Don’t get too excited. I have not traveled to Asia, or at least not this past week! But I had a couple of outstanding meals with plenty of influence from from the countries mentioned in the subject line since they were cooked right here in Miami, Fl., by chefs born in Japan (Makoto Okuwa), Vietnam (Hung Hyunh) and Thailand (Bee Arreeratn).
Every visit to Makoto has been a treat; the breadth and complexity of every item on the menu aims to impress and please the most demanding of palates, and these are balanced with some of the most carefully prepared sushi in town.
On this occasion though, a different level of meal was in the cards. The James Beard Foundation has invited Chef Makoto Okuwa to cook for one of their events, entitled “Modern Japanese” and a few lucky punters were treated to a preview of what the chef dreamed up for the challenge.
The theme was “nature” and each course was aimed at representing the ocean, a mountain, a river, the sky. The first course was entitled “farm” and was a small flower pot housing some unique pickled and raw vegetables, on top of white rice and black garlic “soil”. The dish visually was stunning, and could have camouflaged itself easily within any garden.
I love these discovery dishes, with multiple components each shining on it’s own. I particularly enjoyed a thick mushroom that had the dense texture and flavor of a sweet potato. Peas in a pod, a radish, endive leafs complemented the dish’s highlight, the black garlic soil. It resembled soil yet tasted delicious in combination with the rice.
The second course, “Sea” was a small bowl of ice nesting pieces of unconventional sashimi, which included scallop tartar, squid, a crispy seaweed, pickled jellyfish and a few tiny pieces of vegetable tempura. Again, as with the first course, each item was very unique and different from your traditional sashimi. I specially enjoyed the tartare, carefully placed inside the emptied whole peel of half a lime.
What followed was the winning dish of the night and probably one of the best pieces of beef I’ve had this year. “Mountain” was chosen for this incredibly soft, tender and sweet piece of Wagyu beef served next to some ash onions and a large leaf probably from the lettuce family but with more resemblance to something they picked from the fish pond in the center of the mall. Gorgeous.
Again, earth was present as a theme, the beef was black on the outside and so where the onions, as if burnt by the small fire we just started here at our camp up in the mountain but tasting incredibly sweet and perfect. Accompanying the beef course we were presented with walnut bread, which had been cooked next to us in small clay pots with the heat from large hot ceramic tiles place on top. It was slightly raw and yeasty for me, but expected. The butter was nicely presented as a small cube of soil, actually breaded in miso, with a tiny watercress leaf on top.
The final savory dish was a bit of a let down because it was a plate of sushi you could find here any day of the week. Great of course, but nothing special and not aligned with the rest of the menu. It was devoured though; sushi like this can only be found at Naoe or Sushi Deli.
The sweet course was Okinawa Tres Leches – Japanese black sugar cake, soy ice cream and passion fruit. A great sweet ending to a great meal.
The menu of the actual event had other elements (but was more expensive) and I’m sure the foundation members were impressed; we were lucky chef Makoto wanted to try out some of them prior to going there.
The second special meal took place at the 50eggs Group Thai restaurant Khong River House, of which I had already written about here. The 50eggs Group restaurants, Yardbird, Khong and Swine are on a roll and it seems both Miamians and tourists can’t get enough of them. Not content with that, they regularly make the effort of hosting ad-hoc dinners with local chefs as guests, offering a different twist for regulars. Yardbird and Swine have the “Chef’s Midnight Table” series, where just about every local chef has had the chance to shine. Khong is offering “Upstairs at Khong” simply titled given the location of such special dinners.
Despite the lack of positive reviews, I actually went to Catch on Collins Avenue and had a few good bites. Unfortunately my second visit wasn’t so successful, so I don’t think I’ll be going back anytime soon; but when I heard that its Vietnamese born chef, Hung Hyunh, was invited to cook at Khong with one of my favorite chefs in town, Chef Bee from Thailand, it seemed like a good mix.
The meal was great, and contained dishes from both chefs in unison and paying tribute to their origins and backgrounds. It started off with a gorgeous crispy frog leg, probably the first frog leg I truly enjoy. Perfectly seasoned broad beans and slices of carrots, radishes and other summer vegetables made it taste even better combined.
Next up was a risky dish from Hung, his take on the cherry tomato: actual cherries as a complement to heirlooms, mozarella, all mixed on top of slices of seared tuna. Strangely it worked although I’m not sure it’s a dish that will become an instant classic anytime soon.
The dish that followed upped the ante for me as it contained my achilles heel: pork belly. It was cooked to perfection, the white chunky beats of meat soft and tender. Sticky white rice and a “black pepper caramel” turned it into one of the favorites of the night.
Next up, the night’s winner: a shrimp, scallion and bacon pot with a spicy mushrooms consommé next to it. Courtesy of chef Bee, and with tremendous punch, depth of flavor and fragrance. The combination of the shrimp with the fattiness from the bacon and tanginess of scallion was a mouthful to remember. Not sure if it was setup to be a competition but if it had been our Chef Bee would have trounced the out of towner with that single dish alone.
The final dish from Chef Hung was a great duo of slices of Dorade perfectly seared and with a red pepper sauce between them, reminescent of the aioli one would add to a Bouillabaise. A nice fresh salad of asparagus, radishes and hearts of palm paired it nicely.
The final course, dessert, was a true eye opener for everyone and according to Chef Bee, a childhood memory. It was an actual hot dog bun, with sticky rice and two ice cream balls on top, one thai tea, one vanilla. Cubes of candied fruit made up the rest of the dessert. Never had seen or hears of something like this before, but I ventured not into biting the whole thing, hot dog style. I nibbled on the elements on top and they where very nice. Personally I prefer the incomparable mango, coconut and sticky rice dessert he serves at Oishi Thai!
These 50eggs group initiatives are great; they give the chance to local chefs and chefs from out of town with a local presence to do something different, whilst promoting their restaurants. I’m sorry I missed most of the midnight table ones at Yardbird with the likes of Serfer, Mendin and other local favorites of mine, but I’ll be sure to be on the lookout for upcoming ones.
Write to you next week !