Monday, May 19, 2014

CobayaBalloo - Chef Timon Balloo at Bocce Bar

I love a meal that tells a good story. A meal can be a journey – like Norman Van Aken's menus, traversing the flavors of the Caribbean, Asia, Latin America and Iberia. Some of the best are those that aspire to simply reflect a time and place – the flavor of the here and now, as Blaine Wetzel does to such great success at Willows Inn. Still others are more personal, attempting to recapture a particular taste memory or flavor sensation – that tunnel-vision view into a childhood experience so magnificently captured in the film Ratatouille.

This last type is often the most difficult to pull off, because there is no guarantee everyone has the same memory bank of experiences, or that they were absorbed in the same way. (For more thoughts on "story food" and capturing food memories, read this recent piece by Bruce Palling in "Cutting Edge Chefs Serve Up Food That Tells a Story"). Getting the backstory is helpful, which is part of why interaction can be a key to a meaningful dining experience.

Chef Timon Balloo took the autobiographical approach to the Cobaya dinner he put on last week, putting together a menu that told the story of his life in food. He also did a great job filling in the backstory which wound a meandering path from a Trinidadian childhood breakfast to the two Midtown Miami restaurants – Sugarcane Raw Bar Grill and Bocce Bar – that he runs today.

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

Our group of nearly forty guinea pigs took over several large tables set in front of the open kitchen of Bocce Bar, which recently opened a few doors down from Sugarcane in the space which was formerly occupied by Sustain. As we always do, we told Timon that we didn't want "Sugarcane" food or "Bocce Bar" food – we wanted "Timon" food. He did exactly that, with a nine-course menu that paid tribute to his culinary influences and inspirations.

"A Trini Kid's Sunday Morning"
house cured cod "buljol" fritters, avocado, shaved cabbage, heirloom tomatoes, fried bake
Chang Beer, Thailand

Growing up in a Trinidadian family, this was a typical weekend breakfast – salt cod tossed with shredded cabbage, tomatoes and fresh herbs, tucked into "bake," a simple, dense, chewy bread (you may have also heard of "Bake and Shark," another typical Trini recipe). This doesn't look or sound like much, but it was one of the dishes of the night for me, and a great start to our meal.[1] The snappy, spicy Chang Beer pairing was also right on target, as were all the pairings, which smartly and effectively featured beers as often as wines.

"Ode to Fisherman's Wharf"
english pea and crawfish chowder, herb-sourdough bread bowl
Donnafugata Lighea Zibibbo 2012

Chef Balloo spent some formative years in San Francisco, and while there are several potential candidates for an iconic San Francisco dish, the chowder in a sourdough bread bowl served at dozens of spots along Fisherman's Wharf may be the most ubiquitous. Timon stuck with the classic format but put a seasonal spin on the ingredients, subbing in a crawfish bisque studded with English peas for the typical clam and potato chowder.

(continued ...)

"Breakfast of Champions"
foie gras spam musubi, fried quail egg
Hitachino Nest White Ale, Japan

The West Coast feels plenty of influence from points even further west into the Pacific Ocean. This "Breakfast of Champions" was inspired by the spam musubi that are found throughout Hawaii – the infamous luncheon meat bound with a strip of nori to a block of white rice. This, though, was a fancified version: the "spam" house-made rather than out of a can, and topped with a slab of seared foie gras, a fried quail egg, and a tumble of micro shiso greens.

"Fat Boy Grown Up ... Ling Ling's Demise"
florida rabbit, chive and truffle bao, sweet chili, hoisin
Gewurztraminer, Zind-Humbrecht, Herrenweg de Turckheim Alsace 2011

The room was loud and I did not catch all of the story behind this dish. The snippets I caught were that "Ling Ling" was once the Balloo family rabbit; one day, Ling Ling was no more; and these puffy bao buns had a minced rabbit filling, spiced and gussied up with truffle and chive. You can draw your own conclusions. Ling Ling: if this was you? You were delicious, especially dolloped with some house-made chili and hoisin sauce.

"The Teacher Who Danced her Way Into My Mouth"
florida snapper, sweet fish sauce, mango, coriander, mint, lime
Big Rod Coconut Ale, Schnebly Brewery, Miami

One of Timon's first cooking mentors in Miami was Chef Michelle Bernstein, who he worked with when she was head chef at Azul in the Mandarin Oriental Hotel. This was a classic dish from that restaurant: crispy-skinned local Florida snapper, laid over a puddle of a sweet-sour-spicy-funky fish sauce in the spirit of Vietnamese nuoc cham, paired with slivered mango, fresh herbs, and crispy shallots. It was a worthy tribute to one of Miami's truly outstanding talents.

"What I Remember"
2 day rioja oxtail, potato emulsion, crispy shallots, herbs
Tempranillo, Bodegas Muga Reserva Rioja, Spain 2009

Another tribute followed: this one to Sergi Arola and Angel Palacios, with whom Balloo worked at the short-lived La Broche restaurant in Brickell. Arola and Palacios were both disciples of Ferran Adria, and Arola's flagship in Madrid had earned two Michelin stars. When La Broche opened in Miami in 2003, it generated both excitement and derision for its cutting edge "alta cocina."[2] But what Timon took away from his time there was not the foams and fuss – it was a reverence for the pure, deep flavors of traditional Spanish cooking. He brought that to the plate with tender, meaty oxtails braised in rioja for two days, served over a purée of potatoes emulsified with fruity olive oil instead of the typical mounds of butter.

"Trini Roots"
curry goat, dal, roti, lime pickles
Red Stripe, Jamaica

The final savory course marked a return to the same family roots where the menu started: a Trini-inspired dish of curried goat (a roulade of meat wrapped in crispy chicken skin, a tranche of what I think was a terrine of its liver, and a ragout of all the other bits and pieces, including the testicles), served with lime pickles, a sort of spicy mango chutney, sweet mandarinquat jam, and freshly made roti bread. And I'll be damned if this wasn't my other favorite dish of the night. Some at our table were joking that Timon could open a spot that served nothing other than these two dishes and make a killing.

30° rhubarb, pea meringue, mint, flowering buds
Cleto Chiarli "Centenario" Grasparossa di Castelvetro Amabile, Italy

From Trinidad back to the present for dessert. First, a contemporary presentation of seasonal flavors – rhubarb (poached and served cool), peas (in a crumbly meringue and powder), mint (whipped into a creamy mound of (?) mascarpone), and flowers – that could call Alain Passard to mind. I wasn't convinced of this dish at first taste, but it started to grow on me as I kept on sampling it, especially the sweet, grassy pea meringue.

Reese's peanut butter cup, Oreo crumble, cookies & cream ice cream, peanut butter swoosh, salted peanuts
Brooklyn Black Ops, New York City

From "Sophistication," Balloo went to outright "Indulgence" – the perfect name for what struck me as the typical cook-with-the-munchies late-night raid on the pantry and freezer. I loved that this managed to cover all the contemporary dessert plating tropes – a swoosh, a crumble, a quenelle, a broken Reese's "cake," all squeezed asymmetrically onto one side of the dish – with supermarket ingredients. And, yeah: it was delicious. The rich, toasty Brooklyn Black Ops stout was another on-the-mark pairing.

Honestly, I'd run out of steam by the time these mignardises arrived – a colorful platter of madeleines, basil marshmallows, pate de fruit and other treats.

As we closed, Chef Timon graciously thanked all his crew that helped put this meal together – an expression of gratitude that we wholeheartedly reaffirm. When we first started putting on these Cobaya events, Timon was one of our first candidates; and though it's taken about four years to finally come together, we're very glad it finally did.

Bocce Bar
3252 NE 1st Avenue, Miami FL

Bocce Bar on Urbanspoon

[1] I got the impression that although this was the food he grew up with, it's not food that Timon cooks regularly – and it may have been his first time making "bake." Sort of funny, because the two Trini-inspired dishes on his menu were both among my favorites.

[2] For a bit of a time capsule, it's fun to go back and read Lee Klein's review of La Broche, and the blowback from a critical column that Jen Karetnick wrote (unfortunately I can't turn up her original column that prompted these responses). Sadly, I never got to La Broche before it closed, less than a year after opening. UPDATED: also sadly, apparently the original La Broche in Madrid was a victim of La Crise and was shut down by tax authorities last year for an overdue tax bill. Arola now has Sergi Arola Gastro in Madrid and still has a restaurant in Barcelona in the Hotel Arts.

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