Friday, July 3, 2015

Quality Cobaya with Chef Patrick Rebholz

The scent – well, let's be more blunt – ripe, animal funk of cured meats as we entered the room was a good sign. It soon became apparent from whence it came: a spread of charcuterie laid on top of butcher paper that stretched all the way down a table set for forty guests.

We were in a private second-floor room in the old Bancroft Hotel on South Beach, a beautiful property whose Art Deco features have been pretty respectfully preserved. It's now the home of the Miami outpost of Quality Meats, a New York restaurant with some historical legacy itself: its owners opened the original Smith & Wollensky steakhouse in New York in 1977.[1]

The chef was Patrick Rebholz. Before joining QM, Rebholz had spent most of the past decade cooking in Charleston, most recently as the chef de cuisine at the Peninsula Grill. We got a hint that Chef Rebholz had big plans for his Cobaya dinner when he asked for an early start time. Sure enough, we didn't wrap up until nearly four hours after our 6:30pm commencement. It was time very happily spent.

(You can see all my pictures from the dinner in this Quality Cobaya flickr set).

After milling around at the bar while our group assembled, we were escorted upstairs to the "Bancroft Room" and its wafting meaty aromas. Moscow Mules in gleaming copper mugs were handed out to everyone. All the chairs were pushed back from the table so that Rebholz and crew could more easily make their way through to apply some finishing touches: cornbread cream on top of the smoked soppressata; aerated mozzarella on top of the coppa.

There was plenty more: silky, intense cured foie gras torchon coated with malted barley and a mango gastrique; thin-sliced suckling pig coppa di testa and hearty headcheese; merguez "prosciutto" topped with preserved lemon; creamy calf liver mousse topped with pickled ramps; pork jowl pastrami; hickory smoked duck bacon; toasty pork jowl corn dogs with Tabasco mayo; popcorn dressed in dry-aged beef fat. Rebholz poured some of his house-brewed beer too, and it was a great match with the charcuterie.[2]

It was a crazy good way to start a meal, and folks dug in pretty rapaciously. Then Chef Rebholz just rolled the paper down to clear the table.[3]

(continued ...)

Not wanting to kill us by the third course, Rebholz followed with a salad that was light and clean: perky lettuces, slivered radishes, a spiral of cucumber, some fresh herbs, a little corn custard and tomato granita hidden underneath. Nice, and exactly what you wanted after the meat-fest that preceded it.

One thing I've learned in many years of restaurant-going: if there's a reuben on the menu, you should order it. Because if you don't, someone else is going to order the reuben, and then you're going to be jealous. Because reubens, in just about any form, are awesome. Chef Rebholz knows: he made one with cobia, the fish rolled in pastrami spices and cured, served with fennel sauerkraut, thousand island dressing, an airy swiss cheese mousse, and crispy parsnip curls. Nice.

A little intermezzo – watermelon cubes topped with jalapeño jelly and mint – preceded our first actual guinea pig at a Cobaya event. All, right, it was actually "guinea-pig": guinea hen, prepared like a ballotine stuffed with a forcemeat of suckling pig and foie gras. But it was a pretty clever effort, a dramatic presentation (with the claw still attached), and, all word play aside, a really good dish.

We'd seen the pig brains in Chef Rebholz's instagram feed earlier in the week. We didn't know what would be done with them. He married unconventional ingredient with a familiar preparation: crisp-fried, with General Tso's sauce. The idea, Patrick said, came to him while drunk on whiskey at his best friend's wedding, while feeding the groom the brain of a pig they'd roasted (You never know when inspiration will strike). I'm a fan of the creamy texture of brains, but you could serve just about anything with this sauce and it would be good: spicy, tangy, glossy, much more sour than sweet. Rebholz should bottle this stuff.

Another palate-cleanser – a fresh bright mango and lime sorbet, topped with a crispy chicken skin chicharrone – before we were asked to back away from the table again, as the QM crew laid a couple boards all the way along its forty foot surface.

Then Rebholz passed through, dropping a couple massive crossed bones on the plank between each pair of diners across the table from each other. It was a nice bit of dramatic suspense as Rebholz described the dish while still holding everyone back from the table.[4] They'd taken long bone short ribs – i.e., the entire rib – and grilled them instead of the typical long, slow braise. These were served with a black garlic bordelaise sauce, and a potato purée so rich and buttery it would have made Joël Robuchon blush.

After everyone stormed in like paparazzi to snap pictures, they dove with equal vigor on those ribs. They still had a bit of chew to them, for sure, but in a good way, and with an intense beefy flavor. This is my kind of steak and potatoes.

A light pre-dessert followed: peaches poached in a juniper shrub, served with a cube of creamy panna cotta with a bit of a bourbon gelée nestled inside, a bit of streusel scattered over the top for some crunch. Then they brought out the heavy dessert artillery.

Multi-tiered Lazy Susans bearing all sorts of treats were brought out to the table, with bowls of burnt marshmallow ice cream for everyone. Chocolate chip cookies, brownies, chocolate covered pretzels, strawberries and graham crackers, chocolate sauce and sprinkles and nuts, chocolate and dulce de leche covered marshmallows ... pretty much anything you could possibly think of putting on top of or eating with ice cream was accounted for. The base of each level of the Lazy Susan was made out of Rice Krispie treats, for goodness' sake.

It was over-the-top, indulgent, dramatic, maybe even a bit ridiculous, all in the best possible way, as everyone dug in quite literally like kids let loose in a candy shop. As if it all weren't already generous enough, Chef Rebholz sent everyone home with bags of salted chocolate caramels, jars of jalapeño jelly and chile salt, plus whatever we could pack away of the desserts that we couldn't finish.

From start to finish, I was really impressed by what Chef Rebholz did for his dinner. That charcuterie spread alone would have been a highlight, but the entire meal had a pace and rhythm that had been clearly thought through, balancing cleverness (reuben crudo, General Tso's pig brains) with pure visceral pleasure (chops of meat grilled on the bone). He showed a great feel not just for flavor, but for the theater of dining, which the crew at QM did an outstanding job of executing.

A big thank you to Chef Rebholz and all of his outstanding team at Quality Meats, and as always, most of all, to the guinea pigs whose interest and support makes these events possible.

Quality Meats
1501 Collins Avenue, Miami Beach, Florida

[1] Alan Stillman's first restaurant was the original T.G.I. Friday's. He sold his stake in 1976, then started Smith & Wollensky. Together with his son Michael Stillman, they've since opened Maloney & Porcelli, Quality Meats, Quality Italian, and Park Avenue.

[2] I had skipped the optional pairing, which was probably a mistake. Though QM generously served the Moscow Mules and house-brewed beer to everyone in the group, the pairing also included some interesting choices: Matthiasson Ribolla Gialla, Jean Lallemant Champagne, Peter Lauer Riesling, Villa Creek Avenger (a GSM blend), and a "Bancroft Manhattan" served from a sno-cone cart. One of the QM crew noted that I had brought a Paso Robles Rhone blend myself (the Linne Calodo Overthinker), kindly poured me a sample of the Villa Creek to compare.

[3] But not before a certain someone tried to snag every last remaining bit of it off the butcher's paper.

[4] We have our dogs trained so that when they get their bowls, they have to sit and wait until we say "OK" before they eat. Now I know what it feels like.

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