Friday, May 22, 2015

Cobaya Chang at the Vagabond

When I wrote about Chef Alex Chang's work at the recently opened Vagabond Restaurant, I referred to what I call the "Rob Deer School of Cooking:" go for the home run, don't be afraid to strike out. Not every dish I've had there was perfect, but none have failed for lack of ambition. With his willingness to take risks, his creative approach to using the local bounty, and his backstory (he ran an underground supper club in Los Angeles while a student at USC, before spending a few years working in some great kitchens around the world) we figured Chef Chang would be a great fit for a Cobaya dinner. We were right.

(You can see all my pictures in this Cobaya Chang at the Vagabond flickr set).

The Vagabond – situated in the wonderfully refurbished 1950's gem of a motel by the same name – hosted us on a Monday (when they're usually closed) so that we could have the entire place to ourselves, and so the kitchen could devote its focus to our twenty-five guinea pigs. After a round of drinks at the bar, we settled into a couple long tables in front of the brightly lit open kitchen.

Chang's first dish didn't look like much: a few slabs of half-cooked fish in a wide bowl. But it was sneaky. The triggerfish tataki was topped with a dab of a preserved key lime purée[1] and wisps of bronze fennel, then a golden charred onion dashi was poured into the bowl tableside. Fresh, firm fish with just a hint of smoke from grilling; a more defined whiff of smoke and sea from the dashi, bringing umami without heaviness; brightness and tang from the preserved key lime; a subtle, judicious addition of browned butter, a bit of richness to stretch the flavors. Really well done stuff.

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Wednesday, May 13, 2015

Cobaya Lee at the Forge

The Forge is one of the true grand dames of the South Florida restaurant world. And like a lot of grand dames, it's had a bit of work done here and there over the years. Originally opened in the 1930's, it was the mid-century Miami hangout of choice for celebrities like Frank Sinatra and Jackie Gleason. In the 1960's, Alvin Malnik bought it from the original owner (a blacksmith, ergo the name), and remodeled it in the luxe, rococo style that has become its signature. Malnik – with a little help from Baron Philippe Rothschild – also was responsible for filling out its encyclopedic wine cellar. In the 1990's, after son Shareef Malnik took over from his father, the Forge was not only regarded as one of the city's top restaurants – it also was one of Miami's hottest party scenes with its Wednesday disco nights.

Since then, it's had at least one more substantial redecoration about five years ago, lightening up some of that old polished mahogany. It has brought some new life into the kitchen as well: Dewey LoSasso did a turn there, and more recently Chef Christopher Lee took over the reigns. Chef Lee has a pretty full résumé for a guy who's still in the prime years of his career: in 2005 he was the James Beard "Rising Star Chef of the Year;" the following year, after moving from Philadelphia to New York, he garnered two Michelin stars for (now-closed) Gilt; then a couple years later picked up another Michelin star at Aureole.[1]

So when Chef Lee expressed an interest in doing a Cobaya dinner, we were intrigued to see what he was doing these days – and eager to have an excuse to hang out in one of Miami's most opulent dining settings.

(I am abashed at the lousy quality of my photos from this dinner; I was trying out a new camera and am very disappointed with the results. So with my apologies, you can see all the pictures from this dinner in this Cobaya Forge flickr set).

Chef Lee started light, with a dish featuring radishes in a multitude of fresh, snappy, peppery forms, accompanied by puddles of a tangy goat cheese dressing and a quenelle of a bright orange and fennel sorbet.

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