I was very happy to have gotten an invite to the first “soft” run this week of “Paradigm – The Test Kitchen,” a new idea at the Trump Hotel in Sunny Isles. A few months ago I did a lengthy post on a great special event dinner they did for me at the hotel’s restaurant, Neomi’s Grill. Here’s my take on it ->
And here’s the perspective from inside the kitchen, from “chadzilla,” the blog written by Chad Galiano, the restaurant’s chef de cuisine ->
The idea behind “Paradigm” is to provide a forum for more contemporary, experimental cooking, in a “controlled environment.” The game plan of Exec Chef Kurtis Jantz and Chef Chad is to have “Paradigm” be a 1-night a week, reservation only, set tasting menu, set seating time deal, likely with communal seating at one table in a semi-separate part of the restaurant. This past Thursday they did a test run with an 11-course menu and 10 guinea pigs (myself being including, along with a couple other semi-usual suspects you may know from here and elsewhere in the blogosphere). You can see a description of the concept, the initial menu, and some pictures from the meal here ->
Particularly for a first shot, I thought the meal was genuinely successful and that the concept shows great promise. South Florida has not been particularly fertile ground for more cutting-edge type of restaurants. There’s a long line of places that have attempted it and failed, some with great pedigrees like Sergi Arola with La Broche, David Bouley with Evolution, Jordi Valle with Mosaico … but I think the prospect of trying something different, as a restaurant-within-a-restaurant, starting it on a once-a-week basis, etc. helps mitigate a lot of the peril. It’s somewhat similar to what Jose Andres has done with minibar in Washington DC, which is a 6-seat, 25-course, 2 seatings a night “restaurant-within-a-restaurant” housed inside his Café Atlantico (which has become one of the hottest reservations in DC), and is being done in a few other places around the country, interestingly enough often in hotel restaurants (Chef Ian Kleinman is doing it at a Denver-area Westin hotel, until recently Chef Kevin Sousa at a Doubletree in Pittsburgh).
My hope is that there is at least enough of a market out there to do something like this on a small scale successfully, and that by starting small it has the opportunity to find and then expand its niche.
The layout for our meal was a large communal table set up in a lounge area to the side of the main restaurant, and separated from the main restaurant by a decorative wall. I thought it worked well and gave the chefs the chance to address the diners, explain the dishes and even complete the assembly of some of the dishes in front of us.
Here are my thoughts on each of the dishes:
smoke & mirrors - great story, great dish. Chef Kurtis explained that they wanted to start with something called “smoke & mirrors” because of the perception that this is what much contemporary cooking is – magic, tricks, some culinary slight of hand. While there is certainly a focus on technique and playfulness, Chef Kurtis made clear that their primary goal is to make good food, and that these are only tools to that end. If I were to paraphrase their M.O., it seems to be "make good food - by any means possible."
The dish itself was a good example. It was simple, just a few components - oyster, smoke, mignonette (a classic sauce for oysters w/ champagne vinegar and shallot) - with a few contemporary twists. The oysters were smoked a little prior to service, then brought out on a platter with a glass cover and smoked further tableside using a “smoking gun,” a device that looks like it was assembled using pieces from a headshop which enables you to generate and direct smoke through a tube (and thereby quickly add smoke flavor). The oyster really held the smoky flavor without being overwhelmed by it, and I thought the mignonette, which was made into a gelee, really worked. A very successful dish and a nice way to start the meal. Not to contradict myself, having praised its simplicity, but I thought it could possibly use one more flavor note to really complete the dish. Not sure if it might be herb or acid or possibly something else.
breakfast - another really nice concept, well executed. “Breakfast” here was represented by an egg – cooked sous vide at 61C for about 3 hours; ham – a slice of jamon iberico rolled into a cylinder, and given just a slightly crisp edge; potatoes – done in the manner of Washington DC chef Michel Ricard (in which I believe potatoes are cooked, mashed and firmed up with either a starch or gelatin, cooled, and then cut super-thin on a meat slicer before frying, making for deep potato flavor and all crispy texture – the chef explained the method but I wasn’t paying good enough attention); and coffee – a coffee espuma, piped tableside from an NO2 canister into little espresso cups. The egg was a little firmer textured than the one we had at our prior dinner in a deconstructed carbonara (some would likely find this a virtue who are ooked out by the creamy white; I liked it both ways); the jamon was lovely (just a hint of crisp, but not crispy - liked that); the potatoes were perfect. The coffee espuma I would have liked better if it had been less sweet, but I drink my coffee black - I think more coffee bitterness could have really worked, though some might find it too much. I would have loved some form of “toast” in this dish too, especially as a vehicle for soaking up the eggy goodness.
watermelon – Watermelon was macerated with sake, then sliced into thin shingles, and plated with Chinese fermented black soy beans, compressed pea tendrils dressed with peanut oil, and a small pool of sauce made from black garlic (a Korean product by which garlic cloves are fermented in clay jugs for several weeks, giving a deep, sweet, complex flavor). Chef K's mental transposition of watermelon with tuna, inspired by the similarity in appearance of the macerated watermelon, was pretty amusing – to the point that, when describing his slicing method he referred to “loins” of watermelon. On the plate, the watermelon really did look like, and even had something of the texture of, tuna sashimi, with the other flavors, particularly the salty soy beans and black garlic, also reminiscent of sashimi accompaniments. I love the compressed pea tendrils which have such concentrated bright flavor, which gives me a chance to again refer to one of my favorite lines from an old long-lost TV series, "The Critic" - "full of country goodness and green peaness."
I would have liked to see what the Korean garlic is like whole. I think fermentation is an area of flavor development that is really fascinating, though it runs the risk of pushing the barriers of folks' comfort levels sometimes. I saw a menu from a Spanish chef recently where a dish played on this, involving milk & grapes, and cheese & wine (only saw the description, no idea what the actual execution was like, but thought the idea was intriguing). In this dish, I thought that the black garlic and the fermented black beans were too close in flavor and "what they bring," and thought it would have done better with another component that would bring a different dimension of flavor.
prime tartare - great flavors, interesting reinvention of the structures of the dish. A mound of beef tartare was enveloped in a sheet made of egg yolk flavored with tarragon and shallot (like a béarnaise), presented along with a “paint chip” of Worcestershire sauce (the chip made by combining the sauce with a starch, spreading in a thin layer and then drying it in a food dehydrator), and topped with fried capers. This one really got going when all the different flavor components were put together (like making a tartare!). The flavors of the béarnaise and the Worcestershire were really well-defined yet melded with the whole dish when combined, together with the salty briny pop of the capers too. I thought the textures could use a little refinement. The béarnaise sheet was just a little stiff when first plated, and the Worcestershire paper was difficult to work with as an eater. It didn't quite crumble, nor did it particularly want to be cut, and then it stuck to the plate. These are quibbles, though, the flavors were right on target and the presentation was clever.
scallop – a nice dry-packed sea scallop was seared with “mycryo” as the cooking fat. Mycryo is 100% cocoa butter in powdered form, which is sprinkled on the surface of an item to be fried or sautéed and gives this very nice delicate crispy edge to it. Accompanied with a vanilla milk froth and a green tea & lemon fluid gel (interesting process, the gel is made by combining the flavored liquid with agar agar, then goes into a blender to get a more liquid texture – the gelatinizing agent being susceptible to being broken down by the motion of blending, rather than by temperature). Each of these seemed to have very potent flavors when I tasted them on their own and thought they were nice compliments to the scallop, but somehow they seemed to fade when eaten together with the scallop. Maybe it was just me. Beautiful presentation over a thinly sliced strip of cucumber, one end rolled into a spiral.
"refresh" – a little “intermezzo” course, a narrow parfait glass with a bottom layer of a peppermint gelee, then a layer of lemon chutney, topped with absinthe “clouds” (a thick foam). I liked each piece of this except for the peppermint, which I thought was overwhelmingly strong, artificial and toothpaste-y, and was the only thing I actively disliked in the whole meal.
“block lobster” – This pun didn’t make the printed menu we were given but I’ve seen Chad refer to it as “block lobster” on the blog, which is a good description (there’s a nice picture of this one on chadzilla). Pieces of lobster are molded together using transglutaminase, a/k/a TGM, a/k/a “meat glue,” then presented in sliced slabs which look something like marbled blocks of lobster. Accompanied with mustard “sand” (think Joe’s Stone Crab mustard sauce, in a powdered form), sea beans (a/k/a glasswort, a plant that grows in saline environments and has this great green, slightly crunchy, salty “essence of the sea” flavor to it), and “sea foam” (a very light and airy froth blended tableside, made from a liquid flavored with kombu, sea salt, some other ocean-y ingredients, and an emulsifier). I think lobster's two highest callings are either (1) simply steamed, on a dock in Maine, right off the boat; or (2) quickly par-boiled to get it out of the shell and then poached in a beurre monte until just cooked through, a la Thomas Keller. Having said that, I liked this implementation of TGM more than others I’ve had, as it did remain "lobster-y" in texture and also was visually quite cool.
On reading the menu description I was concerned that the mustard sand would overwhelm, but in the context of the dish it was balanced. I enjoyed what happened to the texture when it combined with the lobster, it's got good "mouth feel". Unfortunately my "sea foam" seemed to just disappear from the dish after just a few moments - though this itself would be a pretty cool effect, if there were a way to get the flavor to remain. I thought this could also use a more defined "sea" flavor. Maybe do it with a lobster stock?
flank 'stack' – several layers of flank steak (a very flavorful but somewhat inelegant cut) were molded together, again using TGM, so that they functioned as one thick steak, which was then cooked to a perfect rare temp and cut into thin slices. Some cloves of roasted garlic were pressed in between some of the layers to flavor the meat. Accompanied by a baby corn sprinkled with butter powder, and also a cold “corn shot” of a very concentrated and flavorful corn broth. The TGM technique worked, and the steak was absolutely perfectly cooked too - beautiful. I thought the flavors of this dish could use more refinement and excitement - not much to it other than the roasted garlic in the steak (which, when you ran into it, I thought was overwhelmingly strong), corn (and baby corn at that, which I think is underflavored), and butter (though I like the butter powder, made, I believe, using tapioca maltodextrin which enables a fat to take on a powdered form). The “corn shot” was very cool, a translucently clear liquid with this incredibly concentrated pure corn flavor.
Although I thought both the “block lobster” and the “flank stack” were successful dishes, I'm still not completely sold on "meat glue" as a high-end dining tool. I am intrigued by some of the other tricks I've read about which use it, like putting crispy chicken skin on a fish, but I’m still not sure it really enhances the texture of the original product, and remain concerned that - to borrow from another favorite show clip - perhaps it's all ultimately a bunch of four-assed monkeys.
hamachi – a filet of hamachi was cooked sous vide with a white anchovy pressed into the top of it, which imparted some of its flavor and also just sort of merged with and melted into the hamachi in the cooking process. The fish was plated with an artichoke butter, which really captured artichoke flavor; an olive “streusel”, with black olive flavor and a crumbly texture; and feta “dust.” Nice Mediterranean flavors. What I'm still not sure about is my feelings for the texture of sous vide fish. The natural flake of the fish seems to merge and meld somewhat, creating a sort of homogeneous texture that I’m not sure I like.
pb&j – Peanut Butter Jelly Time! This was a classic combination, with a nice reinvention of the form. A peanut croquant (a crispy cookie/cracker type thing) topped with a frozen peanut cream, accompanied with raspberry “pearls” and a raspberry fluid gel, and a sprinkle of maldon salt. The “pearls” were made using a spherification technique in which agar agar is added to the berry-flavored liquid, which is then dropped into cold oil (different from other spherification techniques which rely on a reaction between sodium alginate and calcium chloride). I liked all the flavors and textures. And the salty dessert thing just absolutely does it for me. I can't resist it.
cereal 'loofah' – An absolutely fascinating dish. The technique that dessert chef Fabian described was really interesting, involving soaking cereals in water so that the flavor was extracted into the water, then using that water to make a light-as-air sponge (the “loofah”) with a coating of the cereal around it. Like the lightest, most ethereal Rice Krispies treat you’ve ever had. Topped with some requeson cream (a soft, ricotta-like cheese), a lavender “gum,” along with a cassis & pepper flavored fruit jelly, and gelled honey. A little flavored marshmallow on a stick was a nice final touch.
Some more general thoughts on the menu, the food, the layout, service, etc. ->
Collectively, it was certainly plenty of food and I thought both in the number of dishes and the portion sizing this represented a pretty reasonable value for an $85 tasting menu. Plating was consistently well-done: every dish was elegant and visually interesting without being over-fussified or silly. The chefs are working with local purveyors for several products, particularly some great micro-herbs and micro-greens that make their way into several dishes, but I'd love to see an even stronger focus on local product for any number of reasons - it makes for good food, and it's societally and environmentally worthwhile. There’s sometimes a perception that this style of cooking is antithetical to the trend of focusing on locally sourced, quality ingredients (maybe because that trend is often tied to the “let the ingredients speak for themselves” philosophy of cooking), which I think is a real misperception.
I like the idea of a communal table. I do think there's an element of shared experience to this kind of meal that really adds something. The lounge space that they used I think can work effectively for this purpose. It's nice that it's isolated from the main restaurant but still has plenty of space. It also makes the chefs’ interaction with the diners a lot easier, and for every dish the chefs came out to offer an explanation and in many instances to complete the cooking or plating tableside.
The waitstaff did a great job, again particularly given this was a first run. Service was smooth and unintrusive and frankly did pretty much everything I could hope for efficiently and while barely being noticed. They provided wine pairings for the dishes (5 different wines all told, I believe) and there was lots of room on the table for the glassware.
The "block lobster" pun got me thinking about how it is surely not a coincidence that so many of the chefs that are working in this arena also enjoy making puns in their menus. I think there is some similarity between the linguistic processes involved in a pun or other play on words, on the one hand, and in the gastronomic processes involved in the re-invention, re-purposing, or ingredient-pairing that happens in much contemporary cooking. I’ve heard it said that what’s funny to us about a pun (at least to some of us, some folks hate them) is the juxtaposition of holding two inconsistent concepts or ideas in our head at the same time (also, interestingly, a common characteristic of surrealism). This is possibly in some way analogous to what you see in a lot of this style of cooking, where a traditional dish is re-structured or re-purposed so as to be something different from what it was originally (a sauce in the form of a sheet or a foam), or one ingredient plays the role of another (watermelon as tuna), or ingredients that you didn’t ever consider together are combined. In any event, it’s reflective of the fact that the chefs here are not taking themselves too seriously, and like to have fun.
If you read some of the chadzilla stuff linked to above, you’ll see that the idea of “Paradigm” is not just experimentation or weirdness for the sake of it. As Chad put it, “We are not looking to be an expression of 'molecular' dining (so go somewhere else if that's what you want), but simply to use things we've learned to make simple good food.” Notwithstanding that disclaimer, you will probably see techniques and presentations here that you’re unlikely to see many other places in Miami, even though Chefs K and Chad are the first ones to note that they are playing with ideas that are not exclusively their own invention but are being used by chefs around the world. But even for this first test run, I was pretty impressed by the maturity and restraint that the menu demonstrated – there was very little “look what we can do!” type stuff, and the techniques and flavors were very purposeful. In addition, as you can read in Chad’s explanation, one of their focuses is on generating “umami,” the “fifth taste” that the Japanese have known of for about a century but which only recently seems to be getting more serious consideration in the West. If this continues to be a theme of the restaurant, I think one of the things they can do is to talk more about how the approach to each dish is designed to work toward that goal.
There’s already been some clamor for a Paradigm chowdown and I’ll be checking my own schedule, and the weather reports, and will follow up. In the meantime, if this kind of stuff interests you, do check it out. There’s contact info and some other details from the restaurant given here ->
Paradigm - The Test Kitchen
18001 Collins Ave, North Miami Beach, FL 33160