Friday, September 28, 2012

Cobaya 1500° with Chef Paula DaSilva

1500° table

"What would be your last meal?" Given their line of work, it's a question chefs are often asked - often enough, in fact, that someone's devoted an entire book to fifty famous chefs' answers to that very question. To the surprise of many people on the other side of the kitchen door, who might expect chefs to favor elaborate, extravagant, fancy food, the answers are often very simple dishes. For José Andrés, it's tortilla española and fresh seafood; for Gordon Ramsay, roast beef and Yorkshire pudding; for Sean Brock, chicken and dumplings (and, of course, a gigantic glass of Pappy); for Tony Maws, it's either a hot dog or a pastrami sandwich. When you spend your days arranging complicated, fussy plates, it turns out to be, for many chefs anwyay, one of the last things you want to eat when you get off work.[1]

When we do Cobaya dinners, we don't dictate any theme, giving the chefs freedom to realize on their own vision. We push them to give voice to their creative impulses, and encourage them to offer an off-the-menu experience, but beyond that, we want to see their ideas, not our own. So when Chef Paula DaSilva, of 1500° in the Eden Roc Hotel on Miami Beach, chose to do a "Last Meal" theme for her Cobaya dinner, she and her sous chefs, Adrienne Grenier and Tony Velazquez, put together some of their own "last meal" requests, compiled into a format of several rounds of multiple dishes, all served family style.

Chef Paula DaSilva

Many were, like those chosen by many other chefs when asked that question, simple classical dishes. But "simple" is not the same thing as "easy." The truth is, simple is hard: if you're going to do a minimalist, classic dish and make it something special, you have to have the best ingredients, the best technique, the best execution. There is no hiding place. So the task that Chef DaSilva chose for herself and her team was not by any means an easy one.

(You can see all my pictures in this Cobaya 1500° flickr set, or click on any picture to enlarge).

1500° - terrace

The location of our dinner, on a fourth floor terrace in the back of the hotel overlooking the ocean, was stunning, as was the table stretched out along the balcony, set with festive arrangements of bright sunflowers. A sparking sangria cocktail was served along with several passed hors d'oeuvres as the guinea pigs arrived.

The appetizers included creamy custards served in the eggshell with a sheet of crispy bacon; silky house-made ricotta cheese slathered on grilled bread, topped with a tangy-sweet mandarinquat marmalade; crispy bacalao fritters with a garlic and parsley aioli; pork belly and kimchee sandwiched inside crispy taco shells; and a small burger intended as homage to the legendary In-N-Out Burger (though not done Animal Style as best I could tell).

bacon and egg custard


bacalao fritters

We were then directed to the table, which had already been set with a platter of charcuterie along with thick slabs of grilled bread rubbed with tomatoes, the classic Catalan pan con tomate.


The charcuterie was a mix of house-made and thoughtfully procured, the standouts for me being those that came from in-house, a thinly sliced smoked duck breast and a hearty sausage. Prosciutto, mortadella and salami completed the selections, which were accompanied by some pickled vegetables and cured olives. Each round of our dinner was paired with a cocktail, here a Bloody Mary in a crumbled bacon-rimmed glass.

(continued ...)

The next round of dishes were styled "On the Light Side," which brought a tomato and burrata salad with fresh herbs, grilled Santa Barbara spot prawns, and wahoo sashimi with a green papaya slaw. A tart, refreshing passion fruit pisco sour accompanied this course.

tomato and burrata

spot prawns

wahoo sashimi

Of these, my favorite was the wahoo, a firmer fleshed fish that was barely seared on the exterior, topped with a julienne of Thai-accented green papaya and carrots flecked with fresh herbs, and then doused with a soy sauce and sesame oil vinaigrette. The tomato and burrata salad was a fine rendition, with nice ripe heirloom tomatoes and a creamy lush cheese, accented by a bundle of fresh herbs including dill and chives; but not terribly distinguishable from any number of other iterations of this customary dish, including the one served on the regular menu at 1500°, which I've enjoyed before.

And the spot prawns, I have to admit, I just didn't get. Santa Barbara spot prawns are, in my opinion, one of America's great seafood products - beautiful large shrimp with wonderfully sweet meat, usually served head-on and as minimally cooked as possible to preserve their delicacy, texture and flavor. These were instead decapitated, skewered, and grilled well past their prime, losing much of the nuance of a great product.

Let me pause and acknowledge something that I've been struggling with: I have a conflict between my role as organizer and promoter of these Cobaya events, and my mission here to give a faithful and candid recap of the meal. I am very reluctant to seem anything other than grateful to the chefs and their teams who graciously agree to do these dinners, and who undoubtedly invest tremendous effort, time and expense into making them happen. And yet, as a diner, there were several instances here in which I was puzzled or outright disappointed by the results. At risk of being seen as biting the hand that quite literally feeds me, I've decided an honest assessment is really the only way to go.

The next round of dishes was "Midnight Snacks." Maybe one of the most obvious examples of how chefs don't eat like you or I do is that they don't eat at the same times as "civilians." If they're fortunate enough to be at a place that provides "staff meal," they're eating it early, before the restaurant opens. By the time the last order hits the pass maybe 6-8 hours later, most other restaurants (like their own) will be closed. As a result, late night eats are a staple of the restaurant worker diet. They were represented here by chicken wings, beef enchiladas, and pasta carbonara, with a roasted jalapeño blackberry margarita as the drink of choice to accompany them - tequila likewise being best consumed after the midnight hour.

chicken wings

beef enchiladas

pasta carbonara

Of the bunch, my favorite were the chicken wings, crackling crisp on the outside but still juicy and tender within. Instead of being doused with sauce like typical buffalo chicken wings, they were instead plated with a "red hot" aioli on the side for dipping. But they were also overwhelmed by salt, an issue I had with several of the dishes during the night.

Pasta carbonara is one of my favorite dishes (Ruth Reichl might agree too), an elemental combination of pasta, bacon, eggs, cheese and pepper. And it is indeed a great late night dish, a sort of breakfast and dinner combined, with components that can usually be found in even the most barren of refrigerators. But it's an awfully difficult thing to execute for a crowd of 36, even more so when your kitchen is about 100 yards and a couple flights of stairs away from the dining room. I was not surprised the dish didn't travel well; I was surprised, though, that I found the bacon, from the legendary Allan Benton in Tennessee, much too assertively smoky and salty for the dish, overwhelming the other components.[2]

Chef DaSilva called the next round "Give Us More." And she sure did. Four full entrées more, in fact: a whole roasted branzino, rotisserie chicken, suckling pig porchetta, and braised short ribs.


rotisserie chicken

The branzino would have pleased Marco Pierre White, who insists the only proper way to serve fish is "on the bone, with lemon juice, olive oil and salt,"[3] though this one was also stuffed with bay leaves, dill and other fresh green herbs, their fragrance suffused through the tender flaky white flesh. And the chicken came with not only rice and beans, but also a backstory which Chef DaSilva told after the dinner, inspired by late night trips to Pollo Tropical. To my taste the chicken, like the chicken wings in the earlier round, was oversalted, but I loved the creamy chorizo studded rice grits that accompanied it.[4]

suckling pig porchetta

slicing the porchetta


The porchetta made for a pretty grandiose presentation, several small suckling pigs brought out to the table in all their bronzed glory. At almost exactly the moment they were brought out, the skies started to open up with rain, and so we made a quick exodus downstairs to the dining room for the final rounds. It turned out to be fortuitous timing: I needed a little walk to restore some appetite; this was a lot of food. Sliced, and served with a chunky salsa verde, the porchetta had a nice ratio of meat to crispy skin, and a surprise from Chef DaSilva's crew: a carrot embedded in the rolled pork, a "fancy" touch like her mom used to do.

short ribs

My favorite of this round of dishes was the short rib, braised until it was nearly collapsing in on itself, and topped with charred scallions and rings of crispy fried onions. I just wished I had more room for it, given the generosity of the courses that preceded it.

limoncello granita

olive oil panna cotta

Desserts were equally indulgent and generous, and like the courses before, came at us in waves, served family style: a refreshing limoncello granita, perked up with sprigs of micro-basil; an olive oil panna cotta, topped with macerated berries; adorable little ice cream sandwiches with neapolitan style stripes of chocolate, vanilla and strawberry; spiced sugar coated doughnuts with a chocolate dipping sauce; and a gorgeously ripe Pierre Robert cheese garnished with shaved truffles and a drizzle of honey.


Pierre Robert cheese

The final beverage pairing was one that Jeff "The Dude" Lebowski would undoubtedly have appreciated: a Cap'n Crunch White Russian Milkshake.[5] Don't let the kids get their hands on this.

Cap'n Crunch White Russian milkshake

I admire and appreciate the ambition and effort of Chef DaSilva and her crew: they served more than twenty different dishes to a group of 36 diners, and dared to do simple instead of trying to impress with flash. I think the diners enjoyed the relaxed, sociable feel of the dinner that the family style service encouraged. And for sure, nobody went home hungry. But I believe they could have done it even better had there been some more rigorous editing of the menu: if they had focused their efforts on half as many dishes, this probably would have been an even better "last meal."

Many thanks to Chef Paula Da Silva, her sous chefs Adrienne Grenier and Tony Velazquez, all of the FOH and BOH crew at 1500° and the Eden Roc Hotel, which provided a gorgeous venue and great service throughout the evening, and as always most of all, to the guinea pigs whose ongoing support makes these experiments possible.

4525 Collins Avenue, Miami Beach

1500° on Urbanspoon

[1] Which reminds me of an old joke that was recycled in a "Friends" episode where Rachel met a gynecologist:

Dr. Franzblau: "I try not to let my work affect my personal life, but it's hard, when you... do what I do. It's like uh...Well, for instance, what do you do?"
Rachel: "I'm a waitress"
Dr. Franzblau: "Okay, all right, well aren't there times when you come home at the end of the day, and you're just like, "If I see one more cup of coffee..."

[2] As for the enchiladas, well, maybe they would have been better after midnight, in the appropriate frame of mind. Indeed, maybe this entire round of dishes might have been better saved for late night: the menu as a whole, while incredibly generous, was just way too much food to eat as one meal.

[3] It's weird when something you wrote four years ago and happen to stumble across again by random association is apropos, but in commenting on MPW's tirade against multi-course tasting menus and complicated food, and Grant Achatz's taking of offense to same, I said: "Among many other things, it seems to lose sight of the fact that many of us eat out to experience things we couldn’t accomplish at home. I can cook a fish w/ lemon salt and olive oil, I can roast a pretty good chicken. I can’t even begin to do what they do at Alinea, and that is, for many diners, part of the appeal."

[4] It's another dish which also came straight from the 1500° menu. On top of which, I just didn't understand the logic of a menu that had chicken wings and beef enchiladas, followed by roast chicken and short ribs. The multitude of starchy sides, all in immediate procession - roasted potatoes with the fish, rice with the chicken, crispy yucca with the porchetta, and whipped potatoes with the short rib - was another puzzler. One of the things they do incredibly well at the restaurant is vegetables, many sourced from local farms. But they were curiously absent for much of our dinner.

[5] "Careful, man, there's a beverage here!"


  1. Negative review of a place that agreed to one of your dinners. Ouch.

  2. Like I said, this was very difficult to write.