Saturday, May 7, 2011

Cobakayapaz - Cobaya Dinner with Chefs Richard Hales, Vanessa Paz

It was almost exactly a year ago that we did our "Cobaya in the Night Kitchen" midnight dinner at Sakaya Kitchen. At that point, Sakaya had only been open a few months. The late-night diners who came out for that event got a good sampling of what was going on there, with Chef Richard Hales mixing in some standard menu items (his Filipino egg rolls and pork buns) and some more adventurous twists (Korean fried sweetbreads, "Chim Quay" quail).

Chef Hales has been itching to do another Cobaya dinner for a few months now, and we finally put it together. This past Monday, he rolled the Sakaya Kitchen truck (truck #2 for him, with the Dim Ssam a Gogo truck being the first in the fleet) over to Villa 221 to serve a small group of 20 guinea pigs. As an extra bonus, he brought in pastry chef Vanessa Paz of Michy's to do desserts.

You can see all the pictures from the dinner in this "Cobakayapaz" flickr set.

Villa 221, located just north of downtown Miami just a few blocks past the Performing Arts Center, was a gorgeous venue for the dinner, with a nice breeze keeping things cool enough for outdoor dining, and the group small enough to fit around one open-square table beneath the trees.

Villa 221

Chef Hales' cooking at Sakaya takes a good number of its culinary cues from Korea - bulgogi, ssams, ssamjang and kimchi all play prominent roles - but often looks elsewhere, both East (baos, Filipino egg rolls) and West (the incredible Bulgogi Burger, spicy tater tots) for inspiration. This Cobaya dinner was even more diverse, with dishes that drew on Vietnamese, Thai, Japanese, Italian and even American Southern motifs. Here is the menu he and Chef Paz put together:

Nuoc Mau Spiced Pork Rinds
Pickled Papaya, Peanut Brittle, Organic Tomatoes, Local Mint
Mushroom Brioche "Toast," Ssamjang Mayo, House Cucumber Pickle, Local Cilantro
Burrata, Blackberry "Panzanella," Sesame Oil, Fuji Vinegar, Brioche, Maple, Basil
Fried Baby Artichokes, Quail Yolk, Fish Roe
Colossal Shrimp, Blistered Organic Shishito Pepper, Miso Cauliflower Purée
Kurobuta Pork Belly, Peach Gastrique, Grilled Ramps, Corn Croquetas, Black Eyed Peas
Miso Chocolate Brûlée, Hot Chocolate Foam, Spicy Pecan Crumble
Pineapple Pie, Coconut Ice Cream
Dulce de Leche Panna Cotta, Pistachio Sponge Cake, Dry Meringue
Shot of Strawberry Sake
"PB&J" Peanut Butter Ice Cream Sandwich
Green Tea Mascarpone Cake, Sapote
Chocolate Doughnut, Passion Fruit Sauce

His first course was a small plate of airy, crispy pork rinds drizzled with nuac mau. Cleverly combining a Southern snack stable with a classic Vietnamese caramel sauce often used as a marinade or glaze for meat dishes, this dish sounded a couple notes that would be prevalent throughout much of the meal: (1) the mash-up of culinary genres, and (2) the interplay of savory and sweet. Many of Chef Hales' dishes play in that neighborhood between sweet and savory (Sakaya's honey-orange ribs have been Frod Jr.'s chosen dessert on more than one evening), and we would see much of that in this menu.

Papaya Salad

The next dish was a take on the Thai classic som tam, or papaya salad, which traditionally uses unripe green papaya shredded into a fine julienne, dressed with lime juice, fish sauce, sugar and chiles, often tossed with some tomatoes and peanuts. Chef Hales' version used ripe pink-fleshed papaya,[1] plump, halved grape tomatoes, a sweet, crunchy peanut brittle, and sprigs of local mint and cilantro. Clean, light and refreshing, I would have welcomed even more spice and tartness to balance out the sweet of the papaya and the brittle.

Mushroom Brioche Toast

This mushroom brioche "toast" fell somewhere between a French canapé and a Chinese shrimp toast, all the while borrowing the flavors and accompaniments of Sakaya's delicious pork buns: ssamjang mayo, thinly sliced pickled cucumbers, and a shower of fresh cilantro sprigs and green onions. This was good, though a bit heavy, plus these flavors were already very familiar to those of us for whom the Sakaya pork buns are a weekly staple.


The next course veered into more unfamiliar territory: burrata, served with a "panzanella" of blackberries and toasted brioche, dressed with sesame oil and Fuji vinegar and a julienne of fresh basil. This is the kind of dish I love: an unexpected combination that seems to make no sense and perfect sense at the same time. The cheese was just gorgeous, perhaps the freshest-tasting burrata I've had, luscious and exploding with creaminess. The "panzanella," subbing plump blackberries for tomatoes, provided a nice foil for the burrata, crisp cubes of bread giving some substance and the tangy blackberries some sweet, acidic contrast, further reinforced by the Fuji vinegar, all while the sesame oil provided an additional layer of lush richness. Italian and Asian flavor profiles don't meet very often; perhaps that's a missed opportunity. This was one of my favorite dishes of the evening.[2]

(continued ...)

Fried Baby Artichokes

Next, perhaps another Italian-Asian mashup: fried baby artichokes, crowned with a raw quail egg yolk, bright orange tobiko, another variation on the ssamjang mayo, and a scattering of microgreens. The artichokes had nice flavor and great texture, tender leaves with nice crispy edges, and I liked the pop of the fish roe against the oozy quail yolk. But the potential delicacy of this dish was overwhelmed by the sauce (which again was a familiar flavor for Sakaya regulars); I would have rather seen this without it, or perhaps with a lighter sauce that wouldn't have trumped everything else on the plate.

Colossal Shrimp

This, though, was something new: two "colossal" shrimp, grilled and plated with a miso inflected cauliflower purée and a blistered shishito pepper. The shrimp were excellent, meaty but tender, with a sweet-fleshed flavor reminiscent of a lobster. The cauliflower purée had the silky texture of Joel Robuchon's famous potato purée, a further rich note sounded by the sauce (I'm guessing a shrimp-shell stock enhanced with butter), and a nice contrasting note sounded by the charred shishito with a hint of smoky heat.

Pork Belly

The final savory course from Chef Hales gave another taste of East Meets South. Pork, corn, black-eyed peas, ramps, and peaches are all ingredients from the Southern larder, but were taken in a different direction here. The nicely crisped cubes of pork belly actually reminded me of Haitian griots more than anything else, but given a hint of Chinese flavor with the sweet-sour peach gastrique. The corn croquetas likewise had something sweet and chutney-like about them. Meanwhile, the black-eyed peas and wilted ramps provided a nice, almost literal grounding for the dish; one earthy, the other vegetal. Another of my favorites of the night.

From there Pastry Chef Vanessa Paz took over. Chef Paz looks very innocent, demure and harmless. Don't believe it. She's dangerous. She basically tried to kill us with desserts, and very nearly succeeded.[3]

Chocolate Brulée, Pineapple Pie, Panna Cotta

For her first attempt, she brought out three desserts at once: a miso chocolate creme brûlée, topped with a hot chocolate foam, a spicy pecan crumble, and a sliver of candied orange; a pineapple pie, topped with a quenelle of coconut ice cream; and a dulce de leche panna cotta, paired with a pistachio sponge cake and a crispy meringue. I'm always a sucker for chocolate-orange pairings, and I liked how the miso played toward the more savory elements of the chocolate (a dessert-form counterpoint to the sweetness that weaved its way through many of Chef Hales' savory courses). I also enjoyed the play of textures between the creamy panna cotta, the fluffy pistachio cake and the light, dry meringue. But the real winner on this plate was the pineapple pie: served warm and toasty, with a scoop of creamy coconut ice cream melting into the warm tropical fruit filling. A very typical flavor pairing in an unexpected format, to delightful effect.

Accompanying these was something that reminded me of an Indian lassi, blending aromatically spicy mango with the creamy tang of yogurt - a nicely un-sweet contrast to the plated desserts. And then, after the plates were cleared, a strawberry-infused sake, bright with fresh fruit flavor and dangerously smooth to drink.

But she wasn't nearly done.

PBJ, Doughnut, Mascarpone Cake

Three more desserts? Are you kidding? From left to right: a peanut butter and jelly ice cream sandwich, a chocolate doughnut with a passionfuit sauce, and a green tea mascarpone cake topped with sapote. The "PBJ" offered another nice interplay of traditional flavors in an atypical format - peanut butter ice cream, a layer of jelly, a brûléed banana, a puff of marshmallow fluff. The doughnut balanced creamy chocolate filling and puffy, crisp-shelled dough against a puddle of tart passionfruit sauce. If that were not enough, she also plated a green tea cake, topped with creamy mascarpone and a layer of softened sapote fruit. A crispy tuile alongside provided an unexpected and intriguing jolt of saltiness.

Chef Paz actually had at least a couple more desserts in store, as the printed menu indicated, but took mercy on us. It was a shame nobody had room, as everything she served was exceptional.

This was clearly a broader-reaching and more refined meal than what Chef Hales does at Sakaya (even while dealing with the inherent limitations of cooking it from a truck), yet still stayed true to the style and spirit of his cooking. Somewhere along the line, "fusion" became a bad word - probably through overuse and abuse in the hands of chefs chasing a trend rather than any real culinary inspiration. But, as trends tend to do, the pendulum seems to be swinging back on this one. Last month, Bon Appetit named Sakaya as one of "The Top 6 Places to Taste the New Asian Fusion," and just last week Frank Bruni made the argument in the New York Times that the highly celebrated Torrisi Italian Specialties represents a new Italian-American form of "fusion cooking," even while acknowledging that "'Fusion' has beome a naughty word, harboring connotations of gimmickry." There is no gimmickry with Chef Hales, just great food.

Many thanks to Richard and all of his crew for a wonderful meal, to Pasty Chef Vanessa Paz for nearly killing us with desserts, to the folks at Villa 221 for providing a lovely setting for the dinner, and as always, most of all, thanks to all the guinea pigs who make these events possible.

[1]He later confessed to me this was the result of his purveyor delivering the wrong kind of papaya rather than any creative license.

[2]Some thought this dish too sweet. And it might have been more traditionally positioned in a menu as a "cheese course," something to provide a transition into desserts. I didn't mind it. But for some folks, anyway, it is a common refrain that they find Sakaya Kitchen's food falls on the sweet side of things. While it might be taking things too far to say that what's going on is comparable to the sweet-savory gender-bending that Chef Sam Mason was doing at the now-closed Tailor, it's clear that this sweet edge is Chef Hales' style.

[3]There is no doubt that Chef Hales was an accomplice before the fact. There appears to be one thing you can be absolutely sure of when Chef Hales is cooking for one of these dinners: you will not go home hungry. Most diners were well on their way to satiety even before the last savory course hit the table, and were clearly running out of steam as the desserts made their way to the table. I've done 25+ courses at Jose Andres' minibar, and went to Jaleo afterwards for jamon and fideua. I've done ~40 courses at elBulli without flinching. I was still stuffed a day after this meal.


  1. I'm so sad I missed Richard Hales' Cobaya esp. at a venue I think is perfect for this! Didn't hear till day of, boo. Sounds like you all pigged out. Nice. I think Richard has the Asian fusion flavors DOWN and always enjoy any new dish he creates! So there, I've said it.

  2. I wish you weren't so good at describing these dishes that I'll never be able to experience. The dinner sounds like it was a fabulous experience. Fingers crossed that I luck out in the lottery for seating at the next event.