The last time Brandon Baltzley - chef, author, farmer - came to town, it was a bit like Planes, Trains and Automobiles meets Supermarket Sweep. As Brandon had one travel mishap after another, I was racing through the grocery store filling carts from the shopping list he texted me so that there would be something to cook when he finally arrived for our Cobaya dinner. But as I said then, Brandon seems to thrive amid chaos, and it all turned out just fine.
This more recent Miami journey was not without its adventures, but Brandon got into town - a couple days early, even - and I didn't even have to do any shopping. The purpose of this visit was to collaborate on a brunch with the gastroPod's Jeremiah Bullfrog (which I sadly missed), and a dinner at the recently opened Tongue & Cheek in South Beach with T&C's chef, Jamie DeRosa, and Jeremiah. After several days of exchanging ingredient lists and dish ideas, here is what they came up with:
(You can see all my pictures in the Crux @ Tongue & Cheek flickr set)
And here is how it came out:
As an amuse bouche to start things off, a delicate composition of beets (in both lightly pickled and powdered forms), slivered radishes, dots of pea purée, wasabi peanuts, and a thin, airy, crispy sheet of toast. I was mystified by a flavor I could taste but couldn't find anywhere on the plate - something light, bright and intensely aromatic. After the dinner, Brad Kilgore (who was helping out in the kitchen, and who you can currently find doing a Tuesday night BBQ pop-up at Josh's Deli) gave away the secret: T&C pastry chef Ricardo Torres gave the plates a haze of orange oil from a squeezed peel (like a twist for a cocktail) right before service. It was a great touch.
I did not detect the carbonation in these "chilled, carbonated" oysters, but they were still very good regardless - plump and sweet, lacquered with a well-balanced chardonnay mignonette and topped with nasturtium petals, with some sea beans (a/k/a salicornia) alongside. Even Mrs. F, who is usually not much of an oyster fan, was a fan of these.
A sungold tomato sorbet was paired with compressed honeydew melon flecked with soft herbs (basil, mint) and a dried tomato powder. Like many of the dishes from the dinner, I found that the components of the dish blossomed in combination rather than on their own. Still, I found the sorbet a bit muted in flavor - I wanted either more salt or sugar to tug it in one direction or another (which may just be a consequence of us being on the back end of the season for good tomatoes here).
I hated my first bite of this Noma-esque dish of fresh cheese, cucumber juice, rhubarb and hearts of palm. I loved every bite thereafter, again as I brought the different pieces together - the creamy, salty ricotta, the intensely vegetal cucumber, the silky whey, the ribbons of tart rhubarb and red-vein sorrel leaves, the firm, earthy nubs of hearts of palm.
Fresh soft-shell crabs are as welcome a sign of the onset of spring as ramps or tank tops. These were "Kentucky-fried," their boisterously seasoned coating highlighting the contrast of crisp exterior to the tender crab meat within. Mysterious black smears revealed themselves to be a thick purée of sweet plantain, with ringlets of pickled hot peppers for another layer of contrast.
The next course was possibly the most divisive of the night, at our table anyway. The centerpiece was a crepinette of suckling pig, crowned with a crispy chicharron. Spiraled around it on one side were pink-hued ribbons of marinated conch, nestled over a mojo sauce. Some fermented black bean "mochi" rounded the other side of the crepinette. Defying my earlier comment about how most of the dishes worked best when their components were combined, this "surf n turf" refused to pull together. I really liked the conch on its own, which had a surprising tenderness without completely sacrificing the bounciness that characterizes conch meat. But it couldn't find much to talk about with the pork crepinette, and the mojo which tried to keep their conversation going instead had an overbearingly citric intensity itself. The black bean "mochi" (you can see the start of their prep here) were overwhelmed by the aroma of burnt cinnamon, and seemed unable to commit to a particular texture - hard on some edges, pasty elsewhere, and just sort of puzzling more than anything else.
It's probably appropriate to note here that I don't think Brandon ever repeats a dish for his Crux dinners: every time is the first time, and when you cook without a net like this, sometimes you fall. At least this dish couldn't be faulted for its ambition: if you're going to strike out, at least take a big swing.
Making a quick rebound, the next course was another of my favorites of the night - ribeye cap (rolled and meat-glued to look for all the world like the eye of the ribeye), crispy tripe (pressure-cooked, fried, dusted with mushroom powder and dehydrated), charred ramp chimichurri, and a slice of a a savory flan, all anointed with an intense shiitake mushroom dashi poured tableside. As Chef Jeremiah's prep notes suggest, this was a real umami-bomb of a dish, and everything about it worked perfectly.
Several creative desserts brought our meal to a close, starting with a popped sorghum ice cream in a chocolate shell, paired with a crispy, nutty flax seed cookie. It was the cookie, with an intriguing hint of bitterness, that was the highlight for me.
Next, a chocolate "nitro lava cake" over a bed of chocolate cookie crumbs. I think I know what they were shooting for here - the traditional molten chocolate cake with cooked exterior and liquid interior, but frozen with liquid nitrogen instead of baked in the oven so that the exterior was frozen and the interior still soft. Instead of just having a frozen shell, however, it was pretty much frozen all the way through - but still a nice dose of rich chocolate-on-chocolate flavors.
A couple sweet mignardises concluded the meal: "ravioli," light as crepe batter, with white chocolate and quince, and a little Tootsie Roll-like candy in an edible wrapper, intensely flavored with passion fruit and Minus 8 vinegar. I both enjoyed and was mystified by this little candy while eating it: our table had a good time trying to place the complex sweet-and-sour (mostly sour) flavors, though the closest we got was "guava."
Still, it reminded me of one of the most comical scenes in Thomas Pynchon's "Gravity's Rainbow," "The Disgusting English Candy Drill" (not sure about copyright compliance but you can read the whole scene there), where the protagonist Tyrone Slothrop pays a visit to his English girlfriend's landlady, the elderly Mrs. Quoad, and out of politeness partakes of an increasingly horrid sampling of English candies:
- the "Marmalade Surprise," which looks like a "black, ribbed licorice drop" but has a "dribbling liquid center, which tastes like mayonnaise and orange peels;"
- a "hard red candy, molded like a stylized raspberry" which he bites into "and in the act knows, fucking idiot, he's been had once more, there comes pouring out onto his tongue the most godawful crystalline concentration of Jeez it must be pure nitric acid;"
- a hand-grenade shaped candy of "luscious pepsin-flavored nougat, chock-full of tangy candied cubeb berries, and a chewy camphor-gum center. It is unspeakably awful."
- a "Meggezone" cough drop, which is "like being belted in the head with a Swiss Alp. Menthol icicles immediately begin to grow from the roof of Slothrop's mouth. Polar bears seek toenail-holds up the freezing frosty-grape alveolar clusters in his lungs. It hurts his teeth too much to breathe, even through his nose, even, necktie loosened, with his nose down inside the neck of his olive-drab T-shirt. Benzoin vapors seep into his brain. His head floats in a halo of ice."
But Slothrop was spared at least one: "The one candy he did not get to taste---one Mrs. Quoad withheld---was the Fire of Paradise, that famous confection of high price and protean taste---'salted plum' to one, 'artificial cherry' to another... 'sugared violets'... 'Worcestershire sauce'... 'spiced treacle'... any number of like descriptions, positive, terse---never exceeding two words in length---resembling the descriptions of poison and debilitating gases found in training manuals, 'sweet-and-sour eggplant' being perhaps the lengthiest to date."
Maybe that can be an inspiration for the next Crux dinner.
It's always fun for me to see what chefs with different styles and backgrounds do when they put their efforts together, which is also one of the motivations that underlie Brandon's Crux dinners. Since I was at least partly responsible for making the connection between DeRosa and Baltzley, I hope they enjoyed it as much as I did. I'm tremendously grateful to Jamie and his team at Tongue & Cheek for agreeing to host the dinner only a month after they opened their doors, to Brandon for his unrelenting passion and creativity, to Jeremiah, who I call the "Winston Wolfe" of Miami dining, for always being the problem-solver who helps make things happen, to T&C CdC Lisa Odom and Pastry Chef Ricardo Torres for all their great work, to Brad Kilgore for jumping in to help out, and to all the crew at T&C who contributed to this dinner.