Saturday, September 24, 2011

CobayaJeremiah with Chef Jeremiah Bullfrog


Though our Cobaya - Gourmet Guinea Pigs events are sometimes called "underground" dinners, that's probably a bit of a misnomer, since we happily have some events in operating restaurants. But we really do strive for each of them to be an experiment. What we want, very simply, is for both chefs and diners to see it as an opportunity to try something new and different, to take chances.

Chef Jeremiah Bullfrog of the gastroPod has been one of our most steadfast supporters and facilitators since we started doing these dinners two years ago. He didn't cook our first dinner, but he did do the second one, and has lent a hand and sometimes even a kitchen to several others. So when Jeremiah came back from a trip to the MAD FoodCamp in Copenhagen and a stage at Noma[1] restaurant full of inspiration, we were glad to line up another dinner.

There were several firsts for this dinner: it was our first time trying staggered seatings, with rounds of about 8 diners being seated every half hour instead of one big communal table; it was our first time using this particular space, which had some temperature challenges;[2] and it was our first time with a tasting menu this ambitious, more than 15 courses all told. The idea was that the smaller seatings would let the cooks focus more on each plate as it went out instead of cranking out 35-45 plates at once.[3]

You can see all my pictures from the dinner in this CobayaJeremiah flickr set.

the dining room

The dinner started with a cocktail: the "Fernet Sour" mixed clarified Fernet Branca with clarified grapefruit juice, cooled with a blast of liquid nitrogen. Fernet is a profoundly, eye-crossingly bitter digestif, one of those concoctions of roots, twigs, spices and herbs that tastes like it must be either really good for you or poisonous. It is the epitome of an "acquired taste" - one that I sometimes enjoy after a heavy meal for its seeming purifying powers, but not one I've ever had to start a meal. Here, I suppose it could be seen as having the same kind of palate-cleansing effect as Heston Blumenthal's nitro-poached green tea and lime mousse at the Fat Duck. But I couldn't finish a full flute of it.

snack: pickles

There followed an extensive progression of various "snacks," starting with a pickle plate clearly inspired by the Noma aesthetic. Pink radishes were topped with paper-thin, faintly crisp shards of (Benton's?) ham. Pickled okra was coated in a light tempura batter and fried. And tiny beets were halved and pickled, served with a sphere of rosewater-infused yogurt spheres resting on a nest of noodle-like beet strands. I liked the bold flavors, the interplay of salty and sour, the variation in textures, and the communal presentation on a long plank.[4]

(continued ...)

snack: eggplants stuffed with local goat cheese

I called the next dish "eggplant stuffed eggplant." A small, halved eggplant was filled with a creamy, melty local goat cheese, then garnished on top with a tiny, round, and somewhat crunchy and seedy Thai eggplant.

tempura squash blossoms

Another trip to the garden brought zucchini blossoms, fried with just the faintest shell of a tempura batter to lend a bit of crispness. I've been clamoring for some time that tasting menus need not be so meat-centric for so many courses, and it was nice to see someone follow suit.

Still more "snacks" followed: green tomato "chips," sliced wafer-thin and fried, with a texture like a potato chip but the pleasing tart bite of a green tomato; savory churros, puffy little tubes of dough served with a decadently rich Chinese sausage "cream" for dipping.

squid and pasta

The next dish was a clever visual play: squid and pasta, a ribbon of squid finely cross-hatched and grilled, a sheet of (rice?) pasta given the same cross-hatch pattern so that it was guesswork to figure out which was which. The textural contrast and visual similarity were well done here, but the flavors were somewhat reticent.

madeleines, bone marrow butter

Bread service is one of those frills that we usually don't have for our Cobaya dinners, but Jeremiah rolled one out, and an elegant one at that. Savory, buttery warm madeleines, tucked into a folded napkin, were presented along with an almost perversely rich bone marrow cream. Chef Chris Cosentino calls beef marrow "God's butter," and the combination of silky texture and elemental meaty flavor here was worthy of that nickname.

carbonara chawan mushi

Chawan mushi carbonara, served in one of the shells of the duck eggs from which the custard was made, was one of my favorite dishes of the night. The silky custard bore the smoky perfume of a deeply infused dashi broth, echoed by the glistening, salty fat nuggets of bacon on its surface.

endive, candied walnut dust

While this was by no means a vegetarian dinner, it was refreshing to see vegetables as a focal point of so many dishes. A spear of endive was cooked sous vide (with walnut oil, I'm guessing, the scent of which seemed infused into the vegetable's flesh) and then served cold, adorned with a scatter of brightly colored edible flowers, micro-greens, and a crumble of candied walnuts, a sweet counterpoint to the endive's bitterness.[5]

uni, whipped Benton's ham fat, borage flower

Chef Jeremiah brought in whole live sea urchins from Maine, their roe harvested and placed back in the shell along with whipped Benton's ham fat, a bit of pickled peach, and a delicate borage flower. It's always tough to convince me that uni requires any accompaniment at all (though a bit of shiso leaf is always welcome to the party), and the smoky ham fat might have been too strong a match for the subtle roe, but it was still a gorgeous dish and the little spiky half-spheres made for one of the most dramatic presentations of the night.

escolar, bruleed tomato confit, charred pickled peach gastrique

The menu eventually did move on to some animal proteins as the focal point of dishes with a tranche of escolar, grilled and plated over a smoky/tart/sweet charred pickled peach purée, and topped with a handful of micro collard greens. But the most entrancing component of the dish were the black cherry tomatoes, "confited" until soft and nearly collapsing upon themselves, and then the real surprise, "brûléed" with a delicate sweet shell on their exterior. The bit of crisp sugar not only highlighted the sweetness of the tomatoes, but also pulled together the rest of the dish and went surprisingly well together with the fish.

lamb belly, cauliflower

Another of my favorites of the evening was the lamb belly. Luscious, fatty, meaty, and loaded with all those wonderful brown Maillard-y flavors, this was cooked just perfectly. Delicate and well-buttered shavings of cauliflower were a nice accompaniment.

sweetbreads, goat butter croutons, shiitake vinegar

A bit more delicately styled, sweetbreads were also tender with a nice sear to the exterior, and plated along with tiny goat-butter croutons and wispy carrot greens. By comparison, our final savory course, a brisket with dark black carrots, seemed a bit unfinished (and a glimpse at the working menu in the kitchen shows a couple additional components that must not have come together, as they didn't make it to the plate).

From there, Chef Jeremiah turned things over to Antonio Bachour, pastry chef at the W South Beach[6] and various other establishments around Miami and New York. I've watched Bachour's work on his blog and twitter for some time now, but this was my first chance to taste it. His creations are as delicious as they are beautiful.

A pre-dessert "café au lait" put together an espresso granita, coffee-infused whipped ganache and a milk foam - all the right flavors assembled in different form, almost like a reverse affogato with the coffee as the ice cream and the milk as the liquid.


While the café au lait offered customary flavor combinations, the next dessert seemed to reach in a dozen directions at once. A bright green pistachio sponge cake (Adria microwave style) was plated with a green apple sorbet (specked with a fine dice of fresh apple), a lemon mousse, a smear of tangy Greek yogurt cream, dots of irridescent pistachio gel - it was a veritable riot of colors, textures and flavors, but they all pulled together. This was high-wire stuff, and done without a wobble.

petit fours

For petit fours, the table shared a plate of bacon macarons, green apple marshmallows, and dulce de leche crispies, a light close to a lengthy meal.

The staggered seating times experiment had some advantages and some disadvantages. On the plus side, this was certainly one of the most ambitious Cobaya dinners we've done. The number of courses in itself outdid, just by sheer length and breadth, any event we've had before. Chef Jeremiah noted afterward that the menu actually included about 720 individual components (all assembled without the aid of a "real" kitchen).

But what impressed me most was not the volume, but the level of detail and refinement. There were some great "touches" here - those shards of salty ham on the pickled radishes, the knifework on the squid and pasta dish, the delicate chawan mushi, the fresh uni nestled in its own shell, the brûléed tomatoes, the perfectly cooked and seasoned lamb belly, the stunning desserts. Thomas Keller calls it "finesse," David Chang calls it "soigné". In a hot, sweaty warehouse with food cooked out of a couple trucks, we got a taste of it.

On the other hand, I know there was a struggle with pacing, particularly for some of the earlier tables, and I know that a couple of dishes didn't make it out to every table. Chef Jeremiah did not put up a final menu and I suspect he wanted to maintain some flexibility in doing a service of this magnitude. I also suspect some dishes (i.e. the brisket) did not come together quite as planned, and that he may not have wanted to serve an incomplete dish to the whole group. And yeah, it was hot (though that had nothing to do with the seating arrangements).

What I actually missed most of all was the communal aspect, the ability to bring everyone together at a couple tables to share in the experience. We did do smaller communal tables for a few of the services, but it's not quite the same - even if, as our dinners now typically include 35-45 people, it's impossible to spend time with everyone.

Nonetheless, I really enjoyed this dinner, and am very grateful for the small army that Chef Jeremiah assembled to turn it out: I recognized Brian Mullins of Ms. Cheezious, Antonio Bachour, Chad Galiano, Kurtis Jantz, and an assortment of regulars and irregulars from the gastroPod and Ms. Cheezious crews. And as always, many thanks to the guinea pigs who help support and make possible these little experiments.

the "kitchen"
the "kitchen"

[1]A place that many regard as the current front of the culinary vanguard, with its hyper-local, hyper-seasonal "New Naturalism."

[2]That is a euphemistic way of saying: it was hot. Fairly sweltering hot, despite both built-in and portable A/C units pumping away. Now I am the canary in the coal mine for warm rooms, typically breaking a sweat if it veers above 75°, so for anyone who was uncomfortable, I empathize, and hope it didn't entirely prevent you from enjoying the meal.

[3]Everything we ate, incidentally, was prepared from the gastroPod, g2, and the Ms. Cheezious truck which was pitching in for the event. Ms. Cheezious co-owner Brian Mullins also played expediter in the kitchen, with an elBulli style chart set up to track each table's progress through the menu. One of our frequent guinea pigs reminded me that back when Jeremiah did his first dinner for us in a townhouse with a typical residential kitchen, he had said that he wanted to create a mobile kitchen that he could use for those kind of events. The Pod now has made that possible (so long as you have ground floor access).

[4]I also think I now understand why Chadzilla, a/k/a Chad Galiano, who was one of the small army of chefs helping out in the kitchens for the dinner, was interviewing Jeremiah in a home improvement store last week. A lot of the "plateware," which had a wood-grain look, was actually floor tiles. We have something similar (on the floor) in parts of our house.

[5]We had a similar combination of endive and walnut in a different form at elBulli last year.

[6]Be looking for his work when The Dutch opens soon in the W.

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