Monday, December 19, 2011

CobayAzul (a/k/a A.B.C. - Azul Bizarre Cobaya)


The basic idea behind Cobaya is a simple one: let chefs cook whatever they want, for diners who want to experience it. The execution of that idea can sometimes become very elaborate. It did at Azul earlier this week, where Chef Joel Huff and his crew assembled an eight-course dinner that was often as complex as it was flavorful.

Another of the ideas behind Cobaya is to highlight chefs who may not be getting the attention they deserve for doing interesting, creative, inspired work in Miami. This latest dinner was another good example. Azul is one of Miami's few "fine dining" spots, and some great talent has worked there - its first executive chef was Michelle Bernstein, who spent four years there before going off on her own, when the talented Clay Conley took over - but like many hotel restaurants, it's a place that's more popular for visitors than locals.

When Chef Huff took over Azul this year, we quickly put it on the list of places that we thought could fit with Cobaya. Huff helped open up José Andres' Bazaar in Los Angeles, his menu at Azul was a fascinating read, and his sous chef, Brad Kilgore, was posting some great things on his blog, "The Power of a Passion," about what was going on in the kitchen. We were able to set up a dinner, and as usual, gave the chef free reign to create the menu and format.

An additional twist was introduced when we were contacted by a producer for Andrew Zimmern's show, "Bizarre Foods." They were going to be in Miami for a week, and were interested in shooting one of our dinners. The Azul dinner happened to be during the time they were in town. I'll confess, I had very ambivalent feelings about this. Truth is, we don't market or publicize these events at all other than by emails, blog posts and twitter; we make no money from it (everything collected goes straight to the chefs, and the organizers pay for their own seats too); and the group is, purposefully, very self-selecting. There are only so many people who are willing to show up for a dinner knowing absolutely nothing other than how much it will cost. We like it that way.

But when we talked it over with the restaurant, they were excited, and we thought it a worthwhile opportunity to show a larger audience the potential range of dining experiences in Miami. Watching Anthony Bourdain's Miami episode of  "The Layover" sadly confirmed that even as experienced an eater as Bourdain can still have a viewpoint of Miami that's based almost entirely on Miami Vice (a 25-year old TV show) and Grand Theft Auto Vice City (a 10-year old video game that mimicked the look and feel of the 25-year old TV show). It's kind of like doing an episode on San Francisco that's informed exclusively by having watched Big Trouble in Little China.[1]

Though the lights and cameras were inevitably something of a distraction, Zimmern and the Bizarre Foods crew (and Zimmern's guest Lee Schrager) were overall very well-behaved party-crashers. Zimmern himself, both when doing his routines for the camera and off, was genuinely curious, interested and engaged, passionate in his discussions about food, and effusive in his appreciation. It will be interesting to see how it comes out on the screen.

Here, in the meantime, is my take on our meal. You can see all my pictures from the dinner in this CobayAzul flickr set.

(continued ...)

After lubricating the crowd with a couple of cocktails (champagne adorned with a sliver of Japanese baby peach, a cranberry mojito garnished with a floating nitrogen-frozen mint meringue), we were seated at a few tables set up in front of Azul's brightly lit open kitchen.

uni, monstera sorbet

Chef Huff's first course, whether intentionally or not, represented something of a fusion of his West Coast past and his Miami present, pairing delicate curls of Santa Barbara sea urchin with a sorbet of local monstera fruit and hibiscus, along with a hint of fresh wasabi. Monstera deliciosa is a tropical vine that's often used as a decorative plant in South Florida landscaping projects. It also produces a fruit that somewhat resembles an ear of corn, with little pods that pop off as they ripen - and you must wait until they're ripe, as otherwise the fruit has toxic levels of oxalic acid. The monstera has a cotton candy sweetness reminiscent of pineapple, jackfruit, maybe a hint of banana, and was given a tart floral note and pink hue with the addition of hibiscus (a/k/a roselle, something that's turned up in my CSA boxes).

I love good uni and find that efforts to match it with accompaniments often interfere with, rather than enhance, its flavor. But this was a nice pairing, with the tropical fruit and flower notes playing off the fruity, floral qualities of the sea urchin, and a similar interplay of textures between the soft, luscious uni and the cold, creamy sorbet. It was subtle, simple, and balanced.

pumpkin swordfish

The menu took a step up in complexity with this pumpkin swordfish tataki. The variety and diversity of seafood available to us in South Florida is somewhat unheralded, and this pumpkin swordfish is a great example. The locally caught fish gets its pinkish-orange hue from feeding in shrimp beds, and often has a sweeter, milder flavor than "regular" swordfish. Azul's CDC Jacob Anaya used the "pumpkin" as a jumping-off point for the other components of the dish: cubes of pickled winter squash, a circle of pumpkin geleé, a crumbly savory streusel, a whiff of pumpkin seed oil.[2] The swordfish - done tataki-style, just barely seared on the exterior and rare in the center - was the highlight of this dish, with the pumpkin components complimenting rather than distracting.


Chef Huff's beet salad was brilliant, one of the best dishes I've had all year. From three basic ingredients - beets, blue cheese, bread - he crafted a stunning assembly of shapes, textures and flavors which he said included about 32 individual components. There were roasted beets in various hues, pointing their tendrils into the air. There were rounds of thinly sliced raw candy cane beets providing a bit of earthy, vegetal snap. There was beet espuma encapsulated in thin cylinders of beets. There was garnet-hued dehydrated beet paper, thin enough for light to shine through. There were powders, purées and gels of blue cheese, feather light croutons, razor-thin squares of lacy brioche. It was a dish that inspired a lengthy pause at the table, as everyone was reluctant to undo this beautiful construction.

Sometimes when presentation is such a focal point, flavor can get lost along the way. Not so here. This dish really highlighted the flavors and textures of its star ingredient, and was as delightful to eat as it was to look at. A truly exceptional dish.

smoked octopus

The octopus dish is one that sous chef Brad Kilgore has done a lot of work on, about which you can read in his blog. The octopus is seasoned with vadouvan, pimenton and other spices, then cooked sous vide in aromatics, and finally smoked over a wood-burning grill. It was paired up with a canary-yellow purée of vadouvan-infused cauliflower, dark smoky burnt baba ganoush, crisp fried cauliflower leaves, Jamaican hibiscus leaves (with a sorrel-like tart bite), segments of ruby grapefruit macerated in the same spices that were used for the octopus, dark squiggles of squid ink and Pedro Ximenez vinaigrette. I loved the flavor and texture of the octopus - it was reminiscent of a smoked octopus dish Michael Psilakis used to do at Eos - plus the interplay and echoing of textures and flavors, of smoke and spice. Sometimes with these light, airy purées, the flavors can become muted, but that wasn't the case here.[3]

white truffles

With each course, Chef Huff came out to provide a brief explanation. Before beginning the next one, he set down, directly in front of me, a dome-covered plate holding a staggering amount of white truffles. As soon as he lifted the dome, I was enveloped by their aroma. Then - sadly - he walked off with the dish as the next course was being brought to the tables.


My sadness was short-lived, as generous shavings of those truffles became the final touch on another visually stunning dish. The idea was a "forest floor" risotto, and the conceptual conceit was fully realized. The bowl of risotto was served nestled into a larger bowl filled with heated stones, mosses, herbs, bay leaves, and dried mushrooms, whose aromas were released by a hot "tea" poured into the bowls tableside. The risotto itself was studded with various "forest floor" items: chanterelles and other wild mushrooms, basil-fed snails, nasturtium leaves, salicornia,[4] those shaved truffles. Crowned with a soft-cooked egg, it offered luxurious, earthy flavors and once again a subtle interplay of textures.


Turbot is among the most delicate, prized, and expensive of flatfish. Chef Huff's approach paid heed to that delicacy, without completely capitulating to it. The fish, steamed over a lemon verbena tea, was layered with a tender baby artichoke and sunchoke (a/k/a Jerusalem artichoke, not actually an artichoke but a tuber) barigoule, then some surprisingly assertively spiced lettuce leaves, and then plated with a "gremolata" of various nuts and seeds, and dabs of a brightly flavored preserved Meyer lemon purée dotted with edible flavors and a baby radish. It's another dish you can get more insight into from Brad's blog. These were all very classical flavors, but reformatted and amplified.[5]

beef two ways

For the final savory course, Chef Huff closed with a duo of beef - one cooked 72 seconds, the other cooked 72 hours. On the left, Snake River farms Wagyu NY strip loin, very quickly seared and sprinkled with coarse salt. On the right, short rib, cooked low and slow (presumably sous vide) for three days. The dish featured outstanding quality beef, and a nice compare and contrast of the different cuts and cooking methods. But the real stars of the plate, surprisingly, were the couple little salt-crusted potatoes, slit open and filled with a creamy onion sauce. Though I believe Chef Huff described these as Catalan style potatoes during the dinner, and Brad calls them "patatas bravas" on the blog, I actually think they were "papas arrugadas," Canary Islands style potatoes boiled in heavily salted water (which happens to be a recipe Jose Andres has used at Bazaar). A stripe of salsa verde, slivers of crispy garlic and a few leafy greens rounded out the dish - good old fashioned meat and potatoes.[6]


Sous chef Brad Kilgore (a/k/a "Wall Street," according to Chef Huff) was primarily responsible for the dessert course, which used first of the season strawberries from nearby Dover, Florida in several forms. Again, you can read more about it here, but the primary focal point was a sheet of gelled strawberry consommé, draped over a sesame sable topped with an airy sour orange curd. A stream of creamy strawberry curd was piped around and on top, with the plate also including a black sesame crumble, a macerated and dehydrated strawberry, another raw strawberry topped with dextrose (the sugar that gives Pixy Sticks their fizz), Thai basil leaves, purple borage flowers and a thin stalk of strawberry-marinated coriander shoot. Similar to the beet dish, this took a couple basic components - strawberry and sesame - and played out several variations in textures and flavors.

There was a whole lot I liked about this meal: concept, presentation, technique, ingredient quality, and flavor all played equally important roles. I particularly enjoyed the "echoing" technique of repeating an ingredient in multiple forms within a dish to build complexity - each of the three building blocks of the beet salad, the vadouvan in the octopus which spiced the octopus, the cauliflower purée and the macerated grapefruit, the multiple iterations of strawberry in the dessert. Most of these dishes tasted every bit as good as they were beautiful to look at, which is ultimately what really matters. The regular menu at Azul has dishes that look every bit as interesting as what was on our menu, and if you like what you see here, I encourage you to go visit.

We're very grateful for everyone's patience and tolerance with the camera crews - we know it was a distraction, and it inevitably had some impact on the pacing of the meal; we hope it didn't interfere too much. We're also very grateful to Andrew Zimmern and all his crew for their interest in capturing an alternative side of Miami's dining scene that doesn't get much attention. Many thanks to Chef Huff, Jacob, Brad, Allie and all the crew at Azul for helping pull this all together; and thanks most of all, as always, to the guinea pigs who make these events possible.

[1] I probably shouldn't even get started on this tangent. I actually like La Perrada de Edgar, even if I'm pretty certain that Bourdain is the first person to eat an "Edgar Special" (a hot dog topped with fruit sauces and whipped cream) stone cold sober, and even though it's not located in "North Miami Beach" (a separate municipality about 10 miles north) but in the "North Beach" neighborhood of Miami Beach (if you're going to go to the expense of making a pretty graphic, don't you think you should also do a little fact-checking?). Garcia's is good, Michael's Genuine is great, Sakaya Kitchen's Dim Ssam a Gogo truck is a fine call, as are some of the other places that got brief mention (River Oyster Bar, Pubbelly). On the other hand, S&S Diner is not remotely one of the first places I'd consider if I only had 36 hours in town, and I wouldn't wish their meatloaf on Sandra Lee. Overall, it came off as a sloppy, lazy effort that did little to highlight what's unique and interesting about Miami, other than that people wear incredibly small bikinis here.

[2] A little technical flaw was that the pumpkin gel set up too firm, so that it stuck to the plate and didn't play well with the other ingredients on the plate.

[3] If anything, the cauliflower vadouvan purée may have been too assertive a presence - a lesser amount would have better allowed the octopus to stand out.

[4] Also called sea beans, glasswort, or marsh samphire, a succulent that typically grows near beaches or marshes. So maybe it was a forest near the beach, not entirely implausible for South Florida.

[5] Faced with a potentially tricky wine pairing with the lemon and artichoke (a notorious wine-killer), they went in an unexpected direction here: Beaujolais. The Marcel Lapierre Morgon, with its soft, almost floral fruity bouquet, proved a surprisingly pleasing match. I was impressed by the wine pairings throughout, including a very nice combination with the risotto, a Moccagatta Chardonnay from the Langhe region of Italy.

[6] Though generous - and overall, I think not only the level of preparation but also the quality of ingredients like white truffles, turbot, and wagyu beef made this dinner a relative bargain at $105 all inclusive - the two slabs of beef were perhaps overkill at this point in the meal. The portions could have been half the size and still would have been enough, in context. But it seems particularly ungrateful to cavil that a serving of wagyu beef was too large. It's like the converse of the Woody Allen joke: "The food there was excellent, and the portions were too large."

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