Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Cobaya Griese at MM74

One of the reasons we enjoy these Cobaya events is that even as the organizers, we never quite know what direction the chefs will take. You can't necessarily predict where a chef's real passions or interest lie from the kind of restaurant they run.

Thomas Griese is the chef at MM74, a Michael Mina restaurant in the Fontainebleau resort in Miami Beach. It's a "dressy casual" kind of venue, someplace you might go to before heading to Liv (or maybe even after clubbing: it's open until 2am on weekends) and get anything from hamachi "poppers" to a $26 burger to Mina's classic lobster pot pie. Don't get me wrong, the food at MM74 is good – very good, in many instances – but you wouldn't expect a high end, classically French inspired dining experience there.

But that's what Chef Griese did for his Cobaya dinner, drawing inspiration from his stage at The French Laundry and other fine dining venues[1] to put together a meal that was as luxurious and fancy as any we've had.

(You can see all my pictures in this Cobaya Griese at MM74 flickr set).

The theme was set from the start as we settled into several tables cloistered in the back of the subterranean restaurant downstairs in the Fontainebleau (our first actual "underground" dinner). A kusshi oyster blanketed in a silky truffled yuzu sabayon, with a dollop of osetra caviar perched on top, was a subtle nod to Keller's classic "Oysters and Pearls."[2] That striking lurid blue is from infusing curaçao into the salt on which the oyster is plated.

From oysters, caviar and truffles to foie gras, of course: in the form of a crème brûlée, blended with mellow white miso. Brioche toast soldiers with slivers of banana and some fresh herbs and flowers were plated alongside for dunking into the creamy custard after you pierced through its burnished sugar cap, with dots of a sweet ruby port reduction circling the dish. The combination of liver, miso and banana might sound unlikely but made perfect sense: a matching of similarities instead of contrasts, with their rich, creamy, unctuous qualities merging into something positioned right between savory and sweet.

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Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Who Wore It Best?

In a post earlier this year, I mentioned a recent experience I had at St. Petersburg's Dalì Museum: seeing some of the artist's early works, what was most striking about them was how derivative they were. Several of Dalì's paintings from the late 1920's looked like lesser works of whichever contemporary he was currently in the thrall of, including many that bore remarkable similarities to Picasso's and Miro's works. It was not until the following decade that one of the most distinctive artists of the twentieth century actually found his own style – when Dalì started making paintings that looked like Dalìs.

The delicate subject of inspiration versus copying in the cooking world is one I've explored often here. Few, if any, artists start their careers with a fully formed vision of their style together with the technical ability to execute it. There's plenty of exploration, experimentation, and, yes, copying, that usually comes first. And I suspect it's much the same in the kitchen.

The complicating fact is that in the restaurant world, chefs generally aren't doing it in the privacy of cloistered artists' studios: they work in a public setting, serving up their creations on a plate to paying customers. Does it matter if those "creations" are sometimes very similar to dishes actually created by other chefs? If the primary focus of a restaurant meal is flavor, then perhaps not: a great-tasting dish tastes great, regardless of who thought it up first. And indeed, many outstanding dishes are the product of one chef taking another chef's idea and making it even better.

Some chefs unabashedly fess up to copying others. The Mission Street Food (the pop-up precursor to Mission Chinese Food) book talks about how they did "homage" dinners centered around their "phantom culinary heroes" including Rene Redzepi. Not having actually been to Noma, they had to "piece together our recipes by poring over images online and culling bits of information here and there, not unlike teenagers learning about sex from porn."  In Fancy Desserts, Del Posto's punk rock pastry chef Brooks Headley talks about how it can even happen subconsciously. He draws a cooking:music analogy between Noma and the Dead Kennedys as having unique and "un-rip-offable" styles, then notes how that didn't stop everyone – including himself – from trying to copy Noma: "For a long time, seeing sorrel and sea buckthorn berries on fine dining menus really pissed me off. (You can't rip off the Dead Kennedys, man!) But then I realized that I was doing it, too. I was so guilty, and I didn't even realize it." The incriminating evidence: pickled green strawberries.

So there shouldn't be any shame in it. But if you are copying (or paying homage, depending on how negative or positive a spin you wish to apply), how much, if any, credit ought you give? Should you do like David Kinch does when he serves an "Arpege egg" at Manresa? Can you be coy, like Pubbelly when it lists "dates AVEC chorizo" on the menu? Or is it sufficient to just assume that knowledgeable diners will be in on the joke (and oblivious diners won't care)? And with creativity an increasingly common component of the marketing pitch for new restaurants, what of Ferran Adríà's maxim, "creativity means not copying"?

I don't know all the answers. But I do know when something looks and/or tastes a lot like something I've had before. So, inspired by Us Weekly (and with a hat tip to JSDonn), here's my version of "Who Wore It Best?" Let me know what you think.

Who Wore It Best? (Round 1)

1. Roasted baby carrots, mole, hazelnut, yogurt, za'atar at Vagabond Restaurant, Miami.

2. Roasted carrots with mole poblano, yogurt and watercress at Empellon Cocina, New York.

My latest mantra is that "carrots and yogurt" is the new "beets and goat cheese" – a combination that seems to appear on every new menu in some form, and which despite its increasing ubiquity I'll still order because it's usually pretty darn good. But the similarities between a dish at chef Alex Chang's new Miami restaurant, Vagabond, and Alex Stupak's Empellon Cocina in NY go further: not just the carrots and the yogurt, but also the distinctive use of Mexican mole sauce, plus the tepee presentation, though some other components differ. (Note: Empellon has been serving this dish since at least 2012).

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Monday, March 23, 2015

Vagabond Restaurant - Miami MiMo District

When chefs from other cities open restaurants in Miami, there's often a sort of "I'm going to show you how it's done" swagger that locals can find off-putting. You hear lots of broad brush "Miami doesn't have ____" and "Miami doesn't do _____" statements from people who sometimes have spent less than a week here. That limited experience doesn't keep them from professing to educate us all about ourselves and what we're missing.

I was worried we were getting more of the same when I read a pre-opening interview with Alex Chang, the young chef[1] selected to run the Vagabond Restaurant & Bar inside the newly renovated and restored Vagabond Hotel on Biscayne Boulevard.[2] Here's the brash newcomer telling us, "So ... it's different compared to other big cities... I think the food here is not quite as progressive and innovative. I think there's some great chefs here and a lot of people doing some really great stuff, but I think what I found is that there's something missing in the middle to me." And "I just don't think there are restaurants that are super unique here .. like, oh this restaurant bleeds Miami."

At least it was balanced by some humility too: "I'm just trying to really, really figure out what Miami is made of and what it can be..." So I was willing to cut the guy some slack. And if I'm going to be completely honest, though I may not completely agree with the categorical statements, there's an element of truth to what he says.[3] But more important, I wanted to try the guy's food. Let's see what you've got.

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

There's a "DINER" sign outside the Vagabond Restaurant, keeping with the 1950's era style that's been so faithfully restored throughout the property, and the atmosphere inside is delightfully Jetsons-inspired, staying just this side of kitschy. But Chang's food is decidedly contemporary. Consistent with the "Vagabond" name, inspiration is pulled from all over the map: you'll taste flavors from Mexico, Japan, Italy, Cuba, Thailand, Jamaica, Spain and more – including South Florida. It was interesting to hear from my CSA farmer, Muriel Olivares of Little River Cooperative, that Vagabond has become one of their best customers, and is always interested in the more unusual items they're able to provide. That was a good sign.

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Friday, March 20, 2015

Cobaya Five 0 with Chefs Jeremiah Bullfrog and H. Alexander Talbot

I will save most of the nostalgic reminiscences for another post, but this was a special one: our 50th Cobaya dinner. When we started this little experiment nearly six years ago, I had no idea if we'd get enough people to show up for a single dinner, much less be able to do it 49 more times. So it was particularly appropriate that we got to do Cobaya Five 0 with some people who have been a big part of our story.

Chef Jeremiah Bullfrog was one of the first people to reach out to us when we started on this endeavor – this was before gastroPod v.1.0, much less v.2.0 in a shipping container in Wynwood (and the new v.2.5 in Aventura Mall). He cooked for Experiment #2, made a return a couple years later for Experiment #19, and has helped out on countless other events.

H. Alexander Talbot – one of the co-creators, along with wife Aki Kamozawa, of the Ideas in Food blog, and co-author of "Ideas In Food: Great Recipes and Why They Work" and "Maximum Flavor: Recipes That Will Change the Way You Cook" – has been an inspiration and mentor to many of the chefs with whom we've worked. He was also back for a reunion with us after doing Experiment #10 almost exactly four years ago.

And Kurtis Jantz, Executive Chef at the Trump International Beach Resort in Sunny Isles, was really the original inspiration for these dinners. Before there was Cobaya, there were the "Paradigm" dinners that Kurtis and then-sous chef Chad Galiano were doing. It was while waiting in the valet circle at the Trump that the idea for this Cobaya thing was hatched. The Cobaya Gras dinner Kurtis and Chad put on remains one of my favorite of any of our events. So it was great to have him churning out the snacks for #50.

Another guy who was at Chef Jeremiah's Experiment #2: Steve Santana. Back then, he was a coder who had convinced his firm to play host to one of our dinners in a penthouse office in Midtown. Now he's the chef at Taquiza, a great taqueria in South Beach, and has also had a backstage hand in many of our events. I was really touched to hear in an interview on ChatChow.com that he credits that Cobaya dinner with steering him toward a career in the kitchen.

But I said I would save the trip down memory lane for another post, so let's talk about this dinner, because it was a great one.

(You can see all my pictures in this Cobaya Five 0 flickr set).

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Tuesday, March 10, 2015

Saison - San Francisco

There are few meals I've looked forward to with as much anticipation. Between the reports from trusted friends both virtual and flesh and blood, the three Michelin stars conferred late last year (which many thought were overdue), and myriad other raves and recognitions, my expectations for Saison were quite high.

Some reputations are so lofty that I fear the reality cannot possibly compare. But Saison did not disappoint.

Ingredients. Focus. Smoke. Pleasure.

These are the words that keep coming to mind as I look back on our meal.

Ingredients: With a menu that uses primarily seafood and vegetables, prepared in a minimalist style, every item that makes it to the plate has been selected with fanatical attention and care. Many are sourced from nearby: sea urchin from Fort Bragg, seaweeds from Mendocino, vegetables from the restaurant's own farm plot, milk "from our cow."

Focus: Instead of dozens of components thrown together, Saison's dishes have a unity of purpose: nearly every course is about one thing, how to bring out, concentrate, and enhance its flavor. Vegetables are cooked in their own juices, fish are served with sauces infused with their grilled bones, all with the goal of honing and focusing the flavor of the primary ingredient.

Smoke: Almost every dish here is kissed with smoke or fire: grilled over open flame, cooked in the wood-fired hearth, preserved in the smoke that makes its way up the hearth's chimney. This is not just some Luddite counter-reaction to the last decade's increasing focus on kitchen technology. Rather, it's a rediscovery that ancient ways of cooking have powerful ways of highlighting, punctuating, amplifying flavor and texture.

Pleasure: Maybe it's just because these are things that I really like to eat, but Saison's menu feels like it is designed to coddle rather than confront. No doubt, a tremendous amount of thought has gone into the preparation of the dishes; but it doesn't require a lot of thinking to enjoy them.This is not a meal whose purpose is to show you how clever the chef, Joshua Skenes, is. Rather, it's about how much pleasure the diner will take in his work.

(You can see all my pictures in this Saison - San Francisco flickr set).

The pleasure principle kicks in from the moment you enter Saison. There's something delightfully unstuffy about the restaurant. Yes, it's an elegant, beautiful space, filled with live edge wood tables and ornate flower displays; many of the seats are arranged to provide a vantage on a kitchen filled with more gleaming copper than a Mauviel warehouse.[1] But there's also something about it that's very welcoming and even homey: the foyer area is framed by a woodpile, around the corner of which is a cozy little bar where you can start with a cocktail before your meal; that open kitchen feels not so much like a stage with cooks performing for an audience, and more like the open floor plan of a (very rich) friend's loft apartment.

After a pause at the bar, dinner begins with a sort of tea service: an infusion of "some herbs from our garden." Bound with twine, the herbs release a heady aroma as they are dropped into the hot water. The Japanese aesthetic sets the tone for the meal. It's a remarkable thing: there's no dish in particular that is overtly Japanese, but the overall impression is uncannily reminiscent of our meals there last year.[2]

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