Some of our Cobaya events come together on the fly: a chef says they want to do one, we find a spot, and before you know it, dinner is served. Others require more legwork. Our recent dinner at DB Bistro Moderne in downtown Miami fell into the latter category, with Chowfather in particular working for months to make it happen. The reality is, Daniel Boulud is not just a chef - he's a brand - and DB Bistro is not just a restaurant - it's an outpost of a culinary empire, with fourteen venues spread out among eight different cities in five countries.
It's a little different from our usual modus operandi, but it was also a chance to do a dinner at what I regard as one of Miami's top restaurants. Other than maybe Michelle Bernstein at Michy's, or Kevin Cory at Naoe (really a different beast entirely), I don't think there's another kitchen in town that executes with such consistent precision. So we pushed forward, as I knew it would be a good meal, and wanted to see what executive chef Matthieu Godard (who took over the helm for Jarrod Verbiak about a year ago) would do given the Cobaya format (which is really nothing more than "cook whatever you want that gets you really excited and that you don't regularly get to do").
(You can see all my pictures in this DB Cobaya Moderne flickr set.)
I've said before that I think DB's charcuterie is the best that can be found in Miami - and, indeed, some of the best I've had anywhere. So I was happy to see the dinner start with a board of it: a couple different salumi, a few different pâtés, ruby-hued slices of cured ham, a half-moon of lush, silky foie grass mousse, an assortment of pickled cornichons and onions, and maybe the showstopper of the platter, crackling-crisp nuggets of pork rillons, like croutons of pure pork belly.
Soon another platter landed on the table, described as "Flavors of the Mediterranean." It was loaded with spanikopita, lamb kibbe, mussels in a spicy tomato sauce, mackerel escabeche, slices of chorizo and manchego cheese, a little "fritto misto" of smelts and calamari, marinated olives and marcona almonds, and ramekins of roasted eggplant baba ghanoush, red pepper hummus and tzatziki.
Aside from offering such a copious selection of treats, the communal presentation of these first courses on the boards was a nice ice-breaker. We always have a mix of newcomers and veteran guinea pigs at these dinners, and this was a good way to get strangers passing dishes around - and eventually, prompt some good-natured fighting over the last spanikopita.
The Mediterranean theme continued through the next course, a round tranche of swordifsh wrapped in serrano ham and thinly sliced eggplant, served with a panoply of accompaniments: caponata, grilled baby zucchini, a tempura-fried zucchini blossom, delightfully crispy-shelled croquettes, and a ruddy, saffron-infused tomato vinaigrette. The swordfish was delicately cooked, with just a faint blush of pink at the center. The caponata let each component - eggplant, tomato, onion, plumped raisins - be known while still making the point of their combined effect. And the saffron vinaigrette pulled each of the dish's pieces together, that faintly spicy floral note weaving its way through the dish.
For those who did the pairing, the bright, zingy Alsatian Riesling from Albert Mann (Cuvee Albert 2009) was a great companion to the dish, its acid and spice playing well against the fish and its companions.
The next course pushed even further along the spice route, pairing hickory-smoked, rosy-fleshed duck breast with caramelized ginger and a sprinkling of ras el hanout, together with sweet, fragrant caramelized apricots, baby carrots and little mushrooms. Not in the picture, and served mid-course off of silver platters, were plump pastillas stuffed with confited duck leg and pine nuts wrapped in flaky filo dough - a smart and tasty addition to the North African theme. A smoky, oaky modern-style Ribera del Duero from Matarromera (Crianza 2008) went well with the smoked duck.
The floor was then turned over to DB's pastry chef Jerome Maure, who opened with a pre-dessert featuring a peach-filled empanada coupled with a fantastic Thai basil ice cream. The ice cream reminded me of the vividness and focus of flavor in the ice creams at Arzak - in particular, the great basil ice cream paired with chocolate orbs and a berry sauce for the sopa y chocolate "entre vineñedos".
Next he offered a contemporary take on a classic "black forest cake" - here done with a layer of pistachio biscuit (that would be French bis-quy, not Southern bis-kit) topped with chocolate cremeux as the "cake," a ribbon of soft white chocolate ganache in place of the whipped cream, topped with tart-sweet poached fresh cherries. The light textures were a welcome contrast to the typical leaden thud of a dense black forest cake.
The meal ended the way I prefer to conclude all my meals at DB - with a basket of their warm, airy, sugar-dusted madeleines. As an extra little bonus, a couple mini canelés were also riding sidecar.
Godard and crew delivered one of our most elegant and classy Cobaya experiences, the kind of meal that is exactly what you would expect a Boulud venue to deliver. And that, in its way, is both compliment and critique: for while the dinner was very much "DB" - and very good - to me, anyway, it was not quite as much "Cobaya." This is an open-minded audience, and we see it as an opportunity for a chef to go "off-script" - but that may be easier to do at some places than others.
Still, it was an excellent dinner, and I'm tremendously grateful to all of the crew in the kitchen and front of house at DB Bistro for hosting one of our experiments; and as always and most of all, many thanks to the guinea pigs whose interest and support makes these experiments possible.
DB Bistro Moderne
255 Biscayne Boulevard Way, Miami, FL
 The pacing and progression of the meal and wine pairings were a bit odd. The charcuterie and "Flavors of the Mediterranean" platters were somewhat slow to the hit the tables, then at many tables ended up nearly piled on top of each other - and no wine was poured with either of them. But when they did pour wine with the following courses, they were quite generous, repeatedly doing the rounds to top off glasses. Also, the swordfish, followed by the duck, both substantial portions, felt more like two main courses than a tasting menu.