Friday, July 5, 2019

Cobaya Kamayan at Pao

We've been on a bit of a hiatus at Cobaya for a while, but returned to action last month with a return visit to Pao at the Faena Hotel. Pao had been the site of Experiment #63 a few years ago, when chef Paul Qui and his then chef de cuisine Derek Salkin put together an eight-course menu that had the look and feel of a "fine dining" meal, but which resonated with Filipino flavors: kumamoto oyster kinilaw, foie gras lumpia, maitake mushroom dinuguan, oxtail and beef tongue kare kare.

This time around, Paul and CDC Ben Murray – who joined Pao a few months after that last dinner and has been heading up the Miami restaurant for the past 2 1/2 years – took us even deeper into Filipino territory with a kamayan dinner.[1]

As our guinea pigs arrived, they were brought onto the back terrace at Pao, where one long table underneath a thatched roof pergola had been draped with banana leaves and then laden with our dinner for the evening.

(You can see all my pictures in this Cobaya Kamayan at Pao flickr set).

They described it on the menu like so:
"A Kamayan Dinner is a communal style Filipino feast, composed of colorful arrays of food that are usually served on banana leaves and eaten without utensils."

It was a lot to take in at once. There was sticky, crispy edged lechon, slices of rich wagyu beef, sticky sweet ribs, fat, well-spiced grilled shrimp, tender chicken inasal (typically marinated in calamansi juice and coconut vinegar), flaky grilled loup de mer. There was achara (the Filipino version of papaya salad), kimchi, grilled bok choy, planks of pickled daikon radish. There were crisp fried plantain chips, batons of juicy grilled pineapple, mangoes halved and cross-hatched. There were puffy little pan de sal buns, and more rice than forty people could possibly consume in one sitting. There were sauces – a spicy-sweet nam jim, a salty-tangy toyomansi, a bright garlic and black pepper vinegar.

Instead of an impeccably plated, rigorously calibrated multi-course tasting menu, this was a free-for-all: take a little bit of this, then maybe some of that, try it with this sauce and then the next bite with another. Paul said that Flipinos like eating savory and sweet together, and while that's usually not my thing, in this context it made complete sense.

(continued ...)

Those who chose the beverage pairing were treated to cold Filipino beer, followed by a clean refreshing sake (Kokuryo Kuzuryu Junmai "Black Dragon"), and an Old Fashioned with Japanese smoked whiskey.

A meal like this makes me think of the old Lego sets I used to play with as a kid: sure, you can build whatever was pictured on the box, but you can also jumble all the pieces around, mix them up with the other sets you have, and put them back together and create all sorts of weird and wonderful things. It's a sort of kaleidoscopic approach to flavor that is fun and engages the diner – as does sitting around a big communal table as everyone eats with their hands.

A couple of parting thoughts:

(1) If you're going to do a kamayan – a meal which as its maybe most defining characteristic is that it's to be eaten with your hands ("kamayan" apparently literally means "with hands") – skip the plates and silverware! I know there's an inclination not to trust Miami diners to have a sense of adventure, and I know there's a sense of disconnect to be eating with your hands underneath the shadows of $60 million condos, but if there's a time do such things, it's with this group.

(2) I've been following Pao chef de cuisine Ben Murray's career for years now, going back to a pop-up dinner he put on at Josh's Deli seven years ago. He's a real talent, and what I'd still really like to see is for Ben to get a chance to fly solo and do his own thing for one of our dinners.

A big thank you to chefs Paul Qui and Ben Murray, to the great crew at Pao, and as always most of all, to the guinea pigs whose interest and support make these events possible.

3201 Collins Avenue, Miami Beach, Florida

[1] This was actually not our first Cobaya kamayan experience: three years ago, chef Dale Talde did one at his now-closed restaurant Talde Miami Beach for Cobaya Experiment #60.

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