Monday, October 19, 2015

Cobaya Seagrape with Chefs Jason Schaan and Tony Velazquez

It's hard for me to believe that it was more than four years ago that one of my favorite chefs, Michelle Bernstein, agreed to do a Cobaya dinner with us. Not that the folks who had done the eleven dinners before her were slouches, but here was one of Miami's most celebrated chefs: a James Beard award winner running one of the top restaurants in town. This, for us, was the big leagues.

Even now, with more than forty more "experiments" under our collective belts (which may be set to a wider notch these days), that dinner in the atrium of the Melin Building still stands out as one of the most memorable – not just for the food (which was excellent) but for Michelle's eagerness to do it and the grace with which it was executed.

But for Experiment #56, though we were in Seagrape, the restaurant in the Thompson Hotel that Bernstein opened last year, it would not be her dinner. Rather, the spotlight was on Jason Schaan, the hotel executive sous chef, and Tony Velazquez, the restaurant's chef de cuisine. Schaan goes way back with Michelle: he worked the line when she was at Azul and made his way up to CDC at Michy's (and was also in the kitchen for that Cobaya dinner back in 201). Velazquez is a recent addition to the team, but another Cobaya veteran, having worked at 1500° when they did Experiment #27.

The menu Schaan and Velazquez put together was a fitting match to the mid-century modern style of the venue, balancing classical elegance with some contemporary flourishes.

(You can see all my pictures in this Cobaya Seagrape flickr set; unfortunately the lighting situation was far from ideal and my pictures are pretty awful).

Once we were all settled into a private dining area next to the main dining room, a trio of canapes started things off. A puffy gougère, draped with a sheet of translucent lardo, concealed a molten core of gooey, mushroom-y L'Explorateur cheese. Tender ribbons of Maine lobster were draped over toast slathered with salted butter, given fresh crunch by shaved radishes and briny pop by a dollop of trout caviar. Rich Masami wagyu beef belly tartare, perked up with some chorizo, was mounded onto a round of brioche, drizzled with bearnaise sabayon, and topped with a fried quail egg.

I love a good vitello tonnato, the classic Italian dish that combines cold, thinly sliced veal with a caper-flecked mayo gone piscine with the addition of canned tuna. I know, it seems like it would be awful, but for reasons I can't quite explain, it all works. So I was intrigued to see Jason and Tony do a variation with brussels sprouts, with that funky, fishy quality amplified by a shaving of bottarga over the top.

(continued ...)

Their next dish was the highlight of the evening (and the week) for me, and another classic in updated form. Here, pasta vongole took the form of hand-rolled garganelli pasta, among which were nestled plump manila clams and delicate venus clams, as well batons of earthy salsify and some delicious roasted mushrooms, all bound together with a silky uni butter. I loved the combination of earth and surf here.

It turned out Michelle wasn't completely hands-off after all: she smartly suggested a repeat performance of the whole-roasted foie gras she served at Experiment #12. It is a pretty awesome spectacle. This time around, it was served with a vadouvan spiced pumpkin jam and puffy house-baked brioche rolls.

A little intermezzo gave an opportunity to catch our breath – a blood orange sorbet with some meringue that gave it a bit of a creamsicle effect. Then on to the next course, potato-wrapped fluke, served over artichokes barigoule and topped with shaved Burgundy truffles and Calabrian chile "caviar." Though I admired the old-school technique, the execution here was a miss for me, the potatoes having gone soggy, the fish gone dry.

For the next course, though, my biggest gripe was only that I was already too full to enjoy it. I love lamb, and here we had it three ways: a seared chop of Colorado lamb, a crispy nugget of lamb sweetbreads, and maybe best of all, lamb "carnitas" which flavored the bed of lentils on which the chop rested, along with a creamy potato gnocchi.

I might have wished for more room for dessert too, as pastry chef Richard Vaughn served a couple beauties: this gorgeous coconut pie, and an old fashioned, just perfect, plum and raisin pie.

A big thank you to chefs Jason Schaan and Tony Velazquez, and to a few other people as well: to wine director Zach Gossard, who put together some of the best pairings we've ever had at one of these dinners; to GM Jorge Anaya-Lopez, whose warmth and graciousness define hospitality; and to Michelle Bernstein, for giving her chefs the freedom and guidance to do this dinner; and as always most of all, to the guinea pigs whose interest and support make these events possible.

4041 Collins Avenue, Miami Beach, Florida

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