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.

(continued ...)

He followed with another light dish (for which, in retrospect at the conclusion of the meal, I was quite grateful) – a sashimi of geoduck over a sort of domesticated version of a Thai papaya salad, with a julienne of papaya and honeydew napped with a carrot-ginger dressing.[2] I love geoduck, but it can often be overly bouncy and chewy; here, the thinly sliced medallions had just the right amount of resilience.

For some, this may have been the dish of the night: a plump raviolo with a luxurious filling of fois gras and black truffle. And it was very well done. What I especially appreciated was a subtle hit of citrus (lemon zest?) that lifted and lightened those rich flavors.

We got periodic updates from Chef Lee during the planning stages, and it was clear he was excited about plotting this dinner, in part for the opportunity to bring in some products he doesn't normally work with at the Forge. Like this John Dory, a thin fish with firm, sweet flesh, flown in from New Zealand. Lee played off that sweetness with a rich chicken liver jus, and finished the plating with cubes of various vegetable gelées (the color rendering in my pictures is terrible, but that's UM orange, green and white).

Though the raviolo had its partisans, this may have been my favorite dish of the night: pheasant, in two forms (a tranche of the tender breast, and a pastry-encrusted log of the thigh meat), paired with funky Epoisses cheese, pistachios, grapes and a peppery, honeyed jus. Birds can so often be boring, but this one was great.

I suppose it's just not right to go to the Forge without getting their signature dish: the 35-day dry aged New York strip "Super Steak." Here, Chef Lee mixed things up by serving it in the style of a "Backyard BBQ": a bed of creamy cole slaw, a purée of baked beans, a crisp, airy hushpuppy, cubes of watermelon. A fun idea, but I'll confess: if you give me a great dry-aged steak, I'll usually want to avoid most other distractions.

This venison loin was another contender for my favorite dish of the night: the lean meat was cooked perfectly, and what I particularly enjoyed were the intriguing, palate-refreshing bitter notes added by the coffee crust, the mustard greens, the puddle of chocolate and vadouvan infused jus.

Pastry Chef Alycia Delaney was due to give birth within days of our dinner, and so knocked out her work a couple days in advance – for which we were very grateful (it's only fitting the baby should be named "Cobaya," right?) First up, a vacherin of passion fruit and roasted coconut with a pistachio spongecake base, surrounded by a macadamia nut "soil," coconut meringue and tiny baby kiwis – very fresh and tropical.

She followed with a dark chocolate "soup" which formed a moat around a light, fluffy ginger panna cotta – the bright zing of the ginger having the interesting effect of bringing out the fruity, rather than dark, notes of the chocolate.

Though this was an entirely off-menu dinner from Chef Lee,[3] it was still very much in the spirit of the Forge: luxurious, fancy, fun, and just a bit over the top.[4] A big thank you to Chef Christopher Lee, to all of the crew at the Forge for inviting us into the Forge's Library room and feeding us so well, and as always most of all, to the guinea pigs whose interest and support make these kind of events possible.

The Forge
432 41st Street, Miami Beach, Florida

[1] He had a brief earlier foray into the Miami dining world a few years ago at the now-closed Eden restaurant in South Beach, which took over the old Talula spot which was then Tosca and is now Klima.

[2] Chef Lee was forthright about the inspiration for the dressing: the ginger salad dressing at Benihana.

[3] Well, mostly: the "Super Steak" was a completely different preparation than is usually served at the restaurant.

[4] And also sort of gloriously, unabashedly stuck in time just a bit. Between the "parade of proteins" menu and all the cubes and dots and jus on the plates, I couldn't help but feel like the clock had been turned back about ten years.

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