of rosé and sliders and trying not to get grease all over my phone as I live-tweeted the event (for late-breaking burger news). But I did manage to taste at least seven (or possibly 12) burgers before I lapsed into a beef-induced coma and could only be revived by caramel truffles at the Godiva tent.
But onto the hard news: It was all about the crunchy burgers as Bobby Flay broke Michael Symon's three-time winning streak by taking home the People's Choice award at the 2013 Sobe Burger Bash. Flay’s signature green chile cheeseburger topped with potato chips bested Symon’s entry from B Spot Burgers, dethroning the Cleveland chef.
Flay's "crunchify" team.
Amid predictably-long lines for popular spots like Burger and Beer Joint (I skipped that), The Forge (with a great truffle burger) and Shake Shack were TV personalities Iron Chef Morimoto and Guy Fieri churning out beefy goodness for the Amstel Light-swilling crowds that swarmed the tents on the beach.
New contenders in this year’s competition included Tampa-based Burger 21 headed by Chef Shane Schaibly with a Tex-Mex burger. Chef Paul Malvone, co-founder of Boston Burger Co., served up his "Hot Mess Burger," topped with bacon, jalapenos, sweet potato fries and dripping American cheese between two Thousand Island dressed buns.
But the buzz on the sand was for the double-patty on a toasted bun courtesy of Atlanta-based Holeman and Finch restaurant. Guy Fieri’s tent was doling out Jell-o shots (yes, I will admit I consumed one in the gluttonous frenzy) while Tim Love’s Fort Worth-based Love Shack topped their patties with crispy lamb bacon (loved it).
Best side dish goes to Ft. Lauderdale Rok Brgr for their mini-lobster corn dogs. New York chef Michael Whitel previewed a delectable burger from his soon-to-open The Butterfly, a Wisconsin-inspired cocktail bar and restaurant he's opening in Tribeca.
Local chef Hedy Goldsmith had an impressive pavilion piled high with her overstuffed “Nutter Butter” dessert sliders stuffed with peanut butter cream in a cookie sandwich.

Thursday, February 07, 2013

Going Clubbing

Saffron Supper Club Dinner #1, Miami Beach Botanical Garden

I've decided to go behind the line.
To go from someone who usually only consumes and observes to one who provides and executes.
To go in the kitchen.
And so far it's been exhausting. And exhilarating. Fun. And tough. Confusing. And clarifying.
Suffice to say: I'm learning a lot.

Pots of Tahdig, the crispy inverted rice.

It all starts with Saffron Supper Club. It's hard to categorize this endeavor because it's still developing. It's a roving pop-up dinner club exploring the food and culture of the Middle East. Which means we're flexible. We may show up at an idyllic garden and throw a banquet. Which is what we did for our first dinner. Or we'll materialize at a neo-Jewish diner and transform the space into a bohemian hideaway of dill-flecked rice. Which is what we're doing for our second dinner. We may focus on Persian, which we've been doing since our inception. Or we'll explore the food of Morocco. Tunisia. Lebanon. Maybe you'll catch us on a rooftop in the middle of the city. Or on the beach with Bedouin tables and cushions.
Won't you come on the adventure with us?
Khoresht Bademjan - Eggplant and beef stew (dried limes, yellow split peas).
All photos courtesy of Justin Namon

Why I'm Cuckoo for Kuku Sabzi

In Najmieh Batmanglij's book A Taste of Persia, she explains that kuku is
a baked omelet somewhat similar to an Italian frittata or an Arab eggah; it is thick and rather fluffy, and stuffed with herbs, vegetables, or meat. It may be eaten hot or cold — it keeps well in the refrigerator for two or three days — as an appetizer, side dish, or light main dish with yogurt or salad and bread. Kukus are traditionally made on the stovetop, but my oven version is much simpler. A fresh herb kuku such as this one is a traditional New Year's dish in Iran. The green herbs symbolize rebirth, and the eggs, fertility and happiness for the year to come. 
An apt summation. I love kuku because it's less eggy than a frittata, not as rich as a souffle and way more dense than a quiche could ever be. The recipe is deceptively simple, though in prepping for this dish my mother consulted with a few Persian friends who added extra steps like chopping and pre-sauteing the greens, whisking the eggs in separate bowls, etc.
But really it's the kind of unfussy dish that doesn't require all that much prep -- chop fluffy piles of greens like parsley, cilantro, spinach, scallions or chives. Whisk in about six or seven eggs. Dashes of tumeric, salt and pepper. Brown in a skillet. The end result: deliciously herby, not-too-crusty wedges that will make all other egg-based wedges feel meek in comparison. There's a bit of texture there -- lots of leafy presence and just the hint of creaminess from the eggs. For our Saffron Supper Club Dinner #2 we're kicking off the meal with this and pairing it with a salmon pastrami and yogurt sauce.

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Saffron Supper Club

So I've become involved in a roving pop-up supper club. It's called Saffron Supper Club and it's kind of marvelous. We've already had one dinner featuring Persian food. More on that soon. For now, you can see more on our Facebook page.

Friday, January 11, 2013

OTC Restaurant, Brickell

Two decadent dishes recently discovered at the very hip OTC (Over the Counter) on Brickell. The foie gras mousse and the LaFrieda slider topped with fried bacon and poached duck egg. Crazy rich. Crazy delicious.
Located at 1250 S Miami Ave.

Thursday, January 10, 2013

Khong River House, South Beach

The team behind Yardbird recently unveiled Khong River House, a post-colonial homage to the food of Northern Thailand. The names alludes to the Mekhong River, which runs through Southeast Asia and provides the eatery with a convenient set of cuisines from which to compose the menu (such as Northern Thai, Vietnamese and Burmese street food). Walking in the main dining room (the former Miss Yip space) feels like industrial-loft apartment of a couple of discerning globe-trotters who made out really well at a flea market in the Far East. Bare light bulbs are housed in traditional Thai fishing traps, the brick walls are meticulously scuffed and a stairwell to the upstairs bar is clad in Thai motorcycle license plates. The main dining room can get loud on busy nights, but the dining “alvcoves” in the back provide a quieter and more intimate atmosphere for small parties.
Executive Chef Piyarat Potha Arreeratn (known as Chef Bee), staffs the kitchen with Thai-born chefs for an authentic experience. You can get your noodles and curries, but this isn't your local Asian fusion shop. Instead, entrees feature grilled and fried seafood and traditional – often very spicy preparations. Prices are a bit higher than at a Thai flea market: most small plates average $12, larger shareable main are $17-$36 and rice is $4.

Crispy duck with green peppercorns and basil.

Traditional Boat Noodles made with beef brother, meatballs and topped with chicharones.

The staff really push Burmese Fresh Noodle Wraps for a starter but I wasn't as enamored of the dish, made with roasted dried red chili, roasted peanuts, palm sugar, lemon and cilantro. I found more exciting the small plates of fiery chicken wings flash fried and dressed in a sticky chili sauce and the grilled eggplant salad with mint and sour roasted chili paste. Salads feature proteins like the spicy, aged-pork ginger salad with fried curried rice balls. The jungle curry is not made with coconut milk, but rather a fragrant mix of tiny bitter eggplants, chunks of chicken, peppercorns, baby corn and mushrooms. The Rotisserie Chicken (GAI YAANG) is marinated in coconut milk and lemon grass while the grilled whole fish is salt-crusted and stuffed with basil and lemongrass.
Overall the experience is one you won't readily find in Miami: a gorgeous, meticulously-scuffed dining room combined with unabashedly spicy authentic Thai cooking. Welcome, welcome Khong. 1661 Meridian Avenue Miami Beach, Florida 33139 (305) 763-8147