Monday, September 30, 2013

Cobaya Tea Party with Chef Antonio Bachour

The first time I sampled pastry chef Antonio Bachour's work was at a Cobaya dinner with Chef Jeremiah Bullfrog a couple years ago. We'd held the event in a warehouse in Little Haiti which, among other challenges, didn't have the greatest air conditioning. It was probably nearly 90° in the dining room and at least ten degrees warmer in the "kitchen." Not exactly ideal conditions, and yet Bachour, with a big fan blowing in a back room, plated some absolutely exquisite desserts, even managing to turn out perfect quenelles of green apple sorbet among about a dozen other elements on the plate.

At the time, Bachour was working at the W South Beach, and the word was that he would be pastry chef at The Dutch when it opened in a few months. Instead, he took his talents to the St. Regis Bal Harbour and the very talented Josh Gripper came to the Dutch - a win-win for Miami diners.

Bachour is an incredible talent. We knew that we'd want to find a way for him to do his own Cobaya event, but the prospect of an all-desserts meal was a bit daunting. And then Mrs. F provided the inspiration: why not do an afternoon tea? It was perfect. We had a weekend afternoon event for a change of pace, with a combination of savory and sweet components, following at least loosely in the format of a traditional tea service.

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

The St. Regis provided a beautiful venue - a lounge area in the resort - and their typical over-the-top service - sabered champagne, free-flowing mimosas, even some live music. And Bachour, with a savory assist from hotel chef Tom Parlo, provided an equally over-the-top menu.

To start, a golden egg, filled with a couple more kinds of eggs: a creamy egg salad, laid over a puddle of cucumber gelee, topped with a generous dollop of caviar. This was a delicious, indulgent few bites, fully worthy of its ornate presentation.

Next, a round of tender scones with berry jam, citrus curd and clotted cream - very classical.

A platter of savory tea sandwiches was classical in format, but modernized in the execution. It included a hearty smorrebrod with a miniature composed nicoise salad (tuna, cherry tomatoes, green beans, olives and a quail egg); a savory eclair filled with cream cheese and topped with a ribbon of smoked salmon and a salmon macaron; a burrata salad assembled over shortbread with dried tomatoes, basil and balsamic caviar; a perfect mini lobster roll tucked into a brioche bun; and a cornet filled with curried chicken salad, topped with a crisp dried strawberry.

Then it was time for a rather unbridled dessert presentation - probably more than 20 different sweet compositions assembled by Chef Bachour, on a buffet that seemed to go on forever and was replenished as rapidly as it was depleted. I don't think I managed to get pictures and descriptions of everything, much less sample them all, but here's a faithful attempt:

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Friday, September 6, 2013

Blanca - Brooklyn, New York

"People take pictures of each other
Just to prove that they really existed."
A couple years ago, reports began to emanate of a second kitchen at Roberta's, a funky "third wave" pizzeria in deep Brooklyn. Roberta's chef Carlo Mirarchi was already turning out acclaimed pizzas. But this was something else - delicate fish crudos and composed dishes, "fantastical tales of aged birds and beef." Soon the mainstream media caught up, and word was out on these extremely limited edition tasting menus.

Demand ultimately led to a separate venue inside the Roberta's compound for these dinners, dubbed Blanca. Since opening about a year ago, Blanca has become known for a number of things: its artful, extensive, and expensive (currently $195pp) tasting menus; its extreme dry-aged meats program (not "fantastical" after all); its location in Bushwick (Roberta's is on a "grim street" in "basically a frontier community," according to Alan Richman, though Ruth Reichl didn't find it nearly so desolate recently); its extremely limited seating (12 spots, two seatings a night); its obtuse reservation "system" (since fixed);[1] and its no-photos no-cellphones policy.

Some of these are more important to me than others. I'll travel pretty far - even Bushwick[2] - and navigate a pretty tricky reservation system if there's something great to eat at the end of the ordeal. And as someone who started off this blogging venture with very ambivalent feelings about photography, I never really imagined that not being able to take pictures would have any impact on my enjoyment of a meal.

And yet I find myself now with ambivalent feelings about our meal a few months ago at Blanca, and I wonder if the no-photos policy has anything to do with it. I have vivid recollections of only a handful of the 20-ish courses we were served. Many others are only fuzzy vague memories; and some I don't recall at all.

Do people take pictures of their food just to prove that it existed? Does a dish no longer exist to me if I don't have a picture of it? Have I so externalized my own brain functions that I can no longer clearly remember something if I've not digitally recorded it somewhere? Or was it something else about the Blanca dining experience?

Here's what I do recall:

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Sunday, August 25, 2013

gastroLab Dinner with Chef Jeremiah

There's a difference between "clever" and "smart."[1] Clever may make you giggle. Smart makes you think. The difference is sometimes overlooked in what was called "molecular gastronomy" five years ago, then was redubbed "modernist cuisine" a couple years back, and now, according to ponderous dipshit shnorrer John Mariani, is already passé. Some of the criticism is fair: in manipulating form and texture, and disregarding flavor, some chefs were more clever than smart. Just because you can do something doesn't mean you should do something - in particular, it doesn't mean it tastes better.

Going back to one of our first Cobaya events, I've enjoyed several dinners with Chef Jeremiah Bullfrog (perhaps better known as the pilot of the gastroPod food truck) over the years. His latest "gastroLab" dinner was the smartest meal I've had with him - one where everything on the plate had purpose and focus, one where the thought behind each item translated into flavor.

(You can see all my pictures from this meal in this gastroLab flickr set).

The site for the dinner was the new location of GAB Studio Art Gallery in Wynwood, and Jeremiah pulled the gastroPod right inside to serve as the kitchen.

The meal started with a procession of snacks, served communally on a big wooden plank. Crispy chicken foot chicharrones used the skin from deboned chicken feet - someone must have doing a lot of chicken toenail trimming. Toast squares were topped with a creamy, rich duck liver mousse. And morcilla and eggs - something of a recurring theme with Chef Jeremiah - came with the blood sausage in two forms - in puffy, chicharrone-like morcilla-tapioca crisps, and more traditionally in the meaty, creamy, loose sausage that filled them, dabbed with a rich egg yolk jam.

Borscht has always seemed like something of an oxymoron to me - a cold, refreshing soup, but also a hearty meat stew. Jeremiah's "Watermelon Borscht" played off both those angles but focused mostly on the former. Cubed watermelon was compressed with beet juice to yield a cool, juicy bite with an undertone of the earthy root vegetable, as well as a stunning ruby hue. Meanwhile a ribbon of whipped bone marrow and a "rare beef jus" (rare because the beef was cooked sous vide to keep its color) dropped the meaty bass note onto the plate, with strands of pickled cabbage and dehydrated beet "streusel tied into the theme too. A multitude of textures instead of a simple puréed soup, but with the same happy interplay of flavors. (More complete explanations of several dishes are on Jeremiah's blog - the watermelon borscht is here).

Next, the South meets the Tropics with fried green carambola. We've all heard of fried green tomatoes. Well, unlike the rest of the country, summer isn't tomato season in South Florida. But we do still get carambola a/k/a starfruit, and often they're less than perfectly ripe.[2] So Jeremiah took the unripe carambola and treated it like a green tomato - compressed them with ricotta whey, coated them with semolina and fried them, yielding a similar texture and tartness to the classic southern staple. This was paired with house-made goat's milk ricotta (wherefrom the ricotta whey), Georgia peaches pickled in rice wine vinegar and then charred, and a radish green for a little zing. Entirely unexpected - entirely successful, the kind of dish that sounds unlikely until you taste it.

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