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Friday, July 27, 2012

TEST DRIVE: Bloom Wynwood

In trying to find an analogy for a first visit to a new restaurant, the experience of test driving a new car was the one that most seemed to have the most parallels.  You take a car out, go slow and easy and then step on the gas to see what it can do.  You can ascertain only certain characteristics from a test drive, but usually after that first drive you'll know if you're going to go further down the purchase decision path or not.  The downside from a test drive is that it doesn't take into account long term longevity (that will be the context for another set of reviews).


The first restaurant using this test drive context is Bloom, a casual Asian/Latin small plates venue in Wynwood. And in keeping with the Four Courses theme we'll look at four aspects of a restaurant experience: SEE (layout), DRINK (wine list, cocktail list), EAT (self explanatory) and FEEL (service, vibe).





SEE

Bloom is on North Miami Ave. in Wynwood, taking over north end of the retro cool Dorissa of Miami building.  Signage is very discreet, if non-existent, but the rustic aesthetic of Bloom separates it from the main building enough to draw attention to it.  Enter a small parking lot from the north side of the building and you're greeted by a Lebo mural which foreshadows the artsy and laid back vibe you'll find once inside.

Bloom's aesthetic is a mix of laid back, artsy and playful.  Banquettes along the walls are made from repurposed, whitewashed wood giving the place a rustic feel.  Along these same walls hang clean, vibrant photographs ranging from flowers to ice cream vendors - a great contrast to the "rusticness" of the clapboard.  The rustic vs. clean contrast runs throughout the restaurant to good effect.







DRINK

A full liquor license will be a draw as neighbor Jimmy'z Kitchen relegated its offering to a great beer and wine selection.  Bloom's specialty cocktails lean towards the strong and sweet.  La Pacaya, a play on two of the cocktail's main ingredients, papaya and Ron Zacapa 23 year old, fit the strong and sweet mold, unfortunately the papaya, along with the cilantro and bitters were overwhelmed by a honey syrup.  The Golden Buffalo, served in a oversized glass that reminded me of the champagne glasses favored in the 70's that are now relegated to cruise ships for flowing champagne tower shows, was strong from Buffalo Trace bourbon and sweet from maple syrup.  I appreciate Bloom's use of quality ingredients as both of these drinks were made with excellent liquors.  On the flip side, the chosen liquors are at their best when served straight so using them in cocktails may put off some purists.

Saturday, July 14, 2012

TASTED: Copperpot's Candied Jalapenos @ Upper Eastside Farmers Market

I spent last Sunday afternoon turning all of those mangos I'd received from friends, relatives, strangers on the street, etc. into chutney. After an excruciatingly long and intense 10 minute bout of research I settled on a recipe from America's Test Kitchen's Feed blog, mainly because it utilized ripe mangoes of which I had plenty. I like America's Test Kitchen for its straightforward and partially scientific approach to recipes; however, it comes at the price of stripping away the art of cooking. ATK recipes will be the best version of "X" that you'll ever have, but not the most innovative or even the most authentic. The prep instructions for the recipe carried what turned out to be a warning I should have heeded: "Most traditional recipes actually call for unripe mangos". There's a reason for that. My epic afternoon of mango chutney-making with this recipe, which took about three hours between prep and a two step cooking process, resulted in pie filling. Too much sweet, not enough acid or spice and basically the consistency of baby food.

So with this debacle fresh in my mind, and a newfound respect for makers of jelly, jam and chutney, I came across Copperpot's tent at the Upper Eastside Farmer's Market on Biscayne and 67th. I'd heard about Copperpot's jams and jellies from appearances at Williams Sonoma's artisan days (which I've never been able to attend but have heard good things about) and our paths finally crossed. At the tent were more than one type of mango jam which I couldn't bring myself to try - so much was I still reeling from my own mango fiasco. What did catch my attention was a jar of what look like pickled jalapenos. Turns out these were candied jalapenos, dubbed Sweet 'n Spicy, made in a fashion similar to jamming but not enough to break down the jalapenos. The result is a sweet-in-the-front, spicy-in-the-back hit of flavor.

I talked to the gent at the tent, regrettably forgetting to get his name, and he told me the story of how Copperpot's name came about. After experimenting with large batches of jams and jellies, none coming out right, the solution was simple but time consuming: make small batches. Each batch yields about 4 to 6 jars. That's a lot of batches needed to make the number of jars I'd seen at Copperpot's tent, but you can taste the care in each jar. Copperpotman gave me some tips on uses for the Sweet 'n Spicy, including using leftover juice as a great marinade. Getting to the leftover juice may take a while because these Sweet 'n Spicys are pretty spicy.


The Upper Eastside Farmers Market is getting better every week. Along with Urban Oasis (who again had calabaza flowers) and Proper Sausages (who I have to fight the urge of buying from every week if only to control my cholesterol) and Copperpot's there's been some other additions I hope to get to soon (including novae gourmet's jerky). It's easily the most community-oriented and friendly market I've been to in Miami (Pinecrest's offerings are great but it can get a little overcrowded and some of the shoppers are a little rude, inane or both). These guys on Biscayne and 67th deserve your support.

Monday, July 9, 2012

My Twitter feed got kinda nasty today

Twitter got kinda nasty today.  I got called out by a James Beard chef, not one but two local blogs got ridiculed mercilessly but a food community that's not taking mediocrity anymore.


My schooling was at the hands of Jose Andres, chef/owner of Miami's (and formerly only LA's) The Bazaar along with a score of restaurants in DC and Vegas.  My experience at MIA's Bazaar was admittedly mixed.  It was opening night and there were some expected kinks.  But 2 hours worth of kinks, with spans of 30 minutes between courses, were more than I expected.  The schooling started with a snarky comment to The Chowfather, who happened to be at the right place at the right time to tweet mercilessly about a tasting Andres himself was conducting.   The pics and tweets were epic, going from one dish to the next at a rapid pace.  One tweet was how Andres made it through 70 dishes in 15 minutes, to which my inner snark couldn't resist commenting why then had it taken 2 hours for us to get through our measly 7.


The response came the next morning from Andres' Twitter account suggesting if I was in a hurry I should've gone to McDonald's.  Ok, so it was a nice remark basically telling me to f-ck off.  Sometimes when you've got a ticked off customer you try to right the wrong - but after having lived in Spain I could see where Andres may be coming from.(1)  My feeling has always been if you're open for business and your taking my money then things should be right.  I'm not saying spectacular, just right.  A 7 tapa meal that was 2 hours wasn't right.  Our waiter acknowledged it.  It shouldn't have happened, live goes on.  Andres waxed philosophical about how good things take time.  I'm sure The Bazaar MIA will get it's groove after time.  Andres has a ridiculous track record that makes it a certainty.  And I'm sure I'll be back because those croquettes were as good as my grandmother's (only she didn't serve them in a glass shoe).


Later ChristineG got Chef Andres' back and we had a great back and forth on expectations for a restaurant opening.  I got some backup myself from Gourmandj whose Bazaar experience was similar to mine.  It was great debate and showed how different people had different experiences even when they're at the same place at the same time.


The Twitter version of a brawl happened after Eater Miami posted it's wrap-up of reviews of The Bazaar.  Eater Miami has had big shoes to fill since Lesley Abravanel booked it to the Miami Herald's miami.com and resurrected a moribund site that never lived up to it's potential.  Those shoes haven't been filled so my personal suspicion is there's some poor writer in a loft in Manhattan that's holding Eater Miami together until the new Lesley is found - thus Eater's transformation from newsbreaker to news aggregator.  The reviews compiled by Eater included The Chowfather as well as Frodnesor (via Chowhound) and another  quip from "a poster on Chowhound" (that'd be me) and lastly some reviews from the food snob's most dreaded beings, Yelpers.  The first volley came from ChristineG (she's getting to be my favorite badass) who called out Eater for even thinking of using Yelp for reviews.  To make things worse, the use of Yelpers came after Eater Miami sent out an APB to anyone interested in becoming a writer for the blog.  Things deteriorated rapidly with others from the Miami food world chiming in including Jamie, Kareem.  Then somehow the folks at Miami New Times' Short Order blog got offended when they were called out for having writers without a real culinary background on their staff.  Not that I necessarily agree with that, but Short Order needs as many people as they can get because some of their current staff are truly, incredibly horrible.  The Short Order vs. locals back and forth got ugly, which is strange considering Short Order is a blog from a publication that caters to the community and the person behind the blog's twitter account saw it perfectly OK to ridicule people in said community.  


Kind of an interesting day.  What's the most interesting is that 5 years ago this wouldn't have happened.  Five years ago not only did Twitter not exist, but the food community in Miami was pretty moribund.  Expectations have increased dramatically in the Magic City.  Not only are people more passionate about what they eat and where they eat it but also who writes about it and whether that person has the credentials to do so.  So yeah, Twitter got kinda nasty today.  But at least it was a nasty born out passion, which I guess isn't a bad nasty, kinda like a Janet Jackson nasty.






(1) In the US we're all about customer service, we bend over backwards for our customers.  Spain, not so much.  Not that service is bad, but seems to have more boundaries.  You, as a customer, have your role and I, as a server/waiter/store owner/etc have mine.  I was there for my last semester of grad school and I took a class on total quality (back when Reengineering the Corporation was the badass business book and everyone was retooling and reenginerring everything).  One day the professor opens the class up for discussion by asking the expat students what they thought of quality and service in Spain.  The floodgates opened and it turned into almost a complete brawl with the expats saying customer service was non-existent and the Spaniards saying in the US everything was spoonfed to us.  It was a great lesson in cultural assimilation, or refusal to assimilate.  It's when a really learned that not everyone is going to bend over backwards to please you, which is a lesson that's come in handy in Miami.

Sunday, July 1, 2012

DONE: What does a Miami Critical Mass bike ride smell like?


Friday, June 29th was my first Miami Critical Mass bike ride.  It was a 14 mile trek that started at the plaza in front of downtown's Government Center and ended, a bit chaotically, at the Filling Station at the intersection of NE 1st Ave. and SE 2nd St. (in front of the building known to you depending on how long you've been in Miami as the Bank of America or Centrust or I.M. Pei building).  Given I've just recently taken up biking after an extremely long hiatus my pics from the ride occurred only before taking off and after finishing.  Hopefully as I get my rusty freewheeling bearings straight again I'll be able to get more action shots.  But for other great pics from the ride see here.


This edition of the ride focused on areas directly west and southwest of downtown (route can be seen here or here).  That meant jaunt through Little Havana, Coral Gables, Coral Way and The Roads.  It was a great start, crossing the Flagler St. bridge giving riders a view a downtown and Brickell.  Crossing the bridge you get a faint smell of fish and river.  The Miami River isn't one of the cleanest or most scenic rivers around, but I've seen way uglier and way more polluted ones. And the center of the Miami seafood universe (Casablanca and Garcia's) was just up North River Drive from the bridge which was probably the seafoody scent.  After the bridge we descended into one of Little Havana's main arteries, Flagler St.  It's almost immediate what you smell.  You smell fried.  It was a thick smell of things frying.  And looking around you see why.  Fritangas abounded surrounding the bastion of fried seafood in Miami, La Camaronera.  For the rest of the night I felt like I'd ridden through an invisible cloud of grease.  I think if NOAA would take an air sample of the air on Flagler St. it'd come up with an inordinate number of parts per million of peanut oil, canola oil, and lard.  This part of the ride went fairly close to the Marlins ballpark, but there was not way the smell of peanuts and Cracker Jack was going to break the barrier of of fried.


The ride then cut through to westbound Eighth St. (where it switches from one-way to both directions).  The welcoming Pollo Camepro sign was there and a smell of roast chicken mixed the car exhaust from the much busier Eighth St. traffic.  West we went on Calle Ocho and past Versailles to get a whiff of Cuban coffee (it'd be great if they handed it out triathlon style, but alas no).  A left on Ponce de Leon (past eating house where a pit stop for chicken thighs and waffles would've been much appreciated) took us into Coral Gables.  A left on Miracle Mile and into Coral Way we went.  The first place you get a whiff of is Sergio's.  The guys I next to me that I was talking to said the night's ride was so big you could probably get a pan con bistec and a coffee at Sergio's and still make it back to catch the stragglers.  Given my hunger I was about to take his advice.  Given it was my first Critical Mass and I wasn't about to risk getting left behind, I kept going.


Coral Way is extremely interesting.  When driving down it my first instinct is to get from Coral Gables to I-95 as quickly as possible.  But a slow bike ride down the same street produces a new appreciation for it.  There's mom and pop shops along with Miracle Center (I don't know what it's called now, but I'll always call it Miracle Center).  Tons of Cuban restaurants (Habana Vieja and Villa Havana within blocks of each other) along with Peruvian (El Chalan) and Spanish (Xixon) and a new smattering of Portuguese (Jardim de Portugal and an under-renovation Old Lisbon).  There's also the place that takes over your senses as you ride by.  It smells like grease and spice and raunch.  The Hooter's on Coral Way pretty much grabs everyone's attention with its outdoor area which lets everyone coming within 3 blocks of it get the advantage of walking away smelling like tasty basted fried chicken.  Thanks Hooters.


The ride continued back to Calle Ocho on what happened to be Viernes Culturales (Culture Friday) which meant more people than usual were out and about.  The ride got a little scary here as pedestrians tried to bolt from one side of the street to the other and cars decided they could take on 500 cyclists.  As we headed towards Brickell we made a left to take the Miami Ave. bridge back into downtown.  It was familiar territory passing River Oyster Bar and Tobacco Road and a great sight seeing hundreds of blinking red lights going up the bridge towards the end of the ride. I could have easily stopped at River and called it a night with a dozen oysters but I was going to make sure that my first Critical Mass was complete.  


And completion happened as soon as we reached the intersection of NE 1st Ave & SE 2nd and en masse riders began yelling "Get off the street!".  It was a bit chaotic but I guess necessary to prevent hundreds of bikers from continuing to block traffic.  The Filling Station was the end of the line but friends were waiting for me at another restaurant for which I was completely underdressed and overly sweaty for. But heck, I just saved what would've been a gallon of gas in a Hummer by riding my bike those 14 miles so I was having me some tasty dinner.  I'd ridden through places that whiffed of seafood, fried food, Cuban coffee, pan con bistec and drenched chicken wings and ended at a place playing jazz and devouring chicken liver crostini and pan roasted chicken.  All of these places were different, but they were all so very Miami.