Friday, August 23, 2019

Cobaya Isabela with Chef Jose Ramirez-Ruiz

Sometimes it takes an outsider to see the things you don't always see in yourself.

José Ramirez-Ruiz was a New Yorker through and through. He refined his cooking skills at some of the city's top restaurants – Per Se, Chef's Table at Brooklyn Fare, Isa – before going out on his own in 2012 with a pop-up in Williamsburg called "Chez José." Chez José eventually ripened into a full-blown restaurant called Semilla in late 2014. Despite its diminutive size – there was only seating for 18 around a U-shaped counter, and the staff consisted of a grand total of two cooks and two servers – Semilla earned accolades disproportionate to its stature. Pete Wells praised its vegetable-forward tasting menus in a two-star New York Times review in early 2015,[1] Eater's Ryan Sutton issued a glowing four-star review a couple months later, naming Semilla "New York's Next Great Restaurant,"[2] Eater's Bill Addison included it in his "21 Best New Restaurants in America," Bon Appetit included it in its top 10 "Best New Restaurants of 2015," and by that fall, Michelin awarded the restaurant a star.

But Semilla was not built to last – Ramirez-Ruiz's partner Pamela Yung, who handled Semilla's highly regarded breads and desserts, left late the following year, and by March of 2017 the restaurant was closed. In the aftermath, Ramirez-Ruiz found his way down to Miami on a corporate consulting gig. Fortunately for us, he's decided to stick around for a while, and recently has devoted himself full-time to opening a new restaurant – Isabela – in Little Haiti. Earlier this month, we got him to do a dinner with our Cobaya group that provided a preview of what's to come.

(You can see all my pictures from the dinner in this Cobaya Isabela with Chef Jose Ramirez-Ruiz flickr set).

Unlike many out-of-town chefs who have rolled into Miami like emperors visiting the backwards colonies, Ramirez-Ruiz arrived with humility and curiosity:

I am often asked: Why did I move to Miami? Truthfully? It is a complicated answer... but I will say what sold me (and @madreselvamia ) on it was the #10B growing region. A region like no other in the continental USA. A place that owes nothing to the seafood, vegetables or fruits from anywhere else. A place so unique that makes you look no further than your own backyard when trying to find inspiration. A place with so much potential that I even struggle to articulate. A place that often makes me feel like I know nothing about ingredients. A feeling that I can only compare to the way I felt 18 years ago when I first stepped into a profesional kitchen and knew nothing about food. — I will most likely never know how it feels to change careers, but I will say that moving to the 305 is probably as close as I will get to start from 0. All though very challenging, I fucking love it. — Success is a journey, not a destination. The doing is often more important than the outcome. - Arthur Ashe — 📸: mango/lychee, mamey/bitter nut, papaya/lime.
A post shared by Jose Ramirez (@chezjosebk) on

The result is a unique and fresh take on Miami's subtropical "local flora and fauna," as Ramirez-Ruiz puts it. He uses ingredients we're all familiar with – mangoes and papaya and plantains and yuca – but in new and inspired ways we haven't necessary seen before.

While he works on getting Isabela off the ground, a nearby space at Little River Miami played host for our dinner. I've now been here for a few different things – Eat Here Now's Friday lunches, Scott Linquist's Chivo! goat barbacoa – and while it's pretty bare-bones at the moment, the space also has some great potential. Lots of foliage from plant and floral designer Madre Selva, which keeps a studio nearby, helped soften the rough edges.

Ramirez-Ruiz started things off with a round of snacks, all brought out to the tables at once: delicate little mussels swimming in paprika-laced oil with sautéed onions, in the style of the wonderful canned seafood conservas of Spain and Portugal; flat-out delicious green olives stuffed with shrimp paste and warmed in the wood oven; rounds of fresh cheese also roasted in the oven and doused in a lemon vinaigrette, a sort of saganaki minus the flaming tableside presentation; some Wigwam country ham from Edwards Smokehouse;[3] and freshly baked sourdough bread, served with an army-green moringa butter. I've been told that moringa doesn't have a lot of flavor on its own, so maybe there was something else in here, but it had an intriguing, vegetal thing going on that I kept on coming back to for more.

I'd been to Ramirez-Ruiz's pop-up dinners at All Day and Jaguar Sun, and each time he'd served some variation on this dish: a creamy plantain soup, with melting comté cheese and crispy plantain "crunchies." It eats like a crazy hybrid of a Caribbean sopa de platano and a French onion soup, and this was possibly my favorite iteration.

(continued ...)

Ramirez-Ruiz's cooking is often described as "vegetable forward," so it's hard to know if it was coincidence or intentionality that the vegetable platters arrived first in the next round of dishes, all served family-style. I'd had this carrot dish before at the Jaguar Sun pop-up and loved it: rounds of carrot cooked until tender but not limp, under a blanket of fresh herbs, seeds and spices, and concealing beneath them a layer of creamy, rich yogurt. There was a time – circa 2013-2015, according to my notes – that it seemed like everyone was serving some variation on carrots + yogurt. I was into it then, I'm still into it now when it pops with these flavors.

Yuca is a starchy Caribbean staple which is typically either fried or boiled into submission. Nothing wrong with either of those. Nothing wrong with this version either, the batons of yuca cooked through until tender but not to that point of slippery unction that you often find with yuca con mojo. The batons were paired with slivers of silky avocado (one of the few good things to come of South Florida summers), and lots of purple onion and lime juice.

I said "vegetable-forward." I did not say "vegetarian." And in fact, the two large-format fish and pork dishes were among my favorites of the evening. The local snapper was butterflied, stuffed with sweet crabmeat, roasted in the wood-burning oven, and doused with a tangy sweet papaya vinaigrette speckled with peppery papaya seeds, then showered with fresh herbs. I will confess that I rarely get all that excited over the whole family of cooked, flaky, white-fleshed fish, but this was just an outstanding dish.

The burnished, thick-sliced pork roast, also cooked in the wood oven,[4] was stuffed with a plantain mash, but the real highlight here was the pork itself, a richly flavored Berkshire tasting like an animal that had lived a good life. I wish I'd brought a few more bones home to gnaw the next day.

Dessert was something of a Rorsach test: some people saw an Italian rice pudding, others saw a Jewish rice pudding, I thought of Thai sticky rice with mango, particularly with the addition of a spinkle of black sesame powder. In any event, it was a satisfying conclusion to the meal, highlighting some sticky-sweet back-end of the season mangoes.

I was so happy that Cobaya was able to give Ramirez-Ruiz something of a trial run for his upcoming restaurant, and am excited to see what he will do with a full kitchen and crew. A big thank you to Chef Ramirez-Ruiz, to all of his crew, to Little River Miami for the space, to Madre Selva for all the greenery, and as always most of all, to the guinea pigs whose interest and support make these events possible.

[1There's a wonderful thread running through Wells' review about how the tasting menu format gives chefs an opportunity to "shelter" oddball dishes that might not ever survive on an a la carte menu "so their customers can taste dishes that weren’t concocted to please the marketplace," "the way the government might protect nests built by the gentle piping plover by banning four-wheel drive vehicles from the beach."

[2] Sutton hit on the same thought as Wells in his review, placing Semilla in the same family as the "Parisian-style neo-bistrot" like Inaki Aizpitarte's Le Chateaubriand and  Bertrand Grebaut's Septime, and analogizing their tasting menu format to a full-length album: "The neo-bistrot is why you buy the album instead of the single. And as is the case with any album, you won’t enjoy every song at Semilla, so to speak. (A restaurant that’s doing everything right probably isn’t risking enough.)"

[3] You can read a good story about Edwards' country hams here, taken from an article that appeared in Garden & Gun magazine in 2011.

[4] I can probably stop saying this – there's not a real kitchen to speak of at Little River right now, so pretty much everything was cooked in the wood-burning oven.

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