Well, after all was said, done, eaten, drank, etc., I don't have anything nicer to say about anywhere in South Beach than Fifty.
It is not perfect by any stretch of the imagination. The bar area is frankly, ah...quite awful aesthetically; in fact, the whole interior is pretty bad. Kind of like a repurposed bank branch or something. The porch can be really pleasant, but there's a Thinsulate sheet that is usually rolled down to protect the diners from....what? Who knows. The service is well-intentioned but thoroughly underprepared, like having a good friend wait on you who's never waited tables before. I ended up with three napkins on my lap tonight because every time she brought a new one I didn't have the heart to remind her that I already had one. Where did she think they were going?
But, but, but: if you're sitting outside at a table on a warm night (and the pedestrian protector is rolled up out of the way) and you feel like eating smartly conceived, well-executed apps at normal human prices, TGI Friday's prices, for fuck's sake, you can't do any better in South Beach than Fifty.
Here's what I ate:
Butter Head Lettuce, Sunny Side Up Egg, Crispy Bacon, Maytag Blue Cheese, Toasted Pinenuts & Warm Horseradish Vinaigrette $9
Steamed White Water Clams & our own Tasso Ham (Spicy Cajun Ham) $9
Pecan Pie with Sweet Potato Ice Cream & Caramel $7
It was all great, but the best spoonful of food I've had in my mouth over the last two weeks was the Warm Pecan Pie with Sweet Potato Ice Cream. Well, that spoonful is honestly tied with Joe's Grilled Lobster Reuben, chicken empanadas from Charlotte Bakery(actually three different chicken empanadas, pictured above and below, from Chile, Argentina, and Venezuela, left to right), Mark's South Beach's Foie Gras Peach Cobbler, El Chalan on the Beach's Green Salsa, Clarke's' blue cheeseburger, Talula's Scallop and Corn Chowder, Taste Bakery's Pistachio Muffin (I have no idea why I didn't take a picture of this huge, beautiful creature), and actually, Fifty's Plantain-wrapped Crab Cake in Avocado Oil as well. Honorable mention goes to Big Pink, where we ate 10 times, I'm not even exaggerating.
During a two-week stint anywhere you're bound to run into some less-than-satisfying dining experiences. Aren't ye?
Best case, you go somewhere that's supposed to be great, a landmark, and it's average. And expensive. Joe's Stone Crab, for instance. Don't worry, I didn't wait two hours to be seated or anything, I just got takeaway. I just don't understand what the appeal might be. It's basically upscale room service food.
Worst case: excruciating food poisoning. El Pub (or El Pube as Mara calls it) in Little Havana sent me to bed for a solid 24 hours wishing I was beyond dead. I can't even explain to you the degree to which my body rebelled against this food. Lamb stew with plantains and a mamey batida. I haven't been in that much pain since a bad Eggs Benedict at a Howard Johnson's when I was 12 years old.
UPDATES: Interesting developments afoot. Yesterday Mara came down with a mercifully milder version of whatever I had on Wednesday, so I can't say with 100% certainty that El Pub was to blame for my G/I blowout. My lamb was a bit gamey, and the symptoms I endured included a bunch of pain, which I do not normally associate with a 24-hour bug.
And, although there's nothing about this that makes me want to retract my "hotel food" characterization, I did have my first fantastic bite of food from Joe's today: their Grilled Lobster Reuben is out of sight. Thank goodness, cos I felt like a real sucker going in there again after I'd already written them off.
I never had a girl before with much of a figure So excuse me if I start to play with your Digital Display Digital Display - I wish your music start to flow Digital Display - To make your digits want to show Digital Display - I could turn you off by day From your Digital Display
Mara woke up this morning complaining that she'd had "weird dreams", soundtracked by Ready For The World's 1987 hit "Digital Display". She also had two tremendously swollen bug bites on her shin and forearm; I like to think that the weird dreams were caused by insect toxins coursing through her veins and stimulating the portion of her brain that stores information about "the Minneapolis Sound", Prince-related bands like Sheila E., The Family, Jesse Johnson's Revue, The Time, etc.
Before I forget, here's what we ate:
1/2 dozen Oysters with Black Pepper Mignonette and Cocktail Sauce.
Steamed Mussels tomato-harissa broth, scallions, sticky black rice, garlic chips.
Bread with cinnamon dal dip.
Against all odds, Nemo was just as relaxed and all-around easy as it was when we were last here six years ago. A tad more expensive maybe, but then maybe everything is. The warm, glowing eggs that illuminate the exposed bar are still as cool and beautiful as ever, and the generally infernal color scheme still feels warm on cooler Miami nights.
The food? It seems like I've eaten little other than raw tuna and (cooked) foie gras since I've been in Miami. Nemo's tuna was the most satisfying I've had yet this week, largely because of the homemade corn melbas that were served with it. Mara's mussels were very pleasantly spicy and briny, but not terribly surprising. Maybe that's a plus come to think of it: what kind of surprise are you really looking for when opening a shellfish? A loud noise would be good. When we asked for some bread, it was delivered with a cinnamon-spiked dal dip that managed to be both exciting and comforting.
5:30AM. While some really inconsiderate people fuck in the pool directly outside my window, I'm left to consider (among other things) a rather remarkably uncool moment I had at the bar at Talula last night:
Female Bartender: So, can I get you guys something else? Me: No, thanks...we're kinda ready to crash out. Mara: (actually crashing out) Female Bartender: Okay, well I hope we see you again! Me: Oh, we'll definitely be back...we'll probably be here on Sunday for 25%-off wine night. Record Player: (needle skipping off) Rest of Restaurant: (stops eating and talking) Mara: (ears perk up) Me: Hmmm. Mara: Niiiiiice. Female Bartender: Well..... Rest of Restaurant: (waits patiently) Female Bartender: ...that's a good time to get a really nice bottle. That's what I do. Record Player: (resumes playing) Rest of Restaurant: (shakes head, returns to meal)
Or something like that. I think I was especially sensitized to the un-hotness of this comment because Mara and I have both been reading Neil Strauss's offensive caveman scientist pickup bible The Game, and I'm sure there's a term for what I did: saying something so obviously inimical to closing a set that you might as well have shat on the bar or puked in your drink.
Actually under the right circumstances I'm sure that either (or both) of those two approaches would be more effective than the 25%-off wine comment. Needless to say I really didn't mean for it to come out like that, and I didn't even realize how it sounded until the bartender desperately tried to cover for me (which I thought was sweet). What can I make?* I'm operating a human body under the influence of a serious sleep deficit. But, you know....they do have a 25%-off wine night--you should be allowed to mention it at the restaurant without feeling like a cheap bastard. I guess my date was just so hot that the bartender was hoping that I'd overcome my obvious physical obstacles and get it on some recipe.*
But enough about my lack of game: Talula, let me just say, was excellent in just about every way except for the fact that we almost didn't go there because their website makes both the food and the inside of the restaurant look incredibly unattractive. We'd heard so many good things about the place that we went in spite of the impression given by the website...the only logical explanation is that it was done by a family member or close friend who needed the work. I'm happy to report that neither the restaurant itself nor the food look anything like the website photos.
Grilled Sonoma Valley Foie Gras Caramelized figs, blue corn cakes, chile syrup, candied walnuts.
Daily Soup: Corn Chowder with Grilled Scallops
Mara's soup was unstoppable, the best version of this I've tasted since Eddie Hernandez's now-defunct Sundown Cafe in Atlanta...I think we both could've eaten this all night. The tuna was good, but not legendary; the version I had at Clarke's was just as satisfying, if simpler and less ambitious. In fact, Mara out-ordered me last night...both of her dishes were just about flawless; she followed the soup with the tamale, while I had the foie gras. I ordered it to compare it with Mark's South Beach's version, and I have to say I preferred Mark's. The fig notes here were a bit confusing, almost as if they'd used both dried and fresh. After I got to the blue corn cakes, things improved dramatically, but the first impression of this dish wasn't stellar.
In any event, Talula won big points for a friendly, foodie vibe, and for having a Caesar salad that was less than 10 bucks. Not that I'm going to order it, it's just the principle of the thing. The rest of the menu looks sufficiently interesting to guarantee a return trip. You know, on 25%-off wine night.
* Denotes patois or pidgin English. Insensitive, I know.
So yesterday we decided to get our inevitable massive disillusionment over with and visit what had been our two favorite South Beach eateries in the past, Wishand Mark's South Beach. Actually, we didn't really decide this, it just sort of happened, the way things do when you head up the beach at night without a plan in your head.
We stopped at Wish first, for what we knew would be an embarrassingly pricey drink and to see what was what food-wise. I'd forgotten that it's almost a perfectly beautiful restaurant outside; I'd also forgotten that the bar is just (for me) all wrong. It's tiny, sterile, and expensive, with bad EuroMiami lounge music setting a vibe that I would ordinarily run away from fast. It's so much an afterthought to the rest of the restaurant that one wonders why they bothered with it at all. I being that one.
We had such an indelible (you know, aside from the stuff I just said I'd forgotten) experience at Wish last time largely due to the atmosphere: we sat outside in the barely bearably romantic garden on a tremendously humid night that finally erupted into big warm raindrops and everyone had to run inside under the porch for a bit...so we had drinks on the porch and watched the downpour drench all of the white linen tablecloths and gradually fill the empty water and wine glasses left behind in the rush, just like in that Guns 'n' Roses video...and someone told me I should "hold on to this one", and I said "I married her"...I'm pretty sure he meant Mara.
Back to 2007: while the menu looked good, the bar was killing my mood, so we had to bail. Luckily, Mark's was a few blocks away. Mark's was a perfect illustration of why you want a good bar scene in your restaurant. Whereas the vibe at Wish was of a lackluster hotel bar, Mark's felt like...well, foodies hanging out insulting each other in a hotel bar.* I knew everything was going to be OK when Mara and our Italian-Irish bartender Damien started busting each other's balls immediately, then unfurling entire paragraphs of actual Goodfellas dialogue while I just sat there wondering if I'd blacked out and somehow missed portions of the conversation:
Damien: Amsterdam? Wow, I almost moved there with my... Mara: Boyfriend? Damien: I like you. Mara: But it didn't work out. Damien: I'm not changing my religion for nobody. Mara: Jew broad? Damien: I can't believe this. This day and age, a Jew broad, prejudiced against Italians. Mara: I'm trying to bang this broad, you gonna help me out or what? Me: Huh?
So while Damien reminded us why we love good American bartenders so much, we ordered some food.
Pan seared foie gras over white peach cobbler.
Jumbo scallops, purée of calabaza, passion fruit butter
and plantain crisps.
Chocolate souffle with vanilla creme anglaise.
The foie gras was just what I was looking for, though serving anything remotely sweet alongside a good peach cobbler will probably work out just fine for me. Mara thought her scallops had way too much of the calabaza puree on board, giving the dish a pumpkin pie feel that was seriously distracting...I like sweet stuff with my seafood more than she does and it was way too much for me too. However if you portioned out the puree appropriately, the scallops were great and everything made sense. The chocolate souffle was a nice, not-too-sweet finish, but paled in comparison to the amazing apple/maple syrup souffle we had at Mark's during our legendary visit in 2001.
Overall, very good food, great service, rumours of a decline in quality proved to be unfounded thus far, at least while dining at the bar. We're going to sneak in another visit before we leave.
* Our evening was greatly enhanced by Damien's performance; little did we know that it was to be one of his last at Mark's: we subsequently found out from Josh at Nemo that, 48 hours later, Damien would walk out of Mark's during his Saturday night shift. Apparently the "good bar scene" only existed when we were there; word on the street is that the bar was normally desolate and bar staff usually made 20-30 legitimate dollahs on an average night.
One of my reservations about this trip is: we don't eat like we used to, both in volume and in terms of what we're looking for. Back in the 90s when I first started cooking, it was during the rise of super-hyphenated and pretentious fusion cooking in America, and I'm sure that my tastes suffered immeasurable setbacks. I really don't try to cook like this anymore, but I still like it when a chef who has successfully assimilated these ideas cooks for me.
We ate at Fifty thanks to some last minute research which revealed that no one had a single bad thing to say about this modestly-priced place that is right across the street from us. We've been doing a lot of research and running into trouble because of the new appetizer pricing model in America: $15 and up suddenly became totally acceptable at some point in the last 5 years.
I'm balking. If it's fascinating food that I can't either technically can't make or conceptually can't imagine at home, I have no problem with these prices. But I'm not paying 15 bucks for a caesar salad, a carrot-ginger soup, or a watercress and endive salad (Nemo I'm talking about you here). Buffalo mozzarella, basil, half-roasted tomatoes, and an infused EVOO makes for a nice appetizer, but I can do this myself.
Anyway, Fifty was an easy sell because their prices are still 1999 prices and their food looks thoughtful and unusual. Chef Rolando “Roly” Cruz-Taura worked with Mark Militello for awhile, and Mark's was a landmark dining experience for us back in the day. Did I mention it's literally right across the street?
Fifty's a nice-looking place, a bit hotel bar, but not distractingly so. We sat outside because there was no one sitting inside. We had:
Calamari Trio: Buttermilk Fried Calamari, Baby Turk & Caicos Conch and Chile Rings Grilled Squid Stuffed with Spicy Braised Oxtail Chilled Calamari & Baby Octopus Cocktail
Jumbo Lump Crab Cake (how-to here) Wrapped in green plantain with Avocado Aioli & Herb Infused Extra Virgin Avocado Oil.
Crispy Veal Sweetbreads with Chimmichurri and White Truffle Essence +++
For now, let me just say that the crab cake was excellent, do not fail to order it if you go to Fifty. Before last night, I myself had not ordered a crab cake in a restaurant since 1996 or so, but our server said that it was one of their signature dishes, and I do love avocados. When the plate arrived, it was the kind of crab cake that shouldn't even be called a crab cake, it should just be called Crab, no filler in sight. And the sauce was platelickingly good. I could've eaten 4 of these.
The calamari trio was 66% awesome, 33% good: the cocktail portion wasn't my scene, kind of a Bloody Mary/gazpacho presentation that has never been a favorite of mine. But the other two calamaris were heavenly.
The sweetbreads were a solid B: the sweetbread component was a bit undersized, allowing the chimmichurri to overwhelm it in volume, we agreed that a nice crouton or something to soak up the extra sauce would have made the disparity less obvious.
To sum, we'll be going back at some point in the next 10 days, I'm sure. I will add my voice to the chorus of people who have nothing bad to say about Fifty: upbeat and real (as in non-robot) service was also a nice plus.
Well, we did it: beach vacation in progress. It only took us 5 years. At some point I'll get around to trying to understand why South Beach works for us, but for now I'll just be happy that it does. It definitely doesn't hurt that our room is simply awesome, 50 yards from brilliant turquoise water that we can see and hear from our windows. It also sports three windows that open (!), which allows us to set up crossbreezes of scarily windtunnellish proportions. I awoke to see my cash money flying around the room this morning in a worryingly unstable cyclonic formation...I managed to secure most of it without incident. Anyway, I wish you all could be here.
Eating: against all odds, one of our favorite emergency grub places down here is Big Pink, a 20.5-hour diner (you know, vs. 24-hour) that combines a vast menu of competently-prepared gourmandized diner food with a stainless steel industrialvibe and a full bar. I've heard some terrible things about the service here, but in the 8-10 times I've been here everyone has always been exceptionally nice to me. And this was even before I'd gotten used to Amsterdam service.
Example: yesterday I ordered a glass of sangria (which may or may not even be on the menu, I'd just spied this empty pitcher labelled "sangria" behind the bar and assumed there was some more of it laying around somewhere) because I'd been walking around for 90 minutes in jeans and a black long sleeve shirt looking for flip-flops (long story). The bartender said that they didn't have any sangria, but that she'd be happy to make me a glass of it. This kind of thing does not usually happen in Amsterdam.
Anyway, Big Pink has great salads (including this soy-marinated mushroom kebab appetizer served on bok choy with a feta dressing that shouldn't work at all but is very very good) and red velvet cake. The only disappointment we've had: "Nemo" polenta fries with a spicy ketchup. The ketchup was like a European version of tomato salsa, sharp and overcooked, pointlessly spiced; the fries were sadly tasteless.
The Nemo referenced in that dish refers to Big Pink's parent restaurant, Nemo, where in the past we've enjoyed many slow, expensive evenings at the bar. We should find ourselves back there any minute now, I'll let you know how it goes.
UPDATE: An hour after my "isn't South Beach wonderful" moment above, I was nearly killed in what I'm sure will eventually be a deadly altercation between the possibly violently racist Cuban counterman at Washington Ave. Food Plaza and a black patron of questionable sanity. Why neither of them riddled the other one (and in all probability me) full of bullets remains uncertain.
As in, I took one over the holidays. Something inside me demands escalation, and unfortunately during the winter holidays this is achieved through repeated submergence in holiday cheer. Bosom Caresser, anyone? I won't even get into the Supercock.
My point being: Happy New Year, etc. On Saturday heading to sunny beach places for a couple weeks and will document my foodstuff encounters when appropriate.
In other news, it's time to revise my Amsterdam recommendations...in December I revisited a few of my "must-eats" and, well...there've been some changes afoot, for example: Toko Ikan Mas has changed their loempia recipe, so sadly this is no longer a must-eat.
This is an often-NSFW, mostly gluten-free kitchen notebook that also occasionally threatens to turn into something else and fails, thus remaining its same old cryptic and superficial self. These posts begin to fail to explain (start at the bottom).