A Very Good, Maybe Great, Burger, in, of all places, Fort Lauderdale

The food: gourmet burgers in Fort Lauderdale

The story:

South (Miami) Beach is my preferred destination to visit in Florida, but from time to time my husband E and I spend some time in Fort Lauderdale, which is pretty much a restaurant wasteland: its eating-out options seem to consist of expensive tablecloth “dining” places, chain restaurants and bars that offer giant-size drinks at happy hour, mediocre food on the side.

So on our most recent visit to Fort Lauderdale, I was delighted to discover Rok Brgr, a casual gourmet burger bar that opened recently in the city’s downtown area.

From the outside, the restaurant looks a little hole-in-the-wall-ish, and the inside is heavy on dim lighting, exposed brick walls, black leatherette chairs, and multiple TV’s showing major league sports games.

But the hand-formed burgers, made from specially sourced Angus beef, were really good – cooked to order, beefy, juicy, and unmarred by over-spicing of the meat – and so were the fresh and flavourful accompaniments.

E went for the classic burger – 10 oz. of certified Angus beef, with yellow American cheese, lettuce, tomato, onion, and pickle on a sesame bun, that came with fries, for $9:

I chose an a la carte burger from the Burger Bar section of the menu and got a classic burger with blue cheese on a brioche bun ($9.50, shown above) with a $4 side of fresh-cut fries:

The burger was excellent, better than any I’ve had in Toronto, and the fries had the kind of crisp exterior to soft interior ratio that I like.

My celiac son Michael also chose from the burger bar menu, and we were all pleased that a burger wrapped in lettuce leaves (instead of a bun) was an option. He added avocado, American cheese and some grilled red onion, for a total of $11:

By any burger standard, the meal was excellent (better than the burgers at Allen’s in Toronto or Shake Shack in New York, my previous favorites). We’ll definitely be back the next time we’re in town.

ROK:BRGR burger bar + gastropub on Urbanspoon

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Long live Jean-Georges

The food: molten chocolate cake and other Jean-Georges-ian delights

The story:

On a recent visit to New York, E and I went to Jean-Georges Vongerichten’s Perry Street restaurant and had the prix fixe “Fall Promotion” lunch (now offered year-round, according to the Jean-Georges website).

The large ground floor room in a Richard Meier-designed building that overlooks the Hudson River contains lots of white leather and glass, and was virtually empty at lunch. The vibe was more formal than I usually like, but the staff were polite (no upturned noses or pressure when we didn’t order drinks or wine), and the deal – three generous courses of high-end, well-crafted food for $26 – is unbeatable.

We started with the Crispy Calamari with Yuzu Dipping Sauce and Sesame, and the Fresh Made Burrata with Grilled Sourdough and Figs:

I loved the upscale presentation and the premium quality/taste of those dishes. The appetizers were followed by an amuse-bouche of soup (leek? celeriac?) with a black truffle swirl. I’m not a big black truffle fan, so my bouche was not amused, but I appreciated the gesture.

For my entree, I had the spiced organic fried chicken with yogurt mashed potatoes, spinach and a honey lemon vinaigrette. The boneless piece of chicken reminded me of the Japanese dish tori karaage. It was tender and tasty and I loved the citrus vinaigrette with it, but for Asian-style fried chicken in New York, I think I prefer the Blue Ribbon Sushi Bar version.

E had the grilled yellowfin tuna burger with bonito mayonnaise, shiso (I adore shiso) and yuzu pickles (served with homemade potato chips) which he pronounced delicious.

For dessert, we both had the marvellous molten chocolate cake, and we walked out happy.

Perry Street on Urbanspoon

Back at home, I found out Jean-Georges Vongerichten was the inventor of molten chocolate cakes, and that his relatively simple recipe is widely available online.

So for E’s birthday this month, I tried out a gluten-free version of the recipe (substituting rice flour for the 2 tsp. of flour required) during a week-long stay in a Florida vacation condo where we’d gone for a brief escape from the Toronto winter.

I brought ramekins and Valrhona chocolate in my suitcase, amassed 1/4 cup of sugar from many (30?) sugar packets that I picked up in the hotel coffee shop, hand-whisked the eggs and sugar (the condo kitchen was not equipped with an electric beater), mixed up the cake batter in an extra-large measuring cup (no big bowls either), and had a whale of a time inverting the hot ramekins and lifting them gently to release the cakes. Three of the four cakes that resulted came out looking like this (but tasted fine nevertheless):

But the last one looked AND tasted pretty damn good, all things considered:

Best Cauliflower Ever

The food: Crispy Cauliflower with Almonds, Capers and Raisins

The story:

I have mixed feelings about cauliflower. Partly because if you roast it, your house stinks for hours afterwards, kitchen exhaust fan or no exhaust fan. Then there’s the whole gas-inducing aspect of it to consider.

But when it’s good – which, for me, tends to be when it’s browned, crisp-edged and caramelized – it’s delicious in a popcorn-y, roast potato-ish way. But with more nutritional benefits than those starchy foods.

I’ve blogged before about a regular dish in my home-cooking repertoire, Indian-style cauliflower with potatoes and peas, and just recently I had a very nice battered deep-fried rendition at Balaboosta in New York.

But the best cauliflower dish I have ever eaten is cauliflower with almonds, capers and raisins made from a recipe credited to Michael Anthony of the Gramercy Tavern restaurant and published in the New York Times.

The NYT piece tells a charming story about the chef creating the dish for his girlfriend in a successful attempt to convert her to the ranks of cauliflower lovers. The technique for it is a little fussy but the result is a mouth-pleasing combination of textures and flavours that takes cauliflower to a whole new level of awesomeness.

Cauliflower with Almonds, Capers and Raisins Adapted from Michael Anthony, Gramercy Tavern

1 head cauliflower, trimmed of leaves
1 1/2 tablespoons butter
3 tablespoons fresh soft bread crumbs (I used Panko, and the trick is to NOT use too many)
1 tablespoon plus 1 teaspoon extra virgin olive oil
3 tablespoons whole almonds (again, use this amount and not more)
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
2 tablespoons golden raisins
1 tablespoon white wine vinegar
1 tablespoon capers, rinsed and drained
1 teaspoon finely chopped parsley
1 teaspoon finely chopped tarragon
1 teaspoon finely sliced chives.
(I used only parsley of the fresh herbs and the dish was still amazing though it would undoubtedly be more amazing with the tarragon and chives as well.)

1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Cut cauliflower from top to bottom in flat 1-inch thick slices. Place a large ovenproof skillet over low heat and add 1 tablespoon butter. When it has melted, add bread crumbs and toss until toasted and golden brown, about 3 minutes. Transfer crumbs to a plate and wipe out pan.

2. Return pan to medium heat and add 1 teaspoon olive oil. Add almonds and toss until lightly browned, 2 to 3 minutes. Season lightly with salt and pepper to taste. Transfer almonds to a plate, let cool, and cut each almond into three pieces; set aside.

3. Wipe out pan and return to medium heat. Add remaining 1 tablespoon olive oil and cauliflower slices. Saute until lightly browned on both sides. Transfer pan to oven and roast until tender, about 12 minutes. Meanwhile, in a small saucepan over low heat, melt remaining 1/2 tablespoon butter and add raisins, vinegar and 1 tablespoon water. Simmer until raisins are plump and soft, about 5 minutes; drain and set aside. In a small bowl, combine almonds, capers, raisins, parsley, tarragon and chives. Season with salt and pepper and toss to mix.

4. Arrange roasted cauliflower on a serving platter. Spoon almond-herb mixture evenly on top and sprinkle with toasted bread crumbs. Serve immediately.

Yield: 4 servings

Eating Balaboosta Style

The food: roasted squash with pecans and raisins

The story:

After reading some pretty glowing reviews in the New York Times, The New Yorker and New York magazine, I was pumped to try Balaboosta, a casual Mediterranean/Israeli restaurant opened last year in NoLita by the owner/chef of Taim, a hole-in-the-wall spot that serves a very fine (best in New York?) falafel sandwich, about which I have previously written.

During the week I planned to go, the New York Times Dining section, as part of a story about restaurants’ Thanksgiving menus, printed a recipe for butternut squash with pecans and currants from Balaboosta that sealed the deal: I made a reservation at Balaboosta for the next evening.

Our first impression of the restaurant when we arrived was that it was dark, so dark we could barely read our menus, and decorated in a style that seemed more homely (those bare tables and uncomfortable-looking chairs!) than homey.

Then the waitress told us that the squash featured in the New York Times was not offered on the regular menu.

In an attempt to rally from that disappointment, we ordered four dishes (of varying sizes) to share, starting with the Market Salad, which that day featured golden beets, radishes and a generous amount of arugula:

It was fresh and light, but not very interesting or distinctive.

Next up was what would be our favourite plate of the night, the savoury and sweet deep-fried cauliflower with currants and pine nuts (gotta love the dried fruit and nut combo with vegetables):

Fried potato lovers that we are, we couldn’t resist trying the Patatas Bravas with Za’atar and a Roasted Garlic Aïoli:

The za’atar and aioli added some spice and zest, but the size of the potato chunks and their lack of suitably crunchy edges left us unimpressed.

The last thing we shared was a main course, the Boneless All Natural Half Chicken cooked “Under A Brick” with Israeli Couscous with Dried Apricots and Green Leeks and Gremolata Sauce:

The dish looked and tasted good, but not great, partly because the chicken was more dry than succulent. And while E liked the Israeli couscous, and I the gremolata sauce, we decided we probably wouldn’t go back to Balaboosta, not when there are so many other restaurants in New York that serve great, memorable food.

Soon after coming home though, I made the Balaboosta squash recipe from the New York Times, which combines some of my favourite foods – candied pecans, more dried fruit (it calls for currants, but I used raisins) and roasted squash – and I declared the recipe a definite keeper.

Here’s another pic of it to whet your appetite. Go make it.

Balaboosta on Urbanspoon