Saturday, July 20, 2019

Cobaya Obra with Chef Carlos Garcia

For years, Chef Carlos Garcia ran what was generally regarded as one of the top dining destinations in Latin America in his hometown of Caracas, Venezuela. Between 2013-2016, his restaurant Alto was a regular on the Pellegrino "Latin America's 50 Best Restaurants" list. But Venezuela, wracked by political and economic strife, has been a challenging place to live, much less run a restaurant. Like many others fortunate enough to have the opportunity, Garcia found a second home here in Miami, opening a restaurant in Brickell, Obra Kitchen Table, last year.

Despite everything happening at home, Garcia has managed to keep Alto open while running Obra here – no easy feat amidst protests, government clampdowns, and food shortages. He also helps operate Barriga Llena Corazón Contento (Full Belly Happy Heart), an organization that supplies free meals to children in Venezuela, and Recipes for Change, which teams up local chefs, farmers and others to serve people in need here in South Florida. Somewhere in there, he found time to put on a dinner for Cobaya, gathering thirty diners around the counter at Obra for a seven-course dinner.[1]

(You can see all my pictures in this Cobaya Obra with Chef Carlos Garcia flickr set).

I really love the layout at Obra, where there's a smattering of tables in front, but the bulk of the seating is at a long, three-sided counter that surrounds the open kitchen, a variation on the sort of horseshoe type counter you would find in old diners like S&S.

Chef Garcia started the meal with some snacks: a puffy arepita topped with sea urchin and guasacaca sauce (a Venezuelan staple that I think of as either a salsa verde bolstered with avocado, or a very loose guacamole), and some feathery, crisp chicharrones for scooping up a cauliflower cream enriched with a generous dollop of trout roe. A great start.

To follow, a whole Japanese eggplant (here's where you can make an entirely appropriate use of the 🍆 emoji), basted in beet juice and red wine before being roasted until it's all supple and silky inside. The menu listed this as "eggplant + goat cheese + red wine," but those toasts were instead topped with foie gras butter – a substitution I fully support. While foie often gets matched up with sweet, fruity flavors, I really enjoy when it gets to play with more savory, vegetal elements.

Chef Garcia called his tostone a "toast/ton," which he then topped with ribbons of fresh raw tuna, avocado, jalapeño, and a spicy guava sauce.

(continued ...)

Tranches of rich, sticky coconut rice were crisped on their edges for some textural contrast, and served with grilled kumamoto oysters in a pool or spicy piri-piri sauce.

This roasted red snapper, served over two-tone pools of shishito butter and herbaceous green sauce, was one of the highlights of the night for me, a really clean, delicate fish that was perked up but not overwhelmed by its accompaniments.

Chef Garcia brought around this massive osso buco before breaking it down for individual servings, the braised beef practically collapsing into a pool of its own juices, plated with an arracacha purée (an Andean root vegetable with a taste and texture reminiscent of celery root) and topped with freshly shaved Australian winter truffles.

For dessert, a "sweet club sandwich" with crispy, caramelized tuiles as the bread, a creamy chocolate cremoso and slivered strawberry sandwiched within, and a bubble of airy, tangy mousse (passionfruit?) alongside.

What I particularly enjoyed about Chef Garcia's cooking is his balance between old and new. His food is grounded in traditional Venezuelan dishes and ingredients, but not bound by them.[2] So mini-arepas are a vehicle for sea urchin, tostones get topped with raw tuna, a purple-hued eggplant will show up with some foie gras, and Garcia makes it all work together in a way that's light and bright but still hearty and satisfying.

Chef Garcia has a great team working with him at Obra, including sous chefs Estefania Andrade and Mauricio Morales, pastry chef Maria Laura Aguirre, and GM Maria Alejandra Felizola, all of whom made this a really enjoyable night. A big thank you to Chef Garcia and the whole team at Obra, and as always most of all, to the guinea pigs whose interest and support make these events possible.

Obra Kitchen Table
1331 Brickell Bay Drive, Miami, Florida

[1] It has been a while since we've done a "Cobaya for a Cause" and I'm kicking myself now for not using this one as an opportunity to help support Chef Garcia's efforts through Recipes for Change. You can still do so by following and supporting their events and activities.

[2] Garcia worked in some of Spain's most cutting edge restaurants – el Bulli, Celler de Can Roca, and Mugaritz – before going back to Caracas to open Alto.

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