Friday, March 4, 2011

Cobaya / Ideas in Food Dinner

While the teeming hordes invaded the sands of Miami Beach for the South Beach Wine and Food Festival last week, fifty intrepid souls ventured to the Wynwood Arts District for a very different dining experience. When we heard that Chef Alex Talbot of Ideas in Food was interested in coming in to town to do a dinner, we jumped on the opportunity.

The names of Alex Talbot and his wife and partner Aki Kamozawa may be more familiar to chefs than to diners. But for anyone with an interest in contemporary cooking, their blog, their classes, and now their book serve as an indispensable source of inspiration and guidance. Just one small example: I recall a couple years ago sitting at the kitchen bar of the now-closed, and missed, Talula, watching sous chef Kyle Foster roast off some marrow bones. When I asked what he doing with them, he gave me a sample of a dish he was playing with, pairing marrow and pickled bananas. Where did that idea come from? Right here. There are probably countless other similar instances of dishes where Aki and Alex provided the ignition spark for their creation, or the practical guidance for their execution.

So it was a particularly exciting experience to be able to try their cooking first-hand. Chef Jeremiah Bullfrog of the gastroPod lent his shiny Airstream trailer to serve as the kitchen for the evening and also was a huge help with sourcing, logistics and cooking; still more prepping, and schlepping, was done by local chefs Kurtis Jantz and Chad Galiano of Sol Kitchen, Albert Cabrera, and others. GAB Studio provided a great venue, with two long tables stationed in the middle of their photography studio, surrounded by works from local artists. You can see all my pictures from the dinner in this flickr set: Cobaya / Ideas In Food.

the room
the dining room

the guinea pigs
the diners
The whole meal was prepped on the gastroPod, with everything served on recyclable disposable plates. It was interesting to me that Chef Alex arrived in Miami with no food prepped in advance, and no menu planned, with everything from idea to execution taking place in the few days after he arrived.

the kitchen
the kitchen
Here's the menu he put together:

Surf and Turf
steak tartare, seaweed mayonnaise, bean sprout batons

Clams in Green Sauce
parsley, coconut, garlic-mustard

Steak and Eggs
beef tendon, onsen egg, culantro

Kimchi Cavatelli
kimchi gravy, torn basil, benton's ham

Twice Cooked Scallop
pumpkin, citron-sriracha, furikake

green mango, rum raisin, lime vinaigrette

Sticky Pork Belly
cream soda, crunchy turnip, charred scallions

Powdered Goat Cheese
strawberry relish

Malted Milk Custard

the menu
the menu
(continued ...)

But before digging in, we were started off with a cocktail:

ham bone bourbon soda
ham bone bourbon
 That would be "ham bone bourbon," some of Kentucky's finest infused with some of Tennessee's finest, a ham bone from Allan Benton's. Mixed with some cream soda and rebottled in little individual servings, this went down mighty easy. And though I sometimes find the recent spate of fat-washed liquors overhwelmingly smoky or bitter, I actually found myself looking in vain for more of the hammy flavor here, which was fairly well hidden beneath the vanilla of the cream soda.

surf and turf
surf and turf
The first course cheekily called itself a "Surf and Turf," the "turf" provided by steak tartare - not actually raw, but cooked sous vide to a barely-rare temperature[*] - and the "surf" provided by a seaweed mayonnaise. This was rich, creamy and decadent, tempered by the slim stems of some bean sprouts to provide a bit of palate-cleansing crunch. The seaweed was not so much a distinct flavor in itself, as much as it seemed to bring out the inherent beefiness of the meat.

I struggled to get good pictures of the next few courses, but there are some photos over at Tinkering With Dinner. The next dish, described as "Clams in Green Sauce," presented itself as just an emerald green pool at the bottom of a cup. Scooping within would reveal tender clams, which had been cooked in coconut water, with a verdantly colored and flavored parsley sauce (emulsified with the same coconut water) draped on top, and underneath, a thicker purée rich with garlic and mustard. In one sense this was a play on the classic Spanish almejas en salsa verde; in another, it was like nothing I'd ever tasted before, the subtle hint of the coconut lending an element that was unexpected without being discordant. For the subtle contrasts in texture of the sauces, and the unusual but not awkward flavors, this was one of my favorites of the night.

"Steak and Eggs," the American diner staple, likewise took an unexpected form, done here with beef tendon and an onsen egg, reminiscent to me of a Japanese gyu-suji stew. The tendons, as detailed here, were marinated with spices and then pressure cooked in a kombu broth enriched with chicken feet, coming out translucently jiggly with a melting texture and subtly beefy flavor. Beef tendon, prepared well, as here, reminds me of bone marrow, only slightly firmer and more substantial. The "onsen eggs," meanwhile are an attempt to duplicate the texture of eggs which, in Japan, are traditionally cooked slowly in natural hot springs at temperatures between 70-75°C. As detailed in the book, Ideas in Food's method strays from the "contemporary tradition" of the 63.5°C immersion-circulated egg. Instead, they raise the temperature and shorten the cooking time, doing 73°C and 13 minutes. It yields a silky but set white surrounding a warm but still oozing yolk, and avoids the more gooey texture to the white that many people find off-putting. More sprouts, with the young, slightly crunchy beans attached, provided a nice textural contrast and a bit of nutty flavor. The culantro advertised on the menu was indetectible to me, unusual since its burnt-rubber aroma typically doesn't hesitate to assert its presence.

"Kimchi Cavatelli" was still another twist typical of IIF. They tend to treat pasta as a canvas for virtually any flavors, rather than just the customary Italian pairings. Thus the book offers recipes for potato chip pasta, BBQ rigatoni, and ranch-flavored potato gnocchi, among others. Here, they treated a loose kimchi-based sauce as if it were the Italian-American traditional Sunday gravy, with flecks of Benton's ham and torn basil leaves for additional layers of flavor.

twice cooked scallop
twice cooked scallop
This was another of my favorites of the evening, and also highlighted a technique set forth in the book. The plump sea scallop is briefly brined in salted water, then "twice-cooked" - first sous-vide at 50°C for 30 minutes to just barely cook through, then quickly seared at high heat on a griddle to get a nice crust on one side. It was paired with local pumpkin (calabaza?) in two textures, a creamy purée and tender cubes, and served with a sauce combining elements of sweet, sour and spicy - a citron marmalade perked up with sriracha. A sprinkle of furikake - a Japanese "spice blend" usually including nori, toasted sesame seeds, salt and other seasonings - completed the package. The scallop was cooked perfectly - still tender and not remotely rubbery, but with a nice char on the surface - and the other flavors provided a great balance of complement and contrast.

The next dish drew on another staple of the contemporary pantry - transglutaminase. The 'meat glue" was used to mold sweetbreads into large bricks, which were presumably poached sous vide, seared and then sliced. The mild sweetbreads were really more of a foil for the other components of the dish - a julienne of green mango (actually fairly ripe), a brightly flavored lime vinaigrette, and a rum raisin purée. The acid and tropical fruit seemed an unlikely pairing with the sweetbreads, but I thought they came together beautifully, with a vaguely Thai sensibility to the dish.

sticky pork belly
sticky pork belly
 The final savory course echoed the flavors of the cocktail we had started with: pork belly, brined with cream soda and fish sauce, the interplay of sugar, salt, vanilla and fermented fish funk once again yielding to the sweet vanilla as the high note. This preparation did not aim for crispy, but rather stuck with the tender, unctuous style of pork belly, again reminiscent of a Japanese stew. A charred scallion garnish provided nice contrast, as did the batons of turnips which were cooked (in dashi?), but still retained a pleasing snap.

powdered goat cheese
powdered goat cheese
This looks like something Charlie Sheen would enjoy.  In actuality, it's a powdered goat cheese - made not with tapioca maltodextrin, as might be suspected by one with a passing knowledge of the modern pantry - but rather with liquid nitrogen, the goat cheese frozen at a super-low termperature and then run through a high-powered blender to break it into a fine powder. Underneath was a jammy, bright red strawberry purée which made for a nice combination. The goat cheese was a fun texture - simultaneously cold, powdery and creamy - but I felt this dish could have used one more component to complete what was a simple two-note composition, maybe a drizzle of a reduced vinegar or perhaps something herbacious.

LN2malted milk custard

For the final course, Chef Alex really got the mad scientist's laboratory look going, with billowing clouds of liquid nitrogen chilling a tray of malted milk custard push-pops. It seemed the least fully realized of the dishes, the malt flavor being somewhat one-dimensional, wanting something for contrast - coffee? chocolate? caramel? - but was a fun presentation nonetheless.

The meal we experienced was, to me, a truly successful balance of contemporary and accessible. It's a no-holds barred approach to cooking, where kimchi goes with pasta and cream soda becomes a brine, but the goal is not to alienate or provoke, just to taste good. And it works.

These kinds of events don't come together without a lot of help, and there was plenty, starting with Chef Jeremiah of the gastroPod, who was instrumental in getting Chef Alex down to Miami in the first place, helping get him acclimated, lending the Pod to serve as the kitchen for the evening, and doing countless other things to make this happen. Cobaya veterans Chefs Kurtis Jantz and Chad Galiano helped out (you can read Chadzilla's behind-the-scenes take on things here), as well as Chef Albert Cabrera, Carla, Steve, Bridges from GAB Studio, and several others whose names are hidden in my memory behind a veil of ham-bone bourbon soda. But thanks most of all to all the fellow diners whose support and open-mindedness make these events possible.

platingchef alex talbot

[*]This is a technique we've seen before from Chefs K and Chad at their "Paradigm Shift" dinner.


  1. Your thoughts pretty much summed up mine. I thought the clams were phenomenal and had a really fresh flavor. Scallop was masterful as well but I have to admit, I'm trying to figure out whether I liked that preparation or the one I had the next day at the gPod better. Both were cooked perfectly and very flavorful dishes.

  2. To be very frank. I thought the brunch was superior to the dinner dish for dish, including the scallops. I think it had a lot to do with serving 50+ diners at once vs serve to order at the bruch. That being said both were worthwile and I thank you for arranging it. I would do it again.