Sunday, January 16, 2011

This One Goes to Eleven - Cobaya at Chow Down Grill 1.11.11

It's always an interesting experience planning these Cobaya - Gourmet Guinea Pigs dinners. The mission statement for the chefs is a simple one: cook exactly what you want, without limits, so long as it's on off-the-menu experience that diners won't find in a restaurant. That leaves much room for interpretation. The particular dishes, the menu format, pretty much everything is up to the chef. Ideally, it gives the diners a chance to experience something new and different, and gives the chefs a chance to explore ingredients, cooking methods or ideas that they might not have an opportunity to use otherwise.

Chef Joshua Marcus of Chow Down Grill (you can read my write-up of Chow Down Grill here) is one of those who "got it" immediately. When we decided to do a dinner together, he really got into the spirit, setting things up so that diners were brought in via the alleyway behind the restaurant through an unmarked door that led into the (tiny) kitchen, managing to squeeze 32 seats into his tiny space in Surfside, and bringing in a couple guitarists to play throughout the dinner. He also called out reinforcements including a sushi chef from Nobu to assist in the kitchen, and a friend who worked at BLT Steak to help with service (and also to play the "bouncer" at the back door). They put out 11 ("These Go to Eleven")[*] courses using some ingredients that several of our diners had probably never encountered before, some of which Chef Josh and his team were working with for the first time too.

You can see the menu here at the Cobaya site and all of the pictures in this Flickr set - Cobaya 1.11.11. Here is a more detailed rundown.

Birds' Nest Soup
Bird's Nest Soup
When we first started plotting this dinner, one of the goals was to showcase the house-made soy sauce that Josh and his sous chef Jason have been brewing for months and were finally ready to unveil. I knew that Chow Down Grill was making most of their sauces from scratch. I did not know, until this dinner, that they were also making tofu from scratch, and the house-made soy sauce was a product of having all those soy beans around and wondering what else could be done with them. The bird's-nest soup (made with a stock from squab bones, the rest of which would make an appearance later in the menu) was purposefully underseasoned so diners could use that soy sauce with it. The sauce was light and thin and pure in flavor (like an uzukuchi soy sauce) and not overwhelmed by the sweet caramelized notes of many commercial soy sauces. Bird's nest soup is more about texture than flavor (the nests, made from the stringy saliva of swiftlets, really don't taste like much), though the highlight here for me was the broth, pure and simple, rich in flavor without being in any way heavy or filling.

Ankimo with Aji Panca Sauce
Monkfish Liver
Ankimo, or monkfish liver, is often called the "foie gras of the sea," and it has a depth of flavor that justifies the moniker. This was prepared in-house and came out very nicely - creamy, rich, in many ways very similar to duck or goose liver, but with something of a marine tang that belies its source. Typically in Japanese restaurants it will be served cold, often in a bath of ponzu sauce and with a pinch of yuzu kosho. Here, it was run under the broiler to warm it, and served in a pool of aji panca sauce and dots of soy, the Peruvian pepper providing some spicy heat to cut the richness. One of my favorite ingredients, and a  really nice dish.

Giant Oyster with Habañero Pickled Cauliflower
Giant Oyster
The picture here gives little sense of scale, but these Pacific oysters were close to twice the size of most normal oysters, apparently shucked and briefly steamed, then topped with tiny florets of pickled cauliflower with a dose of habañero chile, as well as a sprinkle of golden pike roe. This was practically a knife-and-fork oyster, though I ambitiously downed it one shot. I found it had gotten a bit dried out from being warmed, and could have used maybe some light sauce or liquid to compensate, but this is a great product with just enough added to complement without detracting from it.

(continued ...)

Sweetbread Dumplings, Squab Bao
Sweetbread Dumpling, Squab Bao
I'm counting this as two courses so we can get to 11 (Chef Josh was a bit obsessed with scheduling this dinner on 1.11.11, and we happily complied, so we'll stretch the definition of "course" a little bit to reach the magic number). Chow Down does several dumplings on the regular menu, and they are almost all unorthodox and usually steamed: shrimp with fennel and corn in a jet-black squid ink wrapper, chicken in a vibrant-green basil shell. He turned out something different for us, a wonton-style dumpling filled with fluffy, mild sweetbreads, encased in an orange carrot-dyed shell that was fried and crispy. (Apparently, if you sweet talk Jason while Josh is not looking, he might fry some of the regular-menu dumplings for you too). There was a nice textural interplay between the crispy shell and the tender sweetbreads within, but these needed a little pick-me-up from the various sauces on the table to perk up the flavors (some soy and sriracha for me). Absolutely delicious on its own was the squab bao, a soft, doughy bun encasing a filling of rich shredded squab meat. Possibly the best bite of the night.

Baby Octopus with Soy Beans and Spicy Sauce
Baby Octopus
I often find baby octopus somewhat tough and bouncy, but these were perfectly tender. Served family-style, the octopi were paired with a "salad" of fresh soybeans, interspersed with funky fermented black soybeans, and a spicy sauce with occasional ringlets of hot chile. I enjoyed all the components of the dish,  but it didn't quite come together as a whole for me, needing either less beans or more of something else (some greens maybe?) to tie it together.

Beef Tataki with Bamboo Shoots and Cucumber
Beef Tataki
The next dish I thought came together beautifully. It started somewhat unusually, with a metal ring mold put in front of each diner. I was thinking maybe we were going to get something like the Alinea dessert plated right on the table, but instead the ring mold was just a platform for a heated tile (artisanally crafted by Home Depot) on which was served a tataki of beef ribeye, barely seared, and topped with bamboo shoots and crescent moons of pickled cucumber (and some smoked salt?). If there was a gripe, it was that the beef was sliced a bit thick and also in fairly large pieces, making its eating a bit unwieldy. But the flavors were all spot-on.

Sea Urchin Lo Mein
Sea Urchin Lo Mein
I love uni, or sea urchin, but almost always prefer it unadorned and unfussed with. Chef Josh's sea urchin lo mein, with the delicate uni basically acting as a sauce for the lo mein noodles, along with a  dollop of caviar, sieved egg and scallions, was a fine dish but to me the star ingredient got lost.

Abalone with Sea Beans and Cats' Grandma's Avocado
Baby Abalone
There was no missing the star ingredient of the next dish. Baby abalone was sliced thin, then layered over shingles of avocado (about as local as you can get: from "Cat's Grandma's tree"), with sea beans (a/k/a salicornia, samphire, glasswort) and a drizzle of yuzu juice. Raw abalone is an unusual ingredient: it is not overwhelmingly chewy, as octopus sometimes is when served as sashimi, but it definitely has a firm, almost crunchy snap to it. It is disconcerting and even off-putting to some (there were not many other fans at our table), but having learned what to expect, I've come to really enjoy it. The abalone has a very pure, clean oceanic taste that paired well with the mild, sweet Florida avocado and the snap of the sea beans. I might have upped the yuzu quotient just a notch higher to brighten the flavors even more.

Buddha Jumps over the Wall
Buddha Jumps Over the Wall
"Buddha Jumps Over the Wall" is a Classic Chinese stew often made with 20 or 30 or more ingredients, some considered Chinese luxury items and several non-vegetarian. The story goes that a Chinese scholar preparing this stew was heating it over a charcoal fire, and the aroma was so intoxicating that a Buddhist (vegetarian) monk from a nearby monastery jumped over the wall to try it, and that a poem later declared that even Buddha himself would jump over the wall to taste the dish. Chef Josh's version offered a dark, umami-loaded broth in which the featured ingredients were sea cucumbers, which had been soaked for 4 days and then braised for 5 hours, black trumpet mushrooms, and his house-made XO sauce, with some large shrimp and chopped scallions strewn over the top. The sea cucumbers were slippery-textured but innocuous in flavor. It was interesting to me how different the dried and rehydrated versions were from the fresh ones we sampled throughout Spain, where when grilled they could have a bouncy texture similar to squid.

White Chocolate Ganache with Five Spice, Walnuts, Jackfruit
White Chocolate Five-Spice Ganache
For a final course, we were served a dense, rich white chocolate ganache, perked up with a dose of Chinese five-spice (a really nice combination), and plated with cubes of jackfruit and walnuts. Chef Josh encouraged everyone to try the ganache with a squeeze of the sriracha sauce that was on the table. There are few things that aren't better with a squirt of sriracha, and though this was among the more unlikely combination, I really enjoyed how the sweet white chocolate brought out the fruitier notes of the sriracha, and then how the sriracha heat cut through the richness of the ganache. This was a really nice closing to our meal.

Chef Josh really went above and beyond in sourcing out interesting ingredients for this dinner, and in pushing himself to try things he'd not done before. It's exactly the kind of experience we'd hoped to create with this whole Cobaya thing. Though you won't find this particular menu at Chow Down Grill, you will find the same kind of dedication to house-made products and quality ingredients. Many thanks to Josh, Jason, Trang, and all the rest of the crew at Chow Down (including some pinch-hitters) for putting together a great dinner for us, and thanks as always to the guinea pigs for their continuing support of these experiments.

Chow Down Grill
9517 Harding Ave.
Surfside, FL 33154

[*]It was also actually our eleventh Cobaya event: even though denominated as "experiment #9," for some reason we didn't give numbers to Cobaya Gras or PodZilla.

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