In a recent column for the San Francisco Chronicle, restaurant consultant (and former Square One and Chez Panisse chef) Joyce Goldstein bemoans the prevalence of what many pejoratively call "tweezer food." She imagines "an underground team of tiny elves with tweezers, carefully placing tiny little pieces of food in regimented lines across plates all over the country" and rails, "Where is the passion and energy?"
It is, of course, a false dichotomy. Attention to detail and passion are not opposites, nor are they even somehow mutually exclusive. Food that is delicate, or technical, even artful, can and often is prepared with every bit as much passion and energy as any long-simmered braise or sizzling sauté.
There is no better evidence than the dinner that the crew at the J&G Grill in the St. Regis Bal Harbour put together for our Cobaya "underground" dining group earlier this week. The restaurant's chef de cuisine Richard Gras, executive pastry chef Antonio Bachour, and hotel executive chef Jordi Valles do elegant, careful, graceful work; I'm sure tweezers are part of their kitchen arsenal. Yet I have never met any chefs who have more passion for food, more energy, more drive to please and excite than Richard, Antonio and their team.
The St. Regis opened at the beginning of the year; but while high-end travelers have been flocking in droves, I suspect many locals haven't found their way inside yet. They're missing out. Our Cobaya meal was, as we always hope they will be, an off-menu experience, so don't expect to find something exactly like this on any given Tuesday. But some tremendous talent resides in the kitchen there, and we were glad for the opportunity to showcase it.
(You can see all my pictures in this Cobaya St. Regis flickr set, or click on any picture to enlarge it).
They set up our group of 34 at one long table in a space downstairs from the main restaurant; the same beveled rectangles of mirrors that line the hotel's lobby provided an elegant backdrop.
Though our table was some distance away from the kitchen, an A/V hookup, with two massive flat-screens, provided the opportunity for the guests to see and hear the chefs at work, explaining dishes as they were being prepared and plated.
The dinner service started with a one-biter, a spherified beet gazpacho "explosion" served over crumbles of a lemon thyme infused pound cake - the brilliant color matched by a burst of flavor.
As another amuse bouche, a spoonful of frozen "pearls" of foie gras, topped with an airy Concord grape sponge and a scatter of chives - in combination, uncannily reminiscent of peanut butter and jelly (in a good way).
The first "full-size" course was a visual stunner, a salad of compressed melon and peeled heirloom tomatoes draped with a translucent sheet of ibérico ham gelée, tufts of fava bean foam and crumbles of marcona almonds. Dishes based on traditional pairings face the inevitable question: is it better than the original version? Here, I probably would have taken slices of plain jamón ibérico and melon, though the presentation would not have been as dramatic. I found the flavors a bit muted - best in combination, the melon and tomatoes needing the salt of the ham gelée to really reveal themselves.
The next dish had no trouble announcing itself. The flavors of guacamole were recast as a silky avocado soup paired with a ruddier chile-infused tomato purée, but the real highlight here was the "popping corn," a pop-rocks like crumble of carbonated dried corn that started to audibly crackle and pop as the plates were being put on the table and continued to do so as you ate. Gimmicky? Perhaps - but also really fun, and maybe it was just my imagination, but the popping sensation really did seem to open up the flavors of the other components. Ask the same question here - how does it compare with its original inspiration? - and this dish holds up just fine.
A Hawaiian ahi tuna carpaccio relied on no special effects. A thin sheet of pristine tuna - simultaneously meaty and silky tender - was topped with small dice of fresh mango and a ginger gelée along with sprigs of pleasingly snappy salicornia (a/k/a "sea beans"). But the one subtle addition that really made this dish sing for me was the drizzle of guajillo chile infused oil - a bright spark of spice that enhanced everything else.
The one dish in particular that most left me craving one more taste - and maybe, then, the best dish of the night - was a delicate Maine lobster flan, garnished with pickled cucamelon, a lobe of sea urchin, and a smear of preserved lemon purée. This was just a perfect composition: the creamy flan balanced against the snap of the cucamelon, the sweet briny marine flavors of the lobster and uni balanced by the salty-tart preserved lemon.
The next dish was brought to the table in a large bowl cloaked by another overturned bowl on top - with the unveil revealing a tangle of "smoked" linguine, chanterelle mushrooms, delicate ribbons of Farmer Jones carrots, pistachios, chervil, and orange zest.
This was one of my favorite pasta dishes in recent memory - an uncustomary but completely natural combination of ingredients that offered a great interplay of flavors and textures.
A crispy poached egg was another of the highlights of a very good meal. The egg was perfectly poached, then coated in a delicate crumb and quickly deep fried, and for an additional bonus, then injected with a vibrant basil infusion.
Nestled over a bed of baby squash in a cabernet gastrique, and crowned with Florida-raised Siberian sturgeon caviar, this brought together the lush richness of the oozy egg, the crunch of the crispy shell, and the saline pop of the caviar, all cut through with the gentle green flavors of the squash, the more assertive basil, and the tangy gastrique - each distinct, yet contributing effectively to the whole.
The slow-cooked swordfish featured Mediterranean flavors - there were Hammock Hollows tomatoes from upstate Florida, and heirloom green beans - but with some unexpected twists: the broth was cherry and olive, not tomato, and the dark soba-like noodles were vividly flavored with black olive.
The final savory course came with a story. The family of one of the J&G kitchen crew, Chef Alex, are pork specialists in Oakland - since he was 11 years old, Alex helped them make carnitas and every other bit of the pig too.
In tribute, we were served tender braised pork cheek and even more tender "buche" (stomach) "Bartolo Style," plated with a crispy chicharrone crown, along with a celery root purée and glazed pearl onions.
Now it was Pastry Chef Antonio Bachour's time to take over the spotlight. We had seen Chef Bachour's work once before at a Cobaya, when he did the desserts for a Chef Jeremiah dinner. He was working in extremely constrained circumstances there and pulled off some beautiful results - so I was looking forward to seeing what he could do in his own kitchen.
He began the transition to desserts with a take on "Berries and Cream." A cube of a ruby-hued gelée was festooned with various berries, red currants, wisps of berry foam, creamy gel, and a puddle of gelatinous hydrated basil seeds - fresh, light, and really brightly flavored.
Things went in a more tropical direction with his next dessert: nitrogen-frozen coconut mousse, soft mango "caviar," passion fruit custard, and tiny cubes of dragonfruit - a great interplay of temperature, texture, color and flavor.
One of the things I find so interesting about Chef Bachour's desserts is that the experience of eating them is much the same as the experience of looking at them. He gets such vivid colors on the plate - the electric magenta of the raspberry sorbet and the verdant green of the pistachio cake here being good examples - that it would be easy to conclude that it's all just for show.
But the presentation is matched by the flavors. His desserts aren't cloyingly sweet, but bring combinations and layers of fruit, acidity and textural contrasts that are every bit as bright and appealing as the colors. Here, alternating spirals of lemon curd and raspberry mousse were the bed for layers of torn pistachio pound cake, fizzy freeze-dried raspberries (an Albert Adria trick), and a wedge of raspberry sorbet.
Once Chef Bachour gets started, it's tough to slow him down, and he had one more dessert course for us. A milk chocolate microwave sponge cake was paired with a flexible tube of nutella ganache, rounded out by a caramelized white chocolate powder, a tangy banana yogurt sorbet, and the small component that really completed the dish for me, buttons of a bitter orange gel.
And for a final send-off, an assortment of mignardises: chocolate piña colada lollipops, bacon macarons, guava marshmallows, and mini key lime tarts.
There is a lot of talent at the kitchen in the St. Regis, and it was exciting for us to get the opportunity through Cobaya to let them show off what they can do. I get the sense, from the enthusiasm and energy of Chefs Gras and Bachour on display from the planning of this event until the last guest departed, that it was exciting for them too.
Don't let the tweezers fool you: there's plenty of passion here.
Many thanks to Chefs Richard Gras, Antonio Bachour, and Jordi Valles (of whom we got to see very little, as he was heading off to Peru); to the entire FOH, BOH and A/V crews at the St. Regis, who put together an excellent experience for us; to St. Regis GM Marco Selva for letting his team do this, and for joining us and appreciating the results of their efforts; and, as always and most of all, to the guinea pigs whose support makes these events possible.
9703 Collins Avenue, Bal Harbour
 J&G Grill is one of the more recent additions to the seemingly ever-expanding empire of Jean-Georges Vongerichten restaurants.
 Some of you may remember Chef Valles from his ambitious and sadly short-lived Spanish restaurant Mosaico in the Brickell area.
 You can always count on Joshua David Stein to have an unusual take on such events.
 Chef Gras was not giving away his secret as to how he made the "smoked" pasta, but as is so often the case, Alex and Aki at Ideas in Food offer a couple of likely leads: "Smoked Pasta;" "Roasted and Smoked."
 This was just one example where the A/V hookup into the kitchen proved a great tool for providing insights into the dishes. We always push for an "interactive" component to our Cobaya dinners: guests want to hear not only what's in the dish, but where it came from and why, and Chef Gras did a great job throughout the course of the evening in providing these kinds of details. The enthusiasm and excitement in the kitchen was palpable, which is always tremendously gratifying for us too.
 This is the point at which I mention my long-held obsession from childhood with Baskin-Robbins mandarin chocolate sherbet.