Wednesday, June 16, 2010

PODZILLA! Cobaya Dinner

The last Cobaya event at Bourbon Steak was a pretty posh affair: beautiful long wood table, glowing candles, fine china, elegant plating. This latest one? Not so much. Coming together somewhat at the last minute, this one put together Chef Jeremiah Bullfrog, and his gastroPod (a mobile 21st century kitchen built into a shiny vintage 1962 Airstream trailer), with Chefs Kurtis Jantz and Chad Galiano, the masterminds of the Paradigm dinner series who cooked up Cobaya Gras a few months ago. Was it a bit rough around the edges? Perhaps. Was it rather steamy eating outdoors, even with a breeze blowing in off Biscayne Bay? Well, I finally stopped sweating about an hour ago. Did we eat some great food? Yes, and that's really what it's all about.

Lining up at the gPod

Our venue for the evening was Harvey's by the Bay, a bare-bones, divey bar in the back of the Harvey Seeds American Legion Post off Biscayne Boulevard and 64th Street. It was a somewhat fitting location given our theme, which was to celebrate American (loosely speaking, anyway) street foods. Given the chefs' propensity to tweak and fluency with contemporary techniques, I knew we could also expect some interesting twists. Here's the menu for the evening:

The event even felt a bit like a genuine street food experience, as Chef Jeremiah served everyone from the gPod, and Chefs Kurtis and Chad (and Mike Marshall, the zen master of fried chicken) did their service either right off the grill, or from a covered otudoor bar in Harvey's spacious backyard looking out on Biscayne Bay. I forgot my camera and so you'll instead have to put up with a few goofy "Hipstamatic" pictures I took on my iPhone, though you'll find better pictures and more recaps at Tinkering With Dinner, or a chef's-eye view from Chef Chad at Chadzilla.

Updated: another recap with lots of pics here at Wokstar.

(continued ...)

Jeremiah and the gastroPod
Jeremiah started things off with an "Octo Salpicon," a cool salad of octopus tossed with tomato and slivered red onion, brightened up with a dose of citrus and some smoked paprika, plus a crumble of feta cheese. It was some of the most tender octopus I've ever tried, and though Chef J only said that he "cooked the piss out of it," my guess is that it had been prepped sous vide (Thomas Keller's sous vide bible, "Under Pressure," recommends cooking octopus at 77°C for 5 hours, which I think qualifies as cooking the piss out of it). The bright flavors of the tomato and citrus were mirrored by the "Summer Spritzer" Jeremiah poured, a concoction of tequila, salted watermelon and tomato, a great refresher for a hot summer evening (the salted watermelon being reminiscent of a Vietnamese salted lemonade).

Chef K working the crowd; Chadzilla in back grilling chicken livers
We then moved over to the grilling station, where Chad had covered the grates on the Weber with as many chicken livers as would fit. The grilled chicken livers were topped with a hot pepper "fluid gel," (a nice technique, in need of a more appealing name, which uses agar agar, sometimes in combination with xanthan, to turn a liquid into a heat-resistant gelled sauce) and served with crispy sea salt crackers. These "French Quarter Chicken Livers" were a tribute to a dish served up at the French Quarter Festival (an annual New Orleans tradition celebrating - what else? - food and music) by the Praline Connection. I heard at least one person say they didn't like chicken livers, but they still liked these chicken livers. I do like chicken livers, and especially enjoyed these, with the heat and sweet of the pepper jelly providing a nice contrast to the meaty livers.

The fried chicken shack
Those who attended Cobaya Gras are already familiar with the joys of Chef Mike's fried chicken. He did a different spin on it this time around, using a brined and buttermilk-dredged recipe. For those who have sampled both versions, each had their partisans. I think I preferred the "original recipe," as I found that for this one the chicken had absorbed too much salt from the brining (though it didn't deter the kids of Shawn, who runs Harvey's, from eating about one bird apiece).

Attention then shifted back to the gastroPod, as Chef Jeremiah started serving up crispy white corn arepas topped with some oxtail gravy, an immersion-circulated poached egg, queso cotija and crema. It was a rich, hearty dish - not much to look at, but dense with flavor, especially the "gravy" generously studded with tender braised oxtail meat. In an ideal world this might have had something spicy or tangy to break up the rich-on-rich-on-rich flavors, but that didn't make it any less enjoyable.

We next had some dueling tacos, with Jeremiah serving up his Bánh Mì Tacos (a gastroPod staple), and Chef K and Chad serving up a "Baha" Fish Taco Salad. Though it's perhaps a bit of a stretch, I actually see both of these as fitting perfectly into our loosely defined "American street foods" theme. The bánh mì tacos are the kind of cross-cultural mash-up a la Kogi BBQ that we here in the US seem to do so well, a kind of culinary melting pot. Chef Jeremiah's version nails all the flavors of the classic Vietnamese sandwich (itself a mash-up of traditional Vietnamese and colonial French influences) but in a Mexican package (after all, a proper rice flour baguette is tough to find).

Meanwhile, Chef K and Chad's "Baha" Fish Taco Salad was perhaps even further removed from the original inspiration, though still capturing the spirit of the dish. Fish tacos are generally thought to have originated in Ensenada, Mexico, but these days they are thought of (by me, at least) as a Southern California food as much as a Mexican one. Their version took all the basic components - crispy fish, cabbage, crema, chipotle, pcio de gallo, tortilla - and repackaged them: swordfish cooked sous-vide at 50°C, cabbage and greens, roasted tomato vinaigrette, cherry tomato salsa, fried homemade tortillas, "beer batter crispies," crema, and avocado-vanilla gelato. That's a lot of elements for a street-food dish served out of an outdoor shack, and it did not emerge as the most artfully assembled dish you've ever seen. But the flavors were pretty much all on point; I found the avocado gelato a tad too sweet, though it would have been delicious on its own.

Confession: by this point, I was really running out of steam. Too much food! And yet there were still two savory courses to go, before we even got to a couple rounds of dessert. I temporarily handed in my Man Card, and split Chef Jeremiah's Double Decker Slider Burger with Blind Mind. Though the slider burger (a special grind which usually has some short rib and brisket in the mix, cooked sous-vide to a medium-rare/medium 59°C and then finished on the griddle) is a regular on the gastroPod menu, this was a special edition version with bacon and cheddar stuffed in between the two slider patties. Though some question the wisdom of the sous-vide cooked burger, I like the precise degree of doneness on it, and the clean beefy flavors. I also liked the thinly sliced house-made pickles in there. Make this one "dirty" with an egg and some slaw on top and you'll be talking about something really serious.

Truly stuffed (at least temporarily), I had to tap out before trying the final savory item, Chef K & Chad's "Mississippi Delta Tamales." As is so often the case with these guys, their dish came with a story (though due to the outdoor setting and the big group, I suspect few in attendance got to hear it). Tamales might also not be thought of as a typically American food, but there's actually a fascinating backstory to the American tamale, and in particular, the hot tamale, a product of the confluence of African-American and Mexican migrant laborers along the Mississippi, though it seems nobody is sure whether its origins start with the early 20th century, the US-Mexican war a hundred years before, or even earlier. For some more reading, check out The Tamale Trail, a project of the Southern Foodways Alliance. I brought some home to try the next day, and though I missed out on the tomatillo salsa and tomato ketchup, I did enjoy the nicely spiced corn meal dough, further infused with some heat from the spiced simmering liquid.
This is your brain on a root beer & bourbon float
After some deep breaths, I summoned the strength to go on for dessert. I was glad I did. Chef K and Chad had whipped up some root beer floats, made with Zatarain's root beer extract (those who know Zatarain's for their crab boil or pre-packaged rice dishes may not know that root beer was actually their first product, back in 1889 - I sure didn't), a bit of lemon, vanilla ice cream, some liquor-compressed cherries, and the perfect final touch: some Elijah Craig bourbon. Lord this was good.

Then to close things out, what was possibly my favorite item of the night: white chocolate cupcakes, topped with a foie gras buttercream frosting (in which Chef K had substituted 30% of the butter in the traditional buttercream recipe with foie gras fat). I have lobbied before for treating foie as more of a dessert item (Houston pastry chef Plinio Sandalio knows what I'm talking about), in light of the propensity to pair it with sweet wines to good effect, and this cupcake showed why. The foie gave the frosting just a whiff of its intriguingly complex whiff of creamy, buttery, slightly meaty, umami goodness without overwhelming. I'm not big on cupcakes, but these work for me.

We were a little slow getting started, but once things got rolling it seemed that everyone really got into the spirit of things, with the diners settling in under the tent and eagerly queuing up for each "course." Many thanks to Chefs Kurtis Jantz, Chad Galiano, Jeremiah Bullfrog, and Mike Marshall; to Carla and Steve for working the Pod; to Shawn and his kids for making Harvey's available to us and helping out throughout the night; to Kiko de Gallo for spinning great tunes all night; and to all the Guinea Pigs for their willingness to take part in another experiment. I hope everyone enjoyed themselves.

Harvey's is ready to defend Biscayne Bay from invasion


  1. Those pictures are great. They pair perfectly with the evening and even give it an appropriate rough diversification from your other posts.
    Thanks for being the ring master of a fun show.

  2. Sounds awesome - loved reading the post if it's any consolation for not being there to taste the goods. Those guys know how to cook and true, their stories always make what's served uniquely special. next time...

  3. Not only did I split the burger with you and skip the tamale and pass on taking some home (regrettably) but I went on to miss the foie buttercream cupcakes! I saw them on the menu but after the float I was uncomfortably numb and couldnt fit anything else in. Luckily I got some extra chicken though as K brought some by for the NBA Finals game tuesday along with some "wang sauce". Yummage.

  4. Can't believe I had to miss this.
    Really do plan on making it to one of these sooner or later..

    Menu looks exceptional. Foie Gras Butter Cream sounds exactly like something I'd want to try.

  5. Ughhh. I sooo wish I could have been there. Alas, I'll console myself eating and drinking my way through central and northern California. Looking forward to many more great dinners.