Monday, April 2, 2012

Sustainable Cobaya


Sometimes even we're surprised.

When we plan these Cobaya dinners, we purposefully keep the "marching orders" to the chefs minimal: basically, be creative, and do something you don't normally get to do. Often we'll kick around ideas, we might see preview menus, but not always. Sometimes we have only a rough sketch of what to expect, and sometimes we go in completely blind.

When we sat down to talk with Chef Alejandro Piñero and Manager Jonathan Lazar of Sustain Restaurant + Bar in Midtown Miami, they said they were thinking of doing a Southern Italian inspired menu. Though Sustain is known mostly for its focus on fresh, local, and - yes - sustainable ingredients, this didn't come as a complete surprise to me. Before Sustain, Chef Piñero spent five years as sous chef at Casa Tua and then took over as chef de cuisine at Fratelli Lyon, so Italian is clearly in his repertoire. We invited them to run with the idea, and that was the extent of what we knew.

I expected Sicilian and Sardinian flavors, I expected some modern and some old-school techniques, I expected some great wine pairings from sommelier Daniel Toral. Even I didn't expect a roasted goat's head.

testa di capra arrosto

Here is the full menu (you can see all my pictures in this Sustainable Cobaya flickr set, or click on any picture to view a larger version):

sustainable cobaya menu

Arancia Rossa e Averna

Lardo e Ricci di Mare
Andrea Franchetti "Guardiola" Etna, Sicily 2010

"Oliva" e Frissée
Tenuta delle Terre Nere Etna, Sicily 2010

Ragu di Cinghiale
Arianna Occhipinti "SP68" Vittoria, Sicily 2010

Cerevella di Capra, Patate e Cavolo Nero
Andrea Franchetti "Passopisciaro" Etna, Sicily 2008

Arancia Rossa, Torta all'Olio d'Oliva

Miele Sardo e Sorbetto al Latte di Mandorle

I am generally terrible with foreign languages, but have a savant-like ability to read menus. So it was fun to watch some at our table struggle to translate our menu, particularly as they got to the fifth course.

(continued ...)

We were started in the classic Italian fashion with an apertivo. This one married two traditional Sicilian ingredients in untraditional formats: blood oranges (as a smooth sorbet) and Averna (a bittersweet Sicilian liqueur, rendered here as an icy, crunchy granita) - a refreshing, palate-invigorating start to the meal.

gamberi, lardo e ricce di mare
The meal proper began with a composition of giant, ruby red Spanish shrimp, served over a sheet of cured lardo, and topped with a lobe of sea urchin. Seafood is not typically thought of as fatty, but that's the best way to describe the flavor and texture of these gorgeous shrimp. Just barely cooked, they had a silky richness that was echoed by both the uni and the cured pork fat. As I turned over the head, eagerly anticipating shrimp brains to suck on, I instead discovered a hidden cache of creamy whipped lardo, which I scooped up with the crusty bread they'd conveniently provided.

seppie, "oliva" e frissee
The next course brought more seafood - seppie, or cuttlefish, gleaming white, barely cooked ribbons, and crispy fried curls on top. These all lay on a bed of  lightly dressed sprigs of frisée, herbs and micro-greens, interspersed with little orbs of spherified squid ink "caviar." Riding sidecar was an Adria-styled spherified olive, its burst of brine providing a nice counterpoint to the light seafood salad.

malloreddus e ragu di cinghiale

While the first couple dishes offered some contemporary flourishes, Chef Piñero's pasta course was as old-school as old-school gets. Malloreddus are a traditional Sardinian pasta, a simple egg-less semolina-based dough rolled into a gnocchi-like shape. The pasta's ridges, crevices and slightly rough texture are the perfect vehicle for rich hearty sauces. Chef Piñero's wild boar ragu, topped with thick shavings of pecorino cheese, was a classic pairing. Though it was a generous serving, and though several courses were still coming, virtually everyone at my table finished off their bowl.

testa di capra arrosto
testa di capra arrosto
In case anybody couldn't decipher the translation, there was no mistaking the next course when it got to the table: each diner was presented with half a roasted goat's head. The goat's brains had been pan-fried, glazed with caper butter, and nestled back into their original home for presentation. Diners were instructed to first eat the brain, then flip the skull for easier access to all the rest of its meaty goodness.

The brains were light, fluffy and buttery, with a subtle hint of meaty flavor to them, like sweetbreads gone ethereal. The goat's skin was crispy with a bit of chew, much like a good roast suckling pig, with pockets of sticky, rich fat underneath. The meat from the cheek and other little crevices (there's a particularly good one behind the eye socket) took some work to get to, but was silky and tender, as rich and flavorful as braised beef cheek, with just a touch of welcome gaminess. Chris Cosentino would have been proud.

testa di capra arrosto

I suppose some might find this shocking, even disgusting. The truth is, it was genuinely delicious. 

panacotta al cardomomo
pannacotta al cardomomo
Desserts were rather less visceral. First, a panna cotta infused with citrus and cardomom, paired with a cube of a pleasingly dense, rich olive oil cake, with a swath of blood orange gel and a ribbon of its candied rind reinforcing the southern Italian theme, and a drizzle of olive oil adding an intriguing grassy complexity. There was a nice balance of flavors and textures here, the only misstep being that the candied orange rind was so sticky and chewy that it was difficult to eat it with the rest of the dish.


I prefer desserts that aren't too sweet, and Chef Piñero seems to be of the same mindset. These sebadas are another Sardinian classic: like fried dessert ravioli, a crisp doughy shell encases creamy young pecorino cheese, all drizzled with Sardinian honey. He paired these with an almond milk sorbet, intensely fragrant but mildly flavored, a nice counterpoint to the sebadas.

For those who selected the optional wine pairing, Sustain sommelier Daniel Toral put together an outstanding tour of the largely unheralded wines of Sicily. The "Guardiola," made by Andrea Franchetti, an unoaked chardonnay from the slopes of Mount Etna, had enough rich fruit to match the shrimp, uni and lardo, but finished with a crisp, steely minerality. His "Passopisciaro" red, made from the indigenous Nerello Mascalese grape (apparently a genetic relative of pinot noir), had enough ripe cherry and redcurrant flavor to stand up to the hearty roasted goat, but still had some of the silky subtlety of its pinot coisin. The Arianna Occhipinti "SP68," meanwhile, had a rough-hewed rusticity that was a great match for the wild boar ragu, while the Tenuta delle Terre Nere, another Nerello Mascalese, had a more softly floral aspect that was gentle enough to not overwhelm the cuttlefish salad. It was a great example of the "what grows together, goes together" principle of wine pairing, and an introduction to several wines I'd never experienced before.

Sustain crew
GM Jonathan Lazar, Chef Alejandro Piñero, and crew
In just about every respect, the Sustain team delivered everything we hope for in a Cobaya experience. We encourage chefs to explore culinary territory outside their usual realm: while Chef Piñero's clearly got some Italian chops, this was a departure from what you'll typically find at the restaurant and the particular regional focus on Siciliy and Sardinia was unique. We encourage chefs to be both creative and adventurous: this menu certainly fit that description. But most importantly, I thought the food was memorably delicious.

Many thanks to all the crew at Sustain, especially Chef Piñero, Jonathan Lazar, Daniel Toral and Brian Goldberg. And as always, thanks to all of the guinea pigs whose support and patronage makes these events possible.

Sustain Restaurant + Bar
3152 NE 1st Ave. #107, Miami


  1. Is there a listing of these events somewhere? I would love to attend.

  2. There is more information on Cobaya and how to "join" here ->