Sunday, April 25, 2010

Midnight Cobaya dinner at Sakaya Kitchen

I had hoped to get this post up yesterday, but I forgot to bring my notes to work and had little downtime to do the write up anyway. In the meantime, Frod has posted his coverage of the dinner which rather blows mine away in its detail. Please go read that for an accurate description of the dishes and the events and come back here for what I thought about it.
Saturday night, or quite early Sunday morning rather, forty or so Cobaya folks gathered at Sakaya Kitchen for a midnight meal.

The chef, Richard Hales, offered two appetizers off his regular menu, created five new dishes for the occasion and sent us off with a cookies made by his wife.

I haven't been, but I'm told that Sakaya's daytime incarnation is something of a fast food joint. This full-house (the tables you see pushed together here had to be pulled back apart to add place settings to accomodate the crowd) multi-course banquet-style event was quite a departure. That makes the deft operation of both the kitchen and the waitstaff (who were all putting in overtime after a full day's work) all the more remarkable. Kudos and sizable tips deserved all the way around.

Here's the menu; click to blow it up to legibility.

First up were Filipino egg rolls, a.k.a. lumpia, filled with shrimp, pork, green beans and, no doubt, a few more things. I think I detected some cabbage in there. Chef Hales said that this is a variation on his grandmother (the titular "Papa")'s recipe. It was pretty popular at least at my end of the table and I did like them myself, but I thought, although the wrapper was light and crisp, it was also overly greasy and the filling was a bit flat without the vinegar sauce to perk it up. Take this in the context that I judge all lumpia against fabulous ones made by the grandmother of a bandmate back when I lived in San Diego and nothing matches up against the glorified memory of a grandmother's cooking even if it isn't your own.

Next up, a pork bun that Chef Hales insists he did not rip off from Momofuko. Well, steam engines happen at steam engine time so pork buns must happen at pork bun time too. This particular one, he explained, is a 40-hour bun from the time it takes to cure the pork, make the pickles and all four sauces involved in-house. He said that brought his fine dining background to build flavors in this dish and I think you could see that in the fine balance of surprisingly subtle opposing flavors. The pork wasn't nearly as bold as the pork belly we'd have later and that let the sweet sauce and sour pickle stand out against it. You could even get hints of the ginger scallion sauce. Lots of different textures working together in there too.

The first of the original dishes was garlic shrimp over chive flower soba noodles. Frod has a link to the rather interesting Laughing Bird farm where the shrimp came from if you're interested. As for the dish itself, the shrimp were flavorful and sweet, enhanced but not swamped by the garlic butter. The sweetness was couterpointed nicely by the pungent and slightly bitter scallion and chive sauce on the al dente noodles. To my mind it needed a touch more salt to make the flavors pop, but otherwise a lovely dish that suckered us into filling up on carbs before three more main-course-sized dishes came our way.

Next up, a bucket of crisp-fried sweetbreads and beautifully glazed crunchy frogs legs. And a couple cucumber flowers too. The folks at my corner of the room were a bit trepedatious, but both components were very accessible. The sweetbreads had just a slight gaminess to them and a creamy texture. The spicy/sweet sauce on the frogs legs also worked well with the sweetbreads (which Chef Hales said was the prompt to put them together in this dish). Under that sauce, the frogs legs weren't notably froggy, just meaty, but that was just fine by me. Getting the meat off the bones was a messy endeavor, but I found that you could eat the smaller pieces whole. I kind of liked the crunch that added too.

Next course, a quail over Chinese broccoli with tsitsaron (a.k.a. chicarone). The quail was beautifully flavored on its own from the marinade and grill, but paired with the sweet vinegary sauce and the fresh flavor of the broccoli, it moved up to another level. The tsitsaron were nice enough, but they got mushy in the sauce and didn't really add anything to the other two components. I understand the desire to add some pork to any given greens, but this dish didn't need it. They didn't detract either, though, so this was still my favorite dish of the night.

This next dish is just cruel to give to customers who are already stuffed over-full. I can't eat another bite, but how am I supposed to resist this? That's pork belly over coconut rice with crispy bone marrow and roasted baby carrots. The pork belly was more a slab of meat than the melting fat you might be imagining, although that aspect was more than amply taken care of by the marrow. The intense meaty/salty/fatty of those two (and the sweetness of the Vietnamese-style caramel sauce) was cut by the cool creaminess of the rice. It's hard to see in my somewhat over-exposed picture but the rice was so full of coconut cream it was almost rice pudding. The carrots were more than a little overdone, but I always go for the crispy dried out bits when I've got roasted root vegetables so I didn't mind at all. The crunchiness was good with the other textures. I liked the dish, but it was a bit difficult to handle with the utensils available and really heavy for this late in the meal.

Nearly done. Next is an oyster pajeon. The pancake seemed less eggy than more traditional Korean pajeon's I've had, plus less stuffed with add ins, with the oyster raw on top instead of cooked in. This is a classic combination for a reason; a lovely little bite that I still couldn't finish.

And finally, we were given paper bags with chocolate chocolate chip cookies, made by the Chef's wife, to take home. I neglected to get a picture, I'm afraid. This sort of cookie's not really my thing so I'm going to withold judgement. Perhaps someone will say something about it in the comments.

Of the various Slow Food, Cobaya and other such dinner events I've been to in Miami, this was undoubtedly my favorite. None of the others meals combined this level of creativity with sustained yumminess, beautiful presentation and impeccable service. Oh, and the understated but pervasive local, sustainable, etc. aspect was important too. I suppose the general excess of it all goes a little against that ethos, but what the heck, too much of so many good things is hard to get upset about.


LaDivaCucina said...

Well aren't you guys so sneaky and cheeky going to munch at midnight?! I don't think I could eat that much that late myself! Still want to get here for Dim Sum on Sunday.

Why didn't you come and say hi to me at the demo? I saw you and then, poof, you were gone. You are so shy! Thanks for your feedback on my blog.

LaDivaCucina said...

Ok, came back to spy on that pork bun again......

billjac said...

Sorry about not saying hi. I'm not so good with the socializing. I'm trying to work on it but if I've got an excuse, like having a panel I need to run off to prepare for, I'll take it.

As for the sneakiness. These are sort of underground dinners. Sneakiness is part of the fun.

billjac said...

Chef Hales mentioned that he wants to have a food cart just for the pork buns. I can't a imagine a 40-hours-to-make/40-seconds-to-eat ratio is going to make for a viable business, but it would be great while it lasted.

LaDivaCucina said...

Yes, so many good food ideas, so little viability. I know first hand...