Monday, April 26, 2010

"Cobaya in the Night Kitchen" at Sakaya Kitchen

"Did you ever hear of Micky, how he heard a racket in the night and shouted and fell through the dark..."

Forty guinea pigs were making a racket in the night at Sakaya Kitchen this past Saturday for our latest Cobaya dinner. There were a few reasons we decided to do a midnight dinner. First, we just wanted to do something different. Second, Sakaya's chef, Richard Hales, is working pretty much non-stop during regular hours, with Sakaya being open 11am - 10pm 7 days a week. Third, Sakaya may eventually be rolling out a late night service, so this was something of a dry run. Those who notice the posting schedule here know I'm usually up then anway, but I'm apparently not the only night owl: I was thrilled - and once again, grateful and humbled - that when a post went up on the Cobaya board which basically said nothing more than: "Midnight. Saturday April 24. $55," 60+ people said "Yes!"

We weren't able to accomodate all who wanted to come, but we did have our largest dinner yet. After a little game of musical chairs - we had to split one long communal table in two to squeeze everyone in - we sat down to seven courses at CobSakaya Kitchen.

I've seen all sorts of different menu formats, but this was the first one that had both footnotes[a] and relationship advice ("Dessert!?...Go home and have sex like the old days instead of blogging about food..."). I won't share with you how that dessert suggestion worked out, but I'll happily tell you about the rest of the meal. If you can't read that scratchy picture above, here is the menu:

"Cobaya in the Night Kitchen @Sak[1]aya Kitchen"
 April 24, 2010 Midnight

What you may already know...

Papa's Shrimp & Pork Filipino Egg Rolls, Fuji Vinegar

Pork Butt, House Cured & Roasted Boston Butt, House Pickle, Ssamjang Sweet Chili

Some new stuff for Cobaya...

Garlic'd Laughing Bird Shrimp, Chive Flower Soba Noodles

Bucket of Korean Fried Sweetbreads & Spicy Frog Legs, Local Baby Cucumber Blossom

"Chim Quay" Quail, Pig Skin "Tsitsaron," Chinese Broccoli

"Nuoc Mau" Pork Belly, Roasted Local Baby Carrots, Crispy Bone Marrow, Coconut Rice

Dessert!?...Go home and have sex like the old days instead of blogging about food...

Blue Point Oyster[2]


Wife Hales' Chocolate Chocolate Cookie Bag

[1]Cobaya Kitchen
[2]An aphrodisiac is a substance that increases sexual desire

(continued ...)

Chef Hales started us off with a couple "signature" items from Sakaya Kitchen to get us warmed up. The first was Papa's Shrimp & Pork Filipino Egg Rolls. Papa, here, actually turns out to be Chef Hales' Filipino grandmother, whose egg roll recipe he's tweaked for use at the restaurant. Though I've been several times, I'd not yet tried these. This is only going to make the next visit more complicated, as this will be one more item to add to the list of things I want to order. The taste of both the shrimp and the pork in the filling remain clean and pure, in a crispy shell, and with a lift to the flavors from the tart vinegar dipping sauce.

This is a sloppy picture, but perhaps that's appropriate. Sakaya's pork buns are not pretty to eat, but they're delicious. These are a labor of love, and Chef Hales has figured out that probably about 40 hours of preparation goes into them. This is something that is common to much of the cooking at Sakaya - it's almost all done in-house, and the prep methods take the time to infuse and magnify flavors. Here, a Boston butt is cured overnight in a rub of salt, sugar and spices. After curing, the pork is then slow-roasted for eight hours, effectively basting in its own fat and getting all tender and melty. Then, before they're stuffed into the steamed buns, slices of the meat hit the grill, getting nice crusty charred edges. The buns also get some of Sakaya's house-made cucumber pickles (a very light salt and sugar cure, still very fresh tasting) and ssamjang sweet chili sauce (actually a combination of sauces, matching the funkier deep bass notes of ssamjang's chili paste and soybean with sweeter, brighter sugar and vinegar notes of a sweet chili sauce, again all house-made). This is just about a perfect bite, and one you'll almost always find on the menu at Sakaya.[b]

The rest of the menu was all new, and this item shows a more Japanese sensibility. Garlic-inflected Laughing Bird shrimp were served over a nest of cold soba noodles, tossed in a sauce redolent with slivered chives and chive buds, along with ginger and garlic. These shrimp - which come from a sustainable and environmentallly low-impact aquaculture operation off the coast of Belize - were the rightful star of this dish, wonderfully sweet and tender. The chive flowers mixed with the soba noodles had a pleasing and pungent bite.

This next dish returned to Korean flavor profiles, as Chef Hales took the "KFC" concept one step further. I'm not talking about that Double Down abomination. No, among fried chicken aficionados, "KFC" has acquired the secondary meaning of Korean Fried Chicken, whose flavors you can find on Sakaya's regular menu with their chicken wings. But here, Chef Hales elected to use sweetbreads instead of chicken, to great effect. These little nuggets were crispy outside, fluffy and light within, with a mouth-warming hit of spice. To fill out the bucket (another nice KFC reference), there were also some fried frog legs, given an even more assertive spicy glaze. A beautiful baby cucumber blossom (which I think Chef Hales sourced from Swank Farms in Palm Beach) provided a burst of color and much-welcomed dose of freshness.

Much of Sakaya's food deals in deeply infused flavors, and this "Chim Quay" quail stuck with that theme. The birds were given an overnight brining in a Vietnamese style soy-based marinade with garlic, ginger and spice notes (five spice?) and then grilled off. The birds were so juicy and moist they needed no sauce at all. The quail was served atop a spear of steamed Chinese broccoli, flecked with pig skin "tsitsaron"[c] and dressed in a tart vinegar sauce. Chef Hales said this was his first time attempting to make pork rinds, an experiment inspired by the natural affinity of greens and pork products, as well as the abundance of excess pork skin in the kitchen from his pork belly dishes. It was a happy and successful confluence.

Speaking of pork belly. It was past 2am at this point, and around the room I could see some energy levels and appetites flagging. This would push just about all of us over the edge. This pork belly got a similar treatment to the pork butt in Sakaya's pork buns - curing with salt, sugar and spices, slow-roasting, and a quick high-heat finish - but the flavors here were entirely different. This dish again went in a Vietnamese direction using nuoc mau, or caramel sauce, used in many Vietnamese savory dishes, as a reference point. If pork belly with a sweet caramel glaze wasn't rich enough for you, Chef Hales added a baton of crispy bone marrow on top. Chef Chris Cosentino calls bone marrow "God's butter" and for those who enjoy it, it's an apt description: it has the unctuous creaminess of melted butter, but with a meatier, more complex taste. The execution here was perfect: the bones were brined, then their marrow centers poked out of them, then rolled in flour and pan-fried in butter for a crispy shell around the oozing center. It was like a marrow croquette, though some might be inclined to call it an upscale version of deep-fried butter.

The dish also featured some local baby carrots that had been subjected to a somewhat similar treatment to the pork: "cured" with a salt and sugar rub, and then slow-roasted for several hours. They looked horrible - all blackened and withered - but their flavor was actually a beautifully concentrated essence of carrot. The coconut rice, all creamy and sweet (a bit too sweet for my tastes) and flecked with scallions, provided ballast for anyone who had not been filled up by all that had preceded.

Chef Hales readily acknowledges that desserts are not his forté, and so he's mostly relied on his mother and wife to provide the sweets for Sakaya Kitchen. In lieu of serving a dessert, he went instead with an item intended to go with his menu's relationship advice (more snogging, less blogging): a pajeon, or Korean pancake, topped with a freshly shucked Blue Point oyster (oysters being a reported aphrodisiac). A variation on this dish has made appearances on the Dim Ssam Brunch menu. I actually preferred the brunch version, which came topped with a fiery ssamjang sauce and daikon kimchi.[d] We were not completely deprived of sweets, though, as everyone was sent home with a ("postcoital") bag of "Wife Hales' Chocolate Chocolate Cookies."

For those who were already familiar with Sakaya Kitchen, this dinner was a chance to try both some "old" favorites and also some new and different things that Chef Hales hasn't rolled out yet on the standard menu (and I sort of doubt you're ever going to be seeing Korean Fried Sweetbreads or crispy bone marrow on a regular basis). For those who had not yet been, it was a great introduction to a place that is a real gem in the rough. Sakaya Kitchen looks for all the world like a fast food joint, giving little indication of the quality and seriousness of cooking going on there. It's all the more impressive considering that basically nobody in the kitchen other than Chef Hales has had any fine dining experience.

I hope everyone enjoyed themselves, wasn't too tired Sunday, and made it home "cakefree and dried." ("Oh! Ho. Hum. Yum!"). Thanks to all of you for coming out for another of our little experiments.

Sakaya Kitchen
Buena Vista Avenue btwn 34th & 36th Streets
Miami, FL 33127

Sakaya Kitchen on Urbanspoon

[a]I've obviously got a fondness for the marginalia as well, perhaps in feeble emulation of David Foster Wallace.
[b]We strive for an entirely "off-the-menu" experience with Cobaya, but for something this good I'm willing to make exceptions.
[c]I initially suspected Chef Hales had made up this variant on "chicharrones" (a/k/a pork rinds) but it appears to be a common Tagalong spelling used in the Philippines.
[d]Indeed if there was anything I felt was missing from our meal, it was those deep, spicy, fermented flavors of the Korean chili pastes and pickled vegetables. I understand that Chef Hales wanted to showcase some different flavors but I could have used a fiery blast of kimchi somewhere in the course of the meal.


  1. I'll have my post on the event up later today, but after reading your comprehensive coverage I'm wondering why I bother.

    You seem to have more information on the dishes than the chefs give out at the dinner and you weren't taking notes. Do you interview the chefs separately?

  2. Let me know when your post is up, I love getting others' feedback on these events.

    I spent a little time talking to Chef Hales after the dinner was over, but pretty much everything here I either picked up from his comments during the event or from what I know (or could find out) about the dishes that were his reference points.

  3. Great recap to a great event! I have a feeling that the kfc bucket would turn a whole legion of naysayers onto both sweetbreads and frogs legs...

    As always, a great pleasure.

  4. Thanks to you and of course Chef Hales and the great Sakaya team for another winner. Besides the food, I love that each of these dinners has its own vibe...this was a little younger and more lively and it was great meeting some new food friends. I was blown away by what he did for 40+ people after a full day working. I pretty much think your recap is right on (big surprise). Where I varied some: I liked the sweet rice, and normally I am not one for sweet components to a savory dish. I also was fond of the bird shrimp and soba noodles, very delicate and the shrimp were so sweet and tender. I missed the hot/pungent/pickle taste in one of the dishes too, but I was even more excited to see a new style noodle dish for the menu.

    And the sweetbreads...I always try to like them but this was the first time I actually did. The pungent/sweet kfc spices were a perfect complement to the richness of the sweetbreads. Well done!

  5. This is the first Cobaya dinner that I attended, and I'm sure it won't be the last.
    I liked almost everything on the menu even though I could not finish most of it, knowing that there was more to come.
    Sakaya and Chef Hales have a lot of potential and it's one of my favorite places in the area.
    I'd also like to thank Frod for putting together the event, keep'em coming

  6. Wow, the menu looks great, looked at photos on Bill's blog yesterday, the pork bun looked amazing!

    $55 was a pretty fair price for all of the food, not sure I could have eaten it all or so late! I feel for Chef Hales, those hours are killer!

    And, I agree with him about going home and not getting straight on the computer! haha! GOOD ADVICE!

  7. Not to rain on anybody's parade here, but I do feel a different opinion is in order. While the chef, the service, and the general comradarie were great; I think the menu was a bit extreme. The quail, the frog eggs and the Bird Shrimp were definitely tasty, but at some point a nagging thought came to mind: Why is everything so fried and so fat saturated? While far from being health nuts and definitely into adventurous food, my companions and I were certain that our cholesterol/grease/raw blubber consumption for the week (or maybe the fortnight) was met with ease. While I have had many a wonderful meals centered around the deep frier, this was not one of them. "Go home and try not to catch a coronary" would be my slogan. Loved the idea and the people involved; but in all honesty the menu choices were a big disappointment.

  8. I encourage everyone to express their opinion whether positive or negative. But of course that doesn't mean they won't necessarily get a response.

    This was without a doubt not a spa meal and not one where you would want to be counting Weight Watchers points. But in fact, only two of seven dishes were predominantly fried - an egg roll to start, and the sweetbreads & frog legs combo. And two others might actually qualify as reasonably healthful: the shrimp with soba noodles, and the quail (which was brined and grilled, not fried) with Chinese broccoli.

    Would I eat this way every day of the week? Of course not. That's why these dinners are a roughly once a month thing. I eat nothing but alfalfa sprouts and quinoa the rest of the month.

  9. I stand corrected - only 5 out of 7 things were fried outright: eggroll, frog legs/sweetbreads, Fried pig skin, crispy bone marrow (dipped in butter and fried), pajeon (fried). Were any of these dishes tasty in their own right? Yes. As a meal, did it qualify as a culinary, balanced experience? Not by a long shot. Frying, dipping in butter and
    "concentrating the flavor" was done in a similar way at most fast food joints. The French chefs do it to perfection with prudent amounts of flavor and taste. Sakaya did it with a sledgehammer and little nuance. You are right: subsiding on alfalfa sprouts and quinoa may be the only counterbalance to feeling like a stuffed duck on a saturday night. Foie gras, anyone? My liver has been marinated in butter and fried to perfection.

  10. Food was not for you and I respect that. stand further corrected it is actually 5 components fried to approx 18 components total on the menu. Not 5 to 7 as you so expertly bent the truth to support your "fast food" argument. Rich food yes, fast food not by a long shot.

    Richard "not french, not fine dining, the sledgehammer, fry-o-lator, fast food" Hales

    *opinions are welcome, opinions stated as incorrect facts are not.

  11. I think when people snark about something they should have the balls to come into the discussion without anonymity. Gives the comments more cred. Frodnesor, have you thought about not allowing anonymous comments? Just curious...

  12. Your point would carry more weight if it weren't clouded by misstatement. Saying 5 of 7 things were fried is like saying 5 of 7 things were vegetarian because the egg rolls had string beans in them, the pork buns had cucumber, the sweetbreads had a cucumber blossom, the quail had Chinese broccoli, and the pork belly came with carrots.

    You thought the meal was too heavy. Fine.

    As for anonymity, I'm not exactly in the best position to complain about that.

    Stay tuned for the next "Cobaya in the Steamer Basket" dinner.

  13. And, just a heads up, you probably don't want to go here for your next dinner.

  14. Ha! You are right! No profile for you Frodnesor! Tsk, tsk! you guys.....