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 ...)

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

AQ - San Francisco

Three years ago, New York chef David Chang (of the Momofuku empire) caused a bit of a ruckus when he declared: "Fuckin' every restaurant in San Francisco is just serving figs on a plate. Do something with your food."[1] It was not quite Biggie-Tupac material, but it did spark something of an East Coast / West Coast rivalry; nearly a year later, San Francisco chefs were still defiantly crafting "figs on a plate" dishes as they thumbed their noses eastward.

While Chang's gibe was preposterously reductivist, it may have stung precisely because there was an element of truth within the hyperbole. With the quality of product available, it's easy to understand why "California Cuisine" is so ingredient-driven: eat a perfectly ripe Frog Hollow Farm peach and you'll wonder if food can ever be better than that. Perhaps as a result, while there are many great restaurants in the Bay Area, using great ingredients, prepared well, it has not always been exactly a hotbed of culinary creativity, the dominant style often derided as "more shopping than cooking."[2]

But these days, from an outsider's perspective looking in anyway, it seems there are plenty of places in San Francisco that are "doing something" with their food. And though we were limited in our explorations, for reasons noted earlier, one of those places that kept coming to my attention was AQ.[3]

AQ menu

In some ways, AQ would seem to be just another of the seasonal, local, market-driven genre of restaurant. "AQ" stands for "as quoted," like "M.P." or "Market Price," traditional menu lingo for seasonal or specialty items. And the restaurant is designed around the seasons: both the menu and the interior of the restaurant itself are transformed with each season.

But while AQ looks to the seasons and the markets for inspiration, it's not content to merely "let the ingredients speak for themselves;" Chef Mark Liberman[4] doesn't hesitate to manipulate those ingredients or combine them in unexpected ways. At its best, this yields dishes that are small revelations; other times, though, the results seem overwrought and contrived.

AQ dining room

We were only dining at 3/4 power, with Mrs. F taking the night off, so the kids and I journeyed on our own to AQ, located in an old brick building in a rather dodgy SoMa neighborhood.[5] A plaque in the floor of the entranceway announces the season, which is reflected in the decor as well. When we arrived in August, hanging lights strung between the brick walls and dangling green-leafed branches gave the feel of eating in someone's lush backyard garden.

(continued ...)

Saturday, September 8, 2012

Cobaya St. Regis with Chefs Richard Gras and Antonio Bachour

berry lemon spiral

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[1] 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[2] 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;[3] 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).

St. Regis Bal Harbour

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.

chef cam

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.

beet gazpacho explosion

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.

(continued ...)

Sunday, September 2, 2012

State Bird Provisions - San Francisco

State Bird kitchen

I keep lists of restaurants for just about any town I might conceivably visit. I don't get to do nearly as much culinary tourism as I'd like, but it's always good to be prepared. Drop me in just about any major city - several minor ones too - and in fifteen minutes I'll find a good meal.

When I get to the point of actually planning a trip, the list gets even more detailed. For a true dining mecca like San Francisco, which we've visited several times, the difficulty is not in coming up with the list but in paring it down. There are the old favorites, there are the well-known places we've still not yet gotten to, and then there are the waves of intriguing newcomers, and the challenge is figuring out what to squeeze into the limited dining opportunities.

On this particular visit, the paring down process is made both easier and harder by a couple factors. First, we've got very limited time in San Francisco, only three real dinners, in fact, as we're only in town on brief stopovers on our way to and from Hawaii. Second, this is a family trip, and I've learned from painful experience not to test their dining patience too much. I've been rationed to one tasting menu, and it's already spoken for - we've got spots at a Lazy Bear underground dinner one night, so it'll be a la carte for us the rest of the trip. That immediately eliminates a lot of the San Francisco restaurants that would otherwise be high on my list: Saison, BenuAtelier CrennSons & Daughters.

So what I'm looking for, if it makes any sense (and it does to me, anyway), is tasting menu style food, but without the tasting menu format. As I often do, I run my thoughts through Chowhound, where the Bay Area board has often steered me well. Of what's left on the list, one name keeps jumping out at me: State Bird Provisions. I'm not sure where I've heard of it, I've not read much about it, but the idea certainly intrigues: dim sum style service, pushcarts and all, but it's not Chinese food, just an eclectically assembled choice of small plates. It sounds just about perfect for our first night in town, as everyone recovers after a six hour flight.

It turns out to be exactly what I was looking for and then some.

State Bird cart

In a location adjacent to Japantown, an open kitchen hums, carts roll, and colorful little dishes pile up on the tables. But the food is geographically untethered: tofu is paired with Calabrian chiles and pesto; that doughy thing may look a bit like a char siu bao, but it's garlic bread topped with burrata cheese. And this is all no mere gimmick - eating at State Bird is fun, but the food is equally creative, thoughtful, and just flat out delicious.

(You can see all my pictures in this State Bird Provisions flickr set; click on any picture to view it larger.)

(continued ...)