Monday, September 12, 2016

Cobaya Fuego with Francis Mallmann

Our last Cobaya dinner, back in July, was with Paul Qui at his restaurant Pao in the Faena Hotel on Miami Beach. We had an unexpected visitor during that dinner: Francis Mallmann, the most celebrated chef in Argentina, and also Pao's neighbor at the Faena, where his restaurant Los Fuegos also resides. We spent some time explaining what we do, and I saw a twinkle in his eye. A couple months later, and we were back at the Faena, this time for a dinner with Chef Mallmann and his crew on the veranda behind the hotel.

Mallmann is a master of live fire cooking, but I suspect that the hotel folks were a bit reluctant to have one of his more elaborate pyres assembled on the grounds of their billion dollar project. These fires were somewhat more modest, but were used to good effect.

(See all the pictures in this Cobaya Fuego with Francis Mallman flickr set).

With Damien Hirst's gold-plated mammoth as a backdrop, our guinea pigs assembled on the veranda, and servers circulated with a couple snacks before we were seated.

I remain forever loyal to any sweetbread preparation Michelle Bernstein does, but Mallmann's mollejas will run a close second. Sliced fairly thin and aggressively seared on the grill until the edges were charred to almost black, these sweetbreads were served over toasted bread daubed with a creamy pepper purée and topped with a sliver of pickled onion.

A crudo of fresh scallop matched the shellfish's sweetness with an assertive dose of salt and citrus, tucked into crisp, refreshingly bitter endive leaves.

We then settled our fifty guinea pigs into seats at one long communal table for fifty stretching along the covered patio which runs between the restaurant and the hotel pool – surely the biggest group we've ever been able to assemble at one table.

(continued ...)

First, a rich, creamy parsnip soup topped with lobster, crispy bread crumbs and herbs.

Next, my favorite course of the dinner – massive head-on Madagascar prawns, grilled on la plancha and served simply with burnt lemon halves. The best thing about these is sucking the juices out of the heads, and I happily gathered a couple extras from diners more couth than myself.

A family-style presentation of several more meats followed: flaky grouper, which we'd seen cooking over the fire, wrapped in banana leaves, as we had arrived; tender lechon, the pork's skin crisp and bronzed, with a sweet and tangy pineapple chutney to accompany it; and my favorite, sliced leg of lamb, burnished and browned from the fire on the exterior, but still pink and tender underneath, brushed with some sort of paste of sweet dates and fresh mint to complement the rosy meat.

These were accompanied by an assortment of vegetables, also served family style: a panzanella style salad of chunky tomatoes and cubed bread toasted in olive oil; a fluffy quinoa salad (not pictured); hearty roasted potatoes with purple onions and fresh herbs.

I sometimes have mixed feelings about family style service for these kinds of events, but Mallmann's cooking does not lend itself to pristinely arranged plates. This felt more like a dinner party than a tasting menu, with folks passing around dishes and serving each other, and with his robust, unfussy cooking, it made a lot more sense.

Then Los Fuegos' chef Vitor Perim set about slicing the whole pineapples which had also been cooking over the fire as we arrived. In fact, they'd been cooking for the past seven hours. Still juicy and sweet, and silky soft (the core was as tender as the flesh), the pineapple was also entirely suffused with the smoky perfume of the fire. It was a pretty magical combination. The rounds of pineapple were served simply with macerated strawberries and a mascarpone cream; the fewer distractions, the better.

And that's really the essence of Mallmann's cooking:it is elemental and pure and simple and beautiful. Things taste of themselves, and of the fire in which they were cooked. If you don't know from Chef Mallmann, I highly encourage you to watch this episode of Chef's Table as an introduction, and to seek out his book "Seven Fires," which I think has played a huge role in inspiring the recent trend of live-fire restaurant cooking. And, even better, go to Los Fuegos, where you can taste it yourself.

A warm and heartfelt thank you to Chef Mallmann and all of his team at Los Fuegos, including wine director and Cobaya veteran Zach Gossard, for a great dinner; and as always most of all, thank you to the guinea pigs whose interest and support makes these kinds of events possible.

Los Fuegos by Francis Mallmann
Faena Hotel, 3201 Collins Avenue, Miami Beach, Florida

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