Monday, February 6, 2012

School of Cobaya - Chef Michael Bloise

Love, Mom

We had been looking to set up a Cobaya dinner with Chef Michael Bloise since his days at the now-closed American Noodle Bar. He was clearly someone with talent and skills - he took over the kitchen at Wish[1] after Chef E. Michael Reidt left for California, and in 2008 was recognized as a StarChefs Rising Star - but only had limited outlets for his creativity with A.N.B.'s noodle-centric menu, even though it showed in his daily specials like pork belly with melons or tuna ribs. Bloise left A.N.B. and it closed not much later; he resurfaced at Sushi Samba Dromo shortly thereafter, where we were finally able to put something together.

There's no rule when we do our Cobaya dinners that the chef must come up with a "theme." The only rules are that the chef can make whatever s/he wants to cook, and the guinea pigs must show up ready to try it. Sometimes there is a theme - Chef Daniel Ramos did seven continents in seven courses, Chef Jeremiah's last dinner was loosely inspired by a recent visit to Noma - but the primary goal is that the food is creative and inspired. Chef Bloise, professing that he "couldn't do" the kind of high-end food we'd had at our last Cobaya dinner (I call bullshit - he did plenty of high-level stuff at Wish - but if he didn't want to do that style of cooking, that's fine), opted to tie his dinner together with a theme, and he went the nostalgia route: "School Lunch."[2] It turned out to be one of the most conceptually integrated - and one of the most fun - Cobaya dinners we've had.

School Lunch

(You can see all my pictures in this School of Cobaya flickr set; apologies for the lousy picture quality).

The menu was printed on a sheet of notebook paper and it fully played out the theme: a juice box, "Lunchables," and tacos, followed by "The Tray," complete with mystery meat, corn dogs, tater tots, and a pudding cup.[3] I've noted recently how one of the potential downfalls of what Ferran Adrià called "techno-emotional" cuisine is that if you don't recognize the reference points, you won't connect to the food in the way that's intended. This was a menu that would make perfect sense to most people who grew up eating American cafeteria lunches - and might be utterly baffling otherwise.

Brown Bagging It

Our first course fully resembled a typical school lunch: a brown bag and a juice box. In my school, though, the juice boxes weren't filled with an unfiltered apple juice cocktail spiked with acai vodka and vanilla, which Bloise cleverly managed to get into the box and reseal it so we could still poke our straws through the top and squeeze. In the brown bag - along with a note from "Mom" - was a "Lunchables" box, sealed in plastic, complete with ham, cheese and crackers.[4]


Of course, this wasn't an actual Lunchables (those got consumed by the staff earlier in the week so Chef Bloise could reuse the containers - probably not the highlight of staff meal at Sushi Samba). Instead, it included a house-made rabbit ham and truffled mozzarella cheese, both designed for stacking on house-made manchego-thyme crackers. These made for a perfectly good snack, but the real thrill was in the presentation, which was uncannily effective in bringing laughs and smiles to the tables.

Taco Belly Trio

Everybody loves Taco Day at the school cafeteria. Taco Day with Chef Bloise is even better with his Taco Belly Trio, each tucked into a puffy, crisp fried shell. Lush tuna belly was done somewhat poke-style, in a large dice mixed with soy and garlic and some butter for some added richness. Pork belly was done "A.N.B." style, cured, slow-braised, then crisped, and paired with melon, the acidic funk of nuoc cham, and Thai basil. Lamb belly, possibly the best of all, was prepared in a similar manner to the pork belly, then matched with blood orange and mint.

(continued ...)

The Tray

"The Tray" went even deeper into the realm of school lunch classics, though each with a twist. The corn dog was made with paiche (a gigantic Amazonian river fish that has made a couple prior appearances on Cobaya menus) and linguica and served with a kabocha mustard. The country fried steak was made with beef tongue and topped with a foie gras gravy. The empanada was filled with pulled pork cheek and served with a black bean ice cream. The tater tots were made of scallop and paired with a kimchi ketchup. And the Vegetable Medley pudding cup contained multi-hued layers of creamy carrot, pea, and parsnip (?) purées.

Again, the presentation here was very effective, with the multi-compartment tray and each compartment's contents mimicking the appearance of a typical cafeterial lunch. The only thing missing was a spork. The favorites among these seemed to be pretty universal. The spicy pork cheek empanada with the black bean ice cream was a real hit (the black bean ice cream being not just unusual but genuinely tasty). So were the scallop tots, perfectly fried and given a nice zing from the kimchi ketchup. The "Vegetable Medley" pudding cup was also surprisingly good; ultra-rich and creamy, with a truly pudding-like texture, each layer was full of vegetable flavor.

I liked the paiche corn dog, with the medium-firm fish having enough substance to stand up to the corn-battered coating, and the thick kabocha mustard providing a nice kick, though others were not as enamored. The country-fried beef tongue, while not a flop, was just somewhat bland, the creamy gravy not really picking up much foie flavor.

Though I enjoy the experience of multi-course tasting menus, there was something perfectly appropriate and effective about Chef Bloise's decision to pack multiple dishes on to "The Tray:" this was not meant to be a fancy meal, and this is how we ate at school, with everything piled onto our trays.[5]

tripe churros, cobbler with bone marrow tempura

We didn't have churros in our school cafeteria, but even if we did, they definitely weren't made with tripe. But Chef Bloise must have seen a similarity between the puffy tubes of fried dough and the texture of fried honeycomb tripe, which he passed off as "churros" after a dusting with powdered sugar. Believe it or not, it worked. So did a berry cobbler topped with a medallion of tempura-fried bone marrow for some extra richness.

panna cotta spaghetti

Where Chef Bloise's first dessert took savory components into a sweet presentation, his last course went the opposite direction, bringing sweet elements into a dish of "spaghetti and meatballs." The noodles were made of vanilla panna cotta cut into strips, with a "sauce" of strawberries and cherry tomatoes, a "meatball" of chocolate marshmallow ice cream, garnished with fresh micro-herbs.

Though it risked veering into kitsch, I found the experience Chef Bloise put together genuinely reverberated with childhood memory. Even better, many of the dishes were outright delicious, bearing little resemblance - other than visual appearance - to the lunch-lady creations which inspired them.

Thanks to Chef Bloise for putting together such a creative and fun experience for us, to all of his crew at Sushi Samba for helping make it happen, and as always, thanks most of all to all of the guinea pigs who went "Back to School" with us.

[1] We have now had three Wish alumni do Cobaya dinners - our inaugural dinner with Andrea Curto-Randazzo, a dinner at Area 31 with E. Michael Reidt, and now this one with Michael Bloise. Curto-Randazzo was recognized as a Food & Wine Best New Chef during her tenure at Wish, and Reidt received similar recognition shortly before arriving. The restaurant that was once a breeding ground for young talent has been closed since this past summer, and I haven't heard a peep about a reopening.

[2] Certainly the recent "Childhood" menu at Grant Achatz's Next may have been something of an inspiration.

[3] Here's a little glimpse behind the curtain of our Cobaya dinners. Chef Bloise had given me a preview of his "School Lunch" theme about a week before the dinner, and the day before we had this exchange:

Even with the preview, I had no idea he was going to pull this off as literally as he did.

[4] Confession: I'm so old that they actually did not have Lunchables technology when I was growing up. We were deprived of the joys of assembling our own little mini-sandwiches from creepily uniform processed meats and cheeses.

[5] Another bonus, especially for a Monday night dinner, is that it really tightened up the dining schedule. This may have been one of the shortest Cobaya events, even with the two desserts that followed.


  1. No 'shrimp dickles' in the bag from Mom? How sad.
    This has been an incredible Cobaya to read the recaps on. Bloise did one hell of a job, and it will be tough for others to follow.

  2. This dinner actually reminded several of us of the art-themed one you & K put together in the Penthouse.

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