Monday, June 14, 2010

Cobaya PODzilla dinner

Sunday night Chefs Jeremiah Bullfrog, Chad Galiano and Kurtis Jantz catered another Cobaya dinner. There was some mention of the event being thrown together at the last moment, but you'll have to head over to Food for Thought for Frodnesor's inside scoop of how it came about. (He hasn't posted about it yet, but he always has plenty of insight and a more interesting comment thread than I get so it's worth waiting for.)

All of these chefs have done previous Cobaya dinners: Galiano and Jantz did Cobaya Gras back in February (I didn't do a full write-up, but here's Frodnesor's ) and Bullfrog did the P.I.G. event last November. That was before he had his GastroPOD ready to go. This time, he was able to roll it right up and have his customary kitchen with him. Galiano and Jantz set up in the location's backyard bar. By the way, notice the photographers in the picture of the POD. Including me, three out of thirteen people taking pictures at that random moment. That's a quarter of the crowd and that ridiculous ratio held true through the evening. I'm not sure what that means, but certainly nothing good.

The theme of the evening was elevated American(-ish) street food, but it had an unofficial theme of sous vide (although there was a little deep frying going on as well). Or is sous vide so standard in modern kitchens that it isn't worth commenting upon? Either way, enough ado. Here's the menu:

And here's what I thought of it.

First up was Chef Bullfrog's Octo Salpicon along with the Summer Spritzer. If pairing octopus with tomato, red onion and feta isn't a classic Greek recipe, somebody needs to tell the classic Greeks about it. It was a naturally harmonious combination with acid and spice up front fading to a very nicely flavored octopus. This was, without doubt, the tenderest octopus I've ever had.

I wanted to ask the chef to expand on his explanation of the preparation: "cooked the piss out of it," but he started the conversation by asking how everything was and I, with my reflexive honesty, told him that I didn't care for his Miami-renowned burgers (about which more later). It seemed a good idea to cut the conversation short not long after that.

Anyway, the spritzer went well with the salpicon. It was mainly salty and fruity with just a whiff of tequilla at the end. Could have used a little more kick for my tastes.

Next up, French Quarter Chicken Livers from Chefs Galiano and/or Jantz. (I wasn't sure who was responsible for what beyond if it came from the POD or the bar. No doubt one of the other blogs reporting on the event or an ego-surfing chef will be able to clear things up.) The livers were meltingly soft and straitforwardly livery in flavor (perhaps with some onion? They tasted a whole lot like my mom's chopped liver which does involve onion.) The hot pepper fluid gel was a very nice accompaniment and the salty crackers made the flavors pop. I've never had a sweet and tangy relish with liver before and was a bit surprised at how well it worked. I'll have to experiment at the next Passover sedar.

Next, brine fried chicken with Big Mike's potato salad and buttermilk-chicharrone biscuits. Steve, of the Blind Tastes blog, in a comment on chef Galiano's Chadzilla blog, said Mike's chicken was "not his real deal stuff" (although he still considered it "killer".) If what we got at Cobaya Gras was the real deal, I liked this better. That chicken has a very crisp very salty crackery crust that I thought overwhelmed the mild chicken. This time, for my piece at least, the crust was soft and soaked with chicken fat. That kept it from breaking away and brought its flavor together with the chicken. It was still quite salty and spicy, but if you had it with the meat in the proper ratios, it worked out right. Just a matter of personal taste, probably, as I've never cared for extra-crispy chicken.

The side dishes I was less thrilled with. The potato salad flavor seemed run of the mill to me and included the dreaded raw celery. The biscuits were dense and a little rubbery with flavors of raw flour and burnt oil. I did really like the chicken, though.

Next was the Crispy White Corn Cake (a.k.a. an arepa) with a poached egg, oxtail gravy, queso cotija and crema. Kind of an off-putting presentation. Certainly, the woman sitting next to me was put off. I know that's how sous vide eggs get so I dug in despite the undercooked appearance. The arepa was, as advertised, crispy, with a strong corn flavor that worked with the egg white. The flavor lightly spiced meat blended with the egg yolk while it was hard to distinguish between the textures of the soft fat and the egg white. So it came together as a tasty whole.

Next, the Banh Mi Taco (from the gastroPOD). This is a rather different dish from the banh mi taco chef Bullfrog prepared at the P.I.G. cobaya event last year, not least because it contains ox tail instead of pork according to one of his assistants. (I'm a bit embarrassed that I can neither confirm nor deny. It tasted kind of mystery-meaty to me, which is what I like in a taco, honestly.) The pickled radishes are new too she said. The Vietnamese flavors are mild, but was a pretty good taco. Could have used a little more acid and spice for me, personally.

Next, 'Baha' Fish Taco Salad. (Sorry about that vertiginous view of it. It's complicated and it was hard to get all the elements in from a better angle.) I lived in San Diego for five years so I'm particular about my Baja cuisine. 'Baha' generally doesn't cut it for me. But here I think they got most of the right flavor components in there. You need all three sauces: pico de gallo, a white sauce and a chipotle salsa, plus beer batter. The flour tortilla is a bit off and I don't hold with the deconstruction into a salad, but otherwise, pretty good. The avocado vanilla sorbet needs singling out as it was fabulously tasty and impeccably creamy. (Chef Jantz told me he used a Pacojet which, I'm sure you'll agree, is cheating.) I, and I think many of the guests, could easily have sat down to a few scoops of it on its own, but the sweetness in the salad was an off note for me.

Next, Chef Bullfrog's aforementioned Double Decker Slider Burgers. I just don't get these. First off, look at that pale flabby sous vide meat. The chef said he finished the patties off on the grill, but given the scant color here, it must have been momentary. OK, yes I know White Castle burgers are effectively steamed so a lack of color is traditional for a slider, but those aren't double decker which makes a difference. The sous vide process heats the double-thick burger through, but leaves the center with an undercooked texture that I really don't like at all. Also in the center are the bacon and cheese where their flavors are buried in all that unpleasant unbrowned meat. On the other hand, I liked the pickles and the bun was OK. If someone wants to defend the burgers in the comments please do so. Is this a typical example? What am I missing here?

The final savory course was Mississippi Delta Tamales. A Mississippi tamale is a rather different thing than a Mexican tamal. Chef Chad recommended for details and I concur; it's a very interesting site. These particular tamales were made with nicely spiced chicken confit with a little duck thrown in. The outside is cornmeal rather than masa. Both tasty, but it was really all about the sauces. The sweet tart tomatillo and the tangier ketchup brought out the flavors beautifully. Very nice indeed.

There was a bit of a gap at this point for the guests to catch their breaths and the chefs to have some dinner. Some folks started straggling off as it was getting late and they were getting full, but there's no such thing as too full or too late for dessert so they missed out.

First dessert was the Root Beer & Bourbon Floats. I spoke to Chef Jantz about this too. The "Zatarain's" on the menu is the brand of the root beer mix; the "Elijah Craig" the brand of the bourbon. The first is a New Orleans tradition, the latter carefully chosen to match. And match it did. Despite the serious boozy hit, the flavors of the bourbon and root beer blended seamlessly. The ice cream pulled out the vanilla notes in both and ties them together. Or possibly I'm full of crap and making stuff up.

Finally, we've got the White Chocolate Cupcakes. This is my exemplar of what a cupcake ought to be like. A modest amount of fluffy creamy buttercream frosting on top of springy cake with a pronounced flavor of its own. A pleasant little bite, not a monster with a half pound of frosting molded into a flower on top. My only complaint would be that there's no hint of the foie gras advertised in the frosting. Perhaps my taste buds had lost some precision at this point. My brain sure had.

Overall, a very pleasant evening. For other takes and more pictures, check out Frod's quick post from that evening on the official Cobaya blog and Chef Galiano's take here. I expect at least two more blog posts up-coming. Check back for links in the comments.


jeremiah said...

interesting write up to say the least. The only defense of our burger from a non ego web surfing chef:
come try our burger one day on the street when it's hot off the griddle, cooked a la minute for you.
It's a different story cooking for 64 hungry, underground diners.
That being said, we are all invited to our own opinions.

other notes:
My assistant is Carla, my wife. The taco meat as stated was pulled pork cooked in oxtail jus and srirracha was provided to add extra spice.
The octopus was cooked utilizing a pressure cooker which yields an excellent product.
Sous vide was used in this event and in the Pod heavily because of it's consistency of product for large crowds.
Thank you for coming out to our event and for such a detailed synopsis.

billjac said...

Thanks for coming by with clarifications. I'm going to make the effort to come by the gastroPOD (incognito if I can manage it) to try a burger when you aren't catering for a ravening mob. I suspected that might caused some issues.

I must have misunderstood what Carla told me about the meat in the banh mi. It's no wonder I couldn't identify it when you added beef flavor to the pork. I should have mentioned that the sriracha was there. I was going to put some on, but Carla warned me against autocondimenting with it since there was already some mixed in the sauce.

Thank you for cooking for us. I think most folks there enjoyed themselves unreservedly. The percentage of judgmental bastards like me was pretty low.

Paula said...

Good write-up. I completely agree with you about the avocado sorbet in the salad. I thought it was too sweet for the mix and would have worked better if it had a more concentrated avocado flavor and less sweetness. On its own, however, it was good.

jeremiah said...

criticism is good, keeps us on our toes. I enjoy your honesty.

BTW: we are condiment nazi's

looking forward to cooking for you again

Melissa said...

At first I was wary of the scoop of avocado ice cream on the salad, but I thoroughly enjoyed the creamy, cold, sweet, rich contrast to the firm-tender warm swordfish, and the crisp, cool, bright flavors of the salad. It was a perfect melange a trois- interesting, surprising, delicious.