Sunday, September 22, 2019

Cobaya Taymor at Three

For Cobaya Experiment #78, we had an out-of-town chef who came to Miami to immerse himself in the local flavors. For Experiment #79 earlier this month, we had sort of the converse: Ari Taymor, of Santa Monica's Little Prince, brought some Southern California to South Florida for our dinner at Three in Wynwood, where he is doing a stint as "guest chef." Two different approaches: two great meals.

(You can see all my pictures in this Cobaya Taymor at Three flickr set).

For someone who is still on the front end of his career, Taymor's path has already taken plenty of twists and turns. The California native was fired from his first cooking job, as an extern at Susanne Goin's Lucques, but later made his way into some of San Francisco's best kitchens – Flour + Water, Bar Tartine, as well as a half-year stint at La Chassagnette in Arles, France. Taymor returned to L.A. to open his first restaurant, Alma, in 2012. The tiny, 8-table spot started as a pop-up, and was built and operated on a shoestring. It was also beloved by critics and food media, getting named Bon Appetit's "Best New Restaurant in America" the next year. But success is a fickle mistress, and despite the accolades, the restaurant struggled financially, was beset by litigation, and had trouble filling seats, possibly a victim of the "Nobody goes there any more, it's too crowded" mentality. Taymor has spoken openly about the physical and psychological toll, too, which included an emergency room visit with a bleeding ulcer.[1]

By 2015, Alma in its original incarnation had closed. It resurfaced for a time as a pop-up in the Standard Hotel in West Hollywood, until Taymor decided he didn't want to run a hotel restaurant. So he pivoted once again. Little Prince began as a weekends-only brunch pop-up, inspired by the all-day cafés he saw during a visit to Australia, and a year later, it now has a permanent home in Santa Monica.

Clearly, Taymor is a restless spirit: who comes to Miami in the middle of the summer to cook in someone else's restaurant? But that's exactly what he did, partnering up with Three restaurant in Wynwood to do some special menus, dinners and cooking classes. Our Cobaya group had just made a  visit to Three almost exactly a year ago, where one of my culinary heroes, Norman Van Aken, cooked for us. We made a return visit to see what Ari Taymor was up to.

To start, baked oysters with braised bacon, camouflaged underneath a blanket of frothy, creamy smoked potatoes, red veined sorrel giving a pop of color and tartness.

Next, thinly shaved slivers of Col. Bill Newsom's country ham, plated with curled ribbons of cucumber, juicy melons, creamy burrata, fresh herbs and a pink peppercorn vinaigrette. This was deceptively simple – a riff on prosciutto and melon, after all – but compulsively good eating, balancing salty, sweet, fat, and acid with some vegetal crunch.

(continued ...)

Pacific hiramasa was served in thick slices, plated with some heirloom tomatoes and a broth mingling a jus from the fish bones with the juices from the tomatoes, and garnished simply with some Thai basil leaves. The minimalist cooking – the fish just barely warmed on the wood grill, still essentially raw, like block-cut sashimi, but slightly firmed up from the heat and with a whiff of smoke – highlighted the yellowtail's inherent fattiness. I loved the purity and simplicity here.

Fat octopus tentacles also went on the grill, and then were sliced and paired up while still warm with crisp fingerling potatoes and wispy fronds of frisée, all pulled together by the deep, funky bass note of a ruddy black garlic purée.

And then the knockout blow: whole lamb shoulders from Jamison Farm, roasted and grilled over the wood fire, topped with a black vinegar chimichurri and a prom night corsage's worth of fresh herbs. The Jamisons run a family farm in Ligonier, Pennsylvania which provides some of the finest lamb you will ever eat. Taymor's preparation would have made them proud. This was one of the best things I've eaten all year.

I'm not usually big on desserts, and even less so on cake type things, but this one hit all the right spots for me. The chocolate buckwheat torte was not too sweet, instead highlighting more bitter, woodsy flavors, and had a really delightful texture, somehow rich and airy at the same time, instead of either cloyingly dense or insipidly fluffy. It was topped with a thickly whipped almond-scented cream, with a scoop of rosy plum sherbet riding sidecar.

It's interesting (to me, anyway) to compare and contrast the meal that Taymor served with the one that Jose Ramirez-Ruiz put together for Experiment #78. They are both outsiders to South Florida, Ramirez-Ruiz a Brooklyner and Taymor a Californian. But Ramirez-Ruiz has already spent months here getting to know the local products and seasons, and his menu found creative new uses for locally grown ingredients like plantain, moringa, yuca, avocado, papaya and mango, and snapper from local waters. Taymor's, on the other hand, tasted a lot like he'd brought summer in Southern California along with him in a duffel bag: melons, tomatoes, plums, Pacific hiramasa. Not to say that one is better than the other – a peach from the Ferry Building farmers market I had while in San Francisco last month may have been the best thing I ate all year – just very different experiences, which is exactly what we shoot for when we put together these dinners.

If you like what you see here, you can try a good bit of it yourself while Taymor's "guest chef" menu is still running at Three. And if you'd like to learn to make some of it yourself, he's doing a cooking class at "In the Kitchen" – right next door to Three – on October 2 that will include a lamb saddle and that chocolate buckwheat torte.

A big thank you – and welcome to Miami! – to Chef Taymor, and also to chef Jeffrey Brana at Three for all his work in putting this together and making it run so well, to Three executive chef Brian Vaughn, pastry chef Karla Hernandez, sommelier Jean-Baptiste Barre for some great pours throughout the night, co-owners Candace Walsh and Susan Buckley, and to the whole crew at Three for a great evening, and as always most of all, to the guinea pigs whose interest and support make these events possible.

50 NW 24th Street, Miami, Florida

Little Prince
2424 Main Street, Santa Monica, California

[1] I can't help but think of the career trajectory of Jeremy Fox, who Taymor counts as one of his mentors. Fox was also a critical darling early in his career for his gorgeously ornate, vegetable-forward work at Ubuntu in Napa: in 2008, the New York Times named it the second-best new restaurant in the country, Food & Wine named him a "Best New Chef."  But a combination of financial pressures, crippling anxiety, attention deficit disorder, and addiction to prescription drugs was taking its toll behind the scenes, and he left Ubuntu not long after. His name would come up occasionally in connection with a new opening, only to pull out shortly after, and he'd occasionally surface to do a pop-up here or there, but Fox mostly disappeared from the restaurant world for a while. In 2013 he found his footing again – getting into psychotherapy, getting off the drugs, and finding the right spot as chef at Rustic Canyon in Santa Monica, which its owners wanted to be "the best neighborhood restaurant in America." (I've been there a few times and it very well may be exactly that, a wonderful combination of outstanding, ingredient-driven food in a relaxed, unfussy format), and has now gone on to open Birdie G's, a sort of dream restaurant for him that combines California cuisine, Jewish deli and Midwestern supper club. (It will be among the first places I visit next trip to L.A.). Fox is very candid in talking about his battles, and will be the first to tell you that these kind of issues don't simply go away with the tap of a wand. But he writes in his book "On Vegetables" (which is also outstanding) that he's achieved "emotional awareness," the ability to recognize the signs before it's too late. All of which is to say: "success" isn't always what it's cracked up to be, and you need to take care of yourself before you can take care of others. For more reading and resources, Kat Kinsman's "Chefs With Issues" is a great place to start.

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