Friday, March 21, 2008

A Tale of Two (Cities') Restaurants

Two meals out recently have gotten me to thinking about restaurant food.

I am not in the habit of writing restaurant reviews, but since I have finally found some food worth commenting on, I can't pass up the opportunity.

First, some context: the more Rick and I have moved to eating whole, unadulterated, traditional food, the less we eat out. This is because we inevitably come home from a restaurant meal filled with regret and iffy food. It's not only because I have spent years working in restaurants and food service that I feel I could do better for less money. In general, just about anyone could do better for less money. And the usual reason people eat out is to save themselves the trouble of cooking (though they may tell you it's because they just love that ___ Factory just down the street). But for me it's generally enjoyable to cook and I have the time, so that isn't a good motivation to go out. We go out for two reasons: when we travel and on special occasions (because really, who wants to look at the pile of unfolded laundry on a wedding anniversary, even if you love to cook?)

Recently, I went to a conference in Durham, North Carolina. I have never been there and didn't know a thing about the area, so we went on several recommendations and tried a restaurant in walking distance to the hotel. Now, usually I am truly wary of others' recommendations. My taste is very different, my standards admittedly more severe, than most. But this place truly provided everything I look for in a restaurant: food that tastes wonderful but is not overwrought, dishes I generally won't make at home, locally sourced ingredients, good service in a calm neighborhood environment, a willingness to accommodate food sensitivities/preferences. It's a long list, and Piedmont did this so well that I came home sad that we have nothing comparable here in Miami.

I guess if I am going to talk about this, I need to describe my meal: An arugula salad with crisp lardons topped with a perfectly poached egg sporting an almost-orange yolk. Instead of an entree I ordered one of the charcuterie plates, choosing the housemade headcheese with vinegared shallots and grainy mustard. Normally this would be accompanied by toasts, but they happily substituted sliced green apple, which went very well with the rich headcheese. It didn't faze the waiter to make a substitution and he was game to help me figure out what would not just fill the plate, but would also complement the dish I was ordering.

The food was fresh and honest--it remembered where it came from, which was evidently pretty close by. It wasn't ruined by some genius rendition that was trying to transform simple ingredients into something else. For my tastes, the ideal would be if the food might have been cooked by someone's very talented grandparents for a special occasion, even just Sunday Dinner. And Piedmont definitely met that ideal.

Coming home and needing to plan our anniversary dinner, I cast about for a similar unpretentious and equally gifted spot in Miami. I almost despaired because, though I understand it has marvelous food, Michael's is impossible to get into on short notice. Plus, I am kind of a miser, and a meal there might be outstanding, but so would the debt . . .

Literally on the appointed day a friend (thanks so much, C!) came up with a brilliant suggestion, a tiny place in walking distance to our home. Who knew? Whisk is in a little strip mall on Le Jeune Road, north of Ponce De Leon Blvd. has three tables and a huge heart.

It was the perfect choice for us--close, local food, run by a smart and generous brother-and-sister team (love the family thing--makes me feel right at home, without having to do dishes!) Brendan (chef) and Kristin (who does most everything else) dished up a lovely meal, full of bright flavors and allowed us to bring a bottle of wine to celebrate our occasion, along with the other patrons in the intimate space. It was almost as if they had put on a small dinner party for us, as if we were eating at the edge of their lively kitchen.

Kristin is involved with Slow Food Miami, and that aesthetic is evident in the food we enjoyed, the camaraderie, and the unhurried pace of our meal. Rick had the house specialty, Dry Marinated Skirt Steak w/ Caramelized Onions, Gorgonzola & Sliced Avocado Salad. Brendan not only cooked it absolutely perfectly rare, but he also came out to check to be sure he had gotten it right for Rick. I had Spicy Seared Beef w/ Garlic Chili Coconut Sauce, Jasmine Rice & Braised Baby Bok Choy, and just as in Durham, when I asked to substitute something for the starch, I was met with creativity and genuine accommodation (I ended up with beautifully fanned grilled summer squash slices, sweet and smoky, a perfect foil for the sauce). We shared a salad with cheese and nuts, dressed with an able hand--just the kind we love.

I have a sense now that it's not hopeless to want to eat out, that there are some folks trying to do the right thing by food, even in a commercial setting. That we can find a few places here and there that support and express our own approach to food: begin with the best local food, cook it in a way that enhances rather than masks, its loveliness (and nutrition), and present it as if you were serving family on a special occasion--with love and joy.

Now I need to figure out what is the next special occasion on our calendar. There must be one coming up--I am sure of that (do let my husband know if you see him!)
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