Monday, July 13, 2009

Running with the Bulls (and possibly the devil too) at Por Fin

Friday night I met up with some new friends who had gathered at Por Fin in Coral Gables. They had the whole "running with the bulls" happy hour thingy going on with 2 for 1 on some drinks and lower priced tapas from what I gathered. I never looked at a menu though since I was with a group that fluctuated from 6 to 9 people throughout the night and a few of them knew the menu. Sometimes its nice not to have to make decisions, ya know? The upstairs was packed when I got there around 630pm and stayed that way pretty much until midnight. I did check out downstairs at one point around 9pm and it too was full.

The food...was really good! I thought the croquetas were incredibly tasty and I liked how they were plated with the choice of a garlic aioli or fig jam on opposite corners of the plate for dipping. There was some sort of bruschetta that appeared early in the night that I thought was just OK and seemed to be overly "olive-y" in flavor. Both a meat and a cheese plate made their way around too and everything seemed typical, none too exciting, with the exception of a blue cheese (cambozola?) that I really liked but cant remember its name. A bowl of potato chips with blue cheese all over them was also very tasty. Someone ordered some dish that looked like a potato skin with cheese and prosciutto on it but I didnt really get a good look at it nor a chance to take a bite. The one non-tapas-menu dish that I did get to try that I really, really enjoyed was the Huevos Por Fin. A bowl of potato chips, a fried egg, some melted cheese, some cured pork (serrano?), and some truffle oil really tasted like pure awesomeness once it was mixed together a little. I didnt notice any potato foam though which someone had mentioned was once on the dish.

Beer, sangria, and a crapload of wine flowed throughout the night. Apparently the Pinot Noir was good, let's just leave it at that. People also enjoyed the sangria but only when they asked that the simple syrup be removed as it was much too sweet. I had a sip of the white sangria sans syrup and still found it to be sweet but also refreshing. Beer selection was Bud Light, Grolsch, or a new organic beer from Michelob called Stone Mill. I went with the Stone Mill on a friend's recommendation and was surprised when it tasted really good! Unfortunately, they ran out before I could get another one so I switched to Grolsch and then later to Maker's Mark. The weak beer selection needs to be improved and running out kinda blew. With all the alcohol I've listed here, you can probably understand how we ended up at some whacky karaoke bar until 2am...yeah.

The food was great and everyone in the room seemed to have a great time. However, the biggest buzzkill was dealing with the check. Apparently their computers werent set up properly for the 2 for 1 or the cheap tapas because the bill was an absolute trainwreck. Luckily we had one guy on a mission to make sure that they got it right and he managed to do so in a completely calm and understanding manner which I think really helped the situation. I think this back n forth went on for about 45 minutes which was a tad absurd. Granted, we were a large party but I still think the bill at the end of the night was effed up. We did tip well though since the service was VERY good. I actually give the servers a lot of credit and the kitchen and bar as well because they really did a great job and were really polite and accommodating even though the place was packed and it was tough to move between the tables. Id definitely recommend Por Fin to friends and I'll have to make it back sometime myself. It was a fun place with a great vibe and the food was delicious.

Friday, July 10, 2009

Cheap beer and tapas = Im there! Calafate Grill, Sunny Isles

Popped into Calafate Grill up in Sunny Isles for a quick snack and a beer prior to a dinner meeting I was headed to elsewhere. I had heard about their happy hour with $3 beers, sangria, and tapas, so I was eager to give this joint a shot. Who doesnt like $3 beers and tapas?

The restaurant space is clean with a nice "L" shaped bar against the back wall, a "lounge" area with some fashionable chairs and couches in the middle of the room, and then some tables lined up in uniform throughout the rest of the room. I thought the bar area looked good and felt comfy, even though the chairs didnt really allow you to lean back at all. The lounge area was kinda cool, I guess, but the rest of the room kinda seemed like a cafeteria. Plenty of light let in by the window but not much to liven up the table area besides that. The few people who sat at tables just kinda seemed like they were on display. That didnt matter that much to me though as Im a bar guy anyways.

The selection of $3 beers is actually not bad. I opted for a Negro Modelo and a friend had the sangria. The $3 tapas menu was broken down into seafood, meats, and veggie sections. Since I was going to a dinner meeting and didnt want to ruin my appetite, I only tried one tapas plate. I went with the fried calamari served with lemon and their own bravas sauce which, at $3, was a much larger portion than I expected. The calamari was light and crisp, seasoned nicely, and served on a bed of lettuce. There was a good mixture of rings and tentacles too. The best part about the calamari dish, however, was the bravas sauce. This sauce had an awesome fire-y kick to it, just enough to give off some spicy heat and make you want to go back for more.

I wanted to try a few more dishes but we had to get going to chow elsewhere. I can definitely see myself taking advantage of this spot when Im up in the Sunny Isles area, especially for happy hour.

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

The time is NAOE!

I had heard about NAOE on the Florida Chowhound board quite some time ago. As a big fan of Japanese cuisine and an even bigger fan of the omakase menu, I was excited to give this place a shot. The only menu youll find here is a list of sake and other beverages. Other than that, its all omakase, or "chef's choice". The experience begins with a bento box ($26) and then moves on to pieces of nigirizushi ($4-$8ea) until you tap out. Yeah, its kinda awesome.

Well, after a 2nd trip to NAOE, my long overdue detailed report....

First the bento box components, separated into 4 quadrants:

Quadrant 1:
- madai (sea bream), portabella mushroom, mitsuba custard/soup served in a little clay cup
Quadrant 2:
- sake simmered Scottish salmon rolled with konbu seaweed on a toothpick-like skewer
- aji (horse mackerel) fried with a dusting of matcha tea
- yamaimo (mountain potato) fried with seaweed powder
- sake steamed ankimo, sake steamed sea bream milt, unfiltered soy sauce, miso, green beans, and cucumber
Quadrant 3:
- local king mackerel marinated in rice vinegar konbu topped with an okra, miso, soy, citrus, and wasabi "dressing"
Quadrant 4:
- parsnip rice with rice bran pickled daikon

And, of course, the soup component:
- soft poached organic chicken egg yolk, organic carrot, organic daikon, mitsuba, dashi (broth from dried skipjack tuna & konbu) soup

The madai/portabella custard intrigued me the most so I went after it first, using the little wooden spoon provided. The custard was very light yet held chunks of sea bream and portabella. Once the custard was broken up a bit, it turned into a nice little soup and the mitsuba broth really got a chance to shine. The custard was very hot, having just been removed from the steamer, so I moved on to the 2nd quadrant and went for 1 of the 2 bites of the sake simmered salmon wrapped in konbu. It had a very clean, sweet, and cool flavor that brought my mouth temp back down nicely so I could return to the custard again. The rice was similar to my last visit in shape only. This time I found the rice to be just ok on its own but much better when enhanced with some of the shoyu that Chef Cory serves. Last time I had a sardine rice that I liked straight up. Next I volleyed between the kingfish and the fried aji and potato. I dont recall a distinct flavor with the fried components but I love how Chef Cory incorporates the texture of a fried item into the bento box. Its like that guy who plays the triangle in an orchestra, you get just enough to know its there and realize the score wouldnt be complete without it. The kingfish was one of my favorite components though. It was layered with konbu and I really liked the okra/wasabi/miso dressing. A very fresh tasting dish. I saved the best for last though. The sake steamed ankimo was phenomenal. Its really hard to describe the flavor. It was just damn good.

After finishing off the bento box, I hit up the soup to wash it all down. I really liked the texture that the chicken egg provided and the dashi broth was very flavorful. The veggie ingredients provided a nice hearty component.

This bento box and soup combo was much more filling that the one I had on my first visit to NAOE, so I was torn between adding some nigirizushi or not. That lasted about 2 seconds. Next thing I knew, I was eating the following:

- Scottish salmon nigirizushi (belly side, but more towards the tail, so not the actual belly, even though fatty)
- aji nigirizushi with grated organic ginger on top
- aoriika (bigfin reef squid) nigirizushi brushed with orange soy sauce
- madai nigirizushi brused with orange soy sauce
- shiraebi (white shrimp) with grated organic ginger on top
- Hokkaido uni with grated wasabi on top
- aoyagi (orange/surf clam) with orange soy sauce
- fresh unagiyaki with sansho pepper

Though there was only enough uni to make 3 small nigirizushi for me and the 2 other patrons at the bar to share, it was still delicious. Besides, 1 is better than none! Chef Cory related that this type of uni is only available June and July (I hope I got that correct...). My preference for uni aside, I really liked the addition of the grated ginger on the aji and the shiraebi. It was a nice flavor enhancement. The unagi, flown in fresh with no additives or preservatives, was a sweet ending to a great meal. Well, I shouldnt say ending because Chef Cory served us some cantelope and donut peach with sweet rice vinegar fish sauce as he totaled up the bill for the 3 of us that remained at the bar. Yum.

I've said it before and I'll say it again - NAOE is not a restaurant. It is a dining experience. I've had the pleasure of sitting at the bar on both visits, watching Chef Cory slice, dice, slide, and glide while cooking the components for the bento box. He shows focus but at the same time he shows that he has a great personality, taking time to chit chat with diners when he gets a free second or if someone chimes in with a question. I have learned something new on each visit and I'm grateful for having that as part of the dining experience. You just dont get that everywhere. Another cool thing about NAOE, at least for the time being, is the personal attention. Sunday night I was the only 730p rez with 2 walking in a tad late but Chef Cory accommodating them anyways. Two more showed at 830p and that was it for the night for reservations. With only 5 people in the restaurant, everyone sat at the bar. I found it amusing when I noticed that all 5 of us were all watching closely as Chef Cory sliced up some cantaloupe for the first 2 diners who had finished their meal. A simple pleasure of a fully open kitchen and a chef at work. Add that to the element of surprise with the omakase menu, plus the friendliness of Chef Cory, Wendy, and their new dishwasher (I missed his name but he is a very nice guy and, much like Wendy, always makes sure your sake glass is full), and you really have something unique to enjoy rather than "just a meal".

Though I live a good 30 minutes away, I can tell I'll be making the pilgrimage to NAOE often. Its the type of restaurant that really hits the mark for "foodies", whether you like the term or not.

175 Sunny Isles Blvd
Sunny Isles Beach, FL 33160
305-947-NAOE (6263)

Friday, July 3, 2009

Pizza Crawl - First Cheese, part 3

Thought Id get the comments going after round 3 of the multi-series of Pizza Crawls that have taken place in order to find what I will just call, "the most preferred" pizza in Miami. Though I didnt participate in round 2, Id have to say that last night's round 3 had to be the weakest of the bunch even though it was the most convenient since all the pizza joints we tried we all within walking distance of one another. Here are my thoughts on last night's contestants:

Sosta - Very sharp looking pizza joint, complete with high ceilings, metallic colors, wine bottles lining the walls, and a manager(?) donning a suit with an open collar, Miami style. I found that a tad funny. This is pizza we're talking about. There was also an ample amount of staff inside and outside to take care of all the diners. The one thing that kinda turned me off from the get go was the selections of pizzas on the menu. Many were the EXACT same pizzas as Spris, right down to the names. Now, I can understand that there are staple pies that every place is gonna have but this menu just seemed like the Nexxt Cafe/Cheesecake Factory kind of similarity. We ordered 4 different pies, including the namesake "Sosta". The only ones that were any sort of memorable were the Sosta and another one with anchovies and capers and those were maybe above average pies, nothing to write home to mom and dad about. There was also a carpaccio pizza that was decent. The other one was obviously forgettable because I dont recall what it was. Overall, this one got a "C+" grade from me for the pizza and an "A" for the gorgeous blonde hostess who sat our table.

Piola - I liked the vibe of this place. High ceilings, lots of booths and tables, and a little bar by the entrance too. No glitz or glamour, just a hangout spot. Unfortunately, I didnt like the pizza at all. I thought all of the 4 pies we tried were just bland. The carbonara pizza, my favorite kind of pizza, was loaded with cheese and little toppings. Tasted more like a sausage pizza, actually. The one white pizza we got with catupiry cheese, hearts of palm, and artichokes tasted like nothing. Literally zero taste except maybe a little creaminess from the cheese. One of the pies we had was a "Neapolitan style" that was supposed to be a thicker crust and had anchovies and some other veg on it. It did have a thicker crust, except I couldnt tell how much thicker since I forgot to bring my micrometer. It was more like, "we made a smaller pizza interior and just pushed more dough to the outside for crust rather than stretching it like we do on every other pizza." The other pizza we had I dont quite recall though I believe sundried tomatoes were involved. That or it was one with cherry tomatoes that was really, really watery. Overall, I give this place a "B+" for vibe and a "D-" for pizza.

Spris - Ok, so Im a huge fan of Spris and obviously my opinions were going to be skewed from the get go. Not for nothing, but I really wanted to find a place better than Spris because sometimes that place is just too damn crowded. Well, I didnt. Spris was the unanimous winner of the night. It was like watching an old Tyson fight where his opponent gets knocked out 23 seconds into the first round and fans sit there in awe, wondering why they just paid $29.99 for 23 seconds of Pay Per View. We shouldve just done 3 visits to Spris and tried 12 of their many pizzas. Having seriously hyped up Spris' Carbonara pizza in round 1 and earlier in the night, I was eager to get its awesomeness in my system while also slightly afraid that the other diners wouldnt share my admiration for this pie. For the most part, I think it stood up to the hype, although I gotta say that this is a pie that should be split between 2-3 people MAX in order to really enjoy the sunny side up egg in the middle and all its yolky goodness. The egg, thin sliced pancetta, and shaved parmesan just rock together. I think the group's favorite, however, was the "Patata e Panchetta" pizza that came with thin slices of potato, pancetta, mozzarella, rosemary and shaved parmesan. That one really impressed me as Id never had it and I could see myself possibly getting one instead of the carbonara next time Im there. The 3rd pizza was the Ortolana which came with tons of different veggies - portobellos, eggplant, zucchini, peppers, and tomatoes I think. This one just reminded me of why Spris kicks ass - they LOAD the toppings. The other places we ate at were tough to really sample because the toppings were scattered in various pockets of the pizza. Spris had awesome "topping management" with zero sample slices going without some "meat" on them. The only pizza that was a bust here, and it was a total crapshoot to begin with, was the Frutti di Mare pizza. Chewy calamari and other shellfish just doesnt mix well with an oven and a pizza for me. Just way too chewy. Overall, Spris still gets an "A" in my book for their pizza and another "A" for people watching on a busy section of Lincoln Road.

As we "crawled" from joint to joint, I kept going back to Round 1... Did I really like Pizzavolante that much better than Joeys? I was having 2nd thoughts. I may have to return to both again. I remember the pie at PV with the guanciale being the winner of the night for me, but I did like Joey's crust and thought their pies were somewhat creative even if they didnt do it for me flavor wise. Now with Spris in the mix, Im not sure which I like best. I can say this though, that Carbonara and Patata e Panchetta pizza at Spris are tough to beat for me. I dont think anything I had elsewhere measured up really. Nice thin, crispy crust and plenty o' toppings at a good price. I guess I just made up my mind. Spris is the winner for me so far. Mr. 2top says Casale is incredible though so Im looking forward to its opening and the next crawl.

*I missed Part 2 of the pizza crawl which ventured north to Anthony's Coal Fired, Racks, and Pizza Fusion. Though the gang at the crawl said Racks was pretty awesome, I cant really say I care to even include it. I dont consider that area part of Miami (its Aventura) and I'll never travel that far for a pizza unless its covered in $100 bills and served by nude Playmates.