Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Cobaya dinner at Azul

My apologies to those who tuned in for your weekly dose of CSA dissatisfaction and regret. You'll have to come back tomorrow for that. Today, I've got my write-up of last night's Cobaya dinner at Azul in the Mandarin Oriental hotel.

The event was filmed for the Bizarre Foods television series (unless Zimmerman's got another hosting gig I don't know about. The dinner wasn't particularly bizarre, but I haven't seen more than 15 minutes of the show so I don't know how closely it sticks to its remit.) but it wasn't disruptive at all so far as I could tell. The production crew did take notice of my note-taking and asked if they could film me, but I declined and apologize for depriving you of breathless footage of blogging action. On the plus side, the room was all lit up for the cameras so you'll be getting better photos here.

We started with a couple cocktails concocted by the executive chef Joel Huff. First up was a champagne cocktail with green tea and Asian pear. It started blah, but the flavors came through as it warmed up. Sencha nose, fuity roundness and champagne bitterness. Not bad, but no real improvement over a decent glass of plain champagne to my mind. I didn't catch the multitude of ingredients that made up the second cocktail. Huff demoed how to make it, but the scrum of photographers was too thick for me to get near the front and I feel like a fool holding my camera overhead like a paparazzo. I can tell that that's frozen mint spuma on top, though. I'm no cocktail connoisseur, so I found it a whole lot of effort to make fruit punch. I do like the touch of vanilla, though. Perhaps there were subtleties lost on me.

After the drinks it was time to get seated. It's a nice space. The overly numerous and solicitous waitstaff made me rather uncomfortable. A sign of my lack of class, I'm certain, but I can put my own napkin on my lap, thank you. As we waited for the first course, We got a basket of some really tasty house-baked breads--crisp and slightly warm. The olive bread is especially nice as it is redolent of sweet olive oil.

That first course was uni from Santa Barbara topped with a little fresh horseradish and sorbet made of monstera from Paradise Farms. I enjoyed the separate components, but the whole was much less than the parts. The sweet bubblegum flavor of the monstera makes great sorbet, but with uni? Ech. Maybe if there was more than a couple bites I would have figured it out, but it just did not work right off the bat and that's the only chance it had.

The second course was a pumpkin swordfish tataki. Apparently, "pumpkin" is the variety of swordfish as well as three different components on the plate. There's crisp fried green onion and a little pool of soy sauce (maybe) as well. Pretty presentation, but difficult to manipulate. Lovely flavors, though. Different combinations revealed different aspects, but everything together was the best with the sweet pumpkin jelly, salty sauce and tangy chutney (that's what I'm calling the stuff on the far right) all working with the fish in different ways. Nicely balanced.

The third course--Pickled squash and pumpkin oil--never arrived. If that's because it didn't work and Huff decided not to present it, then good for him.

Instead we skipped straight to beetzanella: beets prepared in a half dozen different ways paired with four or five preparations of Wisconsin blue cheese. This wasn't my prettiest photo of the plate, but I wanted the overhead view so you could everything. Visually stunning and at least as good to eat. There wasn't a unpleasant flavor or texture or a combination that didn't work. A fabulous plate.

And then there's this. Smoked octopus, cauliflower vadouvan. Like the previous course, this tastes as good as it looks. I'm assuming here that you understand that it looks unpleasant and off-putting. Some people at the table complained of tough octopus, but mine was tender which, combined with the overwhelming smoke, gave it the flavor and texture of a hot dog and not a particularly good one either. The big squeeze of mildly spiced goop only adds to the resemblance. Let's just move along.

Now this is much nicer to look at: Carnaroli rice risotto with chanterelles, snails (under the rice) and a poached egg over a bed of forest floor aromatics. The snails were fed on basil which we were told affects their flavor, but I can't say I could tell. Oh yeah, Huff came by to shave white truffle over top but my after-shot was overexposed. I tried to defend this dish to my fellow diners as an inoffensive mushroom risotto, but my table was in open rebellion after that last course. The bland truffle and actively offensive smelly junkpile under the bowl came under particularly harsh attack. The latter was matter of the chef's vision not being well received rather than a problem with preparation. Although, if you want that, the risotto was rather stiffer than I prefer and a touch underdone. The mushrooms were tasty, though.

I should mention at this point that I had the wine pairing and all the wines were pretty good. The pairing with the next course, Morgon Beaujolais was outstanding--easy drinking, but still complex. Not boringly fruity or overly harsh. And a surprisingly good pairing with fish.

The aforementioned fish was turbot, served with preserved lemon, artichokes, sunchokes and a mild perfumey crumble of something we couldn't identify. This was a controversial dish at my table, but I liked it a lot. Every component on the plate worked harmoniously together and none of them, individually or together, overwhelmed the mild fish. Toning down preserved lemon without losing its identity takes a level of finesse that wasn't evident in some of the other courses (unless the octopus was supposed to taste like that).

Next up, a beef duo. 72-second waygu New York strip loin and 72-hour braised shortrib served with seawater potatoes and dots of unidentified green and white stuff. The brown dust by the shortrib tasted of cinnamon which was an interesting choice. Both beefs were juicy and tender, modestly flavorful and distinctly different. They went well with the sauces, but the didn't deliver the wow I know these cuts can. I got they feeling they weren't intended to. The potatoes were about as good as potatoes get and there was a baby brussel sprout I liked too.

Finally, dessert. There's a sesame butter cookie under the strawberry jelly sheet, also strawberry curd, thai basil anise, pickled cardamom sprout, a caramel soy strawberry and one or two other components too. Sorry, I was fairly pickled myself by this point so I didn't get the full explanation and my notes are semi-coherent. I think I liked the flavors but not all the textures if I'm reading this right.

And that was it. It was an oddly schizophrenic meal with wide swings in quality between courses. I'm curious if that reflected responsibility by different teams in the kitchen. Overall, I'd say the highs were high enough that I can forgive the lows. Well, maybe not the octopus. If you were watching Twitter last night, you'll have seen swooningly positive response to the meal, including high praise of the octopus. I'm quite curious to read some alternative views if any get written up.


Anonymous said...

The third course was on the second plate Notepad boy.

I don't think you comprehend what was going on with each course. Maybe you should stick to more straight forward food like Houston's.

billjac said...

Hey, that makes sense. I had two unidentified ingredients on the second plate and two likely candidates on the menu. I was thrown off by my expectation of them being a separate course. Thank you for that clarification.

As for your second point, it is something I have wrestled with. I'm not as good as familiar with fine dining ingredients and techniques as other diners at these events. Frodnesor's write ups do a much better job at that sort of thing. But is "comprehension" required for me to respond to a dish? I don't think so. Eating is an aesthetic experience of flavors and scents and textures. Intellectual understanding of what's going on can enhance the experience, but it isn't essential to it. Similarly, my background is in astrophysics so when I look up at the night sky I understand what I see in a very different way than most people. I think that added knowledge deepens my appreciation for the sight but I don't begrudge anyone's right to just enjoy its immensity and beauty.

I suppose a chef could create a dish that requires comprehension for full appreciation. If so, I hope he supplies a cheat sheet to go along with it.

All I did here was report my responses (and those of my tablemates). I don't think I hid the fact that I didn't understand what the chef was going for in several cases. If you have more insight, do please share.