Sunday, August 3, 2014

Cobaya Brasel at Meat Market

I'm not really sure what happened. I know Sean Brasel is a talented chef: I've had good meals at the restaurant of which he's chef and owner, Meat Market on Lincoln Road, and I've seen some interesting menus that he's put together for wine dinners there.[1] But if I'm going to be brutally honest – and I am – our Cobaya dinner at Meat Market just wasn't as good as dinners I've had at the restaurant, nor as interesting as other special event menus I've seen them do.

This puts me in an incredibly awkward position. As one of the organizers of these Cobaya dinners, I'd like nothing better than to tell you how fantastic every meal is, and heap praise on the chefs who work with us. Fortunately, I almost always get to do that, and through 44 events over the past five years, I think we've got a pretty great track record. But if I'm going to maintain credibility, I have to tell you when I think we miss the mark – and as a paying customer myself (we organizers buy our own seats), I feel it just as much as our guests.

The truth is, Experiment #44 was pretty disappointing to me, both in concept and execution. We give chefs free reign to create their menus, with the knowledge that they will have a group of adventurous, unrestricted eaters as their audience. Brasel apparently decided to use the opportunity to do a dry run of menu items for his new restaurant opening soon in Palm Beach. Though I guess we were the "guinea pigs," the result felt more like a Miami Spice menu than a dining experiment.[2]

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

For a first course, we started with lobster pigs in a blanket (a sort of lobster forcemeat wrapped in puff pastry, served over a lobster mayo and topped with a potent mustard seed relish) and buffalo cheese steak rolls (topped with a bruléed cipollini onion and served over a cheese fondue and a heavily reduced mushroom jus). These are destined to be bar snacks at the new Palm Beach venue, and that's exactly what they tasted like: crispy, saucy, and very salty.

Next course was a beet and goat cheese salad. I guess I'm just surprised when you tell a chef, "You can make whatever you want!" and the response is, "I'm going to make a beet and goat cheese salad!" It was a fine salad – a mound of arugula and frisée dressed with a truffle vinaigrette hiding some nice roasted baby beets, with a dollop of goat cheese mousse, dots of beet purée and some crisp, airy, croutons – but it's also the kind of thing you can find on nearly every menu in town.[3]

(continued ...)

This was maybe the most interesting course of the night – an octopus "carpaccio," the tentacles cooked and set in their own juices, then sliced thinly "across the grain," with some crispy fingerling potato chips alongside. Topped with pickled mustard seeds, fava beans and micro cilantro, the combination of seafood and mustard seed was sort of a repeat of the flavor profile of the lobster snack from the first course.

For a final savory course,[4] we were served a duo of short rib and dry aged New York steak. The short rib hadn't quite yielded yet, and missed the trembling soft texture of a good braise. I didn't particularly enjoy the bacon "mousse" it was served over – its flavor was one-dimensionally salty, its texture kind of disconcerting – though the white bean and quinoa cake was nice. The steak, served sliced to reveal its rosy interior, was lashed with a truffle purée, a heavily reduced red wine jus, and a big spoonful of mushroom duxelles, plus a scatter of brussel sprout leaves and pea greens. Again, the meat / mushroom / jus combination was a repeat of the first course's buffalo cheese steak.

The meat course was served with an assortment of sides: whole roasted cauliflower, gouda tater tots (a staple on the Meat Market menu), and creamy polenta.

For dessert, an open faced cherry rhubarb tart, sprinkled with toasted almonds and served with scoops of a salted dark chocolate ice cream (good) and a bright red morello cherry sorbet (good if you really like that preserved cherry flavor; I found it somewhat overpowering).

This is really no fun for me. I know Sean Brasel can put out some really good, interesting food. For whatever reason, I just don't think that happened Monday night. I'm sorry to have to say it, as I'm always grateful to all of the chefs and their crews, including the team at Meat Market, for participating in our events. But I'm also sorry to the guinea pigs who came out for this one, and probably expected something more than what they got. It's these folks whose continuing interest and support make these experiments possible.

Meat Market
915 Lincoln Road, Miami Beach, Florida

[1] Some examples here, here, here and here.

[2] I'm probably inclined to be a lot more forgiving when chefs use Cobaya as an opportunity to take chances – to cook outside their comfort zones, to try something really new and different. But this was a pretty conservative menu, making the execution issues all the more difficult to overlook.

[3] It's not the first time we've had a Cobaya beet and goat cheese salad – Experiment #31 at Oak Tavern also included one – and I wasn't very enthusiastic about that one either. If you're going to go that route, at least do something different with it, like Chef Joel Huff did at his CobayAzul dinner.

[4] Which didn't come out until nearly 2 1/2 hours into the dinner, even though two of the three preceding courses were cold dishes. This wound up being a three hour plus affair, starting at 8pm, for a five course dinner.

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