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Wednesday, October 28, 2015

Dolce Vita Gelato Café

     No matter how many gelato stands open on this side of the pond, speaking strictly from my experience, gelato-making continues to be Italy's best-kept secret. I conclude it must have something to do with their cream. Italian cows are my new spirit animals.
     Dolce Vita in Coconut Grove came highly recommended. The word 'authentic' was used, and that perked up my ears. Alas, it didn't quite meet expectations, and yes, I know, my expectations seem impossibly high.
     Rows upon rows of containers filled with colorful options were displayed with labels that said all the right things- Dulce de Leche chips, Ferrero, chocolate orange, Nocciola, pistaccio. My friend Michele chose the Passion Fruit and Oreo. I picked the Ferrero and the chocolate orange, because you should always have two flavors, never one alone. It's gelato law. It was good. Better than the average ice cream shop offerings, but that dense velvet texture, that rich, full-body flavor was simply not there. Even the surprise strips of candied orange rind in my chocolate couldn't make up for the deficit.
     I will say this: If you've never been to Italy, or if the memory of that gelato has faded, this is a fun and satisfying alternative. However, I am cursed with the vivid memory of rich Italian ice cream, and the hunger to duplicate that experience will have me searching everywhere for that elusive frozen food of the gods until I return to its birthplace.
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Wednesday, October 21, 2015

Le Bouchon du Grove

     I challenge anyone who has traveled to Europe to deny that upon returning, you begin a lifelong search for moments that will in some way take you back to your days on the Continent.This minuscule place in the Coconut Grove area of Miami does an excellent job of replicating the cafes that line the streets of Paris.
     There isn't one inch of Le Bouchon du Grove that is not covered with bottles, pictures, lamps and knickknacks, and the gap between the tables is so small, a great deal of skill is necessary on the part of the waiters to weave in and out while serving dishes. But the chaos is charmingly French, and had it been a slightly cooler day, sitting under the frame of the French doors right on the sidewalk would have been the perfect European experience.

      My brunch companion that Saturday morning was my friend Michele. She ordered the banana pancakes, and I wanted a rendezvous with my old friend Croque Monsieur. Michele loved her pancakes. I, on the other hand, was stood up. Monsieur never showed. What did arrive was the best French baguette ham and cheese sandwich I've had in my life, but it was definitely missing some Croque Monsieur elements. There was no melted cheese topping and no sweetness in the bread. It was such a good sandwich, though, I didn't miss my Monsieur that much.
     Our waiter was efficient, tall and handsome, but had an arrogance about him that could only be charming if he had at least pretended to have a French accent. Without that touch, the haughtiness was just off-putting.
     The company you keep during a meal is critical to the overall experience, and my company was excellent. That alone made for a lovely morning. Le Bouchon, however, didn't do its part. It didn't offer the richness I seek in a brunch event. I left with a sense of incompleteness, like I had missed something. We made a quick exit and ran to the gelato café down the street. More on that in the next post.

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Monday, October 19, 2015

Christy's

     Confession: When the meal is humdrum, I get writer's burnout. I strain to find the words to at least offer an inspired description. But when the fare is imaginative, I can hardly wait to get home and start writing. Food is the muse for this blog, and for me writing about it can be as satisfying as eating it, if the muse ignites. Today the muse is aroused.
     On this, our last Miami Spice outing of the year, we went classic. Christy's is widely known as the quintessential elegant steakhouse in the city, and now I know why.
For thirty years, this polished restaurant has consistently served the finest steaks and other refined dishes in an atmosphere of gentility and exquisite service.
     When our impeccable waiter offered a lychee martini almost immediately after his initial greeting, I knew it would be a good night. It was a little stronger than I prefer, but heavenly just the same. John had a glass of an acceptable Pinot Noir.
     For the appetizer, we both chose the lobster bisque. Even the name is sexy, isn't it? Bisque. I love saying it. And this one was definitely seductive and savory. If you could eat velvet, this is what it would feel like to your palate.

     For entrees, John chose the Filet Mignon, cooked medium, with 'chips', which were really nickel-sized slices of gently fried potatoes. This steak was so beautiful, I just couldn't take my eyes of it as John slowly cut piece after piece. Seared-in juices dripped through the deep pink middle, and the texture was like nothing I've ever experienced in a steak. It melted in my mouth almost instantly, like a dense mousse.
     I had the Red Snapper in lemon beurre blanc and topped with a tossing of  greens, black beans and roasted corn. Every bite of the generous filet was an experience in rich flavor. The citrus-infused butter sauce enhanced the flavor of the fish, and married beautifully with the topping while allowing every element to retain its individuality.
     For dessert, we ordered the Key lime cheesecake and the Four-Nut Brownie. The brownie had a good balance of moist and dense, and any number of nuts is good for me. It came with vanilla ice cream, and although not commensurate with the elegance of the other courses, it punctuated the meal nicely. The cheesecake was a bit of a disappointment. I like the taste of Key lime to be powerful, but the boundary into overwhelming should not be crossed. This dessert had me puckering the whole time. And not to be picky, but the whipped cream wilted right in front of my eyes. Those egg whites never became firm peaks.
     I did a little Math after this lovely meal. John's filet mignon is usually priced around $42. Add roughly $11 for the bisque and another $9 for the dessert. Top that with an extra $9 for the glass of wine and you have a total of $71 for one person. Considering the prix fixe is $39 per person, Miami Spice is a deal you can't beat. Can't wait until next year.

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Wednesday, October 14, 2015

Hurricane Grill

     I can't tell you how happy I get when I find a place near home that John and I can add to our rotation of regular eateries. When my frequent foodie companion Jackie urged me to go with her, my expectations were simple: a quiet dinner with my friend after a grueling day preparing for the beginning of the school year. What I got was so much more.
 
      The exterior belies what awaits you inside except for the hint provided by the colorful high chairs for alfresco dining. When the doors open, the city is left behind and you are transported to a lazy beach town with more brightly painted chairs, the salty smell of fish frying, and walls decorated with surfboards, lifesavers, and oars, oh my! Even the restrooms use galvanized metal wash tubs as whimsical sinks.

     We both ordered the sangria and were disappointed. For me, it wasn't sweet or fruity enough. To Jackie, it seemed watered down. She tried a glass of Merlot and remained discontented, so she settled on a Moscato. I ordered a diet Coke and spritzed the sangria.
      It was hard for me to choose from the menu. So many things were inviting. I finally decided on the fish and chips, but changed the 'chips' for sweet potato fries at Jackie's insistence. She ordered the Mahi tacos, and two stuffed envelopes were delivered with one inch-sized stunning chunks of grilled fish.
      My basket of fish was the home of a long and meaty filet of fish with the perfect covering of battered breading. This breading took nothing away from the pulpy meat, and yet held its own in richness and texture. Jackie was right about the sweet potato fries. There's a science to making these fries, and if not done right, they can seem stale even if they're fresh. These were crispy and perfectly salted to combine with their sweetness.
     Three sauces adorned each of our dishes and they deserve a special mention. The obligatory tartar sauce was present, but it came in the company of a maple pepper sauce and a Parmesan garlic butter that made me want to bathe edibles and inedibles in them.
     By the time we got to dessert, I was giddy with gratitude for having found this place, and I waited with excited anticipation for our Sea Salt Caramel cheesecake. The caramel was there, the sea salt was not. The cheesecake was creamy smooth, a preferred quality for Jackie but not for me. I like the density of New York-style cheesecake, the kind you have to bite into and chew, not just swirl in your mouth. Nevertheless, our choice gave the meal sweet closure even if it wasn't applause-worthy. No matter. This polished shanty is a keeper. Good find, Jackie!

P.S. A week later, John and I returned with some trepidation. Could Hurricane Grill, so close to home, so reasonably priced, be consistently good? I feared that it might all be a mirage. It wasn't. I ordered the Shrimp Quesadilla with side orders of guacamole and broccoli in their garlic Parmesan sauce. Every element was executed deliciously. The quesadilla was crispy, the shrimp lightly breaded and well-seasoned, the guacamole savory and refreshing. The broccoli was crunchy, and that delightful sauce played happily with my taste buds.
     And if that wasn't enough to convince me, they serve a seasonal pumpkin cheesecake that can stand up to any from fancy bakeries or the "Factory". My neighborhood just got a little cooler!

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Sunday, October 11, 2015

Siam Dragon

     I'm not a huge fan of Thai food, but when a major supporter of my writing purchases ten copies of my newly released children's book The Rescuers, and wants to take me to lunch, I think I can make an effort. Apparently Usha and her daughter Tina are regulars at Siam Dragon. Servers greet them with hugs and kisses and make inquiries about other members of their family. And Usha is downright vociferous when telling them that I will be taking pictures and writing a blog about their restaurant. It's not usually my preference to announce that, but it's heartwarming to see how enthusiastically she promotes me.
 
     I was a little nervous. What if I didn't like the food after all the special attention? Fortunately, it all worked out. Usha and Tina ordered the Basil Chicken with white rice and I had the Pad Thai Noodles with chicken. As always, my dish could not be spicy, the total opposite of my friends' dish. Not only did they want it spicy, they asked for the bottle of hot sauce to be brought to the table.
     Both dishes came with a spring roll and Miso soup or house salad. I chose the soup to go, and the spring roll was a little chewier than I prefer. I took a bite of their Basil Chicken, before they doused it in hot sauce, and I found it true to its name. The chicken was tender, well-seasoned, and offered an additional layer of flavor with the basil. My Pad Thai was generous for a lunch portion and delightfully sweet. I could've eaten the whole mound if I hadn't stopped in expectation of dessert.
    We sampled the Thai donuts, always a must, and the fried cheesecake. We felt the donuts were a little stale.You wouldn't think that something as simple as serving them fresh could make such a difference, but it does. When the dough is warm, it's porous, and when you dunk it in the sweet milk, it absorbs it making each sugary bite melt in your mouth. These were cold and resisted interaction with the milk. The fried cheesecake was beautiful to look at, but it was cooked unevenly, so the outer fringes were melty and warm, but the core was frozen and detached from the batter.
     This hardly ever happens, but this time I liked the meal well enough and was disappointed in the dessert. Foodie adventures are so unpredictable!
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Wednesday, October 7, 2015

Novecento

     I can hardly believe it's time for Miami Spice again. That means fall is almost here. I guess I'll feel it more when the violent afternoon thunderstorms and the 90-degree days start to dwindle.
    This Argentinian bistro has three locations in trendy areas of the city. On this Labor Day weekend, we decided to take a drive on the Rickenbacker Causeway to Key Biscayne. The striking view of the Miami downtown skyline never gets old, so close you can almost reach out and touch the shiny buildings.
     We ordered the sangria with excited anticipation expecting it to be comparable to our favorite version, which is served in another Argentinian eatery. It was presumptuous of us to expect it to be the same. It wasn't sweet and full-bodied like our favorite, and it was made with cheap wine. We both had headaches that evening.
    For appetizers, both John and I ordered the ham and cheese empanadas. John liked the buttery pastry. I thought it was overcooked, but the worst part of it, there was no ham to be found. For the main course, we both ordered the Picanha steak with mashed potatoes. Again, the meat was not of the highest quality, not even mid-grade, but I will give them props for masterful seasoning, and it was cooked to a perfect medium, which did a lot for disguising the mediocre cut. And one other thing stood out: The steaks came with a sauce very much resembling a tangy and velvety chimichurri, but its main component was tomato. I had my portion with the steak, and I had John's portion with bread.
     The potatoes prompted a study in texture and flavor. John theorized that the restaurant is attempting to extend the yield of their potato budget by mixing natural with boxed flakes. I accept the theory but I propose that they are enhancing the flavor either with loads of butter or olive oil. I found them satisfactory, John didn't.
 
     For dessert, we ordered the orange flan and the Tiramisu. The Tiramisu was ordinary, and the dusting of powdered coffee was excessive. However, John liked it better than the flan, which in contrast, I thought was better executed. The orange flavor was genuine and it had respectable density.
     The bad news is our first Miami Spice outing of the year was undistinguished at best. The good news is I can check Novecento off my list and move on to my next adventure.

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Monday, October 5, 2015

Uncle Tom's Barbecue


      Sometimes you just get hit with a hankering for ribs. This barbecue emporium has been in Miami since 1948, but it was recently refreshed. The parking lot is always full, frequently a good indicator, and it happens to be across the street from our favorite ice cream shop, ChillN (see previous blog post). When the stars align like this, you just have to surrender.
     Uncle Tom's is a perfect rectangle the size of an extra large dining room in any spacious home, but the picnic tables, made from recycled pallets, and the bar are positioned efficiently. I calculated there was a flat screen TV for every four square feet of space, which means that sports enthusiasts will have a good seat no matter where they sit.
     Both John and I ordered the half rack of baby back ribs, his with baked beans, fries and corn on the cob, mine with coleslaw and fries. Every side was satisfactory but unremarkable. The ribs, however, were my biggest disappointment. I'm not a ribs expert, but I know what I like. They were cooked with absolutely no prior seasoning or barbecue sauce. That had to be added at the table. A note about the sauce- They claim it's homemade, but it tasted no different than the Sweet Baby Ray's I have in my fridge, so I wasn't particularly impressed.
     The ribs are made in a barbecue pit, so understandably the outer layer comes out a bit charred, but with no flavor to speak of, charred simply tastes burnt. Also, I like my ribs to fall off the bone and melt in my mouth. I had to wrestle the meat of these bones with my teeth. It felt very prehistoric.
     At this point, I was ready to cut my losses and cry all the way to ChillN, but as I waited for John to finish his rack, I saw the server bring two massive wedges of cornbread to a neighboring table. It looked different from the norm, it looked moist, like cake from a good bakery. It looked promising. It summoned me. I had to try it. Maybe this cornbread would be the redeemer of this less than thrilling meal, but it was not to be. When I asked the server to bring us a wedge, she said they had just sold the last two. Really? A barbecue joint runs out of cornbread? At lunch time? Nothing left to say but 'Check, Please'.

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