Saturday, December 29, 2012

Cobaya Gets Cruxed

At some point fairly late Monday evening, after the last course had been served, somebody asked me how this all came about. I looked at the chef. He looked at me. I shrugged. The truth is, we no longer had any clear recollection how, exactly, we'd gotten to this point.

The chef was Brandon Baltzley, former sludge metal drummer and Chicago cooking wunderkind, mastermind of the Crux itinerant pop-up restaurant / culinary collective, author, and soon-to-be chef and farmer at TMIP, somewhere in the country an hour or so out of Chicago. We were decompressing in the Broken Shaker bar in the Freehand Miami (f/k/a the Indian Creek Hotel), which had just played gracious host to Brandon's nine-plus course dinner for forty Cobaya guinea pigs. It was a dinner that he'd really only started prepping some time around midnight the night before. The fact that it came together at all was still something of a surprise to me. The fact that it turned out so well was nothing short of remarkable.

It was always going to be a bit tricky. Brandon was planning to come in to Miami early Sunday morning, have a sous chef from Chicago join him down here, and shop and prep all day Sunday and Monday with help from Chef Jeremiah Bullfrog at the Freehand. Then the sous chef went AWOL and Brandon missed his flight (TSA taking particular interest in a duffel bag full of vacuum-sealed offal and little baggies of white powders - "They're just hydrocolloids!"), and as of mid-day Sunday it looked like there wasn't going to be any dinner at all.

But we would not be so easily sidetracked. After some quick reshuffling, Brandon was on another (non-direct) flight from Pittsburgh (his temporary home base), his mom was on a Greyhound bus down from Jacksonville to come help, Jeremiah had a trip to the seafood market to make, and I had a grocery list to feed a crowd of forty so there would be something to cook when Brandon finally arrived. Jeremiah and Steve Santana busted ass the next day to help with the prep, and Brandon's backup kitchen reinforcements arrived Monday afternoon.

Some people thrive on chaos and stress. And by Monday morning, Brandon had gone from thinking we needed to reschedule, then thinking he wouldn't be able to execute the menu he'd planned, to actually adding on a couple extra snacks on top of it (and supplementing my grocery shopping duties as a result). Somehow, it all happened.[1]

With the benefit of hindsight and sobriety, I now have a better idea of how this thing came about. I'd actually been following Baltzley for some time: his most recent project, Crux, a sort of itinerant restaurant pop-up / co-op, seemed very much in the same spirit of what we're trying to do with Cobaya. Plus, he's got a pretty intriguing backstory, interesting enough to have scored himself a book deal (which clearly gets bonus points for having a blurb that manages to mention Paula Deen and Grant Achatz in the same sentence).

So I sent him a message: "You want to come down to Miami in December and do a dinner?" The response came quickly: "I am definitely game." I reached out to Chef Jeremiah, now the in-house chef at the Freehand, and a long-time Cobaya facilitator, and we were able to line up a kitchen and a dining space at the Broken Shaker, with the Bar Lab boys Elad Zvi and Gabe Orta contributing some cocktail pairings to go along with the dinner.

After 36 frantic hours, here was the end result.

(You can see all my pictures in this "Cobaya Gets Cruxed" flickr set.)

(continued ...)

The menu. Nine courses, plus a few impromptu "snacks" added on at the beginning (which turned out to be some of the best bites of the evening).

Some Broken Shaker "juice" to start things off: vodka, blood orange juice, hibiscus, and fresh garden herbs, carbonated for a little extra zing. Really bright and refreshing. Just keep it away from the kids.

A beet "snack" started off the dinner with a little "nose-to-tail" vegetable action: a crispy beet ball rolled in dried beet powder, pickled beet stem, and crispy beet greens, accompanied by a cube of bruléed pear.

Another "snack" - planks of butternut squash, poached sous vide in lard, tender but not at all mushy, their surface slick from the pork fat, then draped with a tangy green spirulina yogurt.[2]

And one more snack before diving into the menu, another riff on winter vegetables[3] - brussels sprouts roasted in brown butter, then napped with a creamy onion soubise. Simple but perfect, this was a real "wow" bite, the humble homely vegetable rendered all soigne and elegant.

We moved into the menu proper with a delicate salad of picked blue crab, ruby red Florida grapefruit, smoked potatoes, a spray of vanilla air and fresh fragrant basil. Fresh and clean, I only wished for something - a drizzle of a vinaigrette? - to pull the elements closer together.

The Broken Shaker boys as often as not served their cocktails in between courses rather than attempting to "match" them to a particular dish, which was a good strategy. Their "MSG Cocktail" could have practically been a course in itself. With sangrita, the classic tequila accompaniment, as the starting point, they mixed Old Bay infused tequila, ancho chile, onion and charred pineapple for a delicious, savory drink that could kick the ass of your customary Bloody Mary.

Chef Baltzley's next course was a reconstruction of some classic Midwestern flavors: pretzels, cheese and beer.[4] Here, the pretzels (Snyder's of Hanover Old Tyme Pretzels, to be precise) became the soup, while gruyere and some Cigar City IPA were spherified to make an oozy orb floating in the broth, some snipped fresh chives completing the composition. The texture of the soup was gorgeous, perfectly silky and smooth, but the cheese sphere made for the best bite, adding a welcome saltiness that was unexpectedly missing from the broth.

Next, sashimi-style slices of raw grilled raw fish - big eye snapper, fresh from Casablanca Fish Market - rubbed with a thick, almost miso-like beet puree, and garnished with fresh mint. It was an unusual but pleasing combination, highlighting the sweetness of the fresh fish - though again I wished for a bit more salt to bring out the flavors.

Somewhere around this point, Bar Lab poured one of their favorite concoctions, a "Cocoa Puff Old Fashioned" - rye infused with Cocoa Puffs and apple, then prepared in the manner of a traditional old fashioned with just a dash of bitters and a twist of orange rind. I'm usually wary of too much sugar in my cocktails, especially when you're talking about one of my favorite drinks, but this one worked: the infusion managed to take on the flavor without too much of the sweetness of the chocolate cereal.

This "Ants on a Log" was something of an improvisation. This was originally supposed to be a pasta course, but making fresh pasta and shaping tortelloni no longer fit into the schedule. It turned out to be my favorite course of the evening, and possibly one of the most unexpectedly great things I've eaten all year. A rich, creamy chicken liver mousse filled stalks of celery that had been compressed with black birch-infused celery juice, then garnished with white chocolate "ants" and fresh celery leaves. I flat-out loved the combination of the chicken livers and white chocolate, with all that richness cut by the intense clean green flavor of the celery.

We're always big fans of offal at our Cobaya dinners, and Baltzley clearly delivered on that front. (As Brandon was checking into the Freehand, we had a moment of high comedy when he asked the guy at the front desk if there was someplace he could keep his testicles cold.). This dish featured "chicken fried" duck fries paired with a biscuit and mustard in multiple forms: mustard greens sautéed with mustard seeds, a sheet of dehydrated mustard "leather," even wild mustard leaf foraged from nearby the hotel.

More offal followed, seared sweetbreads draped in an elderflower gastrique, paired with sunchoke pickled in kombucha and cheddar popcorn. I've always found sweetbreads rather delicate and mild, and the accompaniments here followed suit, the elderflower in particular something I never would have thought of that in the execution made complete sense.

As something of a pre-dessert / cheese course, another of my favorite bites of the night - rooibos-infused mascarpone cheese, spread over moist gingerbread, topped with peppery, bright slivers of fresh radishes. This was like the perfect tea sandwich, and pretty much everyone was craving another after they quickly disappeared.

The first dessert combined intriguing elements of tropical fruity sweetness and darker savory notes: caramelized bruléed banana, pineapple cubes compressed with bourbon, savory brown butter crumbs, and a tobacco-infused cream that gave an intriguing sensation of nicotine tingle more than a dominant flavor.

And for a final course, a composition of chocolate, chicory, hibiscus granita, and cardamom sable crumbs, the crumbly textures getting a surprise addition of pop rocks, another dessert using sensation in addition to sweetness.

I'm still not quite sure how it all happened. I'm glad it did. Chef Brandon Baltzley is a real talent. He's clearly got chops, but it's his creativity, the spark of inspiration that really stands out. He works with a more expansive palette[5] than many chefs - spirulina, black birch, duck testicles, kombucha, elderflower, tobacco, and hibiscus don't turn up on lots of menus - but does so fluidly, comfortably. These dishes feel natural and unforced, not contrived for shock value. If this is what he can do in one day, a thousand miles from home, I'd be excited to see what he can do with a real restaurant at his disposal.

I do know there's no way this dinner would have happened without the generosity of the Freehand, and especially Elad Zvi and Gabriel Orta of Broken Shaker, in agreeing to play host; without the dedication and drive of Jeremiah Bullfrog, who is like the Winston Wolfe of Cobaya; without Steve Santana, who jumped on the opportunity to pitch in; and to all the crew that Brandon and Jeremiah assembled to prepare and serve our dinner. Many thanks to Brandon (and his mom!) for pushing through even when things started going sideways, and as always, thanks to the guinea pigs whose continuing support makes these experiments possible.[6]

[1] For me, the sequence of events could be bookended by two tweets: "Never a dull moment" around 1pm on Sunday, and "Well, that worked out just fine" around 2am late Monday night / Tuesday morning.

[2] Just a small side-note here: we've often struggled with finding a "right" way to do passed appetizers at our Cobaya dinners. Too often, if served in the customary fashion when people are still standing around, it's impossible to ensure that everyone gets a taste of everything. Whether by intention or expedience, Brandon and Jeremiah fixed that problem by waiting until everyone was seated to serve these "snacks," and then circulating them to the tables on a huge communal board. I thought it worked perfectly.

[3] I suspect Brandon didn't fully appreciate until he got down here just how upside down Miami's agricultural production is. Yes, you can get beets and butternut squash here in December, but with our inverted growing seasons, you can also get tomatoes and zucchini.

[4] While I'm not volunteering to do the procuring for all our future chefs, it was a fascinating experience to witness first-hand the very start and finish of the transformation from raw ingredient to completed dish. There were at least a few items on Brandon's list - such as "5 bags of pretzels" - that were accompanied with "don't ask."

[5] Yes, I mean "palette" here, not "palate."

[6] I say this after every dinner, so it may seem just habitual repetition, but I really mean it: this group is just fantastic. I never imagined three and a half years ago that we would have nearly a thousand people on our mailing list, that we would have been able to put together nearly thirty events, that we'd get to work with some of the most creative, and sometimes some of the most well-known, chefs in Miami (and occasionally, from around the country), that we would start getting 150+ requests for seats for dinners, and that most people would still be understanding when we have to turn so many of them away each time. It genuinely moves me that so many people "get" what we're trying to do. You guys are awesome. We are tremendously grateful for your support and work hard to earn it anew every time we put on an event.

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