If you're not failing, you're not trying hard enough. -- Sriram Krishnan
Last night at the Chow Down Grill, chef Joshua Marcus was trying plenty hard.
Since I haven't written up a Cobaya dinner in a while, I should probably explain that these are experimental dinners with chefs preparing set menus, generally made up of untested new recipes, for a crowd brought in by Frodnesor of the Food for Thought blog. Chef Marcus laid out eleven dishes for an over-full house which would be an impressive feat even if he was working off his usual menu. Trying out new dishes on this crowd makes him, and most-all of the Cobaya chefs, braver than I. It was, as I said, an experiment which means not everything is going to work, but a goodly percentage did and is worth applauding.
I think this is the first write-up to get posted, but Frod and Paula from Mango & Lime both have their photos up already. It looks like they used their flashes so their pics mainly came out better than mine. You might want to go over and take a look if you can't make out what you're seeing here. Frod usually puts up a post with more insight into the dinner as an event and inside info about how the dishes were prepared within a few days so you might check over there to see if it's up yet too. I'm going to just concentrate on the food and what I thought of it, and, since we're talking about eleven dishes I'm going to be pretty brisk about it.
Course 1 - Bird's Nest Soup
Made with squab instead of the traditional chicken broth and accompanied by the restaurant's first batch of house-made soy sauce made by sous chef Jason. The soup was deliberately under-seasoned to highlight the elevating effects of the soy sauce which did indeed perk it right up. But the soy sauce was so good, with a mild well-rounded flavor, that the best spoonful was when I tried a little on its own. The sauces were standouts all night long, really.
Course 2 - Monkfish Liver with Aji Panca Sauce
I found the liver itself to be a bit overcooked which gave it an canned-tuna edge to the flavor and a rubberiness to the texture, but the spicy-sweet citrusy sauce covered just the right bits while leaving the liver's roasty-savory finish. When eaten all together (along with a toast point), quite successful.
Course 3 - Giant Pacific Oyster with Habañero-Pickled Cauliflower and Pike Roe Caviar
I'm a minimalist when it comes to oysters so I found this one over-accessorized (and a little over-cooked), but the tartness of the soy-citrus sauce and of the pickle do complement it if used in moderation. I preferred separating out the cauliflower which was quite nice with just a touch each of the soy-citrus and oyster liquor.
Course 4 & 5 - Sweetbread Dumplings with Carrot Wrapper and Squab Bao
There was a bit of a timing issue with this course and the dumplings had been cooling a little while before they got to me. My sweetbreads were a little undercooked and the wrappers kind of soggy and chewy. But if you're going to use eggroll wrappers, you're going for kind of trashy so soggy and chewy is appropriate, right? A great match for the house-made duck sauce.
The bao I've got no complaints with. Most bao skimp on the fillings and use cheap meat covered with disguising sauces, but this one had plenty of mildly seasoned squab and a thin layer of dough for a good balance of straightforwardly flavorful components. Very nice indeed.
Course 6 - Baby Octopus with Soy Beans and Spicy Sauce
The spicy sauce was made with fermented black beans and chewy dried shrimp and was pretty darn good with the crunchy soy beans. The octopus was impeccably tender, but very bland, which is a shame as I think it would have worked well with the sauce if it was more flavorful.
Course 7 - Beef Tataki with Bamboo Shoots and Cucumber
That's dry aged rib-eye seared and sliced rather too thick for my tastes so my experience was more like eating chunks of rare steak (which I'd rather not) than what I'm looking for in a tataki. It was also quite mildly flavored so the pickled vegetables were pretty much all I could taste.
Course 8 - Sea Urchin Lo Mein with Caviar
The sea urchin sauce was unevenly mixed with the lo mein. I and the fellow on my right could barely taste it while the folks on my left raved over it's flavor. The hints I got seemed pretty good, though.
Course 9 - Baby Abalone with Sea Beans and Cat's Grandma's Avocado
This was, I think, the best composed dish of the evening all laid out pretty and with a pleasant balance of flavors. I wouldn't have imagined avocado going well with abalone, particularly not Florida avocado, but there you go. There were some textural issues though. My abalone was very tough and the avocado was fairly firm too. I had a lot of difficulty getting up the slices of abalone onto my fork and cutting the avocado without everything falling into the salt the shell was nestled.
Course 10 - Buddha Jumps Over the Wall with Sea Cucumber and House-Made XO Sauce
Here again, the sauce was the stand-out aspect of the dish. I was surprised to enjoy the notoriously-off-putting gelatinous texture of the sea cucumber more than the meltingly soft leek. The black trumpet mushrooms were better than both, though.
Course 11 - Five-Spice White Chocolate Ganache with Walnuts, Jackfruit
We were instructed to top this dessert with a few drops of Sriracha which was a very good idea. It provided acid to cut the richness and anyone who's read my history of ice cream recipes knows I'm fond of a little spice with my sweets. I particularly liked how the combination brought out the fruity flavors in the hot sauce. I will be stealing this idea.
And that's the lot. Now that I've gone over it all, I think it was more successful than not. My thanks to the chef and all the Chow Down staff for their efforts and to Frodnesor for putting the evening together. If anyone else who was there has read this far, what did you think?