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NEW YORK CORNER: L'Atelier de Joël Robuchon by John Mariani
THINKING ABOUT MIAMI
by John Mariani
Global warming now in effect, the urgency to head South may not be quite what it was when Americans north of the Mason-Dixon Line got the chills so early in autumn. Nevertheless, many will soon consider heading south, and, if the destination is Florida and good food is a requisite (not easy to find down there), then Miami is a good bet. Having visited recently, I came away with enthusiasm for two new restaurants and the delight of re-acquainting myself with one of Miami's great chefs.MICHY'S
1144 Ocean Drive
Style means everything on Miami Beach, and that extends to the restaurant scene there too, which means that style too often trumps good taste. Of the scores of restaurants lining the boulevards of SoBe, only a handful are worth considering for good food (those would include Talula, Setai, Blue Sea, The Forge, and Tuscan Steak). The pecs-displaying, bottle tanned pretty people would rather eat subsist on Caesar salads and Perrier than look for a good menu, and while Joe's Stone Crab still serves good stone crabs, the insult of having to grease the palm of the maître d' is as unbearable as it is requisite.
The two-year-old Hotel Victor, however, has put its money where it's mouth is, at Vix, a stunning, glamorous restaurant where Chicago-born chef James Wierzelewski has proven himself the best on the Beach, and his menus do indeed come with plenty of style; they are, however, buoyed by impeccable taste.
His has been a checkered career, ranging from Milwaukee’s Pfister Hotel to France, Belgium, Thailand, Malaysia and Micronesia, all locales where he picked up local culinary skills now winningly translated to Vix. He has this "flavor palette theory" based on regional spices and seasonings from the
In most cases of East-West fusion, the results are messy, gimmicky, and don't lend themselves to much subtlety. Wierzelewski seems well aware of those pitfalls and avoids them by giving exotic flavors their due and respect in his translations.
Cured King fish and Gulf prawns came with pomelo, aji panca, black mint, and something called cancha (I can't say I'm up on all these global ingredients), and a baked hot-sour rock shrimp dish with crab stuffing was delicious. "Kyoto-style" sashimi of tuna, with onions, soy and "frozen aromatic sesame oil" didn't add up to much and the appendages distracted from the fish.
We then moved on to the main courses, beginning with a tasty risotto of truffle-oil roasted cremini and wild mushrooms with aged Parmigiano and a mushroom jus--a very good dish save for the fact that the rice was overcooked. Three seafood creations shone brightly: pan-roasted Osaka black cod with a mirin-soy glaze and snap peas; Hong Kong-style barbecued duck and lobster "chow mein," with coriander noodles, sweet soya, and kaffir lime, a witty turn on old Chinese-American chow, with more complex seasonings and textures that really worked. Also in that sphere was a tagine of saltwater prawns with artichokes and preserved lemons (left) with a hot North African sauce that brought every ingredient together. Excellent indeed was a spit-roasted rack of lamb with the leg, accompanied by a casserole of the lamb shoulder, with crusted green chickpeas, Moroccan tomato-eggplant relish, and coriander jus.
The imagination that goes into these dishes is tempered by having a kitchen staff from the regions the dishes come from; thus, they remain very true to form, obtaining flourish from Mr. Wierzelewski. He performs the same ministry with "spice-enhanced desserts," which include a churned passion fruit with irresistible mango fritters touched with garam masala, and a Mexican chocolate panna cotta with coffee granita. The banana-cinnamon crème brûlée is a bit overwrought, but what's not to love about the warm chocolate chunk cookie with a "shot of milk," whipped chocolate and caramel, and frozen vanilla?
Vix is a stellar restaurant and it would be anywhere. That it exists at all on Miami Beach is reason to believe that maybe food and service can actually rise above mediocrity in a space that is as dazzling to be in as to eat in.
Vix is open daily for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. At dinner appetizers run $12-$25, entrees $33-$41.
6927 Biscayne Boulevard
Miami's Upper East Side is neither fashionable nor hip, but it is, I'm told, an up-and-coming neighborhood of people who enjoy good food without the frou-frou that attends the menus on SoBe. This is exactly what Michelle Bernstein, with her husband David Martinez, have aimed at with Michy's (her childhood nickname) in a wholly unpretentious, comfortable little slip of a dining room in a strip of a shopping center. As the simple folded paper menu states, "We have come up with an 'unconventional' style of dining here [with] the menu split into two sections, half and full portions," which encourages people either to order more small items or share with friends the more substantial ones.
The 60-seat room (left) has a retro kind of funky Miami Sixties decor--cerulean blue walls, old thrift shop white chairs with flowered fabrics, orange Ultrasuede banquettes, and a window on the street (parking is to the rear and you enter past the kitchen). It's not really much of a design statement, but it's comfortable enough and the decibel level is not too high.
Photo: Michael Katz
Bernstein (below), who has one of the most winning smiles in the world, is a Miamian by birth, and for a time she studied ballet, an experience still evident in the way she carries herself. Her culinary training, under star chefs like Jean-Louis Palladin and Eric Ripert, led her back to her roots in Miami, where she cooked at several SoBe restaurants, including her own, before coming to full flourish at the magnificent Azul in the Mandarin Oriental Hotel. Her fusionary Asian cuisine was based on as much local seafood and provender as she could find, and it was as colorful, beautiful, and refined as it was packed with flavor and spark. The premises of Azul, designed by Tony Chi, were spectacular, and both the restaurant and Bernstein (who met her husband-to-be there) soared to prominence. That year it opened, I chose it as "Best New Restaurant of 2001" in Esquire. Photo: Michael Katz
Which is why I was wholly surprised by the scale and culinary focus behind Michy's, which seems 180 degrees in the other direction from Azul The dazzle is gone, along with a sure degree of intense creativity; in its place is something entirely winning but a little old fashioned, from a Caesar salad and shortribs with mashed potatoes to conch with garlic and parsley butter and scrumptious desserts. There's so much to love at Michy's, but I was disappointed that Bernstein was not showing the extraordinary range I'd seen before.
Mostly the food is simple, straightforward, and very, very good, starting with some addictive blue cheese-and-ham croquettes with fig marmalade (below), and a finely grained torchon of foie gras with brioche crisps and more marmalade. I was not crazy about the conch, and a beet salad (so ubiquitous these days) with Spanish blue espuma and candied walnuts was something of a yawn. But everything else I tasted was delicious, from seared fresh foie gras on a corn pancake with savory maple syrup to seared scallops with a hot, spicy oxtail stew, the delicacy of the one playing off the robust flavor and texture of the other. "Fettuccine Carbonara My Way," with crispy pancetta, peas, and incredibly rich St. André cheese--topped with a poached egg!--was unrepentently decadent, every single morsel sheer joy. Very good also was codfish with a mustard-miso and crispy bok choy that hinted at the Azul highlights, and the short ribs was a hefty dish to love, too. Desserts involve yummy items like pound cake, ice creams, and syrups and sauces.
If Michy's is not all I expected, it is all anyone could seek in a neighborly neighborhood restaurant serving food of substance you could easily eat two nights a week. And with very reasonable pricing--$7-$16 for half portions, $10-$26 for full--Michy's is a place you could easily indulge that frequency.
Photo: Michael Katz Dinner is served Tues.-Sat.
8287 S. Dixie Highway
South Miami, FL 33143-7717
I'd lost track of Chef Jan Jorgenson after he closed his innovative JanJo's in the Grove. Jorgenson (below) was one of a passel of young chefs who a decade ago were creating, night by night, something called "New Florida Cuisine," whose other pioneers included Mark Militello, Allen Sussman, Robin Haas, and Doug Rodriguez. Jorgenson was one of the best, classically trained, with experience on the west coast at a time when there was so much ferment out there. I'd heard that he and his partner, Soren Bredahl, had opened a cooking school.
Fortunately both men (Danes by birth) have come back to face the heat of their own kitchen, at a restaurant appropriately called Two Chefs, with cooking classes still held here. Another restaurant located in a shopping center, Two Chefs hasn't much decor going for it--it's rather brown and beige and a bit dated--but the color comes from the food, as does some truly deeply flavorful seasonings and spices that start with the house flatbread crisp and smoky and fresh out of a wood-fired oven.
Beef carpaccio is one of those ubiquitous dishes that can be very boring indeed, but Jorgenson's version, lightly dressed with white truffle oil and given some tang from crisp goat's cheese and microgreens, is full of flavor, as is his escargot pot pie--a capital idea--with shiitakes, black truffles, an a Reggiano-truffle crust. Maine lobster was simple and wonderful, served with green beans and a rémoulade scented with celery root. I don't see much barramundi on menus, so I was delighted by the juicy specimen Jorgenson provided, sided with spinach and a curried spaetzle that seemed just right. The last main course was a pink Mallard duck breast with a confit of fingerling potatoes and some fresh foie gras. Rich cooking all around and all the better for it. Such dishes therefore prepare you for Jorgenson's signature dessert soufflés, a flawless, puffy trio of huckleberry, chocolate, and almond, worth every calorie.
The winelist is solid, and the two chefs also stock an impressive number of Scotch Single Malts. Service could not be more cordial.
Two Chefs may be a little off the beaten path in Miami, but for food alone, there are few restaurants that can match it.
At dinner appetizers run 8.50-$15.50 and entrees $18.50-$36.50. Two Chefs is open for lunch Mon.-Fri., and for dinner nightly.
NEW YORK CORNER
by John Mariani
L'Atelier de Joël Robuchon
Four Seasons New York Hotel
Joël Robuchon once said, "To make a grand meal, you have to make it simple. But to look simple is very complicated. You must have the highest quality products, the best equipment, and you must stay focused on the original flavor of the products. Only then can the artistry of a great chef create grand dishes."
This philosophy has carried over into everything Robuchon has done, from his days at Jamin in Paris when he was regularly designated the best chef in the world, to the careful writing of his several cookbooks. Having semi-retired in 1996, Robuchon returned three years ago to professional gastronomy with the opening in Tokyo of the first L'Atelier, which was a complete rethinking of French cuisine within the atmosphere of a very sleek, casually elegant lunch counter; he followed with another L'Atelier in Paris (click), which immediately became one of the toughest stools to commandeer in town, then in Las Vegas (where he also opened a grand dining room: click).
Now, New York's L'Atelier has debuted in the beautiful I. M. Pei-designed Four Seasons Hotel, with something of the same configuration of Paris and London, built around a horseshoe counter designed by Frenchman Pierre-Yves Rochon to play deep red and black colors off polished pearwood and bare tables. Here in New York there are also several tables, and all 46 seats in the room are tough to come by on short notice. Table reservations are accepted but you can only make a rez at the counter for a 6 PM seating. If, however, you are willing to dine à la grecque (after 9:30 PM), you should have little problem slipping right in. On the night I dined there, the place had started to empty out by then.
Sommelier Ania Zawieja has whipped the winelist into admirable global shape, and, owing to the small number of seats, she is extremely accessible and exceptionally helpful with wine choices. I hope she will soon be adding more wines under $60, which is close to the least expensive on the list.
Alas, one doesn't expect to see a celebrity chef like Robuchon behind the counter here or at any of his other L'Ateliers, but exec chef Yosuke Suga (right) will be, along with pastry chef Kazutoshi Narita; together they prepare a screed of eclectic dishes that include some of Robochon's now classic items, like his remarkably good La Caille Farcie de Foie Gras et Caramélisée, free-range quail stuffed with foie gras. The menu is designed for you to order three, four, or more dishes, for portions are small, though expensive, with "tasting portions" $12-24, hot and cold appetizers $19-$29, and entrees $39-$49. (My recollection of the L'Atelier menu in Paris revealed a number of less expensive starters at $8.50 and $11.) There is also a 5-course lunch menu at $60 and a "menu découverte" at night at $170 for 9 courses.
There are some stellar dishes among the small tasting portions, including those fabulous caramelized quail with foie gras, as well as lobster in a turnip ravioli, and crispy langoustine fritter with basil pesto (left). You will beg for more than the three crispy frogs' legs ($15) served here, with a garlic purée and parsley coulis. More than one dish came to the table too cold, like the "King David's Feast avocado fondant," and angels' hair pasta with tomato and caviar, which didn't work at all. So, too, "le pastrami" came out cold: if ever there was a dish New Yorkers like hot, it's pastrami; this version was not but came with more tasty foie gras gilding the meat. Very good indeed was a cod fillet in an aromatic broth, but I don't think sweetbreads with laurel and romaine lettuce gain anything by being smoked.
The bistro-like traditional foie gras terrine with toasted country bread is on the menu, and there's more foie gras in the ravioli in a warm chicken broth with summer (too bad) truffles. Roasted rack of lamb, served very rare, came with a purée of potatoes that seemed more butter than spuds, but no one at our counter complained because it was so devilishly delicious. Desserts are very French, with a few Asian accents like green yuzu granité with lemon verbena gelée.
Like Tokyo, Paris, Vegas, and, soon, London, New York is happy to have a L'Atelier in its presence. If it is no longer a unique dining experience, it is certainly one that gives a sense of what French cuisine at a certain level is like in the early 21st century. Think of it as Howard Johnson's in excelsis.
Lunch and dinner are served daily.
IT GOES GREAT WITH A NEW CANDY BAR NAMED "CRACK"
The corporate parent of 7-Eleven, Inc. has asked franchises to pull from its shelves a high-caffeine drink named Cocaine after getting complaints from parents of teenagers about the drink, made by Redux Beverages of Las Vegas, which markets it as "The legal alternative." Cocaine contains a whopping 280 milligrams of caffeine.
According to food writer Christiane Lauterbach in her newsletter Knife & Fork (October 2006), an Atlanta restaurant named Tasty China lists menu items that include "Pork intestine with chef's cause," "husband and wife lung slice," "Sichuan spicy some sort of beef," and "oil braised bracken," cooked by chef Peter Chang who describes himself as a "true Jedi of Szechuan style."
* London's Red Carnation Hotels--The Chesterfield Mayfair, The Rubens at the Palace, and The Montague on the Gardens—are offering a “Magical London” package, available from Nov. 24-Jan. 7, incl: 2-night stay; Welcome gift upon arrival; Full English breakfast daily; Tea for two with Christmas Cake; Taxi to Oxford Street to see the Christmas lights and to start your pre-Christmas or New Year sales shopping; If staying on Christmas Day, a stocking stuffed with seasonal goodies; Upgrade to an Executive Suite (for a nightly supplement) with decorated Christmas Tree; visit by Santa if children are with a guest on Christmas Day. Rates start from: The Chesterfield: £360-£620; The Montague: £330-£480; The Rubens: £330-£480. or call 00 800 1698 8740 in
* From Jan 7-12 San Diego Restaurant Week will feature 105 of the city's restaurants offering 3-course dinners for just $30 or $40 pp. Visit www.sandiegorestaurantweek.com.
* From Jan. 26-28 in Colorado Springs, The BROADMOOR presents the 5th Annual “Salute to Escoffier” Weekend, with cooking demos, discussions, wine seminar, and Grand Buffet, honoring the cuisine that Auguste Escoffier made famous. This is a fund-raiser or the Education Fund of the Colorado Restaurant Association and The BROADMOOR’s Culinary Training Program and Scholarship Fund. Live entertainment. Packages available. Call 800-634-7711 or visit www.broadmoor.com.
MARIANI'S VIRTUAL GOURMET NEWSLETTER is published weekly. Editor/Publisher: John Mariani. Contributing Writers: Robert Mariani, Naomi Kooker, Kirsten Skogerson, Edward Brivio, Mort Hochstein, Suzanne Wright. Contributing Photographers: Galina Stepanoff-Dargery, Bobby Pirillo. Technical Advisor: Gerry McLoughlin.
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