Sunday, July 12, 2015

Cobaya #55 on Floor 65 with Chef Aaron Brooks

In nearly six years, we've now done fifty five of these Cobaya dinners. I've missed two. One of them was Experiment #25 with Chef Aaron Brooks of Edge Steak and Bar, almost exactly three years ago. I was particularly disappointed to miss it because Chef Brooks is precisely the kind of chef we had in mind when we starting putting on these events. Edge is a very solid place  – good enough that locals will regularly make their way to the seventh floor of a Four Seasons resort on Brickell to visit – but the restrictions of running a hotel steakhouse limit the range of what Brooks can do there.

And his range is quite broad: he's an Australian native with an affinity for the flavors of Southeast Asia, which he put on full display in his last Cobaya dinner. He also has charcuterie skills that would rival anyone in South Florida, something you'd never know from a glance at the restaurant's menu. This time around, he kept things a bit closer to home, looking to the ingredients of his native continent for inspiration, and also put his charcuterie game on full display for us.

(You can see all my pictures in this Cobaya #55 @ F65 with Chef Aaron Brooks flickr set).

Experiment #55 started in the lobby of the Four Seasons, with flutes of champagne and a procession of little bites, some of which were enhanced by products from a soon-to-open tenant of the property: Caviar Russe. Anzac biscuits (the first hint of the Australian theme) topped with rounds of cured foie gras. Pork rillette grilled cheese sandwiches dolloped with caviar – an unlikely but delicious combination. Smoked salmon and ramp cream cheese layered between crepes and topped with everything spice. And at least one other that moved so fast I didn't get to taste it: toasts topped with morcilla and trout roe. Yet again, I miss out.

From there, the Four Seasons team led us out the front of the lobby, around the side of the property, into the entrances of the Residences, and up the elevator to the 65th floor. As we exited the elevator, we were welcomed into the open door of an empty condominium unit, with floor to ceiling windows on two sides looking out across the bay to Key Biscayne on one side, and down Brickell Avenue towards Coconut Grove on the other. Several round tables were set throughout the room; a DJ played in the corner. This was where we were to have our dinner.[1]

As Chef Brooks and his crew finished plating the first course in the condo kitchen, our guinea pigs sipped some more champagne and ogled the views.

This inspired some ogling too: Chef Brooks' first round of charcuterie. Wow. What good stuff. From top to bottom: duck heart and Sicilian pistachio terrine; smoked hock and head cheese; truffle stuffed trotter; soy cured pig's face; chicken, eel and peanut terrine en croute; and foie gras, chicken liver and truffle pâté, encased in truffle butter. Between this and the charcuterie spread at our last Cobaya dinner at Quality Meats, I'm thinking a charcuterie showdown may be in order. Edge's downtown neighbor, DB Bistro Moderne, would surely be invited, and maybe their cousin Café Boulud in Palm Beach would come down too. Maybe Miami Smokers? Who else wants in?

(continued ...)

But wait, that's not all. Another board of warm charcuterie items followed: Aussie "lamb ham," cheesy keilbasa, chorizo verde flautas, and warm tasso ham. I could have left happily just after these first two rounds.

But we were just getting started. Following with the Aussie theme, Brooks served a tartare which used native kangaroo for the protein, but took its flavors from the Middle East: slivered olives, preserved lemon, za'atar spice, and a drizzle of yogurt and olive oil.[2] This teetered right on the edge of being overseasoned, but the lean red meat probably needed it, and I loved the briny, tangy bursts of flavor from the olives and preserved lemon.

Brooks' next course was a flashback to the Southeast Asian flavors of his first Cobaya dinner. Now I'm even more sorry I missed it, as this was probably the dish of the night for me. He stuffed a rabbit loin with bright, herbaceous Thai sausage, then served it with a tangy green curry redolent with lemongrass and makrut lime.[3] A swirl of creamy avocado purée, a couple fresh, crisp bibb lettuce leaves, and a mound of slivered vegetables, crispy shallots and peanuts completed the dish. It was excellent.

A little palate cleanser of mezcal (?) soaked "drunken" watermelon dusted with cilantro, serrano chile and tajin spice followed.

"Carpetbag Steak" is apparently generally thought to be an Australian dish, popular there in the 1950's and 1960's. Some food historians disagree, pointing to sources indicating it had been served in the U.S. and already faded from popularity by the late 19th century. Anyway, it's a steak stuffed with oysters: here, a grass-fed steak from Cape Grim on the northwestern tip of Tasmania, stuffed with East Coast oysters, topped with shaved Australian truffles, and served with a round of celery root cooked in truffles. Unfortunately, this was the one miss for me: they were good truffles (we've had Australian truffles once before at Cobaya #45 with Chef Danny Grant), but the steak itself was somewhat tough, with a mineral tang veering almost into the metallic, as sometimes happens with grass-fed beef.

My disappointment was short-lived – basically until dessert arrived. I'm not usually a big dessert fan, but this is the kind I often like: light and bright and refreshing. Once again, Australia was the inspiration. Pavlova is a delicate meringue with a soft interior; Brooks' version was beautifully executed, a frail, crisp shell collapsing into a marshmallow-textured center, sprinkled with black sesame seeds and served with whipped cream and a mix of zesty tropical fruits.

Sixty-five stories up is as high as this "underground" group has ever held a dinner (and unless we do a traveling road show, that record will probably hold for a while: the Four Seasons is currently the tallest building in the U.S. south of Atlanta, though the frothy local real estate market may soon change that). And while the location and views were special, the trade-off was that we didn't get to see as much of Chef Brooks as I might have hoped. The logistics of coordinating between the restaurant kitchen and the tiny condo kitchen being used for final prep and plating kept him too busy to even make an appearance in the dining room until the end of the evening.

But there was a lot of him on those plates, and for that we are very grateful. A big thank you to Chef Brooks, his executive sous chef Jose Gamez, to all his team at Edge and the Four Seasons who helped make this happen, to the unnamed condo owner who let us crash his pad, and as always most of all, to the guinea pigs whose interest and support make these events possible.

Edge Steak and Bar
1435 Brickell Avenue, 7th Floor, Miami, Florida

[1] Our dinner did double-duty as a preview for a series of "pop-up" "Undercover Dinners" the Four Seasons will be doing nationwide, where the only information shared in advance with diners is the time and location. It's a concept with which we have a bit of experience!

[2] This would not be the first kangaroo we've been served at a Cobaya dinner. At Experiment #17 at Market 17 in Fort Lauderdale, Chef Daniel Ramos' continents-inspired menu included an "Australia" dish featuring grilled kangaroo filet.

[3] I recall reading somewhere that the common description of these as "kaffir" limes actually invokes a racial slur.

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