Friday, May 20, 2011

Michybaya - Cobaya Dinner with Chef Michelle Bernstein

Sometimes, with her radiant smile, former-ballerina perfect posture, and national (Top Chef judge) and local (Check Please host) television presence, it's easy to forget. But let there be no doubt about it: Michelle Bernstein is a badass chef. Yes, it's the quality of her cooking that cemented her national reputation and led to those TV gigs, and her namesake restaurant Michy's on Biscayne Boulevard and the Spanish tapas-inspired Sra. Martinez in the Design District are regarded as among the top restaurants in Miami. But neither of those restaurants are "new" any more, and in a somewhat magpie-like food community, restaurants that are five, or even only two, years old are sometimes overlooked in favor of the latest shiny objects.

That's stupid. Thirty-four of us got to see just how stupid earlier this week, as we finally connected with Chef Bernstein for one of our "Cobaya" dinners. Since we began doing these events nearly two years ago, we've been trying to get Michelle to cook for us. Indeed, we first started talking about it back in the summer of 2009; but then she was busily gearing up to open at the Omphoy in Palm Beach, and any number of things intervened thereafter. The stars finally aligned recently, particularly with her new bakery/café down the street from Sra. M, Crumb on Parchment, turning out to be a perfect venue for the dinner.[1]

As we always do, we gave Chef Bernstein complete free rein to come up with the menu and the format, and she put together one of the most elegant, polished, and satisfying dining experiences we've had so far. You can see all my pictures from the dinner in this "Michybaya" flickr set, and find links to some other pictures and recaps over at the Cobaya website.

the table

The space at Crumb (basically the airy, open atrium of a collection of home furnishings shops in the Melin Building in the Design District) was rearranged for our dinner into one long table, with 34 of Crumb's artfully mismatched chairs lined up on either side. The table was set with naturalistic centerpieces that actually incorporated some of the mise en place for our dinner (OK, not really, but those were real mushrooms), and enough silverware to baffle even Emily Post.

Chef Bernstein said that she doesn't like to overstuff diners with too many courses, so she held it to five (actually six if you count a pre-dessert, which I would):

Oyster Chawan Mushi with Scallop and Uni Ceviche
Julien Fouet Saumur[2]

Whole Roasted Foie Gras with Garden Vegetables
and Carrot-Orange Sauce
Kiralyudvar Tokaji Sec

Chupe de Mariscos with Squid Ink Croquetas
Mercy Pinot Noir Arroyo Seco

New York Steak with Truffle Butter and
Gnocchi with Celery Leaf, Lily Bulbs and Budding Chives
Mas Sorrer Montsant

Calamansi Soup with Pineapple and Mint Ice Cream

Banana Tarte Tatin
Rock Wall Late Harvest Sauvignon Blanc

oyster chawan mushi

This was a very nice way to start things, an oyster "chawan mushi." Chawan mushi is a savory Japanese egg custard, often a bit more watery than a Western custard with the addition of dashi and/or soy sauce. Here, Chef Bernstein steamed the custard right in the oyster shells, with the briny (Kumamoto?) oysters nestled within, and a little cap of softened enoki mushrooms and green onions. This carried all of that wonderful "taste of the ocean" of a good oyster, but with the flavor stretched and prolonged by the creamy custard. Mrs. F doesn't particularly like oysters, but she loved this dish. For a bit of contrast, between the oysters was a small bowl of a scallop ceviche (not a "true" ceviche, Chef Bernstein qualified, which I think means the scallop was very lightly poached rather than just "cooked" in the acid of citrus juices), given an extra dose of richness with a tongue of orange uni laid over the top.

(continued ...)

whole roasted foie gras

After a light start, Michelle quickly brought out the heavy artillery: whole foie gras, first cooked sous vide, then scored and quickly seared. It was a jaw-dropping sight.

whole roasted foie gras

She carved the whole lobes tableside, plating the slices with some garden vegetables - carrots, turnips, fava beans - and a vibrantly hued carrot sauce further brightened with just a hint of Sicilian orange.

foie gras

This dish sidestepped the stereotypical approach of pairing foie with sweet fruit as a play against its richness.[3] Instead, the combination with the root vegetables and the pleasingly vegetal favas embraced the liver's own voluptuous, earthy goodness, with the orange inflection to the sauce providing all the lift necessary to keep the dish from being too heavy. The wine pairing too eschewed the typical sweetie for a lighter, drier Kiralyudvar Tokaji Sec - a wine with a nicely viscous mouthfeel, great citrus and flowery notes, and bright acidity on the finish. I loved everything about this course.

chupa de mariscos

Next was a twist on a dish that Chef Bernstein has been playing with in various formats for years. You could call it a Latin Bouillabaisse, but Chupe de Mariscos (the Peruvian seafood stew) is probably more precise. This featured a flavorful colossal shrimp (I might have preferred it cooked slightly less firm), sustainably farmed paiche (a giant fresh-water fish from the Amazon about which you can read more in this short New York Times piece, "Amazonian Giant Comes to New York"), shelled mussels, and tiny purple potatoes, crowned with a fried quail egg, all in a hearty yellow seafood broth with a sneaky backbeat of spice to it. The mild-flavored paiche had a lovely, silky texture, reminiscent of the popular-to-the-point-of-depletion Chilean sea bass.

But the best thing of all may have been the black squid ink croquetas perched on the edge of the plate in daubs of neon-yellow saffron aioli (a subtle nod, I wonder, to the tradition of serving bouillabaisse with croutons smeared with rouille?) - crisp exterior, melty within, and with a hint of funky marine depth from the squid ink. The wine pairing here went against custom by matching the seafood stew with a red; the pinot noir from Mercy Vineyards in Monterey's Arroyo Seco balanced a bit of earth and smoke against its cherry flavors, which provided a nice foil for the spice of the stew.

Chef Michelle Bernstein

The next course required some demonstration from Chef Bernstein. It also involved sharp objects. A New York steak, cooked sous vide and then seared, was rubbed with a truffle-infused butter, and diners were each provided with their own syringes loaded with more of this elixir to inject into the steak, making little rivulets of goodness throughout the steak.

truffle injection

You're going to have to make your own "hot meat injection" joke, I'm not going there. But I will say that the diners all really seemed to enjoy the interactivity, and I'm even more thrilled to say that we managed to get through the course without anyone taking one in the jugular.[4] Even more than the steak, I enjoyed the gnocchi which accompanied it, and in particular the garnish of celery leaf, lily bulbs and budding chives which provided a welcome freshness to play against the rich beef.

calamansi soup

Chef Bernstein said she always had calamansi trees in the yard growing up in South Florida. I had no idea they were so prevalent, though I don't doubt it (I remember we had a kumquat tree and Brazilian cherry hedges when I was growing up).[5] As a pre-dessert palate refresher, she presented a bowl with a square of pineapple and a tender raspberry, topped with a scoop of mint ice cream. Alongside was a small jar of a cool, green calamansi soup, which the diners were to pour into the bowl. Bright, clean flavors; cool, soothing textures: perfect.

Banana Tarte Tatin

I reported how Vanessa Paz, the pastry chef for Chef Bernstein's restaurants, tried to kill us at our last Cobaya dinner where she did the sweet stuff for Chef Richard Hales of Sakaya Kitchen. Instead of a procession of nearly ten separate little desserts, like she did that time, here we found a similar number of elements all combined in one plate. I'm sure I won't capture everything here, but this banana tarte tatin (a takeoff on the classic French caramelized apple tart) featured a disk of chocolate puff pastry as a base (the chocolate worked into the pastry itself), a layer of sticky, bruléed bananas (that's Berenice de Araujo, chef de cuisine at Sra. M, with the blowtorch below), a great salted caramel foam, a scoop of lovely, spicy nutmeg ice cream, and for good measure, a chocolate tuile and some chocolate-covered salty pretzels.

Chef Berenice de Araujo

Obviously, this kind of dinner requires many hands to pull together, and Chef Bernstein brought in lots of help, including Berenice de Araujo (the Chef de Cuisine from Sra. M), Jason Schaan (CDC at Michy's), the aforementioned sweet assassin Vanessa Paz, sommelier Allegra Angelo, husband David Martinez, always checking to make sure everyone was happy, and of special note, Jorge Anaya-Lopez, the general manager of Sra. M, who did everything from coordinating all the logistics with us to shuffling plates back and forth from the kitchen.

dessert prep

Chef Michelle Bernstein and her team are consummate professionals, and it showed in every component of this event, from the food to the presentation to the wine pairings to the service. I still remember when I first sampled her cooking, back at the Strand on Miami Beach more than ten years ago. Her cooking is every bit as fresh and vibrant as it was then, but with the polish and shine that come from experience and dedication to one's craft. After nearly two years of trying to make it happen, our Cobaya dinner with Michy was every bit as good as I could have hoped.

[1]It's not exactly like Chef Bernstein has slowed down. Quite to the contrary, actually. Consider her schedule for the week that she put on this dinner for us: Saturday - Common Threads charity lunch; Tuesday - Cobaya dinner; Thursday - Taste of Check Please; then off to Atlanta Food and Wine Festival for the weekend (and I think I may have missed a couple). All on top of running three South Florida restaurants. She's like the Energizer Bunny, and amazingly, does it all with a smile and unflappable poise. It is a real testament to the notion that success - particularly in the restaurant business - is very often the result not only of talent, but also of a lot of hard work.

[2]The wine pairings were orchestrated by Allegra Angelo, sommelier at Michy's, and were a real added treat. Without claiming to be a maven, I drink my fair share of wine, but I didn't recognize a single bottle she opened for the dinner - all of which I thought were intriguing wines and great matches for the dishes. Unfortunately I wasn't paying enough attention to catch vintages.

[3]I've certainly got nothing against the combination of foie and fruit (with a Sauternes or other overtly sweet wine usually completing the triumvirate), other than that it's a bit played out, and that I often find the degree of sweetness out of place at the beginning of the meal. Though I've previously suggested that the sweeter foie pairings actually make a lot more sense to me if treated as a pre-dessert.

[4]Though there actually was a chorus of "Happy Birthday": some of our diners brought their daughter to the dinner for her eighth birthday. Courtney - who was an absolute delight - takes the title of our youngest guinea pig.

[5]I also remember the only use we ever found for the Brazilian cherries was to throw them at each other.

1 comment:

  1. Man, it sucked to read that because it sounded so awesome. I think my dinner that night was at Tully's Sports Bar in Syracuse...sigh. That foie dish looked incredible and I applaud Chef Bernstein for not going the sweet route. Like I've said before, I long for a savory foie dish that doesn't get inundated with sweet. Looks like I've found one and missed out at the same time. What an incredible Cobaya dinner. Diners even got to play with their food! Hats off to Michy for getting the concept and delivering the goods. I need to get back to Michy's soon. It's been way too long.