Thursday, February 13, 2014

Cobaya Divino with Chef Julian Baker of Toscana Divino

Chefs, like actors, can get typecast. Do a certain thing well, and often enough, and people will start to think that it's all you can do. Chef Julian Baker is the chef at Toscana Divino, a restaurant in Brickell that, as the name suggests, operates in a mostly traditional Tuscan vein. Before Toscana Divino, he'd helped open Bice restaurants around the world. Though Baker's an Englishman, his resume would lead you to expect classical Italian through and through.

We like when our Cobaya events defy expectations - when chefs recognize it as an opportunity to venture outside of their, and their regular customers', comfort zones. Chef Baker did that with his Cobaya dinner, which we've been working on coordinating nearly since the restaurant first opened. Baker's culinary background happens to be much broader than the Italian cooking he's done lately, and other than a pasta course, I don't think anything he served at his dinner last week would immediately register as Italian. That's just fine by us.

From start to finish, every dish reflected a lot of thinking behind it, from concept to presentation to flavor. It was a thoughtful dinner that was also a lot of fun.

(You can see all my pictures in this Cobaya Divino flickr set).

A barrel-aged Gentleman Jack "Negroni"[1] started the festivities, along with a few passed "bar snacks," all with clever, fun presentations. Smoked sweet potato croquette "cigars" were served in a cigar box billowing with smoke; foie gras "roll ups" wrapped in strawberry fruit leather and sprinkled with pistachios stuck up out of a field of greens planted in a box; and best of all, crispy chicharron-like beef tendon "frazzles" which emerged, still audibly crackling, from inside a false book.

(continued ...)

Chef Baker's first course paid homage in name to another local restaurant: "Blue Collar." Rich, fatty grilled hamachi collar, and a sashimi-style raw slice of the loin, were served over a bed of picked blue crab and chopped greens, with a deeply flavored blue crab dashi poured into the bowl tableside. It was one of the highlights of the evening, a really elegant dish.

"Unagi Tokyo Firenze" was a good example of the levels of thought that went into Baker's dishes. Borrowing ideas from both Japanese and Italian cookery, he put together grillled eel, glazed and dusted with citrus zests, with a risotto thickened with celery root, and a seaweed salsa verde. The combination of eel, rice and nori brought together the flavors of a typical maki roll - Japanese flavors, but in an Italian format. A cloudy, rich nigori sake - bottles brought to the table for the diners to pour for each other, Japanese style - was another really nice touch.

Chef Baker's "Carbonara" would be unrecognizable to a fan of the classic pasta dish. Here instead, he recreated the "carbon" by dying yucca root dark black with squid ink to resemble a piece of charcoal, then served it with a tranche of sauteed black cod draped with pancetta, a frothy zabaglione sauce (thereby bringing back the bacon and egg of the traditional pasta carbonara), and a squid ink "pil pil" sauce.[2]

An intermezzo marked the transition from fish to meats - "Cool Aid" - a bright clean watermelon sorbet, spiced with cardamom and Maldon salt.

Chef Baker's "Pan Dulce" appealed to my perverse fondness for puns. Literally "Sweet Bread," the dish featured sweetbreads (the organ, not the baked product) marinated in honey beer, cooked sous vide, pressed together to resemble a slice of bread, and seared, dusted with crushed hazelnuts and shaved Perigord truffles, and served with a foamed honey sauce - a presentation coming off much like french toast (i.e., sweet bread). I loved the idea - I didn't love the texture on the sweetbreads, which were somewhat dry and chalky.

Every cook who's worked South Beach, at some point in their life, has found themselves making "Chicken Alfredo" - some soul-crushing lowest-common-denominator slop of chicken breast, cream and pasta. So I appreciated the thinking behind making that dish into something actually worth eating. And this was for me another of the highlights of the evening. The dish took some of the best parts of the chicken - the livers and hearts - and sauteed them, then draped them in a rich chicken glace. This then served as the bed for a twirl of fresh tagliolini enriched with a thick fontina and parmesan fonduta. A swirl of chicken liver mousse was painted around the edge of the bowl, so you could pull it into your pasta as you twirled it, completed the composition. This was incredibly rich - maybe too much so, in this portion size - and the fonduta perhaps too thick and sticky, but I loved it nonetheless.

As a final savory course, Chef Baker paid tribute to another local restaurant with "Tongue & Cheek" - tender braised veal cheek draped in translucent lardo, served over shingles of pickled veal tongue, with a streak of vibrant red pepper sauce and a light salad. I'll be honest - this dish was very good, but I'd had too much food by this point to really appreciate it. Though it's perhaps the right time to note that the beverage pairings throughout the evening - provided gratis by Toscana Divino, a really generous touch - were right on point throughout the evening. The Farina Amarone poured here was particularly nice, but it was clear just as much thought had been put into the pairings as the food.

Even though I'm not much of a dessert person, I still sometimes have a "second stomach" for sweets, and was glad I dd here. This version of "Tea and Coffee" combined a smoky lapsang souchong infused cream with a chocolate-espresso cake. The smokiness of the tea-infused cream and the bitterness of the coffee brought out different, almost savory, dimensions in the chocolate - a welcome change from the typical cloyingly sweet chocolate dessert.

This was a tremendously thoughtful and generous dinner, one that fully captured the spirit of what we're trying to do. A big thank you to Chef Julian Baker, sous chef Jeff Maxfield, GM Maura Bortignon, and manager Gianina Roman and all of the crew at Toscana Divino who made the night such a success, and as always most of all, to the guinea pigs whose interest and support make these kinds of events possible.

Toscana Divino
900 S. Miami Avenue, Miami FL

Toscana Divino on Urbanspoon

[1] Technically, a Boulevardier since made with whiskey.

[2]A typical Basque preparation in which the fish's juices are emulsified with olive oil and garlic.

1 comment:

  1. I would love to try that "Tea and Coffee" dessert. I am definitely stopping in the next time I'm home :)

    xo Liz