When I wrote about Chef Alberto Cabrera's latest venture, The Local Craft Food & Drink, I described him as a "culinary mercenary." That was by no means intended as criticism. Fact is, Chef Cabrera has been through a lot of kitchens. They include some of South Florida's finest: he worked his way up to chef de cuisine at Baleen in its heyday while Robin Haas was there, was with Norman Van Aken at the original Norman's in Coral Gables, and spent time at Sergi Arola's short-lived Miami outpost of La Broche before opening up Karu & Y, back what seems a lifetime ago in 2005. After that, he had several lower-profile consulting type gigs before coming back to the attention of Miamians with The Local.
I like what Chef Cabrera is doing at The Local, but it only scratches the surface of his abilities. It's exactly the kind of situation that we created Cobaya - Gourmet Guinea Pigs for. So when Blind Mind got him interested in doing a dinner, I expected good things would come of it. He not only put together a great ten-course lineup; he also found us our first genuinely "underground" location, in the cellar of La Bottega in Coconut Grove.
I did not get any good pictures of the stone-walled, bottle lined cellar space, nor of Chef Cabrera, nor of mixologist David Ortiz, who poured a Bond-worthy Vesper for everyone to start our dinner, and most of my food pictures are plagued by shadows and poor focus. You can see all my shadowy, fuzzy pictures in this Cobaya Cabrera flickr set.
We started with headcheese, an item that can sometimes be found among the charcuterie choices at The Local. But where I described that version as "Headcheese 101," this was the advanced class: larger, tender chunks of meat, fat, and other bits (the occasional ribbons of ear with a faint snap to them), bound by meaty gelatin. I love this stuff.
Dabs of spicy mustard and verdant twists of pea tendrils completed the communal plating, along with loaves of a foie gras brioche, the foie fat substituted for butter and contributing aroma and richness. The orange centerpieces on the table were actually further garnish, slivers of assertively spiced pickled carrots which I found refreshing and addictive.
This is the kind of dish that would probably never fly at The Local: Maine sea urchin, nestled over a corn custard, topped with a dashi froth and paired with compressed melon, a ginger flower, and a sheet of crispy yuba (tofu skin). I liked the interplay of textures and flavors, the melon and the dashi in particular echoing the uni's own combination of marine and sweet, fruity notes.
Maybe my favorite course of the night: cured foie gras, creamy and rich with just a hint of bitter mineral tang; country duck ham, salty and meaty; arugula with a peppery, grassy bite, dressed in a duck fat vinaigrette to reinforce the underlying motif; batons of pickled mango and a long smear of scarlet beet purée to provide just the right contrapuntal sweet, tart and earthy notes. I wanted more of this before I even finished it.
In a few instances, Chef Cabrera's dishes used building blocks from the Local's menu. There, you'll sometimes find a plate with steak, broccolini, farro and cheese. Here, elements of that plate were reconstructed as ribbons of beef heart (rubbed with Korean kochuchang; I think it may also have cured, as it tasted somewhat like corned beef to me), with dabs of broccoli purée, florets of broccoli kimchi, hearty, chewy farro grains, and purple micro shiso adding its characteristic bright flavor.
This was one of the more unconventional dishes of the night and a successful one at that. Seared matsutake mushrooms (Playing With Fire and Water has had matsutakes on the brain lately too) rested in a puddle of a coconut "fondant" over a "risotto" of tender pressure-cooked pine nuts, echoing the faint piney aroma of the mushrooms, all tied together with a shellfish emulsion. It was an intriguing take on a "Surf n Earth" and a subtle balance of flavors and textures, ranging from the delicate froth of the shellfish broth, the tender chew of the nuts, the creamy coconut, and the the firmer, almost meaty mushrooms.
Next, a variation on "Surf n Turf," bringing together ribbons of cuttlefish "linguini," a slice of cotechino sausage, jet black squid ink, and a bright red romesco sauce with a scatter of nuts and a crown of cilantro. This is another repackaging of a combination Chef Cabrera clearly likes to play with: at the Local, you may find it as squid ink meatballs served over a romesco sauce. I like the idea here, I'm still not completely convinced on the execution, which just didn't quite pull together for me.
I needed no convincing as to the combination in the next dish, squab with chocolate, strawberries, whipped balsamic vinegar and red vein sorrel leaves. Each of the elements made a good foil for the meaty, almost sanguine bird, offering both a slice of rosy rare breast and a fantastic crispy leg. I only wished that the chocolate flavor was more pronounced, as I would have liked more of its bitter and sweet to play against the tart of the berries and balsamic.
The last of the savory courses was a medallion of pork tenderloin, plated over Anson mills grits, with some crispy bits of shoulder meat, a grapefruit gel and a cube of honeycomb rounding things out. It was fine, but perhaps an unnecessary "big hunk of protein" to finish things off. I was pleasantly surprised by how much I liked the combination of the pork with the honeycomb - I was expecting it to be too cloyingly sweet, but it worked in the same incongruous way as honey with fried chicken.
Moving on to sweet things, Chef Cabrera served a light, milky, vanilla-flecked panna cotta together with a raspberry yuzu sorbet and a slice of dense, moist cake, again playing off multiple textures effectively. I unfortunately missed out on a final dessert plate, a turron of peanut and dark chocolate paired with white chocolate, grapefruit and lavender.
This is exactly what we try to do with Cobaya. Alberto Cabrera is a talented chef, and he's doing great stuff at The Local, but the gastropub format limits the range of what he can put on the menu there. In an underground wine cellar in Coconut Grove, we got to see and taste what he can do without those constraints. It was great stuff.
Many thanks to Chef Cabrera and his crew, to Brad Kilgore from Azul and Chef Jeremiah of the gastroPod for coming by to help out, to all the servers, including Chef Cabrera's wife and some of the gastroPod crew for taking care of us all night, to David Ortiz for getting us started with those Vespers, and most of all, as always, to all of the guinea pigs who make these events possible.