Thursday, November 14, 2013

CobayaBelly with Chef Jose Mendin at PB Steak

It's always interesting to see how chefs approach doing a Cobaya dinner with us. Having a "theme" is entirely optional, but many chefs choose to do so. When we lined up a dinner with Chef José Mendin, of Pubbelly and its sibling PB Steak, he went with a "Bloody Monday" motif.

The decorations seemed inspired equally by a butcher's abattoir and a goth chick's boudoir,with PB Steak's unfinished wood and concrete dressed up with lots of candles, black apothecary bottles and the occasional crow.

Chef Mendin's offal-intensive menu, making extensive use of the "fifth quarter" of the cattle whose prime cuts usually grace the restaurant's menu, was drawn up like a butcher's diagram, though the pieces actually came from several different places - beef heart from Niman Ranch in California, veal brains from Strauss Farms in Wisconsin, tongue from Jackman Ranch in upstate Florida, prime rib from Cox Family Farms in Alabama.

(You can see all my pictures in this CobayaBelly flickr set, though you'll have to put up with some wonky lighting and grainy shots.)

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Mendin introduced the theme with a series of passed appetizers as our group filtered its way in: oxtail croquetas topped with a caramelized onion purée and a valdeon aioli; sweetbreads with a fermented black bean sauce and a carrot and ginger slaw; pumpernickel toasts topped with a bone marrow and short rib marmalade. Mendin's croqueta game is strong - there is usually some variation on the menu at Pubbelly, and they are consistently good, as these were, but the sweetbreads were even better.

Once guests were seated, courses were served family style, starting with a beef heart tartare. The lean heart has possibly a more intensely beefy flavor than other muscles, which works well in a tartare. Mendin added some richness with a raw egg yolk, then tempered it with spice (aji panca dressing, slivers of fresh chilies) and acidity (pickled onions, thinly sliced fresh citrus) and fresh herbs. In place of plain croutons as a vessel, Mendin sent out filone toast smeared with soft morcilla (blood sausage), one of my favorite things.

He followed that with another of my favorite things: tripe. This "szechuan style" tripe was first braised in aromatics (juniper, allspice, cinnamon, orange), then flash fried, then dressed in a reduction of chilies and sugar. A little crunch, a little chew, a little spice, a little sweet, a lot delicious. A "raw slaw" of shaved brussels sprouts, carrots, green onions, ginger, garlic and cilantro again provided a fresh counterpoint that enlivened the dish.

On my last visit to Pubbelly I had an excellent veal brain dish, done very classically in a meuniere style with brown butter and a sauce gribiche. It was on the menu as something of a try-out for the next upcoming addition to the Pubbelly empire: L'Echon, a PB-style French brasserie in North Beach. This was perhaps the 2.0 version of that dish: the brains dyed jet-black by a squid ink and soy "black butter," served with roasted huitlacoche (a corn fungus with a truffle-like aroma), Oregon chanterelles and other mushrooms, sweet corn, fava beans, red-vein sorrel, and shards of parmigiano reggiano. It was a dramatic presentation; and it was a fantastic dish. The brain's delicate texture is matched by a pure, clean - almost consommé-like - meaty essence of flavor, and though there were lots of other things on the plate, they complemented rather than overwhelmed the star of the dish.

Next, silky pappardelle, dressed with slivers of red oak smoked beef tongue, locally grown kale, dried shiitake mushrooms, nicoise olives, and umami "jus." Everything here was designed to play up those meaty, smoky notes of the tongue, which came from Jackman Ranch, a producer of excellent wagyu style beef from upstate Florida near Lake Okeechobee.

As if nobody had really eaten yet, Mendin and crew then brought out some massive rib steaks, first paraded through the dining room and then carved and sliced for sharing at the table. These gorgeous 30-day dry aged, grass-fed steaks from Cox Family Farms were cooked to a perfect medium rare - charred fat, and pinkish-red tender meat - and drizzled with a beef blood jus. Alongside came a pile of delicious fall mushrooms - delicate chanterelles, meaty matsutakes, plump shimejis, frilly maitakes and more - plus pumpkin souffle stuffed into their shells, and golden roasted Vidalia onions.

To finish, a bit of nostalgia: a good old-fashioned ice cream sundae. What I especially liked here was the addition of shards of toasted coconut, a nice contrast against the sweet.

Chef Mendin brought out his whole crew to introduce and thank at the end of the meal, and they - as well as all the front of house crew at PB Steak - really did an exceptional job the entire evening. This was the largest group we've ever had for a sit-down event (57), and it ran as smoothly as any we've ever done. I was happy to see a lot of first-timers, and even happier to see that nobody ran for the door as Chef Mendin served up heart and tripe and brains. (In fact, we even had some chants of "More brains!" as Chef Mendin and crew took their bows.) We had another Cobaya first as well: one of our guests, a local chef, had gotten married over the weekend, and he and his new bride joined us for their "honeymoon" (congrats Aaron!).

Chef Mendin had a clear vision of what he wanted to do for this dinner, and accomplished it extremely well. This was exactly the kind of event we hoped that Cobaya would inpsire when we started doing this four years ago. A big thank you to Chef Mendin, to Andreas and Monique and all of the crew at PB Steak who made this such a fun evening, and as always most of all, to the guinea pigs whose interest and support makes these events possible.

PB Steak
1787 Purdy Avenue, Miami Beach, Florida

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