Wednesday, December 20, 2017

Cobaya Ariete with Chef Michael Beltran

Cobaya's been on a long break, but we came back strong. Monday night, Chef Michael Beltran let us take over his Coconut Grove restaurant, Ariete, where he served forty of us an elegant eight-course dinner that hearkened back to another generation of fine dining. Canapés and terrines and consommés – nobody does this stuff any more![1] While I wouldn't want to dine like this every day, it was a beautiful reminder of what's been lost as we abandon the white linens for the unfinished wood tables and side towel napkins.

Ariete is usually one of those bare wood table kind of places – and a really good one, about which I've been meaning to write here at FFT. But for present purposes, let's focus on Monday's dinner.

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

Upon getting to the restaurant a couple minutes before our early 6:45pm start time to check our guests in, I was shocked to find the entire dining room already filled and seated.[2] Chef Beltran was at the pass getting the first course ready, and looking as tightly wound as the rubber band on a balsa wood flyer. I told him to relax; he said he'd relax after service was over. It's one of the things I love about Mike – he's a sweetheart and a wise-cracker, but he's got an intensity and focus about his work that takes priority over everything else.

To start, a welcome cocktail – "El Sueno," with dark rum, pineapple, Pavan liqueur and prosecco – and a bread service of soft, yeasty brioche with a duo of butters – herb and truffle – and some coarse salt.[3]

Just the word "canapés" brings to mind posh dinner parties of a kind I've mostly only fantasized about; the closest we came when I was growing up was parties where my parents would make pitchers of frozen daiquiris and warm up little frozen puff pastry doodads. Here, Beltran made silky beggars' purses filled with picked stone crab, a crimson cherry filled with chicken liver mousse, and a crispy tostone topped with smoked fish rillettes. Fancy.

At his Paris restaurant l'Arpège, Chef Alain Passard serves a dish that is now universally known as "l'Arpège Egg" – a soft-cooked egg yolk cooked in the shell, seasoned with fleur de sel and snipped chives, topped with cold whipped cream, sherry vinegar and maple syrup, for a perfect combination of hot and cold, sweet and sour.[4] Beltran's ode to the dish incorporated some local flavors: a silky malanga purée and sugar cane, plus some caviar for good measure. It was delicious.

(continued ...)

A terrine of foie gras and eel is a seemingly unlikely combination, but one that has some modern culinary history. I associate it with Joel Robuchon, but the Spanish chef Martin Berasategui may have done a version which predates Robuchon's. In any event, it's surprisingly good, the eel's mild flavor and fluffy texture acting as a foil for the rich, creamy foie. Beltran paired it with a ruby-hued confit plum, tart green pickled strawberries, some edible succulent leaves, and a couple bread soldiers.

For me, this pot au feu was the dish of the evening. The oxtail, studded with bone marrow, was delicious, but the star was the beautifully clear consommé, so much flavor in such a delicate form. Everything here popped: the pure beef flavor of the broth warmed with a bit of spice, the tournéed carrot with a bit of snap left to it, the burst of freshness from the herbs and greens which garnished the dish. Just beautiful.

The next dish went a bit lighter and in a more Mediterranean direction: striped bass, seared and crisp-skinned, over a bed of confit heirloom tomatoes, with a couple ravioli filled with tender salt cod.Was the pasta as silky and perfect as Mike Pirolo's at Macchialina or Justin Flit's at Proof? Not quite, but whose is? It was very good, and I really liked the interplay between the intense, salty filling and the sweet-sour tomatoes.

And then Beltran hit us over the head with a crown roast of venison, done in the style of Steak Diane with a rich truffled pan sauce, some sautéed mushrooms and roasted cherries. It was a really tasty chop – the lean meat cooked right to the point that it retained its juices without feeling raw – which reminded me of the wonderful lavender-rubbed loin of venison that Andrea Curto-Randazzo used to serve at Talula. I had to pack one of my chops to bring home, but I saw many plates with nothing left but the bones.

For dessert, a homey tart of apple, honey and frangipane, topped with a dollop of thick whipped cream. I love these flavors together. As a nice little final touch, we were all poured a cup of Ya'an Tibetan tea courtesy of the good folks at JoJo Tea, a soothing coda to our night.

We always give thanks to the entire kitchen crew and front of house staff for these dinners, and those thanks are especially due this time around. It's easy to recognize when things go wrong, but it's just as easy not to notice when they go right. I thought the pace of the evening was spot-on: the first few dishes came and went like clockwork, the more substantial courses gave you a chance to catch your breath between rounds, and I'm pretty sure the last plate was picked up from the tables 2 1/2 hours after we started. With forty covers for this kind of meal, that's pretty impressive.[5]

This dinner represented the completion of a full circle. Almost exactly seven years ago, Beltran cooked at a Cobaya dinner we did with Chef Alberto Cabrera, downstairs in this very property. Since then, he went on to work with some more of Miami's top chefs – Norman Van Aken, Michael Schwartz – before getting the chance to open his own restaurant. Now this place, and this Cobaya dinner, is all his. Beltran can smile now.

3540 Main Highway, Coconut Grove, Florida

[1] OK, the Major Food Group guys have brought that luxe retro feel to their takeover of the old Four Seasons with The Grill, and Sean Brock was doing something along those lines at McCrady's Tavern, but you know what I mean.

[2] One of the only disappointments of the evening is that we were set up at individual tables rather than one or two big communal ones, which I always prefer, as it gives a better chance to interact with more of the guests and share the experience.

[3] This may have been the same brioche recipe as we had nearly seven years ago at a Cobaya dinner with Chef Alberto Cabrera for which Beltran was in the kitchen, about which some more below.

[4] You can see Passard making it here in this clip from "Great Chefs." Man, I loved that show.

[5] One thing I think could have been done better was to offer a wine pairing. It's not an essential part of our events, but many folks enjoy it, and this would have been a particularly wine-friendly dinner.

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