Norman Van Aken

Vuelve a la Vida and Reina Pepiada Arepas 

Obra Kitchen Table, Miami

Venezuelan-born chef Carlos Garcia goes deep into the street food sensibility with his take on this timeless, rustic dish. It was a surprise to me to have the seafood warm, in that I’ve much more often had it as a cold preparation. But the texture of his arepas is amazing, and the dish went like a dream with a glass of albarino as we sat at his fully open chef’s counter at Obra.

phuc yea interior

Crispy Fish Salad with Whole Smelts, Red Onion, Lemongrass, Vietnamese Ponzu and Herbs

Phuc Yea, Miami

This restaurant actually started as a pop-up some years ago and it was an instant sensation. Chef Cesar Zapata and his wife Aniece Meinhold run the now-brick-and-mortar hip/artsy place on Biscayne Boulevard. At Phuc Yea, the talented couple actually bring on a hyphenation between Cajun and Vietnamese flavors. This dish was largely more of the latter—bold with Asian flavors. It was a textural marvel, and I’m craving it as I write these words. 

Summer Melons

Smyth, Chicago

Some of my most in-the-know friends were telling me that “the next time you are in Chicago you must dine at Smyth.” So we recently did just that. This course of Summer Melons was one of the first dishes we had in a 12-course Menu Degustation that chefs John and Karen Shields presented that night. The knockout regarding their food is that it is highly inventive and personal yet deeply, truly delicious. This was a chilled offering with perfect late-summer melon wedges at the peak of freshness evenly topped with a fine puree that looked like a sauce romesco, but with no nuts, and also a hint more chili notes that played with but didn’t dominate the sweet perfection of the fruits. Over and over, the dishes that night had a beautiful range of balance with acidity, fermentation and richness being evoked but in subtle ways. And the service was totally in sync with it all.