Wednesday, March 30, 2016

El Palacios de Los Jugos - Miami, FL

On our way out of town, we had one last recommended (by Bourdain and several travel publications) food experience to try, namely Sunday lunch at El Palacios de Los Jugos, or the Juice Palace. This cafeteria-style restaurant chain (which is almost akin to an open-air market) has 8 locations in the greater Miami area (we stopped by the flagship site at 5721 W. Flagler Street) and mainly specializes in Cuban-American cuisine.  Mrs. Hackknife and I managed to navigate the sizable post-church crowd and language barrier (my rudimentary Espanol is getting better, mind you) to score a pretty decent selection of goodies to try.

Some of this tasty lechon ended up in mi estomago (belly) before long.

Mrs. H. selected a pair of sandwiches from the menu, a croquetta preparada (containing a ham croquette, sliced ham, pork, cheese, and pickles, sort of a Cuban on steroids) and a simple fish sandwich, both of which were excellent, if not filling.

I was left to somehow tackle this gargantuan combo platter of lechon (roast pork), yellow rice, and caramelized bananas, enough grub to feed the Bay of Pigs invasion forces (a nutso value at $12). I ate until I had to say "no mas" having barely made a dent.

Of course, we had to bring home some sweets for the kinder. I chose a container of bunuelos, which is a term used to refer to any number of fried dough treats in Latin American cooking. The Cuban version is long and thin like a rope, often coiled into the shape of a number 8, and uses yucca flour as a base. These fritters are dipped in a honey syrup before serving and were a bit on the heavy side.

These dulce de leche cremes made from cajeta (goat's milk caramel) had slightly greater appeal in our household. The cremes were sweet with a non-unpleasant tinge of barnyard funk on the palate. You won't find these at the local Publix.

Monday, March 28, 2016

Alinea Pop-Up @ Faena Hotel (Miami, FL)

On February 27, Mrs. Hackknife and I had the great pleasure of attending one of Alinea Restaurant's pop-up meals in Miami, conducted while the flagship location in Chicago was undergoing extensive renovations. Mrs. H. and I have previously dined at Alinea and I can assure you that the associated experience is a spectacle like no other, so we were understandably excited to see what surprises were in store for us when Chef Grant Achatz and Co. took the operation on the road to South Florida.

The host venue for these pop-up dinners was the new and swanky Faena Hotel in South Beach, the type of place where you'd expect to run into LeBron James and where a giant, gold-plated woolly mammoth skeleton in a glass case (you can see it here) isn't really at odds with its surroundings. The dinners were held in a tropically-styled back lounge normally reserved for drinks (or possibly a breakfast service) and we were fortunate enough to be seated at a table up front, right next to the bar, which had been co-opted by the kitchen staff for plating dishes.

Our amuse bouche was a love letter from home, a Chicago hot dog disguised as a small gelatin cube of "hot dog" essence (that's the only way I can think to describe it) topped with dots of red tomato, yellow mustard, and green relish.  In case you're wondering, yes, it really did taste like a Chicago dog (although I missed the poppyseed bun and the celery salt).

A circular platter not unlike the kind Grandma would put out for homemade cookies at Christmastime arrived next at the table, but instead of snickerdoodles was a disk of plantain/papaya crowned with a generous helping of Osetra caviar doused in a bit of rum, a wonderful fusion of luxury and Caribbean ingredients.

 This is Alinea's version of guiso de maiz, or Cuban corn stew, served in a trick bowl whose sweet contents (an echo of late summer barbecues in the Midwest when the corn stalks are head-high) could only be accessed via metal straw.  Perched above the stew on the glass rim were beguiling small (yet flavor-packed) creations featuring chorizo, tomato, pumpkin seed, and more corn.

 In what could have only been conceived for Alinea's pop-up meals in Madrid (this is where they hunkered down before coming to Miami), a glass plate featuring a near-identical reproduction of a famous painting by Spanish artist Joan Miro (you can see the original here) appeared.  Instead of acrylics, though, the "paints" were various sauces for a deconstructed snapper bouillabaisse, including green fennel/parsley/dill and red saffron aioli.  Not only did the sauces individually pair well with the delicate fish, but also when slathered together in the act of turning the Miro into a Jackson Pollock.

 Chef Achatz frequently appeared at the plating station, calling out orders and checking dishes while simultaneously consulting his smartphone (hopefully making plans for the future Alinea pop-up in Tampa).

The following course was another fish stew, although this one (called moqueca) is normally associated with Brazil and ended up being a hybird of Peruvian ceviche, featuring cobia and Key West pink shrimp marinated in coconut milk and leche de tigre (a citrus marinade commonly used in ceviche).  A server poured citrus tea into the bowl, adding a dimension of aroma to the dish, which was dramatically kept cold by resting it atop a cauldron of steaming dry ice (you can see a snippet of video at the top of this posting).

Circling back to small bites, three unusual serving pieces were brought to the table, each nestling a particular combination of ingredients: a lump of crab tempura enhanced with green curry/cucumber and impaled on a vanilla bean, a flash frozen dollop of soda, lemongrass, and chili (this was Alinea's version of a "Siam Sunray", Thailand's new signature cocktail), and a chewy slab of pig ear seasoned with tamarind, watermelon, and Szechuan pepper (my apologies for the mediocre photo).

What you see above is essentially a salad disguised as urban art (or graffiti as they call it on the menu), edible flowers poking out of pothole shards of ash meringue (not as unpleasant as it sounds) paired with beets and goat cheese, all sporting a streak of strawberry vinaigrette (applied by a server at the table using a spray paint can, authentic down to the glass marble inside)

We outright missed taking a picture of the next course, one of Chef Achatz's signature creations - a small bowl of potato soup into which a needle holding some truffle, chive, butter, Parmesan cheese, and a chunk of cold potato has been placed.  The diner slides the ingredients off the needle and into the soup, yielding a mega-tasty potato stew (or liquified loaded baked potato).  Sadly, this hot potato-cold potato dish was retired at the conclusion of the Miami pop-up.

When is a centerpiece not just a centerpiece?  It's when it's also a holder for pieces of a rich, pink bread made from (among other things) duck fat drippings.  Where's the rest of the duck, you ask?  Well, it showed up as part of several unctuous small bites featuring ginger, yogurt, and edible gold leaf, all resting in a bright bowl of clear duck consomme, a course fit for royalty if there ever was one.

 I sensed some hijinks when another centerpiece was delivered, this time a flaming bowl of charcoal.  After a few minutes, our server returned to extinguish the fire and reveal that one of the briquettes was actually a well-wrapped cut of Japanese Wagyu beef, charred to perfection by the fire (and left blessedly medium-rare on the interior).

This bite of meat represented the most flavorful beef imaginable (clearly, there's a reason that true Wagyu commands an astronomical price) and made the ultimate "steak and potato" dinner when paired with some romaine hearts and a light green chimichurri sauce (a la Argentinian grill).

Next up was another signature dish being put out to pasture, the amazing black truffle explosion (liquid truffle essence, chopped cabbage, and Parmesan cheese all packed within/atop a single raviolo) that dates way back to Chef Achatz's French Laundry and Trio days.  This bite that launched a hundred modern tasting menus will be greatly missed.

We soon encountered another friend, a hanging piece of bacon (as if on a clothesline) cured with butterscotch, apple, and thyme.  This dish was my first ever experience with Alinea's gastronomic magic at a Field Museum evening food event in Chicago in 2009 and I was pleased to meet it again.

Of course, no Alinea meal is complete without some sort of edible fruit leather balloon. The greatest hits parade continued with this green apple novelty, in which the diner sucks out the helium (trying not get the sticky leather in your hair or on your clothes) and then eats the balloon (the string, by the way is not edible).

When they rolled out the plastic table cover, I knew we'd reached our final course of the evening. Mrs. H. and I had had a very similar version of this dessert in Chicago, although this iteration had been slightly altered for the tropics. A flurry of syrups (banana, molasses infused with Fernet Branca - a bitter Italian liqueur) were dashed across the table (dare I say into another Miro-like arrangement?), followed by bricks of frozen chocolate mousse that are dramatically smashed into pieces, then sprinkled with edible glitter and chunks of dulce de leche candy.  You are then free to scoop up this mad creation any way you like, each spoonful representing a different experience of textures and flavors (although, truth be told, I think I preferred the original a bit better).

The one downside of this whole meal (which was spectacular for the most part, well worth the long drive to Miami) was the pacing, an acceleration over what we'd encountered at the flagship restaurant.  In this case, what had been a 3-hour evening-long event had been compressed into 90 minutes, and we found ourselves back on the street at 7:30, scarcely past sundown with nothing left to do that evening except marvel at what had just occurred.  My guess is that the economics of the pop-up only made sense when two (or possibly even three) seatings could be jammed into each night; still, having paid as much as we did, it would have been nice to linger a bit over each course.  One thing hasn't changed, though - Chef A. and his crew remain at the top of their profession and we can hardly wait for what surprises the new and improved Alinea will have in store...

Thursday, March 10, 2016

South Beach Food & Wine Fest Dinner @ Yardbird (Miami, FL)

We discovered the hard way that Friday afternoon traffic in Miami (especially when a crucial segment of interstate is closed) is about as nasty as it gets (apparently, the Russian and Saudi oligarchs who reside here bypass this issue using their helicopters). After some long delays and a little cursing, the missus and I freshened up at our hotel before heading over to our main event for the evening, dinner at Yarbird, a celebration of all things Southern gastronomy. This soiree was part of Food & Wine Magazine's annual South Beach Food & Wine Fest (being held around town this weekend) and included dishes prepared by star chefs Sean Brock (of McCrady's and Husk fame in Charleston, SC) and David McMillan/Frederic Morin (known for their temple of excess, Joe Beef, in Montreal).  In some ways, I was more looking forward to this dream showcasing of kitchen talent than our Alinea dinner the next night.

Upon entering, guests were presented with a number of decadent appetizers (deviled quail eggs, mini chicken biscuits, pimento cheese croquettes, and suckling pig rillettes) along with a, um, stiff bourbon cocktail.

Because a number of bourbon companies were co-sponsoring the meal, brown liquor was paired with each course.  Not being a particular fan of bourbon, most of these pairings (which included Basil Hayden's, Knob Creek Rye, Maker's Mark Cask Strength, and Jim Beam Distiller's Masterpiece, in case you're keeping track at home) were wasted on yours truly (I think I managed to get to the bottom of the glass on only two occasions).

First course - Charred octopus, sea urchin, and Miami Smokers guanciale (cured pork jowl) topped with a winter vegetable and watermelon escabeche

Our table was conveniently located right in front of the pass, so we had great views of Chef Brock and the other cooks during food prep.

Second course - Shrimp topped with crispy pig ears on a bed of Jimmy Red grits (a mostly-lost South Carolina heirloom corn variety that has recently been revived by M. Brock and Co.)

At some point, Chefs McMillan and Morin set out what appeared to be a few golf ball-sized black truffles (probably worth about a grand on the open market) on a plate in the pass.  In keeping with their philosophy of unabashed culinary hedonism, these truffles were grated on top of their course (which already featured a foie gras sauce) as an over-the-top finishing touch.

Third course - Stuffed guinea hen with Savoy cabbage, foie gras sauce, and the aforementioned black truffles

Our Joe Beef friends were also responsible for our dessert course, a grapefruit chaud-froid (a traditional French gelatin preparation like an aspic) with rosemary and Chiboust cream (a light meringue, another very French preparation), a wonderful merger of Floridian and Continental cuisines.

Overall, Mrs. Hackknife and I were very pleased with this event.  We got to talk a little bit with John Kunkel (Yardbird's owner), who sadly confirmed that Yardbird would not be coming to Tampa anytime soon (although we may eventually get a Spring Chicken, its fast-casual offshoot slowly spreading northward from Miami), plus Chefs Brock and Morin were kind enough to stop by our table to briefly visit once service had ended.  This was a great start to our food-focused weekend in Miami...

Wednesday, March 9, 2016

The Little Bar - Goodland, FL

Miami Beach is a little more than a 4-hour drive from Tampa. If you head south on I-75, the expressway passes several upscale snowbird communities (Venice, Ft. Myers Beach, Naples, etc.) and eventually takes a left turn towards the wide and empty expanses of the Everglades. Should you be ready for lunch around this time, you'd better hope that you find some old grub under your car seats (many things have defiled the Everglades over the past few decades, but fast-food franchises are not one of them) unless you detour off of the main roads and proceed past Marco Island to the tiny waterside hamlet of Goodland. With a population slightly below 300, Goodland is an enclave of homes, trailers, and bars tucked in among the estuaries of Southwest Florida, literally Land's End until you reach the Keys.

As one might guess, the town is primarily known for its laidback vibe (I'm surprised Jimmy Buffett hasn't immortalized it in song) and fresh seafood offerings. Visitors have lots of dining choices - Mrs. Hackknife and I wandered the main business district (all 2 blocks of it) a bit before settling on the Little Bar, located on the water near the town wharf.

Unbeknownst to me before I later reviewed the webpage, the Little Bar's owners have strong Chicago connections, having been associated with restaurants in both Oak Brook and Downers Grove at one time, and, in many ways, the building is a curio cabinet of Chicago history, allegedly containing artifacts from landmarks such as Henrici's (an elegant Loop supper club that existed from 1868-1962), a Cicero saloon that is said to have had Al Capone as a patron, and the infamous Everleigh Sisters brothel.

Instead of paper menus, the bill of fare is clipped to a stand next to your table. Farsighted people like myself appreciate the large print.

We began with the house smoked fish dip, sized a bit on the paltry side for $6.95, but packed with great flavor, one of the better fish dips we've had. For entrees, Mrs. H. opted for the blue crab cakes with a lobster cream sauce while I had a very tasty fresh grouper sandwich, fries, and Cole slaw (pictured above).

No seaside Florida meal is complete without a slab of Key lime pie - the Little Bar's version is white instead of green (usually a positive sign) and was wispy as woodsmoke, like indulging in a cloud of lime.

Tempting as it was to kick back another Yuengling and spend the afternoon listening to live island party music, we had an appointment with rush hour traffic in Miami to keep, so we bid adieu to Goodland and pressed onward on our journey...