Friday, August 7, 2009

Experiment #1

Talula Cobaya menu The first run of the "Cobaya - Gourmet Guinea Pigs" dinner was earlier this week at Talula with a menu crafted by Chef Andrea Curto-Randazzo and her sous chef Kyle Foster. There was a preview of the menu here the evening before the dinner, and now there's some feedback in the comments there from some of the other guinea pigs.

Before recapping the meal, some general thoughts. The goal here is a very simple one - to get talented chefs to cook great, interesting meals for an audience of adventurous, open-minded diners. That may happen inside a restaurant, it may happen outside of one. It may be a multi-course tasting menu, it may be a family-style whole hog dinner (here's hoping). For those who question the "underground" street cred of this mission, those questions are perfectly legitimate. My answer is, "I don't care." We're not limiting ourselves to meals cooked in abandoned warehouses in secret locations disclosed the day before the dinner; we're also not limiting ourselves to white tablecloths and silverware changed between every course. I'm very open-minded that way: all that matters to me is if the food is good, and I think there's enough similar-minded folks to make that game plan sustainable.

In any event, here are my thoughts on the first Cobaya experiment (the restaurant was very generous on corkage and so several of us brought bottles, wine pairings are noted below where I can recall).

diver scallop crudo - a couple thin slices of cold, sweet sea scallop, topped with a Blue Moon Beer sorbet, some micro-greens tossed with some pickled ginger, and a sprinkle of mint sea salt, all presented on a big scallop shell like Venus on the Half-Shell. I enjoyed the texture of the sorbet against the scallop, though I thought the sorbet was too sweet which overwhelmed the beer flavor; the minted salt did a nice job of perking up the flavors.

Had a Hubert Slovakian sparkling wine with this, which I thought was a perfectly nice bubbly though not a great pairing.

foie gras - the foie was perfectly seared, with a very fine cross-hatch across the surface. A great set of accompaniments, too - a sort of hash of Homestead lychees, toasted almond slivers, and house smoked bacon (Talula does a lot of in-house charcuterie and the results are outstanding), and a drizzle of a root beer gastrique that provided a tantalizing sweet-spicy component. You can also find this root beer gastrique on the Talula regular menu where it accompanies a seared scallop app.

Poured a Bodegas Gutierrez Casta Diva Cosecha Miel (2003) with this, a sweet muscatel from Alicante which showed some nice citrus, honey and spice.

quail - rubbed with ancho chile and roasted, served with a raisin-cocoa nib jus and a puddle of buttered popcorn puree. The quail was perfectly roasted and it was reassuring to see that this group wasn't remotely self-conscious about getting down to business and using their hands to pick up and gnaw on those little leg bones. The raisin-cocoa nib component did a neat job of mirroring the notes of the ancho chile, though it was curious that the flavors more fully revealed themselves on their own (particularly the cocoa) rather than when had in combination with the quail. The popcorn puree was also a nice complement, though the flavor -surprisingly to me - was not dramatically distinguishable from just a simple corn puree.

Paired with a Finca Sandoval (2004), a syrah-based blend from Manchuela that had nice dark fruit and some smoky, chocolatey notes.

tripe risotto - one of my favorites of the night among several very good dishes. Talula always does great risottos but this was a real knockout. Creamy rice and lots of slippery, velvety braised tripe, smoky spicy house-smoked tasso, along with some textural and flavor contrast from some softened but not melted green apple dice and red cabbage, and walnuts. Just an absolutely beautiful dish. I could have happily had another bowl after dessert.

Had with a Poggio San Polo Brunello (1997) which was beautiful, both elegant and robust, but still felt really young and could have used some more aeration. Lesson for next time.

spinalis - another of the favorites of the night. The spinalis is, as I understand it, basically the cap of the ribeye, the strip of meat outside the fat layer of a typical rib-eye steak, taken cross-wise off the top of the cut. It is a fantastic cut of meat, with deep meaty flavor, and a great combination of texture and tenderness. It was accompanied with a summer stone fruit panzanella (slices of nectarine (?) and plum (?) tossed with cubes of toasted bread), "blackberry wine" and a toss of crispy fried shallots. The unconventional pairing of the fruit with the beef nicely lightened up the dish some.

This was possibly one of the best semi-fortuitous wine pairings of the night (when I saw the description it was screaming for a zin for me), a C.G. di Arie "Southern Exposures" Shenandoah Valley Zinfandel (2006), a really nice zin with plenty of berry fruit but still good balance and even elegance.

cheeses - a couple artisan cheeses from Carr Valley, the menu listed a River Bend sheeps' milk cheese and a Bessie's Blend goat & cow's milk cheese, though some of us at the table believe we actually got a Mobay (Carr Valley's take on the French Morbier) instead. The pairing with a house-made mostarda (cherries in a syrup pungent with mustard seed and horseradish) and truffle honey was intriguing, but ... I prefer Talula's cooking to Carr Valley's cheeses.

panna cotta - a beautiful creamy-white panna cotta speckled on top with vanilla beans, with a hint of fresh tarragon and a scatter of strawberries macerated in a white balsamic syrup. This was a nice light dessert, with an excellent texture. Jay Rayner got some titters on Top Chef for noting that a proper panna cotta should wobble like a woman's breasts, and that's an apt description. Sadly, there are so many fake ones on South Beach, it would be hard to tell (panna cottas, that is).

This made for an unexpectedly brilliant pairing with another of the Hubert Slovakian bubblies, this one with just enough of a hint of sweetness to complement the dessert. Unfortunately I can't tell you the particular label on this, only that it was one of those serendipitous moments.

It was a great meal, and a great group of people with whom to share it. The real pleasure of this, from my perspective, is having the opportunity to tell a great chef, "Cook me what you want to make." More such experiences will be coming.[*]

[*]Chef Curto-Randazzo has given hints that she may start doing a "Cobaya Happy Hour" and offer some more adventurous tapas-style items at more affordable prices. When there's more information I"ll be happy to pass it along.


  1. Wow, this sounds wonderful. How does your average foodie get invited to something like this?


  2. Great post and recap Frod. I think everybody was on the same page on their meal impressions (nothing controversial). Rereading it, I just realized I never figured out exactly what the "blackberry wine" is.

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