Monday, October 1, 2007

My Trip to the new Whole Foods Market in South Miami

I went to the Whole Foods yesterday in South Miami (I still say that location is NOT Gables) and I gotta say, I wasnt really too impressed.

Their veggie selection was adequate, but I dont think it was any better than Milams or Fresh Market. Maybe they have more "organic" (see also: absurdly expensive) produce, but thats about it. I did like the variety of mushrooms though.

The seafood selection sucked I thought. There were mussels and clams that were dead and sitting in the case, the "fresh tuna" looked previously frozen, and nothing really jumped out at me overall. One thing I did notice is that they must have customers that LOVE salmon because they had it prepared just about 15 different ways.

The meat case was decent, high priced (as expected) but decent. The chicken selection wasnt great though. They had a good deal on ribeyes, but the ribeyes looked disgusting and LOADED with fat/gristle. I know this is a characteristic of a ribeye, but it was far from "marbling". I liked the sausage selections, but Fresh Market has all of the same ones and they are less expensive (I never thought Id say FM is less expensive than anywhere else on earth). I tried the turkey andoullie and the veal/spinach/feta and both were pretty good. When it came time to buy a steak though, I settled on going with a more reasonably priced option at Milams.

The two areas I really liked at WF were the wine and cheese sections. The selection in the cheese section was unreal! I wasnt prepared for that kind of variety, so I basically sat there staring for about 15 minutes and then decided I needed a gameplan for the next visit. The wine selection was pretty sweet too. Lots of variety and I liked the layout. I wish they had a few more options in the $10-$15 range though. I also thought some of the wines were overpriced (Marques de Riscal 2002 is about $13.99 MAX and they had a 2004 at $18.99). Also in the wine/cheese section was an area with scoops where you could get all different kinds of salts and sugars. I thought this was kinda cool, but I cant imagine many people taking advantage of it. Then again, its not like salt/sugar goes bad.

I didnt really care for their prepared food section that much. It was pretty good, but I like the FM one better. The rest of the store was decent and they had all of the pantry items you'd expect. I also think FM's "snack bag" section is better. This is the area with all different kinds of nuts, sesame sticks, etc. Another thing I didnt like about the store was that, outside the prepped food sections, everything is seems really crammed.

Overall, it was cool to check out the new Whole Foods, but I wont be commuting from the Grove to shop there unless I have a recipe that calls for something rare that I know they are likely to carry. I guess its a nice option for that neighborhood since they carry a lot of different items than Publix or Gardners do too. This could explain why some people in that area are acting like its God's gift to grocery shopping haha.

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Dank Recipes: Seafood Wontons with Cilantro Vinagarette

I cook a fair amount and I like to take pics of the finished product. Why? I have absolutely no idea. I found this recipe for Seafood Wontons with Cilantro Vinagarette in an Asian cookbook awhile back and its damn good. I decided to make it again this past weekend so I thought Id share. Its a light meal that I serve on top of a salad even though the recipe doesnt call for it. The cilantro vinagarette makes a killer salad dressing. The water chestnuts inside the wonton filling provide an awesome crunch and add a really fresh and clean flavor, while the green chili gives a subtle kick. This recipe is pretty easy to make, it just takes time to fill and seal all of the wontons. Another thing I like about this recipe is that you can boil the whole bunch, eat what you want, and then save the rest in an airtight container in the fridge. When you want leftovers, you can either nuke em in the microwave or boil a pot of water and drop the wontons in for a few minutes (this is how I roll...) and they still taste great. This is key when you live alone and travel a ton for work. I imagine that you could go the less healthy/more flavorful route and pan fry the wontons too. Adding them to a soup broth would probably kick ass as well, especially if youre sick like I am right now (...wontons boiling as I type).

Here's what you'll need to get your wonton on...

(Serves 4)

8oz raw shrimp, peeled/deveined
4oz white crabmeat, picked apart
4 canned whole water chestnuts, diced fine
1 scallion, chopped fine
1 small green chili, seeded, chopped fine
1/2 teaspoon grated fresh ginger
1 egg, separated (white for filling, yoke for sealing wontons)
20-30 wonton wrappers
salt, fresh ground pepper
cilantro leaves

For the cilantro dressing:

2 tablespoons rice vinegar
1 tablespoon chopped pickled ginger
6 tablespoons olive oil
1 tablespoon soy sauce
3 tablespoons chopped cilantro
2 tablespoons diced red pepper

Time to get it on...

1.) You could either go the slow route finely dicing the shrimp or the fast route in the food processor on pulse - you only need to pulse it once or twice. Ive done both and they each work. Dicing gives you bigger chunks, processing is waaaaaay faster and makes stuffing the filling a helluva lot easier. Either way, add it to a bowl along with the crabmeat, water chestnuts, scallion, chili, ginger, and egg white. Season with salt & pepper and stir/fold all the ingredients together.

2.) Lay down a wonton wrapper on a board, paint the edges with the egg yoke, and drop some of the filling in the middle (a little ball about the width of a quarter). Then fold one corner over its opposite to form a triangle and seal the wonton but make sure to press out all the air as best as you can. Then, bring the 2 side points up over the filling and pinch them together to get a tight wonton shape.

3.) Fill a pot halfway with water and bring to a boil and add the wontons, a few at a time. I get about 12 or so in a fairly large pot. Most will sink, while the ones with a little air inside will float a bit. Remind you of anything else? When they are ready, they all start to float and the wontons become translucent, showing the cooked seafood on the inside (this is usually about 3-4 minutes). Remove with a slotted spoon and keep them warm while you drop in the next batch.

4.) Make the cilantro vinegarette by whisking all the ingredients together in a bowl. Plate the wontons on an empty plate or on top of mixed greens or baby spinach, then drizzle with the dressing and top with some cilantro leaves for looks.

5.) Chow down!

Sunday, September 16, 2007

Restaurant Review: Whisk Gourmet Food & Catering

One thing that I really find annoying when going out to eat is a boring menu. Items like "Steak & Potatoes", "Chicken & Rice", and "Seared Tuna & Salad" are way too safe and are also things I could easily make at home with minimal effort. I like food that combines different ingredients, sauces, and/or spices that make you think, "I like all of these things on their own, but can they really work together?", before you realize that they can and do very well. Its funny because when I was a kid I used to hate that my mom couldnt just make plain food. Her dishes would always have some spice, sauce, or twist to them and my unrefined palate wanted plain just like all the other kids had when I ate at their house. These days, when I dine out I want creativity, dammit. Luckily, I stumbled upon a restaurant that chants that same mantra. Its a little slice of heaven known as Whisk Gourmet Food & Catering and the food is anything but ordinary.

Whisk is located in a tiny strip mall on Le Jeune Road in Coral Gables, just off of US1. Owned and operated by the brother/sister tandem of Brandon and Kristin Connor, this tiny eatery really makes the best use of what little dining space it has. The layout of Whisk consists of 3 glass top tables with wicker chairs as seats along with a tiny stainless steel countertop with a few stools to sit on. The walls are creatively decorated with pictures of actual Whisk menu items, a chalkboard lists daily specials, and there are also shelves filled with supplies, though most are hidden from view by white curtains. Its cozy and inviting, and for those claustrophobic diners, orders can be called/faxed in for pickup.

The menu offers home style, gourmet dishes with ingredients obtained from local and organic purveyors. There are lots of healthy sandwiches, salads, and entrees, all of which sound delicious on paper. While looking over the daily specials last Friday, I found myself making the same sound in my head that Homer Simpson makes when he thinks about chocolate covered bacon. Its sort of an "Mmmmm..ahhhhhgggg" followed by some drooling. On my visit, I decided on one of the house specialties - Dry Marinated Skirt Steak with Caramelized Onions, Gorgonzola & Sliced Avocado Salad. I opted to have the meal without the onions since I have never really been an onion fan. This is where things got interesting. I got my entree and was told that the chef, Brandon, was going to give me some of the onions in a little cup on the side because they were so good that I HAD to at least try them. I chuckled and said, "Ok, I'll give it a shot." I figured if someone was that confident in his food that he would make a ballsy statement that a non-onion eater should try his caramelized onions, then the least I could do was give it a shot. I took the first bite without the onions and it was great. The steak was cooked to a spot on medium rare, which is a big deal to me. It was nicely marinated and the hefty portion of gorgonzola allowed me to take enough while ensuring I would have enough left for each remaining bite. After a few bites of the avocado salad, which had a killer mustard dressing, I decided it was time to try the onions. I piled a few on a bite of steak, added some gorgonzola, and took my first bite. The gorgonzola was the first thing I tasted, followed by the steak, but then there was this great flavor from the onions that was a perfect compliment. I sat there in disbelief as I chewed... I was eating caramelized onions! Up to this point, just looking at them made me shudder. Abandoning all of my inhibitions, I piled the rest on the steak and chowed down like it was my job to leave nothing but traces of steak juice on the plate.

Damn, that was good. The bill, including my iced tea, came to about $19 and I left a $6 tip because I was on a high from liking a vegetable that I had previously loathed. I will definitely be returning to try other menu items and I recommend this place to anyone looking for dynamite food made with fresh ingredients. Be sure to visit their website as well for catering and other services. Bon Apetite!

Whisk Gourmet Food & Catering
4702 S. Le Jeune Rd.
Coral Gables, FL 33146

Friday, September 14, 2007

Bacchus Wine Bar - South Miami

I was visiting my old stomping grounds in South Miami on Wednesday to do some shopping and decided that Id grab a bite somewhere new. I had heard about Bacchus Wine Bar from a little publication that South Miami puts out to promote area businesses and keep people informed about ongoings in the community (I wish the Grove would do something like this...) and a friend had also recommended it after attending a wine tasting there. So, I headed over to check it out.

Bacchus Wine Bar is located on the "corner" of US1 and Sunset Ave. I say "corner" because its really not on the corner, but the building it shares with other tenants is. Basically, its next to Origin Bistro and you can access the parking lot by driving on the street that Deli Lane is on. They have free valet if you remember to get your ticket validated, which I thought was pretty sweet even though I had walked there from Sunset Place. Upon entering, I was greeted by the 2 owners - a husband and wife tandem whose names Ive apparently forgotten and I dont happen to have the business card they gave me, so we will just call them "Mr. & Mrs. Bacchus" for now. They were extremely friendly and offered me a seat at the bar. The inside of the wine bar is decorated with purple ceilings, a black granite bar, couches, tabletops, and a stage where live music plays on Thursdays (also their wine tasting day) and Fridays. Various paintings and mirrors decorate the walls and give the spot a homey type of feeling. The place is pretty new, so I wasnt surprised to be the only person at the bar. There were a few people sitting at a table on the other side of that bar, but other than that it was empty. Mr. & Mrs. Bacchus said that Thursdays and Fridays draw a big crowd and I was surprised when they said that a lot of UM kids go there as well. They said the UM crowd is mostly the intellectual type and that many of them follow the band that plays there on Thursday.

I sat down and looked over the wine menu. I didnt see many I was familiar with, but Im no wine expert so that didnt surprise me. There were a few glasses in the $8-$9 range, but for the most part, the wines were $11+ and $32+ for the bottle. Its definitely way more worth it to grab a bottle at those per glass prices, which I thought were a tad high. The bottle prices were very competitive and marked up about 50%, which is pretty standard. Anyways, Im a big Pinot Noir fan so I settled on a glass of Sideways which, according to Mr. Bacchus, was one of their most popular wines and had experienced a lot of popularity due to its connection with the movie Sideways. I was hungry as well, but I didnt see anything on the menu that really jumped out at me. The menu is filled with appetizers, all of which have a Greek myth themed name to them like "Theseus Shrimp". Pricing on the food was a tad high I thought as the aforementioned shrimp came to $20. Not knowing what the dish looks/tastes like though, I guess its unfair for me to judge, but $20 for an appetizer is going a bit overboard. Who knows, maybe it is the size of an entree? I settled on the small Bacchus Platter which was a plate with assorted meats, fruits, and cheeses for $10 which, at first glance, seemed small but definitely was well worth it in the end. The quality of the food and the assortment justified the price and surprisingly left me somewhat full after I finished the plate. Now, reverting back to me not being a wine expert, I will not attempt to describe Sideways Pinot Noir outside of saying this: Its damn good, very smooth with what I would call a slight buttery taste to it, not too fruity, not too high on the acidity, and goes great with a meat/cheese/fruit plate. I enjoyed it so much that after dinner last night I went and picked up a bottle for $16 at the liquor store.

Mr. Bacchus and I engaged in conversation about various wines and how we both will get hooked on a type of wine but like to be open to trying new ones. He then poured me a few different types of red wine to taste, which I appreciated and enjoyed. Its always nice to find a place that has knowledgeable owners who get you interested in trying new things based on their passion for food or wine. I finished up my last sample and asked for the check as I was headed to Town to meet a friend for a cocktail. Mrs. Bacchus gave me 50% off on my glass of wine as a kind gesture which I appreciated and they didnt charge me for the tastes I had with Mr. Bacchus either. I would definitely recommend checking this place out with friends, or heading over for their wine tasting nights on Thursdays. Food and wine are both great for bringing people together and its nice to have a cozy little place like Bacchus Wine Bar as a venue for enjoying a nice bottle of wine while listening to some live jazz and blues.

Bacchus Wine Bar
5904 S Dixie Hwy
South Miami, FL 33143
(305) 663-3368

Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Restaurant Review: Baleen, Coconut Grove - Miami Spice Edition

Baleen, located on a private island named Grove Isle in Coconut Grove, was my second stop for this year's Miami Spice month. Having dined there on a regular night, I knew what to expect - stunning decor, serene views of the bay and downtown, and delicious food.

I met up with the rest of my party of 7 and the hostess brought us to a nice, long table outside. Right off the bat, my friends commented that "this place is sweet!" When I made the reservation I let them know we'd be doing Miami Spice so they had the menus ready along with a wine list. We ordered a great wine, 2003 Truchard Pinot Noir, which was reasonably marked up 50% at $60. I had the thai lobster bisque for my appetizer and man was it good. The broth was a traditional bisque with an added twist of coconut milk, sake, and jasmine that really reminded me of tom kha gai, which is one of my favorite thai dishes. Add in a fat piece of lobster tail and this dish had it all.

For my entree, I thought about the short ribs but I didnt want that hearty of a dish. Some in my party had that dish and said it was really tasty but very filling. I went with the wild king salmon, mostly because it came with a three potato black bean hash, corn nage, and chipotle cream that sounded awesome. The salmon was good but it was slightly overcooked, not enough that it was too dry, but I like my salmon more of a medium rare. The hash had a nice sweetness to it due to the sweet potatoes and, although I thought it was a separate item, the corn nage was mixed in with the hash which added a nice fresh flavor. I wish that the dish contained more of the chipotle cream as the amount on the plate was about the size of a quarter and only added flavor to a few bites.

I opted for the apple tart for dessert and I did not care for it at all. Im not a dessert person really, but I dont need to be in order to point out that this dish missed the mark. First off, it was not warm as advertised and the pastry was really dry. The almonds totally overpowered the dish to the point that I think someone may have overdosed it with almond extract. The ice cream could have saved the dish, but the portion was minuscule.

The overall dining experience could have gone better. I was really disappointed in the fact that it took about an hour to get our appetizers, then another 30-45 minutes before the entrees arrived. During this time, we consumed 3 bottles of wine and it gave some of us the impression that it was intended to boost the tab at the end of the night. We had an 830p reservation and finished dinner at 1130p which was unreasonably long. I thought the food could have been better as well. The appetizers were great, the entree was good but not great, and the dessert was two thumbs down. If I hadnt been there before Id have questioned ever going back, but I know they can do better and Baleen is just a great atmosphere to dine in. So, grab a date and head over to Baleen to give it a try yourself. If the food falters, at least you will have a nice evening under the stars overlooking the bay that will definitely end with a goodnight smooch, guaranteed. ;)

Monday, August 6, 2007

Restaurant Review: Table 8 - Miami Spice edition

Yup, its Miami Spice month again and I think Im going to try and take advantage of it better this year. I say that every year and it never really happens but, hey, the intention is there. Friday night, I took my first Miami Spice trip of the season.

I met up with a group over at Table 8 inside the Reagent on South Beach. I was there late and I hate being late. But fortunately this is Miami and I ended up being the first one there. We had a rez for 9pm but had agreed to meet around8-830 for a cocktail at the bar. The bar was pretty cool. Its set more on the Ocean Drive side of the building and its kinda like an inside/outside bar. You get the breeze and sounds of being outside but youre under the cover of the building. Theyve got huge fans that blow all over the place and keep it cool, and for the ladies who wonder what this might do to your hairdo, they will gladly redirect as requested. I asked a female bartender what types of bourbons they carried and was set to order a Woodford on the rocks when the other bartender mentioned that they also had Blantons, which has a nice kick to it with a semi-smooth caramel-like flavor. Typical of South Beach, this drink cost me a cool $18 with tip included. I didnt care because I already had a buzz going and Im pretty much numb to the South Beach tax at this point. I even gave them an extra tip by dropping some bourbon knowledge on 'em. Each bottle of Blantons has a killer cork that has a Derby horse and rider figurine on top of it. Near the foot is a little circle with a letter that is either a B, L, A, N, T, O, or S. If you put them all side by side and spell BLANTONS it looks like the horse is running the race.

Everyone finally arrived and we were seated in a comfortable booth. The waiter came and passed out both regular and Miami Spice menus and I ordered a bottle of red wine for the table ('03 Latour Noir). He returned with bread, water, and wine which was quite biblical. We all decided on the spice menu. Earlier in the day, I had asked some fellow food bloggers what a "Warm Boucheron" consisted of so it made me look all smart when I was the only one who knew what it was. So, thanks for that. Anyways, I ordered the warm boucheron and really enjoyed it. The warm smoked goat cheese was served with some tasty avocado and a balsamic roasted onion which I actually liked too and I am not an onion fan at all. One person had the soup and said it was excellent while another got the salad and found it to be nothing special.

For entrees, nearly everyone ordered the skirt steak with avocado gremotala and crispy plantains. One person ordered the olive oil poached salmon. I thought about the chicken, but I had seen a pic of it earlier on the website and didnt find it appetizing so my mind was made up. The steak was cooked to a nice medium rare as ordered and the sauce and plantains were a nice addition. It didnt blow me away, but it didnt leave me wanting more either. I had a bite of the salmon dish and found it to be cooked well but I thought it couldve used a bit more flavor to it.

Now, Im not usually a dessert person. Maybe I'll do an occasional creme brulee but thats rare. WIth Miami Spice, I'll usually give it a shot. This time it was the best item of the night. I had the vanilla panna cotta, which is sorta like creme brulee without the ramekin but more pudding-like in texture/flavor. It was served with a not-too-sweet raspberry sauce that tasted great with the vanilla. I couldve had about 3 more of these and still wanted one more.

All in all, I thought the experience was pretty good but nothing wowed me and made me want to come back again sometime soon. It was, well, good. With all the options these days, good doesnt really cut it anymore. It is nice to know that you can get a solid meal there though, and the atmosphere is pretty cool. Id recommend giving it a try though. We all have different tastes. Not quite sure about the value though. I got out of there for about $70 which included my meal, portion of the wine bottle ($60/4 people), tax and 18% tip which was added on.

I will likely go to the bar again sometime though. In fact, I went to check out the free Common/Erykah Badu concert across the way on the following night and had a girl say to me, "Hey you were at my bar last night!" I didnt recognize her and was trying to remember what the hell I did on the previous night (I had been drinking on the beach all day at this point) when she said, "You were drinking Blanton's and told me about the horse race..." Now thats a good bartender!

Friday, July 6, 2007

Restaurant Review: French Kiss, Coconut Grove

The French have brought 2 great things to America - French cuisine and French kissing. So, its only fitting that an ambitious restaurateur attempt to combine the two for an unforgettable experience. OK, so we aren't talking about making out with your escargot in a bed of pommes frites, but we are talking about French Kiss - a relatively new restaurant hidden away in Coconut Grove that specializes in French cuisine.

French Kiss is located on 2779 Bird Road right next to Flanagan's in Coconut Grove. The restaurant is set back a ways, which allows for a decent little outdoor area for dining. There is also seating inside and a small bar that contains a nice variety of wine and beer. Upon arrival, we were greeted by a lovely woman who was the wife of the owner. She welcomed us and gave us our choice of seating, and we opted for the screened in outdoor deck. As we looked over the menu, our waiter came by and offered us complimentary champagne with a very thick French accent that my female companion loved. Its always nice to go to a restaurant where the people are from the country where the cuisine originates. In this case, we were being served by some legit Frenchies, so I knew we were in for some good food served with some great sauces.

Our waiter brought out some menus along with some french bread that was fresh from the oven and served with a creamy tarragon butter that I could not get enough of. The menu has a variety of appetizers, salads, and entrees. I opted for the escargot - my all-time favorite - while she ordered the french onion soup. I was blown away by the portion of escargot. Usually, escargot comes in a dish with 5 to 6 divots around the edge and one in the middle, with each containing 1 escargot. This one was LOADED with escargot and had 2-3 per divot! I was in heaven and took down another loaf of bread by dipping it into the garlicky pesto juice. My lady friend said the french onion soup was great as well, especially with the crusted cheese and large croutons on top.

One of my favorite things about eating out is finding out the specials for the day. I get bored with menus pretty easily as most of them are similar to other restaurants in some way, shape, or form, so having the option to order off-menu items based on availability is appealing to me. Today, I was in luck. Not only did they have some special entrees that sounded great, but one happened to involved scallops, another one of my all-time favorites. The scallops were offered with creamed leeks and came in a lobster bisque broth and, seeing that I had already devoured almost 2 loaves of bread, I thought it would be a nice light course. Now, I cook a lot at home and if there is one thing Im great at its cooking scallops to perfection. Well, the chef at French Kiss must have that talent too because these scallops were spot-on perfectly cooked. Nicely seared outside, tender as all heck on the inside. The leeks and lobster bisque complimented the dish perfectly and I was able to resist mopping up the little remains of the bisque with another piece of bread even though it took a lot of willpower to do so. She had the salmon which came with pan-roasted potatoes and some crispy green beans with a nice butter sauce. The salmon was cooked perfectly as well and the beans and potatoes had a great crunch to them that contrasted the smoothness of the salmon.

My willpower was on a roll, so we resisted the chance to sample some dessert. Id had their creme brulee on a previous visit and it was a nice, creamy vanilla that hit the spot just right. Instead, we opted for the check and spent a few minutes enjoying conversation over a glass of savignon blanc. My date was happy to see that our meal only came to $90, including a 20% tip, and mentioned . Not bad for 2 appetizers, 2 entrees, and 4 glasses of wine, not to mention the free champagne and killer bread and butter. With a polite, friendly, and welcoming staff to compliment great food, French Kiss definitely earns a "highly recommended" rating.