Friday, March 26, 2010

Macallan Scotch 101

The other day I got a message on Twitter that someone had actually read my blog post where I talked about my latest great purchase - Japanese Ice Ball molds.  She invited me to a Macallan tasting event hosted by The Macallan Brand Ambassador Graeme Russell at the So Cool eVenue in Miami, just up the road from my place in Coconut Grove.  As ridiculous as the name of this venue sounds, it was actually a decent spot.

Being the PR helper that I am I recruited a bunch of friends to check it out after grabbing some good pie at Joey's.  After all, who doesn't like free whisky?  Notice that the spelling of "whisky" is the Scottish form.  That is one of the things we learned.  That Scots spell whiskey as "whisky".  Simpletons...  There was a lot of whisky wisdom passed on.

We got to sample Macallan 10, 12, 15, and 17 year fine oak scotch whisky and an 18 year sherry oak whisky.  At least I'm pretty sure that's what the breakdown was.  Not bad stuff but scotch just doesn't do the same for me that bourbon does.  Scotch is much more mild and dry and I find the flavors are less bold and more muted.  Nevertheless, this was pretty good scotch and a nice change of pace.  We also got to see the Macallan Ice Ball Machine at work which was pretty cool.  It'd be a lot more cool if it wasn't so frickin expensive but I guess it gives you something to aspire to.  For now I'll stick with my methods.

Check out the Macallan Ice Ball Maker in action with genuine Scottish narration!

Sunday, March 21, 2010

An Evening at Altamare, Miami Beach

I have lived in Miami for almost nine years now and have always heard that "Altamar" was a great spot for fresh seafood that had a nice local following on Miami Beach.  Unfortunately, I never made it there before the temporarily closed down.  When the restaurant moved to a larger space on the west side of Lincoln Road and added Michael's Genuine alum, Simon Stojanovic, along with an "e" at the end of it's name, I figured it was high time I gave it a shot.  Friday night, I did just that.

Upon entering the restaurant, we were greeted by two hostesses and a man who I believe was the owner, Claudio Giordano.  The restaurant apparently has expanded though it's still somewhat small.  The main dining room off to the left of the door features many two and four tops, a long banquette against the westernmost wall, and an elevated section of seating that offers looks into an open kitchen.  To the right of the door there is a small bar with two hi-def TVs and a little dining room to the North that looked a little more private.  The restaurant also has outdoor seating on the sidewalk of Lincoln Road.  

It was a nice night out but a little on the chilly side so we opted for a table in the main dining room against the back wall.  Our server brought over some water and bread and gave us a few minutes to sift through the menu.  The menu is comprised of four sections, broken down into ceviches/crudos, starters, mains, and sides.  The raw selections and the starters had a lot of interesting options so we opted to share a bunch rather than go with main courses.  We started with a bay scallop ceviche and a local Spanish mackerel crudo.  Both dishes were delicious.  The crudo consisted of Spanish mackerel, bottarga, meyer lemon, maldon sea salt, and extra virgin olive oil.  The fish was silky smooth and brightened by the meyer lemon and sea salt.  The bay scallops arrived in a little bowl that also contained blood orange, chives, and tiny julienne red pepper.  I loved the flavor combos of this dish.  We were off to a refreshingly good start.

Our next round of plates were more hearty.  A large bowl arrived with homemade mushroom ravioli bathing in a cream sauce.  Our server, Jean Marco, took the time to serve a few ravioli on our plates. The ravioli had a velvety texture and the cream sauce was surprisingly light.  Shaved black truffles added another dynamic to the dish that I wasn't expecting.  This was our favorite dish of the night. Next up was a seared snapper topped with saffron aioli and served on top of warm farro spiked with bits of cured chorizo and grilled meyer lemon.  I imagine this dish was inspired by the chef's days at Michael's Genuine as I'd previously enjoyed this preparation there with both local kingfish and local snapper.  This dish came up a bit short.  The fish was bland and the aioli was somewhat flavorless and more like a glop of mayo.  The farro, however, was awesome.  The texture of the farro had a slight chew to it that I loved.  I was surprised at the use of cured chorizo rather than fresh grilled but it worked really well with the texture of the farro.  I feel like I could eat a gigantic bowl of this stuff.

On Jean Marco's recommendation, we ended our meal with Altamare's house salad which consisted of heirloom tomatoes, toasted pumpkin seed, shaved fennel, and a pear balsamic vinaigrette.  It was a nice ending to a nice meal.  I found the food on this first visit was impressive and the portion sizes were larger than I expected.  We had shared five "starters" between the two of us and both left pretty full.  The best part of the night, outside of the food, was the service.  Jean Marco was the man.  The guy made recommendations for wine, food, and the progress of the meal.  He came by often enough to make sure our wine glasses were always full and plates were cleared without being intrusive.  He even took the time to personally serve us a few of our dishes.  I know we always expect service to suck in Miami and then get excited when our waiter or waitress actually gets the order correct but this was phenomenal service in any city, any town.

I'm glad I finally made the effort to try Altamare.  The quality of the food and service was great and the value was there too.  It is a nice option to have in the Lincoln Road area and I look forward to future visits.

Monday, March 15, 2010

Bargain Alert - Wine!

Yo oenophiles and wine-os!  I recently learned about a website called WTSO - Wines Til Sold Out that has killer deals on wine and will ship to your location.  They feature a few wines daily (rarely more than 3 in a day) at anywhere between 30-70% off store and internet prices.  Quantities are limited and undisclosed so you never know when a wine will sell out.  Once a wine be gone, it be gone forever.  You also never know what will pop up next.  Maybe it'll be your favorite wine?

It's kind of addicting in an eBay sorta way, especially when you can sign up for their email blasts to be notified when a new wine goes on sale.  Some people I know are buying a bottle almost every day just because they're caught up in capitalizing on a good wine deal.  Shoot on over to WTSO and check it out for yourself but don't blame me if you become addicted!

Friday, March 12, 2010

Tweet Me In Miami

Andrew Nelson, a writer for National Geographic Traveler, recently came to visit Miami.  He used Twitter as his guide to the city, soliciting suggestions on sites to see, hotels to rest his head, and places to get his grub on.  I was one of about a dozen people who assisted him with recommendations on his trip and I had the chance to meet up with him before he skipped town.  Andrew is a real nice guy and wrote about his experience with Twitter and the city of Miami here.  It's really cool to see technology involved in enhancing one's travel experience.  Andrew got to see Miami in a way that most visitors do not, beyond the sexiness of South Beach and into the worldly neighborhoods that make up this city.  Check it out sometime. It's a great read.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

On the Road: Tacos El Gordo, National City, CA

I've been meaning to start an "On the Road" series on this blog for awhile now.  My travels have led me to some great cities and even better spots to grab a bite to eat.  Just yesterday, I made the drive from LA to San Diego and met up with my friend, Ann, who I know from my days at UMass.  Fortunately for me, Ann knows some great spots in San Diego to satiate oneself and, like me, she enjoys offal.

After a not-so-great couple of small plates at a Japanese tapas-style joint called Tajima, we headed to Tacos El Gordo to fill our bellies properly.  Ann had told me about Tacos El Gordo on my last visit to San Diego but I was busy with appointements and couldn't make it there for lunch.  She had said that they have the best tacos and that they have various offal tacos like lengua (tongue), tripa (tripe), and cabeza (cow's head).  I was pumped.

The menu and counter where the magic happens @ Tacos El Gordo

Those of you looking for ambiance need not visit Tacos El Gordo.  The restaurant's design is simple - red tables and chairs, white walls, an order counter, fountain drink counter, fixins counter, and payment counter.  Oh, and there are a couple of stuffed cow heads mounted on two corners of the front wall, on of which was donning a sombrero that read "MEXICO" on it on this particular night.  Awesome.  There are three spots to order from, depending on what you want.  One guy makes "normal" tacos like pork adobada, where the meat is shaved like it is for a gyro, and carne asada.  Another station is where fresh quesadillas are prepared and the final station is where the offal tacos are prepared.  

Clockwise from bottom left: grilled onions/peppers, taco de tripa, tostada adobada, 3 tacos de adobada, taco de cabeza, taco de tripa (spicy)

We went with the spread shown above consisting of tacos de tripa, tacos de cabeza, and tacos de adobada along with some grilled green onions and peppers.  The tortillas for each taco were as fresh as can be.  The tacos de adobada consisted of shaved pork topped with chopped onion, tomato, and a cilantro crema.  These are Ann's favorite and I thought they were very good.  The tacos de tripa were my favorite, with the rich flavor of the tripe pairing well with the flavor of the fresh tortilla and the kick of the spicy sauce while the crunch of diced onion added a nice texture.  The taco de cabeza was a close runner up.  The meat was very tender and the cook's suggestion to squeeze a little lime over it was a good one.  I washed it all down with a "Horchata Ole!" from the fountain station that was surprisingly refreshing.

After we noshed, I approached the counter and asked how the meat for the tacos de cabeza is cooked.  The cook admitted his English wasn't too great and I admitted my Spanish was equally meager but we both knew enough of each language for me to figure it out.  Apparently they take all the offal (which today consisted of tongue, brains (cesos), beef shoulder (suadero), pork belly (buche), cow's eyes (ojos!!!), cow's head, and tripe) and boil it for 3 hours.  After that, they place it on a steaming tray where it sits until it's ordered.  At that point, it gets roughly chopped with a cleaver and thrown on the grill for a few minutes before being tossed into a tortilla and topped with diced veggies and sauces.

We left full and satisfied and all for about $10 each which included a couple of bucks in tips for the cooks.  It was a great experience, made even more amusing by the fact that we were the only gringos in the joint.  I can't imagine many are fired up to eat tacos made from cow's head meat but that's fine.  They're missing out.  These people are taking parts that are usually tossed in the garbage and making some great tasting food at very affordable prices, all of which is made fresh daily.  If you're in the San Diego area and in the mooooooooood for an adventurously good taco, head about 10 minutes South to National City and check out Tacos El Gordo.
"Who's in the mooooooood for tacos?"

Sunday, March 7, 2010

Tastes of the Internet

I will admit - I love the internet.  It has all the answers.  What is sous vide?  When are pomegranates in season?  How can I make my own Bacon Explosion?  It also has a lot of cool stuff available to buy and I am no stranger to the "buy it now" button.  Over the past few weeks, I picked up these cool new items:
  • Hamburger T-shirt - When the Burger Beast invited me to take part in his first Miami Burger Tour, it didn't take much convincing for me to hop in on the action.  That said, you can't go on a Burger Tour without proper apparel and it just so happened that Threadless reprinted a t-shirt I had on my watch list just in time for the event.  
This burger skips the small talk and gets straight to the point 
  •  Bourbon Chocolate Bar - You know that look a dog gets when you say, "Wanna go outside?"  Head raised, ears perked, tail wagging with excitement.  That's the same look I had when I was reading through a bourbon forum post and came across a rumor of a chocolate bar made with George T. Stagg bourbon, the very bourbon I had recently given 2009 top honors to.  Nina Wanat, the founder over at Bon Bon Bar managed to pack in the awesomeness of bourbon into little bite sized chocolate bars made up of bourbon ganache, chewy caramel, dark chocolate, maldon salt, black pepper, and corn wafer.  I found the bourbon flavor to be noticeable enough though not too prominent in each bite.  The maldon salt enhances the flavor of the chocolate in a good way and the black pepper provides a nice spice.  It was an ok purchase influenced by the fact that it had bourbon in it.
 Bourbon loves Chocolate 4eva
  • Japanese Ice Ball Molds - I find that good bourbon is best enjoyed neat or with minimal ice to keep it cool without watering it down.  Here in Miami, ice tends to melt quick.  Luckily, the Japanese have found that ice in a spherical shape melts a lot slower due to its' smaller surface area.  Thus, it has the ability to keep a drink cool without diluting it too much.  Previously, I'd only been able to find these advanced ice ball makers that look really cool but come with a hefty price tag.  One day, I stumbled upon a link to the MoMA Store where they were selling a plastic mold for a decent price so I figured I'd give 'em a shot.  While they certainly don't look as cool as the expensive molds, they get the job done and I think they are a lot easier to use.  The package came with two of the 2-ball molds you see below so you can make four ice balls at a time.  This is great for stocking up the ice bucket.  I tested the first ice ball with a glass of Woodford Reserve and it worked great with the ice ball keeping its' shape and lasting for about 90 minutes!  If you like your spirits on the rocks but don't like them getting watered down, this is the inexpensive way to do it.


Domo arigato, MoMA-san

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

SBWFF - The Best of the Best

I am a pretty lucky guy when it comes to having kickass friends and this past week my luck peaked when I was offered a ticket to the South Beach Wine & Food Festival's Best of the Best event.  I was told that there was a ticket available for me right before I left for a NY-Boston business trip and I was beyond excited.  I'd never been to one of these big SBWFF events for the masses so I was eager to see what it was like.  I was so excited, in fact, that I left nothing to chance after 4 days of nasty rain and snow in the Northeast and elected to take a 6am flight back to Ft. Lauderdale to guarantee that I would be back for this event!

Rallying after two hours of sleep, I met up with my friends Paula and D and we headed over to the Fontainebleau.  After a sort of awkward "champagne reception" where a singer belted out both the French and US national anthems, the doors opened and the crowd moved into the main ballroom.  The first stop was the main table where each received a wine glass along with a little holster that allowed you to carry your wine around your neck so your hands were free to chow down.  This was key because most, if not all, eating was done standing up by the booths that served the food.  It was also extremely emasculating to be standing there with a wine glass necklace on.

We made our way to the back and, after a bite of braised shortrib with a creamy, parmesan-laden polenta, found ourselves staring at Miami Beach's own Andrea Curto-Randazzo of Talula plating up some meatball sliders with ricotta and "Sunday Sauce".  At first I was a little surprised that they went so simple with a slider.  After all, they were a local restaurant with a chance to impress and draw in customers.  The slider was a winner though, with the subtle coolness of the fresh ricotta and chiffonade of basil taming the warm ball of meat and sauce.  Apparently others thought it was a winner too as I saw many a guest walking around the ballroom with one in their hands.

I was pleasantly surprised at the quality of most of the dishes that we tried and even more surprised to see that many of the exhibiting restaurants were plating offal in the likes of trotters, livers, tongues, and even head cheese.  The crispy pig trotter from Fig in Charleston, SC was an early favorite of mine.  It was served in a paper cone with some microgreens and a beet mustard that had a beautiful fuchsia color to it and an even more beautiful flavor.  I trotted my way back to that booth for seconds.  A dish I found surprisingly good was the kimchi stew with bbq Korean kogi and tofu from Chicago's Urbanbelly.  The stew was piping hot and loaded with flavor from the kimchi and bbq kogi.  Another favorite of mine came from another Chicago restaurant.  Charlie Trotter's booth served a 72hr braised oxtail ravioli with umeboshi, curried squash, and shaved bonito.  Delicious!

Charlie Trotter's 72hr braised oxtail ravioli with umeboshi, curried squash, and shaved bonito - photo by Paula of Mango & Lime

 Morimoto's Pork Belly w/ congee - photo by Paula of Mango & Lime

We eventually made the decision to attempt to get a dish from Masaharu Morimoto's booth where the only real line in the entire ballroom had formed.  The Iron Chef made sure to plate every dish himself and did so with a smile and a little banter for each guest.  Morimoto is just a class act all around.  His dish was very good and the pork belly stood out to me for being extremely tender and minimally fatty.  We ran into Sara from All Purpose Dark who told us that the foie gras bon bons from Naomi Pomeroy of Beast in Portland, OR were a must try so we sauntered over for a taste.  Dozens of little foie gras bon bons sitting atop cracked pepper shortbread and topped with a quince-champagne gelee looked like royalties on a plate.  The cool, rich flavor of the foie played nicely with the quince and sweetness of the shortbread.  We went back for another round that we called "dessert" and were able to score the last two available.  Sweet, indeed.

Beast's foie gras bon bons w/ quince-champagne gelee and cracked pepper shortbread - photo by Paula of Mango & Lime

I was determined to find the booth for Boston's own O Ya, owned by Tim Cushman and named one of Boston's best year after year.  I had just had dinner there Thursday night with my mum and it was a fantastic meal.  I found the booth serving a hamachi sashimi with viet mignonette, fried shallots and basil and walked up to grab a bite and introduce myself.  Tim and I spoke for a second before he motioned to one of his employees and told him I'd been at the restaurant the night before.  Turns out it was the sushi chef who created many of my dishes right in front of me that night!  Funny stuff!  

McCready's Scallop & Pork Jowl w/ Sunchoke Pickle - photo by Paula of Mango & Lime

My favorite dish of the night, hands down, came from Sean Brock of McCrady's in Charleston, SC.  My buddies Chadzilla and Chef K have been telling me to visit Sean's joint next time my travel brings me to Charleston but after this dish I may have to make a special trip.  I also know he is a bourbon fan.  Sean had an immersion circulator at the back of his booth set to 69.2C with cryovac'd scallops taking a nice bath.  They were plated with a magnificent crispy hunk of pork jowl and sunchoke pickle that provided a refreshing crunch.  I cannot for the life of me remember the sauce that was on the plate but I remember it being salty and awesome.  This was an incredible dish.  After we finished, D spotted Rev Run of Run DMC and went over to compare Adidas kicks.  A woman in a skinny white dress looked familiar to me.  Turns out it was Real Housewife of NY, Kelly Bensimon, who I had seen recently for the first time sans clothing on the pages of the latest issue of Playboy magazine.  Let's just say the airbrush guys deserve a raise...

Overall, I thought the Best of the Best showcased many dishes that were worthy of the title.  I was happy that it wasn't too crowded and we were able to try many dishes without having to wait in long lines.  Perhaps the $350 ticket price had something to do with that?  I enjoyed the event and left weathered, weary, and tired.  I think I managed to try about 15-20 plates (including those I went for seconds).   We headed to Scarpetta for a bourbon nightcap before heading out so we could avoid the mob scene at the valet stand.  People have asked if I would do this event again.  For $350?  Not likely.  The event showcased some fantastic dishes and top shelf wines and bubbly but $350 is about $100-$150 too much for a stand-and-eat-dinner if you ask me.

Monday, March 1, 2010

An Offal Meal

After an afternoon of wandering from tent to tent, booth to booth, at the South Beach Wine & Food Festival, I felt like I accomplished something.  It had nothing to do with anything I did at any of the booths, rather it was what I didn't do - over eat and/or get bombed from boozin' like a madman.  Why?  I had a reservation for dinner with friends at Talula where they were offering a special 7-course offal-themed tasting menu.


After getting off to a rough start with wine, vodka, bourbon, and beer at the Festival, I reminded myself that I needed to stay sober so I could drive home to Coconut Grove and back to the beach before dinner.  I had just heard about this menu and was interested in giving it a shot.   At Cobaya Dinner #1, I got a taste of what the team at Talula can do when given the chance to be creative and it ended up being my favorite meal of the year.  

I was a little late arriving but I already knew what I'd be ordering so we were able to get going pretty quickly.  Three out of 5 of us got the offal tasting menu while the others ordered the ceviche, tomato soup w/ lobster, grouper, and the aged spinalis which was one of my favorite dishes from last year.  The tasting menu started off with a confit of beef heart salad that I really enjoyed.  The heart was sliced very thin which kept the dish light.  It was a nice start to the meal.  The sweetbreads that followed were a tad heavier and had a fantastic contrast of flavors and textures.  

The ceviche and soup apps for the others arrived during the third course, the braised pig ear risotto.  I had really only had pig ear in crispy fried form before so this one was interesting.  I liked the somewhat gelatinous texture of the pig ear along with the slight chew of its' cartilage but I thought the risotto was a little dense.  The sauteed duck hearts that followed were my second favorite dish of the night.  The hearts were tender with a nice meaty flavor and the smoked grapes were delicious.  The flavor of the grapes triggered some sort of memory for me but I ran out of grapes before I could place what it was.  I had been looking forward to the tripe cassoulet but it fell a little short for me because my portion was lacking in the tripe department.  I also thought it was a bit heavy for the 5th course of a seven course meal.  

photo by @djkmia

Our final dinner course was absolutely phenomenal.  A combo of chicken liver pate and house cured pastrami along with some pickled onions and honey mustard had a multitude of flavors singing in harmony.  The textures and sweetness of the mustard reminded me of a bbq pulled pork sandwich with an added earthiness provided by the livers.  A great final savory flavor to the meal.
photo by @djkmia

Dessert came in the form of foie gras doughnuts with a blackberry-chile jam.  I really don't have much of a sweet tooth but I practically licked the plate clean.  The doughnut was light, airy, and fresh.  When I put my knife to it, the foie gras filling oozed out onto the plate.  I used slices of doughnut to sop up this sugary rich gob of awesomeness.  The tartness of the blackberry-chile jam was a nice contrast of flavor.

We finished up the meal right around closing time and Talula's Sous Chef, Kyle Foster, came out and chatted with us for awhile.  One of the servers had mentioned that Kyle had put a lot of thought into creating the offal tasting menu and it showed.  I appreciated the skill involved in making some delicious dishes out of things that usually elicit a "Ewww, gross!" response from people.  There are few chefs who dare to do so in Miami and Talula has executed it well on two out of two occasions for me.  I need to make a solid effort to hit up Talula more often when I'm on Miami Beach and I encourage all to do the same.  Great food and friendly, attentive service make for a great dining experience. 

Check out Talula's dinner menu here.