In an earlier post, I had started to recap my experience in the kitchen of Neomi's for one of their "Paradigm" tasting menu dinners. Jacob Katel from Miami New Times now has his "Behind the Line" pictures up, and you can see all of my pix in this flickr set. Part I of the running diary left off about half-way through the dinner, which is where I'll pick up the action here.
8:48 pm - as the guests are having the "refresh" course, plating starts for course VI, "cuban sandwich." It begins with a shmear of Wild Turkey honey mustard, and then a square of a fluffy "swiss miss" sponge is placed with one side near the center of the plate. A rectangle of thinly pressed bread is balanced upright, leaning on the sponge.
8:52 pm - Marianne, meanwhile, seems to be everywhere at once. She's expediting orders, she's cooking, she's plating, she's handing finished dishes to the room service guys ... nonstop. While Chefs K and Chad's attentions are focused mostly on Paradigm, she's making sure the rest of the kitchen keeps running while still helping out with most of the Paradigm dishes too.
8:57 pm - I saw the cubes of pickle-brined berkshire pork belly come out of the walk-in a couple hours ago; I don't know what's happened to them since, but they now look burnished and golden-brown and, well, downright sexy, if you go for such things. The pork goes opposite the cheese sponge and helps prop the bread up. The cheese is topped with a pickle "froth" (emulsified with soy lecithin is my guess) and then garnished with vibrant magenta bull's blood micro-greens. A sprinkle of guanciale powder (I'm guessing made by adding tapioca maltodextrin to rendered jowl bacon fat) goes over the cube of pork belly.
8:59 pm - the "cuban sandwiches" go out to the table and an extra one comes my way. I taste each of the components on their own, but that's not what this dish is really about. After all that work plating, the way to eat this is to mush it all together so the flavors can mingle. And when they do, it is indeed like a Cuban sandwich made with some really awesome pork. Steven's eyes light up when he finds out there's an extra plate for him too.
9:01 pm - it's right around now that Malka Espinel, Pastry Chef at Johnny V, shows up in the restaurant. It's like deja vu all over again as Chef Chad and Marianne start putting together a couple plates of each of the earlier courses for her and her guest to sample.
9:12 pm - a sheet pan of sliced hamachi comes out for the "tiradito," course VII. Chef Chris is putting some of his sweet potato polenta down on the plate, and Chef K follows behind him with three spirals on each plate of the vibrantly pink hamachi. Next each plate gets striped with some bright yellow aji amarillo vinaigrette, then I follow with a spinkle of toasted cancha corn on each piece of fish. Some glistening white coconut "pearls" go over the fish, and finally, a sprig of micro-cilantro.
9:18 pm - I try the tiradito. The fish is meaty, tender, and sweet, really nice hamachi. The fascinating thing about the dish is that it offers neither the acidity nor the salt that I'd typically expect of a tiradito. Rather, the extra components each seem to bring another dimension of sweetness, along with a touch of heat from the aji pepper sauce, which complements the natural sweetness of the fish. And the colors are sensational. The chefs probably won't appreciate the association, but in retrospect the pastel pink, yellow and orange make me think of Miami Vice. I could definitely see Crockett and Tubbs wearing these shades.
9:20 pm - someone notices the fried onion rings - which were supposed to be one of the components to the tiradito - still sitting on the pass behind the plating area. Doh. They make for a good snack for the kitchen. The batter uses Trisol, a product from Ferran and Albert Adria's "Texturas" line of products originated in the elBulli workshop (and Chef K poured some pisco into the mix to stick with the Peruvian tiradito theme too). The wheat starch, used in combination with regular flour, helps fried items stay crispy, and indeed these onion rings have great crunch. Even more interesting, they hold that crunch and don't get soggy or greasy for several minutes (as long as they lasted in the kitchen, anyway). Too bad they didn't make it out to the dining room.
9:29 pm - my moment of truth is approaching. Course VIII is "corned skirt," skirt steak prepared in the manner of a corned beef, which also features (my) swiss orbs, nestled in a pumpernickel streusel, a ketchup caraway vinaigrette, "beer can cabbage," and kennebec potato chips. On his blog Chef Chad gives a good description of the inspiration and prep for the "beer can cabbage." All I can say is "mmm, chicken skin." He showed me one of the whole heads before service and it is indeed an awesome sight to behold.
9:37 pm - the corned skirts go out to the table and I sample. The skirt steak has a great texture, a fantastic crimson color, and is wonderfully juicy, but has soaked up too much salt from the brine. Chef Chad is already making mental notes for next time to adjust the brining time. The cabbage shows some promise but also, I think, needs some tweaking. It seems to have picked up some bitterness either from the beer or the smoking, and the texture falls undecidedly somewhere between tender and crisp. And my swiss cheese orbs? They're looking a little more spherical, and they hold up on the plate OK, but I find that the exterior membrane is too thin (like a pudding skin) and they're too loose and liquid inside. Needed more time in the alginate bath to form a thicker exterior. Perhaps I'm my own worst critic, but the pride of creation is quickly tempered by the frustration of knowing something could be better.
9:43 pm - we're starting the move into the sweet side of the menu, but gradually. One of the common threads of many contemporary cooking approaches is the breaking down of barriers between sweet and savory. For instance, it's one of the tenets of the "Synthesis of elBulli cuisine" (#13); it can also be seen in the menu at Alinea where subtle diagrams show where on the spectrum of savory to sweet each dish falls, or at Tailor in NYC where almost all the dishes have sweet and savory components. In Paradigm dinners I've had previously, there's been a "pre-dessert" that acts as a transition from savory to sweet, picking up elements of each. Here, Chef K has picked an interesting main ingredient for this transition - foie gras. Disks of a light, cold foie gras mousse are paired with several other components that further the interplay of sweet and savory - cherry relish, cherry drops (more spherification), a ribbon of banana, white chocolate, dried sherry vinegar chips, pistachio brittle, and dots of a bright green basil puree.
9:52 pm - the many pieces of the foie dish are assembled, even more than I've listed above. I taste, and this dish hits all the right spots. It really gets you thinking why foie is typically used to start a meal instead of to finish, particularly when it's often paired with a sweet wine like a Sauternes (which tends to throw off the palate early in a meal). So much about the foie is dessert-like: it's rich, it's creamy, it's even somewhat sweet. The other components all effectively play off this savory-sweet balancing act, but the real stand-out is the "cherry drop." Orbs of spherified cherry juice have been held - macerated, in effect - in cherry balsamic (a trick Chef K says he picked up from the Alinea cookbook, noticing that the recipes often called for spheres to be held in a flavored liquid). The orbs clearly pick up the vibrant flavor of the vinegar and give a sweet-sour burst that is the highlight of the dish for me.
10:05 pm - Pastry Chef Fabian's time has arrived, and he begins assembling the first dessert. I know from prior experience that even Chefs K and Chad rarely have much of a clue exactly what to expect from Chef Fabian until he starts plating. He is a man of talent and mystery and I'm always intrigued to see what he has in store. The first dessert, course X, is described as "yogurt, toffee foam, lime air, pineapple glass, raspberry textures, red pepper streusel." I see what's going down on the plate and am struggling to connnect all the dots. There's a translucent golden round, which he's topped with a red dab of something, then some pearly white yogurt spheres go over that, then a squirt of a toffee foam, then a spoonful of a lighter air (the lime, I assume), then a couple of barely-there tuiles with black sesame seeds. Then the assistant pastry chef Deborah comes around and is grating what I'd swear is a gigantic red beet over the top of it. The "beet" turns out to be a frozen raspberry dough which I think Chef Fabian says also has some almond paste in it.
10:28 pm - at some points during the course of the service, the plates are lined up just about ready to go and the kitchen is waiting for the diners to finish and the servers to clear; at other times, the waitstaff are gathered and waiting impatiently for the next course to make its way out as the chefs finish plating. But other than these between-course intervals, the waitstaff are not usually in the kitchen. I notice now, however, that the waitstaff seem to have come right back to the kitchen after the dessert was served. It would appear that all of the servers have serious sweet cravings going on, and are lurking anxiously around hoping for a taste. There's one extra plate but, seeing their eager expressions and having been eating all night, I offer mine up as well. It is gone in about 6.5 seconds. The waitstaff are happy.
10:31 pm - the extra round of dishes for Chef Malka Espinel, who's in the restaurant tonight, have nearly caught up, and Chef K is plating the foie pre-dessert. Those pretty foie disks, though, are now melting and barely make it intact from the sheet pan where they were held on to the plate. Chef K makes a quick adjustment - the foie disks are now foie smears. All is well.
10:39 pm - plating starts for the last of eleven courses. First,a line of chocolate "soil," at one end of which is balanced a round caramelized brioche soaked with honey. A scatter of "vanilla evoo rocks," a quenelle of chantilly sorbet,a dab of coconut foam, a scatter of purple-green micro-greens, and the dish is complete.
10:47 pm - the final course goes out the door to the dining room. I have a taste of the brioche. It's great - simultaneously light in texture, but dense with sweet caramelized honey, like a really good brioche pain perdu. A fine close to a fine meal.
10:53 pm - I see a step ladder next to a fridge and take a seat on it. It's the first time I've sat down in more than five hours.
11:04 pm - the dinner is done. Chef K checks to see if there is still any Estrella Damm Inedit in the house. This is a beer which Ferran Adrià helped craft specifically to accompany food, and I was fortunate enough to try it several months ago when we visited Dos Palillos, the Barcelona restaurant of Adrià's former chef de cuisine Albert Raurich. One bottle (it comes in a big 750 ml) left. Chef gets several glasses and we all toast to a successful dinner. That beer really hits the spot right about now.
11:14 pm - the chefs go out to the dining room to visit with the guests, and drag me along with them. The diners look happy and satisfied. I am in no way responsible for this, but it's a good feeling nonetheless.
11:22 pm - I return to the kitchen, glug down another far less exotic beer with Chef K and Chad, and as they're summoned back out to the dining room to schmooze the guests, I peel out of my "chef's whites" and pack up my stuff. The kitchen is pretty quiet now, and has been turned over to the hotel's night shift. I've hardly done a thing all night, and still I'm beat. I've been on my feet for nearly six straight hours, my feet hurt, my back hurts, and I could really use a shower.
So what have I learned from my "chef fantasy camp"? Coming next post - Lessons Learned in the Test Kitchen.
Trump International Beach Resort
18001 Collins Avenue
Sunny Isles Beach, FL