Monday, December 12, 2016

Cobaya Smokers with Chefs Andres Barrientos and James Bowers

We've been on a run of fancier Cobaya dinners lately, inside swanky South Beach hotels and other posh places, some with some very well known chefs. Not that there's anything wrong with that, but for Experiment #67 we were looking to get back to our roots a little bit: a more casual dinner with some guys you may never have heard of, at a place you might not know.

Miami Smokers is a butcher shop and sandwich shop (they call it an "urban smokehouse") in a nondescript stretch of Little Havana run by Andres Barrientos and James Bowers. You may have never been in there, but if you've been eating around Miami for a while, you may well have already sampled Miami Smokers' bacon, which they supply to several local restaurants. They also produce a few different kinds of salumi, several sausages, some other charcuterie items, and a small supply of fresh pork cuts, which come from heritage pigs they're raising at a farm in Clewiston, Florida. They turn out a really nice selection of sandwiches from their products, including a great version of a classic Cubano, which are also now available at the American Airlines Arena.

After they recently expanded their place on 27th Avenue to add more seating, we talked to them about using that extra space for a Cobaya dinner where they could spread their wings a little. Here's what they came up with – a very pork-centric menu modeled after the Cochon 555 events which celebrate heritage pigs by using every bit of them possible.

(You can see all my pictures in this Cobaya Smokers with Andres Barrientos and James Bowers flickr set).

They started everyone off with a self-service charcuterie bar, featuring several of their house-made products: a couple different kinds of cured and smoked hams, a silky coppa, a couple different dried sausages. These were accompanied by a complimentary cocktail with a frothy egg-white crown, which struck me as like a whiskey version of a pisco sour.

As everyone found their way to a seat, Andres and James made their introductions and talked to the group about what they do at Miami Smokers: the focus on making everything in-house, using local products and heritage breeds. It's a common refrain these days, but these guys really seem to be walking the walk.

To start things off, a little amuse bouche with some local flavor: bacon croquetas, warm and oozy and barely holding together, served over some house-made guava jam.

(continued ...)

Next, puffed pig skin "noodles," in a dark-brown pig head and mushroom broth, bobbing with wild mushrooms and bits of Thai-spiced sausage rippling with the heat of fresh chiles and redolent of lemongrass and herbs. This seemed a bit undecided as to the direction it wanted to take: the sausage pulling towards Thailand, the broth, hinting at five-spice, more like a Vietnamese pho, and the pig-skin noodles a neat effect but not carrying much flavor.

At home we often argue over salads. Mrs. F claims I don't like salads, but this is a mischaracterization of my position. I like salads just fine as part of a meal, I just don't think a salad is a meal.  This salad was a really nice part of a meal: massaged kale in a green goddess dressing, dotted with toasted punpkin and sunflower seeds, and generously showered with parmesan cheese, shavings of filleto (a spiced and cured pork tenderloin), and lemon zest.

The centerpiece of the dinner showed off Miami Smokers' access to great pork, and the flexibility of doing their own butchery: a gargantuan "chuleta can can," a Puerto Rican style cut that includes the loin, the rib and the attached belly. They served it with some good mofongo topped with hogao, a thick Colombian tomato salsa, and some caramelized fennel. Smart diners also made their way over to the table with some of Smokers' house-made pickles and relishes, which nicely cut the richness of the chop. It was massive – absurd, really. It's also some of the tastiest pork I've eaten. Happily, they supplied doggy bags, and the leftovers made their way into my weekend cookery.

Dessert highlighted a couple other local producers: a Salty Donut maple bacon doughnut bread pudding, topped with some Azucar Ice Cream Company sweet corn ice cream. This was accompanied by a nightcap cocktail of bourbon and cream, which used some of Smokers' candied, nut-speckled bacon as a swizzle stick.

I enjoy a dinner where we give a big-name chef a chance to cut loose; but I also like doing things like this, where we turn the spotlight on some local guys to see what they can do. A big thank you to chefs Andres Barrientos and James Bowers, to all of their crew at Miami Smokers (including the waitstaff they borrowed last minute from their customer, Threefold Cafe), and as always, most of all, the guinea pigs whose interest and support make these events possible.

Each Cobaya recap ends with that same line, but it's the truth. Every time we do one of these, I'm gratified and energized – not just by people's willingness to take a chance on a dinner without knowing what they're going to be served or who's cooking it, but by their patience for the increasingly tricky process of getting a spot, and most of all, for their graciousness and friendliness in sitting down with a table of strangers to enjoy a meal together. Thanks.

Miami Smokers
306 NW 27th Avenue, Miami, Florida

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