Mar 23, 2010

Lidia In Her Prime: At Home

We foodies who are not of Italian heritage all wish, deep down, that we had an Italian mother... for the food. Great home made meals are always the best and each nationality and culture has its gems. But if I had to choose a genre of mom's home cooking to grow up enjoying, rather than having been born into it, I'd definitely go Italian.

Hand-made pasta. Great seafood. Such simple cuisine that, arguably, does the best job of any type of cuisine in the world of highlighting the freshness and simplicity of its ingredients as opposed to morphing them into something they are not. That's what Italian cooking is to me.

Kansas City has lots of Italian restaurants and its most well known Italian restauranteur is Lidia Bastianich, whose crossroads diner, Lidia's, I reviewed in one of my first-ever postings for Napkins. I was disappointed then and have returned at least three times since that review, leaving each time with varied levels of disappointment.

The trick to Lidia's, I've stated, is to give in and go with the pasta trio sampler. The pastas are super-fresh, the variety is nice, and the ingredients are always simple, but classic and well executed. It just never disappoints. For whatever reason, despite being a fairly expensive place, the service is always borderline incompetent and detracts from the meal experience. And straying from the pasta sampler yields mixed results at best.

So last night, we brought Lidia's into the home, figuratively speaking, making one of Lidia's longstanding menu items: Sauteed Chicken with Olives, Capers and Roasted Lemons.

This is a delicious Italian meal that takes chicken and bathes it in a delicious, rich buttery sauce which is cut by the salty brine from the olives and capers and the bright citrus of the roasted lemons. It's amazing how each time I have it, I feel like I'm eating something set before me at a restaurant. It just has that restaurant-meal-feel about it.


  • 1/4 cup plus 2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil, plus more for drizzling
  • 2 lemons, sliced 1/4-inch thick
  • Salt and freshly ground pepper
  • Two 5-ounce bags baby spinach
  • 2 tablespoons plain dry bread crumbs
  • Four 6-ounce skinless, boneless chicken breast halves
  • 1/4 cup all-purpose flour, for dusting
  • 1/2 cup pitted green Sicilian or Spanish olives, sliced
  • 2 tablespoons drained capers
  • 1 cup chicken stock or low-sodium broth
  • 3 tablespoons unsalted butter, cut into small dice
  • 2 tablespoons chopped flat-leaf parsley

  • Preheat the oven to 375°. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper. Drizzle olive oil on the parchment, then arrange the lemon slices in a single layer. Drizzle the lemons lightly with oil and season with salt and pepper. Roast for about 20 minutes, until the lemons begin to brown around the edges.
  • In a deep medium skillet, heat the remaining 1/4 cup of oil. Season the chicken with salt and pepper and dust with the flour, shaking off the excess. Cook the chicken over high heat, turning once, until golden, about 6 minutes. Add the olives, capers and stock and bring to a boil. Cook over high heat until the stock is reduced by about two-thirds, about 5 minutes. Add the roasted lemons, butter and parsley, season with salt and pepper and simmer just until the chicken is cooked through, about 1 minute.
I omitted the spinach preparation steps from her recipe above because for our meal, we did the spinach in a slightly dressed-up way. Here's how I did it:

John's Sauteed Spinach Recipe

1 tbsp butter
1 tbsp olive oil
1 bag pre-washed spinach
1 Spanish or white onion, thinly sliced
2 cloves garlic, chopped
1/4 cup golden raisins
1/4 cup chicken stock
2 tbsp sherry cooking wine
3 tbsp toasted pine nuts

Heat a large skillet over medium high heat. When melted, add the onion and let cook, stirring frequently, three minutes or until softened. Add the garlic and sautee until fragrant.  Add spinach and mix in with the onions with tongs. Once spinach begins wilting, push it to the side, exposing the hot part of the pan and add the broth, quickly mixing with the spinach so it absorbs. Add the sherry, raisins and pine nuts. Toss until well combined. Add salt and pepper to taste and serve immediately with the chicken.

We served our chicken on the side, but next time I'd do what the picture shows and put it on top (possibly omitting the raisins which are better when the spinach is eaten on its own), so the spinach can take on the flavors from the chicken and its sauce, and to keep it warm. Served on the side, it was tasty but cooled off pretty quickly. 

A short list of ingredients, bold Italian flavors, a clean, simple dish; just like my fictitious Italian mom used to make.

Mar 21, 2010

Multi-Celebratory Brunch

I have two brothers in law, and two sisters in law. Of the four, Abby and Jonathan both live out of town, but were here this weekend because my mother in law was throwing a surprise birthday party for her mother in law, Elizabeth's "Nana". Additionally, Abby just took a new job and is excited about moving to New York and continuing to grow her career there.

Did you get all that? Bottom line is it was a weekend of celebrations, and as a precursor to Saturday night's shebang for Nana, Elizabeth and I thought brunch with Abby and Jonathan would be a good way to catch up and get the festivities started.

Abby is a very healthy eater, so we knew we had to keep the fat content down. Without too much consternation, we came up with the idea of having crepes. Having learned a few things about what doesn't work well in a crepe on our trip to Chez Elle, we decided to fill ours with a savory mixture of caramelized mushrooms and onions, ham and swiss cheese, all of which we already had on-hand except the swiss. After a quick run to the grocery store, we had the whole setup planned out. Here's the official menu:

La Petite Dejeuner a Paris

Crepes with caramelized mushroom and onion, ham and swiss
Fresh fruit salad of strawberries and green grapes with powdered sugar
Healthy turkey sausage links
Roasterie French Press Coffee - Cafe Allegro blend

For the crepes:
Two large eggs
3/4 cups milk
1/2 cup water
1 cup all purpose flour
3 tablespoons melted butter

First combine all ingredients in a blender and blend until well-combined. Cover and let sit for an hour to allow bubbles to subside.

Coat a good non-stick pan with a little butter or cooking spray (easiest). Pour crepe batter into the middle of the pan and rotate pan to evenly coat. Cook for 30 seconds - one minute. Lift edges with a spatula, working the crepe loose from the pan, then flip and finish cooking on the other side for 30 seconds. Place finished crepes in a stack so they can keep each other warm.

For filling:
Wash and slice 8 to 10 ounces button or baby bella mushrooms
Slice one yellow onion
Heat a wide sautee pan over high heat.  Melt 2-3 tablespoons butter. Add the mushrooms and let sit for 2 to 3 minutes. Flip the mushrooms and add the onions and cook for 7-10 minutes until cooked through. Add a splash of alcohol - vermouth, sherry or white wine - to deglaze the pan, adding depth to the flavor of the mushrooms and onions. Once absorbed, push the mixture to the side and add ham to the pan.
Add the ham and brown for a minute or so.

On a cutting board, shred the swiss cheese with a box grater or whatever you have.

In another warm pan, add one finished crepe, cover half with the ham, mushroom and onion mixture, top with swiss cheese and fold over the crepe.

We had a great time with Abby and Jonathan. The food was solid but we enjoyed each other's company and the conversation so much, we didn't dote over it. A perfect way to spend a Sunday midday.

Thanks to you both and congrats, Abby, on the exciting new j.o.b., and thanks for joining us for brunch!

Mar 20, 2010

Limp Noodles (& Company)

The McDonald's on the corner of Jefferson and Nichols on the Plaza recently closed down and some time later, a new chain boasted its upcoming opening. Noodles & Company was its name.

I wasn't familiar with the place and when remarking to Elizabeth that I had found out its name, I distinctly remember adding, "I sure hope it's an Asian noodle place and not some kind of one-noodle-fits-all joint."

"Ew," she added. "I bet they just have a huge vat of overcooked spaghetti in the back and they just throw in some kind of sauce or topping depending on what you get."

Alas. We were pretty much right.

Elizabeth had to work late the other night and we didn't have any leftovers on hand for me to make. So I decided to find out what Noodles & Co was really all about and get some takeout. The menu boasts all types of noodles, not just one nationality. Choose from Asian, Mediterranean, American or "Customize-it".

I honed in on the "American" section for investigatory reasons, skeptical that America had made contributions to the noodle world noteworthy enough to warrant its own section on the menu. What would this be? Tuna noodle casserole? Close.

The only noodle dish on the American list that was actually what I would call American was Wisconsin Mac 'n Cheese. Noodles & Co, though, would like to credit the US of A for Stroganoff (Russian), Marinara and good ol' Spaghetti and Meatballs (Italian). Maybe even more ridiculous was the fact that "buttered noodles" was also listed on the menu. I mean - really? Do you even need to put that on the menu? If people want buttered noodles, they'll just ask if they can get plain buttered noodles. Listing it on the menu, though, conveys the idea that buttered noodles are some great recipe idea the restaurant came up with. As if they're saying, "we specialize in stroganoff, marinara and, oh, you should really try our house special - buttered noodles! You've never had anything like them." But, of course, you have. Everyone has.

Getting down to business, I jumped over to the Asian menu. I was in the mood for Asian and fearing their pad thai may be horrendous (bad pad thai can be really bad - too sweet, often), I opted for the Indonesian Peanut Saute. Let's start with the positives: the carryout packaging was sturdy and convenient, the portion was large but not ridiculously so, fresh lime wedges were provided as a garnish, to spritz over the top of the noodles, which I love.

Moving on. The bad: the lime was utterly and completely without juice. When I squeezed it over the top, it frayed and shredded, disintegrating into a pathetic rind with a strange explosion of fibrous pulp hanging from it and immediately reminding me of Clark Griswold cutting into the Christmas turkey which immediately deflated on the dining room table. Sick.

The toppings were a melange of the usual suspects: bean sprouts, broccoli and carrot sticks, which I am happy to say were all nice and crisp. Not overcooked. Lots of shredded cabbage was mixed through, and due to the terrarium effect caused by the tight lid trapping steam, its deep purple color washed out and spread itself into the noodles in a disconcerting way that made me wonder if it had been painted purple for faux freshness. The peanut sauce was detectable, but a little thin. I was given no condiments, and due to a low salt content, I felt it needed a little soy sauce. No hot sauce either, so I hit it with a few dollops of my own sambal oelek when I opened it up at home.

Peanuts were non-existent. None whatsoever. Luckily, I had those on hand, as well. So once I had incorporated my own peanuts, my own lime, my own sambal and my own soy sauce, it was ready to be eaten (oh, and I employed my own chopsticks, too - none provided).

The rice sticks (noodles) were overcooked. Quite mushy and falling apart. And the peanut sauce lacked depth, severely. Tasted like they had just mixed some peanut butter into the noodles which, when heated, became thin enough to coat the noodles like a sauce.

I'd opted to add chicken to mine, to test the quality of their meats. It was all-white meat, apparently pounded thin and then pan seared with a little flour dusting on it (I'm guessing this preparation is done because it works better with the Italian-style menu items and they're not into the idea of having to prepare chicken in more ways than one). There were no bad bites, but it was very bland, adding nothing but some protein to the dish. The fried tofu chunks I also found in my noodles were spongy and flavorless, as well, but that's kind of how fried tofu is.

Eventually I choked down the whole bowl, so apparently it wasn't the worst thing I'd ever eaten. But in the end I wish I had made the effort to run by the grocery store and pick up a few ingredients to make it myself instead of taking the lazy route and settling for mass-produced garbage.

While picking up, I also grabbed one of the large cookies sitting next to the register. Forced to choose between chocolate chip or snicker doodle, I went with snicker doodle just because I don't come across them as often, and I usually find them hugely delicious.

Shame on me for not noticing the specs of apple before arriving back at home. I was willing to keep an open mind about the apple, but one bite in, the disappoint swept over me. A snicker doodle isn't a snicker doodle with fruit in it. It's got to be simpler than that. Cookie batter, cinnamon and sugar on top. That's it. The apple made it taste like coffee cake - not what I wanted after my meal.

Pretty easy to rate this place. I won't go back unless forced to as a work lunch outing or something. If a McDonald's couldn't make it in this location, I don't expect that Noodles & Co. will. It's less convenient than McDonald's, has a higher cost of operation (they even have a liquor license!?!), and, despite trying to cover every type of noodle dish under the sun, probably has less mass-appeal as well. Those looking for any measure of quality would do better to walk a block east to Brio. Or buy a pack of Ramen Noodles - more authentic, more tasty, less expensive and you have the ability to ensure your noodles don't just turn into a big clump of mush.

Rating: zero napkins

Noodles and Company on Urbanspoon

Mar 17, 2010

Yet Another "Best". Best Sushi Roll.

Those of you following along at home may have seen the "best sandwich in the world" and "best desert I've ever eaten" claims in two of my previous postings about our recent vacation to Miami. So this post, entitled "Best Sushi Roll" may have you SOLing (scoffing out loud) over my dramatic antics. Fair enough.

Take it with a grain of salt, for sure, because in this short life of mine, I've eaten at very few high-end sushi restaurants. But if you're fortunate enough to go to Shoji Sushi on South Beach, I doubt very seriously that you'll not fall in love with the... wait, wait, wait. I'm not giving it away just yet.

Shoji was my first dinner choice involving other people on this trip; friends Andrew and Jenny were joining us, fresh off the plane. I didn't want them to secretly blame me for spoiling the night with a bad/expensive dinner choice (something they never would have done but I pressured myself nonetheless - the plight of the food blogger/restaurant reviewer), so I felt like there was a lot riding on this one.

Of the Myles Restaurant Group establishments on South Point, Shoji's dining room is the least impressive. It's dark and, while classy, mostly unremarkable. What's good about that fact is diners are left to focus on each other and their food... their beautiful, fantastic sushi.

Prior to dinner we'd enjoyed some Fanta Naranjas (fill cup with ice, add Goose, a splash of club soda and orange Fanta for the authentic drink or Izze clementine flavored soda for the best fizzy cocktail you've had in a long time) so rather than sake or martinis, we went with Sapporos which did a fine job of accompanying our Japanese fair.

We started our meal at Shoji with an app I discovered while a Miami resident and have never found in the midwest - their simple rock shrimp. There's not a lot to this story; they're just little shrimp, delicately breaded and fried tempura style, then covered in a spicy orange ponzu sauce. Basically, they're the best fried shrimp you will ever consume. I've had the rock shrimp at Nobu and they weren't as good. The tempura wasn't as cripsy, and the ponzu sauce less flavorful. Shoji's rock shrimp taste like sweet, spicy little lumps of perfection. My personal turkish delight.

The shrimp portion would have been perfect for two people, but was a little small for four. So we got a couple miso soups to tide us over until sushi time. I honestly don't have a lot to say about the soup. It was  warm and had a nice, subtle umami flavor. The shiitakes were nice and tender and the scallions were plentiful, adding a nice bite. But that's about it. It was good miso soup.

When ordering sushi with Andrew and Jenny, we always split up the ordering duties, each of us picking out a roll. No repeats. We each have to pick out something different. Per usual, I picked the worst one, but it wasn't actually half bad; the truth, though, is that I can't even tell you what we got, save for one roll... the citrus salmon roll. The best sushi roll I have ever consumed.

The fish in this roll was immaculate. The fresh salmon - not a local ingredient, I realize - was wonderfully firm. Cut perfectly, with no jagged edges, not a grain of rice dislodged, it had an unbelievably pleasing texture. Sometimes raw fish can be a little too warm and, thus, grainy. This salmon's texture made me think I'd never cook the fish again.

Accompanying the salmon and rice was the most tasty of avocados. The kind that tastes like an amalgam of earth, fruit and butter (just go with me on that). Often, avocado in a sushi roll is just a welcome filler. This time it was a key ingredient. A nice richness begging for acid.

There was masago (capelin roe - fish eggs, in other words), kombu, and yuzu chili paste in these rolls, as well, but cutting through it all was the crisp, clean, heavenly citrus - a combination from lemon zest and a  shisu leaf, beautifully displayed beneath the translucent rice paper wrapper. It was such a delicious, surprising flavor profile, our eyes bulged when we each took in our first bite. Quickly, politeness went out the window and we went on the offensive, snatching up the rest of the citrus salmon in the blink of an eye. You'd have thought the rest of the rolls were filled with poison the way they were neglected from then, on.

As quick as the citrus salmon was gone, another platter arrived, with an obligatory accompaniment whose name I don't even care to remember. Of the eight additional pieces, my companions each had one.   I put my athletic eating abilities on display and took the rest down myself. I was happy. We were all thrilled.

We needed dessert, too. And what better way could one possibly follow up the best sushi roll ever but than with the best dessert on earth? Shoji and Nemo are conjoined restaurants and we were fortunate that they also share their donuts! But this time, it was a smaller portion of donuts, accompanied with a wildly fantastic creme brulee. This is a truly great creme brulee, served in a shallow, wide dish maximizing surface area, read: maximizing blow torch exposure. So the caramelized sugar shell on the top of the brulee is maxed out. Simply incredible.

A luscious ginger sorbet was there to cleanse the palette, as they say. I avoided it so as to keep the tasty of sugary, salty donuts present in my senses of taste and smell for the maximum amount of time.

We left Shoji positively intoxicated. Good friends, good conversation, delicious sushi and desserts. My head was spinning with happiness.

As luck would have it, Shoji was the jumping-off point for what turned out to be a night of hilarity, involving the four of us crashing a birthday party at a beachfront hotel for a 45 woman named Lourdes who was unwittingly generous with her Paella, cupcake tower, bar tab and use of her ice sculpture/shot luge. I credit the citrus salmon for setting this all in motion.

Yeah, the combination of great friends and great setting may have helped, but with the four of us, great sushi is a key ingredient. Somehow, I think, if that night had been a hamburger night, things would have turned out much differently. So if you're lucky enough to take a trip to South Beach, yourself, I hope you're also lucky enough to go to Shoji and create some magic of your own. The citrus salmon will send you on your way for sure.

Rating: three napkins

Shoji Sushi on Urbanspoon

Mar 14, 2010

Joe's Crab the RIGHT Way

Some restaurants, due to years of happy crowds, iconic menu items, A-list patrons, or a combination of these things, surpass mere restaurant status and become institutions. South Beach is home to one such institution: Joe's Stone Crab.

Joe's opened in 1913 and specializes in serving its namesake - stone crabs. If you like seafood (crab, in particular), you owe it to yourself to have stone crab sometime in your life. Stone crabs are large crabs that have particularly massive claws - the ones with the black pinchers - that are harvested for their incredibly delicious meat each year, and regenerate over a year's time. Only one claw can be taken from a a stone crab during harvesting so the crab isn't left clawless, hence, defenseless. (There are many other rules and regs regarding stone crab harvesting you can read on Joe's website or wikipedia.)

So, yes, these famous crabs are the main draw at Joe's, but over the years other restaurant quirks have evolved, becoming intrinsic to its supposed charm - like the boisterous maitre d who reportedly makes six figures due to all the $50's he's slipped ($20's, too small, are loudly rejected) by hungry customers, none of whom are allowed to make reservations ahead of their arrival. These quirks, however, geared toward the experience of the tourist, have become a hindrance to Miami residents.

Going to Joe's is to step into history, and I recommend everyone do it once. But SoBe residents who would grow tired of the stuffy old fashioned atmosphere and extra costs of dining at the restaurant have graciously been given their own pleasant little shortcut:  Joe's Takeaway. It's exactly what it sounds like - call in your order or just show up and hop in line. The bustling staff at Joe's Takeaway will quickly set you up with a nicely packaged, portable three napkin dining experience you won't soon forget.

Elizabeth and I executed our Joe's Takeaway plan on our second night in Miami. We took the back route out of our hotel, onto the sidewalk that runs along the beach, enjoyed a leisurely stroll (a little over a mile or so) down to South Point - briefly pausing for some Cafe Cubano - and were delighted to stroll right in to Joe's and with hardly any wait and order our stone crab. Having done so, we hailed one of the cabs dropping off diners and went straight back to our hotel; pulled a table up to the foot of our bed and enjoyed watching the waning moments of the winter olympics while sucking sweet, sweet crab meat doused in Joe's special mustard sauce.

Takeaway purchasers are given a first-class setup, enriching the home-dining experience. Our huge takeaway bag included a styrofoam box with our crab and generously portioned containers of dipping sauces, complimentary dinner rolls, pads of butter, plenty of napkins and plasticware including a tiny crab fork, and separate plastic containers for our slice of key lime pie and caesar salad... everything we needed to enjoy the full Joe's experience from the comfort and privacy of our own room (minus the wallet-robbing maitre d).

The dinner rolls are a Joe's original - delicious bread pockets covered in, and filled with, small bits of minced onion. The amount of onion in these little bread caves is a little disconcerting when originally discovered, but slathered in some butter, they're both savory and sweet. A great tool for calming the insatiable hunger Joe's restaurant diner's inevitably feel by the time they are seated and waited upon. Probably not needed as badly with the takeaway orders but I like that they include them in an effort to provide the full Joe's experience. We ate our the next day as a much needed post-beach energy reviver.

Our caesar salad was tasty and served remarkably cold, which I love. The dressing is a creamy caesar dressing, and given all the vinaigrettes Elizabeth and I make at home, I secretly crave creamy dressings every once in a while.

The claws come pre-pounded, so they're expertly cracked and shell fragments can be easily discarded, exposing the beautiful, succulent claw meat. There's a procedure for eating the stone crab claws that must be mastered to enjoy them to their fullest, yet that learning experience adds to the overall fun.

Each claw comes with the pinchers, powered by a thick arm, and a delightful meat-filled joint. First, take a claw and begin pulling off shell fragments. The thick shell peels away easily and is remarkably sturdy. These are particularly well-armored crabs. Once the shell fragments are all pulled off and discarded, dunk the meat in your sauce of choice - Joe's famous creamy mustard sauce or clarified butter - and then simply suck and tear the meat off the thin, translucent cartilage running through the middle. Enjoy the feeling of euphoria as you unintentionally sigh and your eyes roll back in your head.

Our key lime pie was terrific, as well. With the Florida keys so close, this is a better place than most to order it and we weren't disappointed. Tart, fresh, cold and achingly sweet, it was the perfect citrusy finish to our seafood dinner.

Thanks to Joe's corner on the stone crab market in Miami, dating back so many years, it's become nothing short of famous - a must-visit for hungry beach goers who clamor over each other for the experience. Thanks to Joe's Takeaway, Elizabeth and I were able to enjoy that experience in shortcut fashion that left us feeling like savvy residents again. Just what we'd hoped. If you visit Miami and you've got a place where you could take a packed meal, I highly suggest you take stone crab away from Joe's.

Rating: three napkins

Joe's Stone Crab (Seasonal) on Urbanspoon

Mar 13, 2010

Finding Nemo... Again

One can find all kinds of great food in Miami - a vast array of ethnicities are represented, many high caliber, famous chefs, the finest ingredients of any type and most beautiful scenery and dining rooms imaginable. But for land-locked midwesterners - especially Kansas Citians who live among the best beef money can buy - seafood is the natural draw.

Finding this true for ourselves, Elizabeth and I planned our first dinner in South Beach at Nemo, a fantastic seafood restaurant owned by the Myles Restaurant Group who also owns other South Point luxe/glam spots like Prime One Twelve. This is a beautiful, relaxed little area with some of Miami's best food. And outstanding seafood.

Finding the weather unseasonably cool (upper 50's - thanks a lot, el nino), we opted for indoor seating. Not a downgrade by any means, but a slight hindrance to kicking off our vacation the way we had imagined. Thankfully comfortable, we were seated in a perfectly dim room with just the right ambient noise level, at a table large enough to provide space for the bounty of bread, water, wine, salad and seafood we ordered, but small enough to allow our surroundings to fade away, cheshire grins gleaming toward each other.

Not wanting to blow our entire vacation budget our first night in town, we shared a salad to start (not pictured - sorry) which was good but nothing special, and then dove straight into our entrees which were  perfection on (two) plates.

Now and then one is fortunate enough to walk into the right restaurant for their mood with the right menu for their appetite, and walk away knowing that dinner was a perfect "10". That's what happened for us at Nemo.

Elizabeth is a scallop freak. With good reason. They're delish. So she naturally gravitated toward the pan seared diver scallops. This was an appetizer listing, not an entree, but the waiter seemed to think it would be enough food to feed one person as their entree, so she trusted him. She was not disappointed.

(He was a good waiter, by the way. One of those career waiters - a "cool uncle" kind of guy who probably could have been a corporate America cog like us, but opted for a cash-on-hand, SoBe lifestyle with few responsibilities and a high fun factor. He was attentive but not annoying, friendly but not trying to be our friend. Just right.)

A gorgeous looking plate arrived with a large mound of mashed potatoes (spiked with truffle oil - Miami's favorite $5 entree additive - every restaurant in Miami uses truffle oil wherever they can to increase entree prices). The potato fluff was studded with three beautiful seared scallops and a hunk of rich short rib meat on top. Scallions and red-brown pools of pinot noir sauce surrounded the heavenly hill of food and complimented the flavors quite nicely. The scallops were rare on the inside with a delicious seared exterior. The short rib shredded effortlessly and the potatoes were the penultimate starch filler. Elizabeth isn't a huge truffle fan but enjoyed the burly depth the truffle oil added to the dish.

I opted for what I'm guessing is a hot item on the menu's entree list. Listen to this: Jumbo Lump Crab Crusted Grouper. I could have been sold on any one of those words alone.

This plate came with an extremely generous bed of creamy sauteed forest mushrooms, thin but al dente asparagus sliced beautifully on the bias, atop which sat a tantalizing jumbo lump crab-crusted fillet of grouper. One may question whether jumbo lumb crab-crusting anything is really a beneficial culinary technique or just an unthoughtful piling-on of decadence, but in reality, it's a measure of genius.

The crab crust creates a shell that traps sweet moisture into the grouper, making the fish succulent and juicy on the interior, but lending a contrasting texture outside. The end product is a large piece of meat that provides what I found to be bite after bite of meaty, heavenly seafood. The mushrooms, asparagus and white wine-cream sauce added an unctuous base of flavor that made the dish even more complex and luxurious.

Chefs often criticize garnishes like the little flower blossoms you see pictured above, but when one is vacationing to a warm weather climate in late February, these kinds of things nail home a certain vacationers' satisfaction that we both appreciated very much.

Having consumed paradise's lunch earlier in the day, and seemingly the perfect dinner, one may think dessert would have been impossibly overwhelmed and, ultimately, useless. Oh contraire.

We knew, going into our dinner at Nemo, exactly what we were hoping to have and were delighted to find it still available. This dessert is, quite simply, the best dessert I have ever had in my life. You can take your molten chocolate souffles, your tiramisu, your cheesecakes, bread puddings and creme brulee's and stuff them in a sack. Nemo's got homemade donuts.

Fresh, fluffy, light, chewy, and dusted in fine granules of white sugar, reminiscent of the beach you came to lay upon, these things are my heroes incarnated as food. One needs not the decadent chocolate and tangy raspberry dipping sauces that come with the donuts, but one is fiendishly happy to employ them... you know, for some variety.

WARNING: we were already full when we ordered the donuts, but we did it, anyway. Not ordering them would have been like travelling to the city where your childhood best friend now lives and failing to meet up with him/her for a drink. We had to get them. And we had to eat them. But whilst we were living our lives back in KC, Nemo did something utterly insane. They increased their donut serving size from six to *gulp* TEN. The affable grin and shrug our waiter gave us when imparting this news after setting the giant bowl down on our table was hilarious and pathetic all at once. It was like we had won a two-seater sports car and when he dropped it off he said, "oh yeah, it's a convertible, too." Jackpot!

As  you can imagine, we rolled out of Nemo embarrassingly full, but with grins on our faces that indicated the indulgence was exactly what we had planned. With our seafood needs satiated and our ultimate dessert improved upon, the night's dinner was perfect, setting the stage for a fantastic vacation.

Rating: four napkins

Nemo on Urbanspoon

Mar 11, 2010

La Sandwicherie: A Return to Bliss

Tragically, only a couple of weeks before moving back to Kansas City after our short stay (one year) on South Beach - Miami, FL, we discovered the best sandwich I have ever had the pleasure of consuming. It was served to us at a little French walk-up sandwich spot we had passed every weekend going to and from the beach, but just never had the wherewithal to stop and enjoy.

All along, I had thought La Sandwicherie was a little Cuban joint. Something about the bright paint job, the fans blowing mist on the customers sitting at the counter and the distinction that these were SoBe locals taking it in, not tourists, gave me that impression, I guess. But oh no - La Sandwicherie's specialties are not cuban sandwiches or cafe Cubano, but delicious baguettes and French espresso... and boy is it good.

The sandwiches thrive due to the incomparable freshness of their ingredients. Get one with everything and your meat and cheese of choice come piled high with romaine, cucumbers, tomato, cornichon and pearl onion and sweet-but-spicy peppadew peppers. OH! And their famously classic vinaigrette, too, which is the ultimate compliment to this salad-in-a-sandwich.

My first-ever sandwich at La Sandwicherie is still the only one I've had. It's so good I'm content never to stray to another selection - the deliciously rich, salty salami and smoky provolone cheese create a scrumptious, filling base for the fresh veggie toppings. The bread is classic French bread. A hard crust on the outside protects hands from ingredient seepage, but its inside is the perfect soft fluff. Still, it takes a strong jaw and some neck muscle to tear off a huge hunk of all that goodness, but doing so is an immensely satisfying pursuit.

Though a simple corner sandwich stand, La Sandwicherie is Zagat-rated and has been voted best sandwich on Miami Beach countless times. The bottle of vinaigrette we brought home with us mentions that it has been rated "best sandwich in the world" by Zagat for 2004-2009!

The owner, with whom we became familiar while residents of South Beach, was still running the stand when we returned last weekend, hence, none of its fantastic qualities had diminished in the least. Our friends Andrew and Jenny seemed to enjoy their turkey sandwich just as much as we and our salami. Elizabeth and I always split a sandwich due to their size but Andrew took down a whole one of his own and then most of another half that Jenny couldn't finish, so I'm pretty confident he was, indeed, a fan.

Kansas City could use more places like La Sandwicherie - no parking lot, no oversized dining room. Just a counter, a busy staff and a prep area filled with delicious ingredients that make up their small but perfect menu offering. The closest thing to La Sandwicherie I can think of in KC is D'Bronx, which is quite good and I recommend checking out, specifically for their deli sandwiches. I'll have to go there again, soon, with La Sandwicherie fresh in my mind, to see how it compares and give it a Napkin rating.
...Until then, I'll continue dreaming of the best sandwich I've ever eaten.

Rating: three napkins

La Sandwicherie on Urbanspoon

Mar 3, 2010

Miami Food Fun

As you can see from the mobile posts below, it was a food-filled vacation to Miami, a place where Elizabeth lived for a little over a year, in more ways than one.

It all started when Elizabeth and I were laid over in Memphis. I made a crude remark to her to “remind me to bludgeon the Neelys" if our paths crossed while we were in their city. In an incredible moment of irony, they turned out to be sitting two rows ahead of us on the plane, and on the other side of the aisle, directly in my view. They were headed down to the Food & Wine/Food Network South Beach food festival. A man sitting behind them chatted with them for a bit. They seemed very nice, but probably had to be since they were basically on the Food Network clock. They had special Food Network greeters waiting for them just outside the jetway. We got our bags before theirs and went off to start our vacay. Random acts of violence suppressed.

Then Saturday night, as we walked out the front doors of our hotel, we passed Iron Chef Masaharu Morimoto! I was beyond thrilled because he’s not just one of the hack American chefs from the hacked American version of the show, but one of the true Iron Chefs from the original series filmed in Japan (actually, I think the American Iron Chefs are all pretty good except Cat Cora). I believe he’s part owner of Nobu, the Japanese restaurant at our hotel, so probably not a shocker that he would swing by while in town on Festival weekend, but still cool as far as I was concerned.

Then Sunday, we were walking on the sidewalk that runs along the beach, behind the hotels, and as I glanced at the outdoor seating area at the Ritz in passing, I saw Jeff McInnis who I immediately recognized as a past contestant on Top Chef (funny interview with him here, talking about being exploited as a sex object on the show. In my opinion, he has a point. They didn't seem to take him very seriously, though as a straight married guy, I couldn't comment as to whether it's feasible he was a viable "sex object"). I was a little surprised to see him still working there but I’d imagine working at a Ritz is actually a pretty darn good job for a chef.

Needless to say, I’m pretty content with all these food-celeb sightings. I always hope to see celebs when in Miami. Let's face it... the only celebs you see in KC are athletes or anchorpeople from the news. Not quite the same thing (though I do love me some Katie Horner).

Food and drink prices in Miami are outrageous. Food and drink prices at the Shore Club are, shockingly, even worse. Here’s a sampling of items from the room/pool/beach service menu to prove my point:

Glass of juice: $9
Mineral water: $11
A single can of Red Bull: $6
Bagel/cream cheese: $9
Bowl of oatmeal: $13
Simple breakfast plate of two eggs, bacon, roasted potatoes and choice of coffee or juice - $24. Add a side of breakfast meat? $8 more.
“Antipasti” of sliced fruit - $20
Caesar salad w/ shrimp: $25
Under the “finger foods” section of the menu: beef skewers served w/ blue cheese: $32
Paninis are $20 - $24
Pizzas are a bargain at $18
Giant chocolate chip cookie w/ milk: $8

A little disclaimer at the bottom of the room service menu states “Applicable sales tax, a $4.00 delivery charge and 20% service charge will be added to each check.” That’s something that they do everywhere on SoBe – at least 18% gratuity is always slyly included in  your check. I’m sure tons of tourists unwittingly tip another 20% on top of that. I made the mistake a few times before I learned, back when I first lived there.

Alcohol is even more laughable:
A bottle of Chandon Brut Classic is "just" $50
Veuve Cliquot: $200
Cristal: $725
All domestic beers – we’re talking bud light in a can here – are $7
We paid $8 each for a single can of Presidente and Heineken once. Those were our only poolside purchases.
Brace yourself now - bottle of Grey Goose: $325 dollars!!!
Bottle of Jack - $230.  Just snap your fingers and one of the white sweat suit-clad servers will be happy to bring it over… 30 minutes later or so. And if you don’t tip, you can and should expect the worst service ever displayed by a waitstaff the rest of your time there, if you continue to be served at all.

Having experienced issues with patrons smuggling in their own alcohol to avoid these ghastly prices, the alcohol pages of the menu note “The Shore Club is the only licensed vendor of alcoholic beverages on the premises. The Shore Club reserves the right to assess a corkage fee of $60 per bottle of liquor, champagne, wine or case of beer if it’s purchased from anyone other than the hotel." Here's my question: if a bottle of Goose is $325 when you buy it from The Shore Club, plus tax and gratuity, but only $45 at the liquor store plus $60 corkage fee (a total of $105), why would you purchase their bottle as opposed to bringing your own?

Avoiding the scornful scowl of the server who knows his/her tip will be much smaller is hardly an incentive. Chances are they're giving you terrible service anyway (service in Miami is often ungodly bad). For me it's a moot point either way because I'm perfectly fine lounging around the pool sans beverage and enjoying the sun in a blissful state of sobriety. But I'm absolutely stupefied at the idea of anyone paying these prices.

One of the reasons we chose to go back to Miami was because we figured it would be a great place to visit now that we know our way around and have favorite establishments picked out. Every meal we ended up having met or exceeded our expectations. Specific posts on those meals to follow. Stay tuned...
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