Sunday, April 14, 2013

1MB Travels: Miami / Orlando: Tuyo & Norman's by Chef Van Aken

On a recent trip to Miami, I read that Chef Norman Van Aken - described by Charlie Trotter as "...the Walt Whitman of American cuisine" - is not only known for celebrating Latin, Caribbean, Asian, African and America flavors, he is the only Floridian to have been inducted into the James Beard Foundation's Who's Who of Beverage and Food in America.  And he had a restaurant that was somewhat on my way to the airport - so I had to make a pit stop before returning to LA.

Most people think of glamorous South Beach when visiting Miami - and there are lots of sexy restaurants and good food to be had there - but there is a hidden gem in downtown Miami. Tuyo, an elegant yet relaxed dining room poised atop the Miami Culinary Institute, put me at ease immediately with its serene, seafoam green & cream color scheme, great view...
And world class service - hearing that I literally had an hour and a half on my way to the airport, and needed to bring my luggage with me, the hostess immediately offered to make arrangements.  Though they did not have a coat check or storage at the restaurant, she went above and beyond by arranging with the security desk in the building lobby to lock up my bags in their closet, while I enjoy my dinner.  And they made sure the security guard was there to greet me by name and be ready to take my bags when I arrived!
Knowing I was dining on my own, and self-professed as food obsessed, my lovely server Robert also offered me a copy of Chef Van Aken's latest cookbook to read up on his background and inspiration for his dishes, while I waited for my orders to arrive.

After two lovely amuse bouches of house cured ham with pickled radish toast, and smoked flounder croqueta, I was excited to try the  Brazilian Creamy Cracked Conch Chowder with Saffron, Coconut, Orange and Star Anise ($14)- such an original and delicious combination of ingredients, that to me seemed to combine Latin, Spanish and Southeast Asian influences!  The presentation was beautiful as well, with bright, sunny colors befitting the state, laying in wait for the saffron coconut chowder to be poured over it at the table.  I've never tasted anything like it before and fell in love with it right away.

Then of course came the dish featuring the ingredient I can never leave an out-of-state-trip without: foie. My "Down Island" French Toast with Curacao Scented Foie Gras, Griddled Brioche, Gingery Candied Lime Zest and Savory Passionfruit Caramel ($15 half / $30 full).  I went for the full size, obviously!  It was a gorgeous stack of foie on brioche on foie on brioche action, each precious piece of fatty duck liver marinated overnight in curacao liquor so that the sweet orange scent was RIGHT in the foie itself, versus how people usually do it with sweet toppings.  Then to balance this out and not overwhelm, there are subtly sweet pieces of passionfruit with skillfully restrained salted caramel sauce, garnished with shreds of gingery candied lime zest.  From the description you'd think it's sugar and flavor overload, but everything was perfectly in balance - count my tastebuds intrigued!

With a ticking clock at my heels, I went for one more starter plate versus the full on entree: Pan Roasted Veal Sweetbreads with Plantains in "Temptation" Sauce, Marcona Almonds and Tiny Mustard Greens ($13) Loved this as well- another example of perfect balance, this time in textures.

Hope to be able to come back next time I have occasion to be in Miami so I can check out the rest of the menu!


Another trip brought me to Orlando, not a city that is exactly well known for fine dining - in fact, just the opposite.  But I was thrilled to hear that Chef Van Aken's original restaurant would be a short drive from my hotel, and made a point to stop by.  Perhaps to overcompensate somewhat apologetically for the city, or because of its location in the top of the line Ritz Carlton hotel - the dining room at Norman's felt much more formal and grand than its Miami sister restaurant.  Again in a rush, I opted for the less formal bar - I often prefer pulling up to the counter anyways, as the bartender always is entertaining and has great stories to share whether about the food or the city, and it's less formal and intimidating especially for people dining solo.

Tim was super helpful in helping me pick a starter that was sort of unique to the Orlando location and more unusual. Marin Miyagi Oysters, sour orange granita, horseradish foam ($12) - though I'm usually a purist with oysters, I don't think I'd ever seen sour orange nor granita used with oysters before, and because I already knew I liked Chef Van Aken's style, curiosity won over familiarity - and I'm glad it did!  The granita was light and cooling, adding a bit of sweet acidity to compliment the salinity in the natural brine, while the horseradish, in foam form was made light enough to be perfectly in balance with the sea water, sour orange and oyster flavors.

With that great kickoff, I knew in my head that I should try other new plates to experience more of Chef Van Aken's menu, but I just couldn't get the Brazilian Creamy Cracked Conch Chowder ($18 here) out of my head.  And not having any place to have anything like it in California as far as I'm aware, I had to have it again.  Plus Tim agreed that that was a signature, only at Norman's type of dish.  The execution at Norman's was again fantastic, though quite a bit saltier than Tuyo's.
The My "Down Island" French Toast ($29 here) was just as good the second time, though the proportions of foie to brioche weren't as balanced as Tuyo's.

Bartender Tim was so good to me - hearing my exasperation with the foie ban back home, he plus-ed up my foie experience at Norman's with a complimentary glass of Sauternes!!!!

All in all, both locations were stellar in terms of innovative food and outstanding service.  Would definitely recommend either restaurant to those visiting Miami/Orlando - and I will definitely like to go back next time I'm in town!

On a 7 point scale:
Flavor - 6 bites  
Presentation - 6 bites
Originality - 6 bites
Ambience -  6 stars
Service - 6.5 stars
Overall experience - 6 bites
Price - $$$ (3 bite marks)
Probability of return visit - 100% 


Rooftop of Miami Culinary Institute

Miami Dade College
415 N.E. Second Ave., Downtown Miami, FL 33132
Ph: 305.237.3200

Norman's at the Ritz Carlton

The Ritz-Carlton Orlando, Grande Lakes, 4012 Central Florida Parkway, Orlando, Fl 32837
Ph: 407.393.4333


Tuyo on UrbanspoonNorman's on Urbanspoon

Manhattan Beach Post: Brunching by the Beach

The lure of Chef David LeFevre's by now infamous Bacon Cheddar Buttermilk Biscuits at MB Post
was near irresistible - but the 'long' drive from the SFV (when I had to do a Valley to West LA commute 5 days a week already) curbed my foodie cravings...until a few weeks ago, when my brunch lovin' friend Curses reminded me just how long this has been on our To Do list.
So we made the trek down - and the 'tagline of "a social house" is very appropriate - the sunlit dining room was upscale yet very laid back, with a 'neighborhood gem' vibe - though of course the place is by now very well known - and there was a long communal table for those open to making new friends.

For us of course the Bacon Cheddar Buttermilk Biscuits ($5, 2 biscuitsper order) were our first order of business!  They definitely lived up to the hype - buttery, flaky mounds of cheesy, salty, bacon-y deliciousness taken over the top in a good way by the lightest maple butter.

MB Post also has a great craft cocktail selection, even for brunch. I got the Old George ($12) salty dog with chopin, grapefruit, basil and raspberry pepper jam as I was intrigued by the addition of the tart/sweet/spicy jam.  A bright, cheery looking drink despite the name - I loved the refreshing interplay of flavors that definitely was not a run-of-the-mill brunch drink.

I can never turn down poached eggs and/or polenta any time of day, and MB Post delivers a lovely version with a sort of surprise twist: Poached Egg, Tomato & White Bean Ragout, Creamy Polenta, Bianco Sardo ($13) It goes without saying that the liquid sun of runny yolk and rich, smooth polenta were made for each other - but the tomato added a nice bright burst of acidity and splash of bold color to the dish, while the white bean and other veggies in the ragout provided textural interest.  The sheep's milk cheese also lent a nice richness to the dish.

For a side, Nueske's Bacon with rosemary, brown sugar and chili ($8) came in an adorable mini Staub pan.  It's commonplace to see sweetened bacon, but we loved the addition of chili for a bit of heat that made the interplay of flavors much more interesting (and addictive)
Curses was the one who spotted the Truffle Honey Laced Fried Chicken, kholrabi slaw ($15) and knew they had me at truffle.  We thought the honey was fantastic, but the chicken was disappointing - we expected it to be juicier, more tender and flavorful meat inside with crisper batter outside, but it was just passable in texture and flavor.  (Plan Check's fried chicken is still my fav...)

The Pineapple Lemon Skillet Cake with vanilla maple syrup ($11) was essentially a thick pancake in a skillet - with a lovely spread of fruit on top that made it very photogenic.  We loved the first few bites when it was steaming hot - and it may have been that we just ordered way too much food, and had filled up by the time we got to this one - but we thought it was just a little too thick and too much batter with too subtle flavor, and the dish overall did not have enough texture contrast, to hold our interest to the end.

All in all though, a great brunch and the biscuits alone were worth the trek.  But the bonus came after brunch: since MB Post is literally 2 very short blocks from the perfectly manicured, tourist-free gorgeousness that is Manhattan Beach - we had a great time walking off our brunch along the sunny path, and admiring the architecture of multi-million dollar homes along the stretch. (Although parking can be a pain in the area, and MB Post does not offer valet, once you do find a spot though in the lots 1 street above or below the restaurant, you can stay for 2 hours up to 5 hours depending on the lot, so that's convenient for those who want to stay and make an enjoyable afternoon of it on the beach or shopping at the boutique stores along the main stretch of Manhattan Blvd.)

Just wish that we had brought down bikes - as there are no rental spots along or near the path (which I think makes a difference in a good way versus Santa Monica or Venice - in keeping the vibe very local / community versus commercialized and touristy).

Will look to come back next time I'm craving beach time, which I'm sure I will this Spring/Summer!

On a 7 point scale:
Flavor - 5.5 bites  
Presentation - 6 bites
Originality - 5.5 bites
Ambience -  6 stars
Service - 6 stars
Overall experience - 6 bites
Price - $$ (2 bite marks)
Probability of return visit - 90% 


Manhattan Beach Post
1142 Manhattan Ave., Manhattan Beach,CA 90266
Ph: 310.545.5405

Parking: public lots available on Ocean or Highland (no valet parking :( )


M.B. Post on Urbanspoon

Tuesday, April 2, 2013

Science and Food: UCLA

Food memories are the strongest of any that I've had in my life.  Diving both elbows in to 'help' my grandmother wrap wontons at the dining table; the beautifully fizzy HK style fruit punch during weekend brunches with my grandfather at the Foreign Correspondents' Club; waking up at some insanely early time to spend hours in line to try the freshest fish I've ever had in my life with my brother at Tsukiji market; every time I have foie, pre- and post- ban.

But I've never been as obsessive and curious about every nuance of food until the last few years - and starting to think more about why that is.  Is it just a pastime? An easy escape from the world at large with all its unsavory worries and woes? A way to assert independence, self and will with low risk or investment?

The answer I like best, for now, is about intention: choosing to take something that is simply essential to sustain life, and making it a reason to celebrate it.  Not just that we are here, and to mindlessly prolong that - but to love and appreciate every moment that we have to marvel at the fact that we are here, and all that goes into making that happen, every day.

That sense of wonder that we lose, when tossed into the daily grind - I love that Dr. Amy Rowat had brought it back - with her Science and Food course at UCLA.  Last year, it featured a series of events made open to the public for the first time - so that anyone who was interested could benefit from learning from some of the greatest minds in the science and culinary worlds from Nathan Myrhvold to Rene Redzepi - superstars that normal people wouldn't otherwise have any amount of access to.  So much so that even A-list chefs from the area, with large legions of fans themselves, turned up in the audience in awe, like teenagers with their first ever backstage pass at a rock concert of their favorite band.

And for a very democratic cost of $20 per event.

...Well Dr. Rowat has put together another great-looking program for 2013, and tickets go on sale through UCLA's Central Ticketing Office today, April 2nd at 10am PST. 

Missed the series last year and what to know what to expect at these lectures? Here's a look at some of the highlights (sorry, this is from memory from a year ago, so apologies in advance for any errors or omissions!!):

The Science of Barbeque - Nathan Myrhvold, Modernist Cuisine.  Is there anything this man can't do? From CTO of Microsoft, to post-doc work under Stephen Hawking, author of the monumental six-volume tome of a 'cookbook to end all cookbooks', it was amazing to hear Mr. Myrhvold explain how to achieve
the juiciest, tastiest barbecue the smart way: via scientific methods. From what I remember: the key is to break the connective tissues in the meat in order to tenderize, ideally using this multi-blade cutter called a Jaccard tenderizer (under $30 at Amazon!), and install reflectors (whether via foil or parallel mirrors) in your barbecue so that heat and light waves hit the meat evenly, to cook it evenly.  And don't sear, it doesn't actually seal in juices but overcooks the top and bottom of the meat.  The lecture was followed by surprise guests for the Q&A panel: who better for an uber-carnivorous discussion than Jon Shook & Vinny Dotolo of Animal & Son of a Gun?

The Exploration of Deliciousness - RenĂ© Redzepi, Restaurant noma & Lars Williams, Nordic Food Lab.  This event easily takes the prize for Best Drama, and not just because the chef of the best restaurant in the world was presenting.  As we entered the lecture hall, we were given a 'box o' deliciousness', with two pipettes, one filled with a soy sauce colored liquid, and a little plastic cup with a golden colored powder. Throughout the lecture, Chef Redzepi emphasized noma's mission to give food a sense of time and place, and challenged western concepts of what consistutes food, and spice, touching on new ingredients discovered through foraging...and then came the taste tests.  The powder was made of caramelized cucumber, used as a spice that can be made into a paste, then a sauce for pasta.  Not dramatic enough? Then we taste the liquid from the pipette, which to me tasted like dark (sweet) soy sauce - and only AFTER we had already downed it - chef reveals that it was made of *cue drum roll* fermented grasshopper.   To hit that fact home - a live demo of the creatures meeting their demise in the blades of a blender, at the hands of Lars, was projected onto a giant screen for the whole lecture hall to see.  Dramatic? Yes.  But it makes an unforgettable and very valid point that if not for our pre-conceptions of/restricted definitions of what food should be - many of us may have no issue with the taste or safety of ingesting things that would look unfamiliar on a menu. And Chef Redzepi challenges chefs and diners alike to unlearn everything they know about food and cooking techniques.  We also got to taste some amazing seaweed ice cream and fermented barley cakes.  Little tastes of noma at $10, love it!!

A Microbe in My Ramen? Altering Food Texture and Flavor Using Microbes - David Chang, momofuku & Peter Meehan, Lucky Peach.  David Chang breaks down what produces the '5th taste' after sweet, sour, salty and bitter: umami: a combination of glutamic acid and aspartic acid.  It was fun hearing about his lab where he rots food on purpose, to try to discover new flavors and ways of producing umami, via the microbes that develop.

A lot of these events were interactive, and with David Chang's event, he prepared mystery samples to demonstrate the concept and taste of umami: the first was a white powder, and the second was a greenish yellow paste - both produced the same umami flavors.  The powder turned out to be MSG (or monosodiumglutamate), a common ingredient in Chinese cooking to artificially reproduce what occurs naturally in things like shiitake mushrooms; the second was a delicious pistachio miso paste that contains the glutamic acid that naturally produces the same flavor as the white powder - we all wished we could have left with tubs of the pistachio miso, it was so good!!

The Sweet Science of Desserts - Jimmy Shaw, Loteria Grill, Sherry Yard, Spago & Bill Yosses, The White House

Loved hearing Chef Jimmy Shaw talk about growing up with, and his love of, Mexican food - and the samples he gave of purees of tortilla soup to demonstrate viscosity!

The 'Sweets' lecture will also go down in history as the one in which food geeks gathered to 'flavor trip' on these mberry pills on a Saturday morning on UCLA campus.  Apparently these are a modern way to replicate what this specific type of berry does to turn sour, acidic and bitter flavors sweet: using a glycoprotein!  At the tasting station, we were asked to taste some lime wedges before and after popping a pill.  The lime was expectedly sour and not something you could eat on its own - but after a tablet of mberry, the same lime tasted incredibly sweet - I couldn't get enough of it.  It was definitely...a trip. 

You can also view videos of each lecture at the Science and Food site here

Again the announced program for 2013 looks great, and you can get tickets through UCLA's Central Ticketing Office starting today, April 2nd at 10am PST.  (Note that ticket prices this year have gone up a bit at $25 per event + $5.90 convenience charge if purchasing online at Ticketmaster...)


Science and Food (UCLA)
Upcoming Event Dates:
  • April 17: Primitive x Modern: Cultural Interpretations of Flavors (Chef Alex Atala): 7pm Moore Hall 100
  • April 25: Edible Education (Chef Alice Waters, Dr. Wendy Slusser & Chef David Binkle): 7pm Royce Hall
  • May 19: The Science of Pie (Chef Christina Tosi & Chef Zoe Nathan): 2pm Covel Commons Grand Horizon Room
General admission: $25 per event + $5.90 convenience charge if purchasing online
Event website:



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