Monday, February 23, 2015

Cobaya SoBe with Chefs Andrew Zimmern, Chris Cosentino, Michael Schwartz, Makoto Okuwa and Kaytlin Brakefield

It was more than three years ago that Lee Schrager – grand poobah of the South Beach Wine and Food Festival – joined us as a guest along with Andrew Zimmern for a Cobaya dinner featured on Zimmern's show, Bizarre Foods.[1] A seed was planted then that took a while to germinate, but emerged in full bloom this past Friday.

We nearly did a dinner with the SoBeFest last year, but it didn't quite come together. This time around, all the pieces fell into place: Lee Schrager and the SoBe folks helped round up a great group of chefs and a gorgeous setting (at the Perez Art Museum Miami, which I think is one of Miami's most stunning pieces of architecture), and Andrew Zimmern did double duty as both chef and unofficial curator of the dinner lineup, which included Chris Cosentino (of San Francisco's Cockscomb), local hero Michael Schwartz (of Michael's Genuine), Makoto Okuwa (of Makoto in Bal Harbour, and an alumnus of Cobaya #32), and Kaytlin Brakefield (of Verde restaurant at PAMM). Though we couldn't follow our usual modus operandi of "Here's the date, here's the price, everything else is a surprise," this group put together an outstanding dinner that was still very much in the Cobaya spirit.

(You can see all my pictures in this Cobaya SOBEWFF flickr set).

As guests arrived, each chef had prepared a passed appetizer for a reception in the PAMM lobby: local tuna with puffed wild rice, pickled kohlrabi and tangy "green juice" from Michael Schwartz; sweet Island Creek oysters topped with a smoky, funky n'duja vinaigrette from Chris Cosentino; hamachi crudo with tomato, cucumber and basil from Kaytlin Brakefield; foie gras bonbons with a shiso cake and a neon-bright, cherry-red yamamomo berry glaze from Makoto, a great one-bite wonder; and haystacks of carciofi alla giudia (Jewish style fried artichokes) with a zippy aioli from Andrew Zimmern.

When we first saw a preview menu, I was a bit surprised to see this was Zimmern's chosen dish: the champion of food exotica doing something as pedestrian as fried artichokes? Then I tried them and I understood: crisp, browned petals giving way to that grassy artichoke flavor, cut through by a creamy but high-acid sauce? Sure, I'll have another.

(continued ...)

We wound our way around PAMM's terrace to the Verde dining room, set for about eighty guests. Though I was disappointed that the cold (by Miami standards) weather kept us from dining outside, we were still able to enjoy a wall of windows looking out across Biscayne Bay and MacArthur Causeway. And just one of the many pleasures of working with the SoBe folks was the ability to expand our usual group size, as we filled about half the eighty seats from our mailing list and the other half from SBWFF's own ticket sales.

Chef Makoto led off, and as he did for our Cobaya dinner a couple years ago, he came strong. So much going on here: a sort of raviolo of buckwheat soba[2] over a bed of fresh peas, with a sweet, soft amaebi (raw shrimp) from Hokkaido topped with paddlefish caviar alongside. The buckwheat pasta had a toothy, sweet wheaty flavor, encasing creamy tofu and what I thought was an oozy egg yolk, but may have been a kabu turnip purée,[3]It was a great dish, and Makoto's enthusiasm and passion in presenting it were absolutely contagious.

We're in the heart of the local growing season in South Florida now, and Michael Schwartz, one of the first and most prominent champions of locavorism here, did a dish that seemed nearly pulled straight out of the dirt: marinated golden and red beets, thin shaved raw vegetables (carrots, radishes, romanesco, more beets), pea shoots and nasturtium leaves, all dappled with a tangy beet-ginger kombucha, a sprinkle of hemp seeds, and a drizzle of good olive oil. Schwartz seems to be getting in touch with his inner hippy lately,[4] and I love it, even if Zimmern gave him a little grief for the veggie-centric dish ("Salad of the day. Help yourself to the fixings bar.")

Kaytlin Brakefield's dish was a variation on one of my favorite unusual but traditional combinations: vitello tonnato, typically prepared with thin slices of cold roast veal topped with a creamy tuna and caper flavored mayonnaise. I know, it sounds awful to many people; I love it. Her version featured a tonnato-braised veal cheek along with a smooth sauce of confited tuna, with a verdant herb salad spiked with capers and red onion for a little bright contrast.

Zimmern followed with what, for me, may have been the dish of the night: grilled abalone, served with a Chinese fermented black bean sauce bolstered with pork neck bones that had been cooking down for 24 hours, along with some chile oil he'd brought back from China, topped with some crispy shallots. Some grilled green onions and a take-out package of sticky rice, for sopping up that sauce, completed the dish. This was among the best abalone presentations I've ever had – served "nose to tail," its moss-green innards offered a creamy, slightly bitter counterpoint to the mild, springy (but not overly chewy) meat of the abalone. The sauce was right on the edge of too salty, but was excellent when sopped up with that sticky rice. Those folks who think Zimmern is just a TV personality are missing something really important: the guy can cook.

Chris Cosentino wrapped up the savory courses with another unusual but classic combination that also happens to be a personal favorite: pork and clams. His version paired a slab of pork belly with a few briny clams, along with some plump tomatoes, a bright, fresh tangle of herbs and greens, all bound with a thin-textured but umami-loaded broth. His pork belly had all the right textures – fork-tender meat, delightfully sticky, unctuous fat, and a cap of burnished, shattering crisp skin. Yes, Cosentino really knows his way around a pig.[5]

Kaytlin then made a return appearance for dessert, a chocolate pot de creme, topped with whipped cream and some toasted coconut streusel. Rich, creamy and sweet, this was pitch-perfectly executed, nostalgic and satisfying.

The wines for the evening were supplied by New Zealand powerhouse Kim Crawford, who started with their flagship sauvignon blanc and wound their way through several other less-known kiwi products during the course of the dinner - a "Small Parcels" pinot gris, a couple chardonnays, and a couple pinot noirs (though known mostly for sauvignon blanc, New Zealand also makes some very crisp, nicely restrained pinots).

I'll confess that we were plenty nervous about this dinner. We're nervous about every dinner we put on, but this was a bigger deal for a number of reasons. And I couldn't have been more pleased with how it came out. Lee Schrager and all of the folks with the South Beach Wine and Food Festival were an absolute pleasure to work with. The setting at PAMM was drop dead gorgeous. And all of the chefs and their crews put out some really exceptional dishes that were fully in the spirit of what we try to do. It was great to have a number of Cobaya regulars there, and also to have an opportunity to bring these events to a larger audience. On behalf of all the Cobaya Boys, to Lee and everyone at SoBeWFF, to all the folks at PAMM, to chefs Zimmern, Cosentino, Schwartz, Okuwa and Brakefield, and all of their crews, to all of the old and new guinea pigs who joined us Friday night: thank you.

[1] In addition to Lee and Zimmern – SteveBM with the pornstache! Wall Street and Jacob Anaya in the kitchen! Tinkerer on the laptop! Lazar in the Sustain days! This video is priceless.

[2] "Teuchi" means hand-made. "Shin soba" is newly harvested buckwheat, only available during certain times of the year. For a little background reading: "The Long Story of the Long Soba."

[3]"Surinagashi" as best I can tell is a Japanese soup usually made with tofu and puréed vegetables, thinned with dashi.

[4]I've known he's had it in him since I read the vegetarian curried lentil stew recipe in his Michael's Genuine Food cookbook.

[5] This is, of course, understatement: Cosentino is the guy behind Boccalone, a San Francisco salumeria whose fitting logo is "Tasty Salted Pig Parts," and who was one of the real moving forces in the U.S. for whole animal cooking at the now-closed Incanto. His latest project is Cockscomb in SoMa.

No comments:

Post a Comment