Friday, May 22, 2015

Cobaya Chang at the Vagabond

When I wrote about Chef Alex Chang's work at the recently opened Vagabond Restaurant, I referred to what I call the "Rob Deer School of Cooking:" go for the home run, don't be afraid to strike out. Not every dish I've had there was perfect, but none have failed for lack of ambition. With his willingness to take risks, his creative approach to using the local bounty, and his backstory (he ran an underground supper club in Los Angeles while a student at USC, before spending a few years working in some great kitchens around the world) we figured Chef Chang would be a great fit for a Cobaya dinner. We were right.

(You can see all my pictures in this Cobaya Chang at the Vagabond flickr set).

The Vagabond – situated in the wonderfully refurbished 1950's gem of a motel by the same name – hosted us on a Monday (when they're usually closed) so that we could have the entire place to ourselves, and so the kitchen could devote its focus to our twenty-five guinea pigs. After a round of drinks at the bar, we settled into a couple long tables in front of the brightly lit open kitchen.

Chang's first dish didn't look like much: a few slabs of half-cooked fish in a wide bowl. But it was sneaky. The triggerfish tataki was topped with a dab of a preserved key lime purée[1] and wisps of bronze fennel, then a golden charred onion dashi was poured into the bowl tableside. Fresh, firm fish with just a hint of smoke from grilling; a more defined whiff of smoke and sea from the dashi, bringing umami without heaviness; brightness and tang from the preserved key lime; a subtle, judicious addition of browned butter, a bit of richness to stretch the flavors. Really well done stuff.

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Wednesday, May 13, 2015

Cobaya Lee at the Forge

The Forge is one of the true grand dames of the South Florida restaurant world. And like a lot of grand dames, it's had a bit of work done here and there over the years. Originally opened in the 1930's, it was the mid-century Miami hangout of choice for celebrities like Frank Sinatra and Jackie Gleason. In the 1960's, Alvin Malnik bought it from the original owner (a blacksmith, ergo the name), and remodeled it in the luxe, rococo style that has become its signature. Malnik – with a little help from Baron Philippe Rothschild – also was responsible for filling out its encyclopedic wine cellar. In the 1990's, after son Shareef Malnik took over from his father, the Forge was not only regarded as one of the city's top restaurants – it also was one of Miami's hottest party scenes with its Wednesday disco nights.

Since then, it's had at least one more substantial redecoration about five years ago, lightening up some of that old polished mahogany. It has brought some new life into the kitchen as well: Dewey LoSasso did a turn there, and more recently Chef Christopher Lee took over the reigns. Chef Lee has a pretty full résumé for a guy who's still in the prime years of his career: in 2005 he was the James Beard "Rising Star Chef of the Year;" the following year, after moving from Philadelphia to New York, he garnered two Michelin stars for (now-closed) Gilt; then a couple years later picked up another Michelin star at Aureole.[1]

So when Chef Lee expressed an interest in doing a Cobaya dinner, we were intrigued to see what he was doing these days – and eager to have an excuse to hang out in one of Miami's most opulent dining settings.

(I am abashed at the lousy quality of my photos from this dinner; I was trying out a new camera and am very disappointed with the results. So with my apologies, you can see all the pictures from this dinner in this Cobaya Forge flickr set).

Chef Lee started light, with a dish featuring radishes in a multitude of fresh, snappy, peppery forms, accompanied by puddles of a tangy goat cheese dressing and a quenelle of a bright orange and fennel sorbet.

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Sunday, April 26, 2015

Cake Thai Kitchen - Miami

I've often bemoaned the cookie-cutter nature of most Thai restaurants in Miami. It's as if they all got the same regulation-issue menu from the "Bureau of Miami Thai Restaurants:" there's the "A" version which invariably has a nearly identical listing of satays, spring rolls, "volcano chicken," and choices of proteins with choices of different-hued curries; and there's the "B" version, which also includes sushi and other Japanese items.[1] The same dull consistency infects the preparation of those menu items: lackluster, tepidly spiced, and invariably too sweet.

There are a couple exceptions: I am a big fan of Panya Thai in North Miami Beach, and Ricky Thai Bistro nearby in North Miami, both of which I've been meaning to write about for a long time. Now I can add another to the list: Cake Thai Kitchen on  Biscayne Boulevard, just north of 79th Street.[2]

Back in December, after driving by the somewhat mysterious new sign (is it a bakery or a Thai restaurant? A Thai bakery?),[3] I found Cake's menu listed on an online delivery service website, and got pretty excited. Crispy rice with house-made fermented pork "salami," grilled pork neck, chili paste squid with salted egg ... clearly, the Bureau never sent them the regulation-issue menu.

(You can see all my pictures in this Cake Thai Kitchen flickr set).

And, most dishes were every bit as good as they sounded. When Thai food is made right, there's a balancing of extremes: salty, sour, spicy, sweet, bitter, funky and herbaceous all turned up really loud, ultimately combining to great effect - sort of like vintage Stooges. Cake's food had that going on.

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Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Cobaya Griese at MM74

One of the reasons we enjoy these Cobaya events is that even as the organizers, we never quite know what direction the chefs will take. You can't necessarily predict where a chef's real passions or interest lie from the kind of restaurant they run.

Thomas Griese is the chef at MM74, a Michael Mina restaurant in the Fontainebleau resort in Miami Beach. It's a "dressy casual" kind of venue, someplace you might go to before heading to Liv (or maybe even after clubbing: it's open until 2am on weekends) and get anything from hamachi "poppers" to a $26 burger to Mina's classic lobster pot pie. Don't get me wrong, the food at MM74 is good – very good, in many instances – but you wouldn't expect a high end, classically French inspired dining experience there.

But that's what Chef Griese did for his Cobaya dinner, drawing inspiration from his stage at The French Laundry and other fine dining venues[1] to put together a meal that was as luxurious and fancy as any we've had.

(You can see all my pictures in this Cobaya Griese at MM74 flickr set).

The theme was set from the start as we settled into several tables cloistered in the back of the subterranean restaurant downstairs in the Fontainebleau (our first actual "underground" dinner). A kusshi oyster blanketed in a silky truffled yuzu sabayon, with a dollop of osetra caviar perched on top, was a subtle nod to Keller's classic "Oysters and Pearls."[2] That striking lurid blue is from infusing curaçao into the salt on which the oyster is plated.

From oysters, caviar and truffles to foie gras, of course: in the form of a crème brûlée, blended with mellow white miso. Brioche toast soldiers with slivers of banana and some fresh herbs and flowers were plated alongside for dunking into the creamy custard after you pierced through its burnished sugar cap, with dots of a sweet ruby port reduction circling the dish. The combination of liver, miso and banana might sound unlikely but made perfect sense: a matching of similarities instead of contrasts, with their rich, creamy, unctuous qualities merging into something positioned right between savory and sweet.

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