(Warning: Longest Post Ever)!
A few months ago, my curiosity was piqued by a Michael Ruhlman blog entry on “Chefs Who Blog,” http://blog.ruhlman.com/ruhlmancom/20... Buried within was this little reference: “Chad is a hotel cook in Miami trying to remain creative”, which linked to a blog called “Chadzilla”, http://chadzilla.typepad.com/
Chadzilla turned out to be a great read, written by the chef de cuisine at a local upscale, beachfront, touristy hotel who, along with the executive chef, play around in their spare time with cutting edge “alta cocina” techniques and stylings – the kind of stuff pioneered by folks like Ferran Adria in Spain and shown off by folks like Grant Achatz (Alinea in Chicago), Wylie Dufresne (WD50 NY), Homero Cantu (Moto Chicago), Jose Andres (Minibar DC) and so on. The blog is a fascinating insight into the experiments being done with all this new-fangled cooking stuff which often goes by the inartful and inaccurate name of “molecular gastronomy.” Since the demise of La Broche, Mosaico, Karu & Y, and to a lesser degree, David Bouley’s Evolution, this style of cooking has been pretty much invisible in Miami (at least to me). Who knew there were chefs playing with it right under our noses in, of all places, the Trump International Hotel in Sunny Isles?
As for my thinking generally about “molecular gastronomy” or “alta cocina” or “experimental cooking” or whatever you want to call it - I'm fascinated by the new techniques, love a clever presentation, am always open to new combinations of flavors, but in the end the ultimate test is, "Does it taste good?" In a truly successful dish, it goes beyond that - the technique or approach not only tastes good, but tastes BETTER than customary preps or ingredients. There’s an intellectual element to it, for sure – look, by the fact that we’re all here, reading Chowhound, that tells you we’re probably thinking about food more, and perhaps more analytically, than the average bear – but in the end the clincher has got to be the pleasure of it.
After reading the Chadzilla blog with increasing interest, I struck up an online conversation with “Chadzilla” himself (a/k/a Chad Galiano, chef de cuisine at Neomi’s Grill in the Trump Sunny Isles) and ultimately asked him and executive chef Kurtis Jantz to do a birthday dinner for me and several friends. I’d never eaten at the restaurant before, but assumed in any event that the regular restaurant menu wouldn’t bear much resemblance to what they could come up with if given free reign. We spent quite a bit of time working on a menu. Given my love of good food and tendency to babble about it, I probably gave them way more information than they wanted, but they came up with a menu that would have some of my favorite things while highlighting their techniques and approaches.
We had the dinner this past Friday night, and it was great. The result was something which for the most part riffed on traditional flavor and ingredient combinations (familiar to me, at least), while applying new techniques and approaches to them. As I told the chefs, I happily saw it as an experiment in which I and my guests were willing guinea pigs, so even if every dish didn’t work perfectly, it was still a fascinating experience.
Here’s a post on Chadzilla of the prep work for the dinner ->
And here’s a post on the results, w/ more pix of several of the finished dishes ->
I’ll try to give details on the preparation methods, as best as I understand them, and also notes on wines (they were wonderfully generous about waiving corkage so I could bring wine in from home). I hope folks don’t find the comments on the methods either too pedantic on the one hand or too simplistic on the other (or just plain boring, for that matter) (or just plain wrong, too, which is a very distinct possibility as well). As a “layman” who likes to stumble my way through the kitchen, I find it all interesting, perhaps in part because I know it’s stuff I’ll never do at home. So here’s the rundown:
"FRIED BBQ SHRIMP" (shrimp medallion, new orleans bbq batter, rosemary & laurel bouquet) – this was a reinvention of the classic New Orleans BBQ shrimp. Chefs Jantz and Galiano have New Orleans roots, I should note, and were displaced to Miami by Katrina. The shrimp meat was diced and then molded into a round sausage shape using Activa, a/k/a transglutaminase, a/k/a “meat glue”. More info here (or, if you like, search Chadzilla for “Activa"), http://www.activatg.com/
The shrimp “sausage” was then sliced into disks, which were then coated in a “batter” made using the fixins’ for a N.O. BBQ sauce (I’m guessing worcestershire, lemon, Tabasco) dosed with Methocel (a/k/a methylcellulose a/k/a “food gum”). The original function of Methocel apparently was to make foods gel at higher temperatures. More info here (or search “Methocel”), http://www.dow.com/methocel/food/prod... [Want to mess with your head? How about this quote: “As the food product cools, the gel structure of METHOCEL melts. This is analogous to gelatin, only backwards. We all know that gelatin is a liquid at warm temperatures and a solid (gel) at low temperatures. METHOCEL is exactly the same only backwards (or upside down depending on your frame of reference)”] It also, as these guys have learned, has the ability to turn liquids into batters which can fry up quite nicely.
Interesting concept, great presentation as an “amuse bouche” to start. A little shrimp “fritter” came out on a stand-up fork/prong thing, which the diner picks up and eats in about two bites. However, I didn't love the texture of the re-formed shrimp, and while the methocel batter actually had surprisingly good crispy texture (some prior versions reported on in the Chadzilla blog apparently came out more like tofu skin), I thought it lost some of the usual spicy, pungent punch of the sauce. Good, but a little too much like a Spicy Shrimp McNugget for me (though that’s something that some folks may like, particularly as a little “snack” to start a meal). If the question is whether I’d ever prefer this to a traditional n.o. bbq shrimp, the answer is nope.
Paired with a nice champagne (1999 Lassalle Cuvee Angeline), which they supplemented by making of it a champagne cocktail w/ a dash of Cointreau and orange peel slices which had been marinated in the Cointreau. Frankly if I had known they were contemplating making a cocktail of this, I would have used a lesser bubbly, but it was still good.
"SAKE DON" (salmon sous-vide, toasted peanut, soy caviar, whole grain jasmine rice, micro shiso & cilantro) – Japanese-style salmon over rice. They used nice Alaskan king salmon for this (season just started in May), brined w/ Japanese 7-spice, cooked sous vide at 48C with peanut oil. Sous vide means you put it in a sealed plastic bag (sometimes with a sauce) and then put it in a water bath at a specified temperature – an immersion circulator holds the water at a precise temperature, so as a result the food is cooked to exactly that temperature, no more no less. The salmon held up well to the sous vide, cooked through and firm but still reasonably moist and full of flavor (I actually could have had it even less cooked through).
The salmon was served over a bed of rice studded with little wheatberries and other tidbits, and topped with soy caviar prepared using spherification technique and little micro-cilantro and micro-shiso leaves. The soy caviar – like a slightly gelled little ball of soy sauce, still liquid inside - definitely falls into the "makes it BETTER" category. They fully maintain the flavor of the soy sauce but the "re-packaging" as caviar (1) gives this wonderful burst of soy flavor; and (2) lets the diner control how and when to combine with the salmon. More info on spherification here ->
As I understand it, spherification basically involves adding sodium alginate (derived from algae) to your liquid of choice, then dropping the liquid into a bath with calcium chloride (a salt, commonly used in sports drinks) (or, I suppose, vice versa, which I’m guessing is what is called reverse spherification), which react with each other to cause the liquid to form a gel-like skin on the outside, and capturing the liquid within.
Good flavors to the rice, and - somewhat to my surprise - I loved the micro-herbs, which come from a farm in Homestead. I've always had the perception that micro-greens were something of a chef's affectation, like the horrible trend of 10+ years ago to do "baby" zucchini and other vegetables all the time (which were cute but generally had no flavor). Unlike the "baby" vegetables, the micro-greens have this incredibly concentrated but at the same time delicate flavor.
Restaurant recommended a sake with this, a “Dreamy Clouds” Rihaku Tokubetsu Junmai Nigori. I don’t know ass from elbow about sake, but I liked this, an unfiltered version, slightly cloudy, with a mellow texture and a sort of nutty, lightly fruity flavor.
"ESPAGNA" (fermin jamon iberico, shaved melon, grated almond) – I am mental for the real jamon iberico – the wonderful Spanish cured hams which have only recently been “legalized” for export to the US. These are higher quality than the usual Serrano hams, and the acorn-fed jamon iberico de bellota is outrageously good stuff if you’re a pig fan. This dish was a model of simplicity – just 3 elements, a slice of jamon iberico, topped with some paper-thin slivers of melon (which had been marinated in a simple syrup using the “compression” technique – i.e. putting it in a plastic bag and sealing tight w/ a vacuum sealer), and some almond dust (just finely grated almonds). Absolutely perfect. The jamon iberico was beautiful, the melon was just right, the almond dust clinched the deal. These are exactly the components that I find so magical about the jamon iberico - aside from being salty and porky, it's the fruitiness, the sweetness, the nuttiness that elevate it. Sometimes the chef just needs to stay out of the way - this was a great example of such restraint.
I shit you not when I tell you that I went through a 1/2 lb. of iberico de bellota paleta (the foreleg) in 2 days earlier in the week while trying out wines to pair with it (bought from Delicias de Espana near Red/Bird intersection for a small fortune, but it’s worth it). The stuff is so good I could weep. The wine I ended up using was not one of the ones I had tried earlier (I was trying out red wines, but shifted gears) and it matched up perfectly. Scala Dei "Les Brugueres" white Priorat 2006 made with garnacha blanca. I'm not quite sure why, but it's a white wine for people who love red wine. Medium-bodied without being heavy or ponderous, flavor notes of melon, peach, mineral, nice acidity on the finish. An ideal pairing.
"CARBONARA" (2 hour farm egg, alfredo orb, pancetta powder, parmesan wafer, pea dots, pasta rag) – This was something of a “deconstructed” carbonara. Components were a 62C 2-hour egg (done in the immersion circulator); a pasta rag w/ herbs folded into it, a cream orb done using reverse spherification, pancetta powder (made by combining pancetta w/ “n-zorbit” (tapioca maltodextrin, a modified tapioca starch, which has the ability to turn fats into powders), parmesan wafer (probably just grated parm shaped into a round and baked on a silpat, a simple easy and tasty trick) and pea “dots” (like a gelled pea puree).
Another cool presentation, with the egg brought out in the shell with the top snipped off. Too bad some of the cream orbs didn't make it all the way to the table intact – it’s got to be really tough to pull off these kinds of creations for a large group simultaneously. I loved the egg, which had a semi-firm but still slightly runny yolk, and white which is cooked through but still creamy and oozy (though I think some people found the creamy white a little "ooky"). Nice homemade pasta. I thought it needed more of the pancetta powder to balance the rest of the ingredients. Mrs. F noted the pasta and cream were pretty tepid and would have been better if warmer, probably the result of too much time having to be spent in the plating.
Poured a 2006 Aldo & Riccardo Seghesio Barbera d’Alba. A very nice wine, ripe, cherry fruit and chocolate, but I think I could have done better on the pairing with something that had a little less super-ripe fruit and a little more acidity.
"SMOKED DUCK" (smoked duck “filet mignon”, truffle potato cubes, carrots l’orange) – duck breast molded and shaped w/ the help of Activa to look like a filet mignon, then hit with a smoke gun and then roasted, served with truffled cubed potatoes and a smear of a carrot/orange gel/sauce. The presentation and components were a take-off on an old-school “continental” filet mignon with potatoes and carrots.
Again, I did not love the texture of the Activa-rolled duck. This is one example where if I ask myself "Do I prefer this to just a plain old seared duck breast, or a good confit leg?", the answer will be no. Aside from just binding, the "meat glue" seemed to toughen up the meat some (and if you want to talk about a term that turns off diners, "molecular gastronomy" doesn't have anything on "meat glue"). This may have come off better if the duck had not been cooked quite so far through, but left more on the rare side. After the dinner I talked with Chad about doing these sous vide to control the cook temp., and logistical issues stood in the way – there’s only so many SV dishes you can do at different temps to serve 10 diners with one immersion circulator.
The potatoes, on the other hand, I loved. Done in sous vide at 83C, they came out still firm in structure like a roasted potato, but all creamy in texture like a mashed potato, and fully infused with truffle flavor. As explained here, http://chadzilla.typepad.com/chadzill... 83C is the temperature at which the starch in the potato breaks down, but the pectin remains intact and preserves its structure. Pretty cool. The carrot sort of got lost in the shuffle - it only occurred to me the next day that the orange-flavored carrots were a variation on a duck a'lorange (OK, I'll admit it, sometimes I'm slow).
The duck, the truffled earthy potatoes, the hint of orange, were all the right notes for a 2005 Penner-Ash Shea Vineyard Pinot Noir.
"SUNDAY SOUTHERN SALAD" (flash braised greens, warm liquid cornbread, pecan frog legs, quacklin’s) – The chef’s idea here was to do a variation on the European custom of serving a salad after the entrée, as a transition to dessert. I think folks readily welcomed the concept, and I really enjoyed the dish – wilted greens (arugula and mustard green), “liquid cornbread” (actually a sweet polenta cooked in sous vide, also at 83C w/ the potatoes), a Florida frog leg, and “quacklings” (little bits of crispy duck skin). The “liquid cornbread” in particular I thought was excellent, very creamy and sweet, but I thought all the pieces of this dish worked well. I was surprised Mrs. F thought the greens were too bitter.
Served with a sweet German Riesling (Alfred Merkelbach Urziger Wurzgarten Auslese 2006), which was right on target and helped reinforce the idea of a savory/sweet transition.
"SWEET CAPRESE" (tomato marmalade, goat cheese ice cream, baby basil, chocolate balsamic sauce) – this was a “pre-dessert” variation on a cheese course done by the pastry chef, Fabian di Paolo. I was somewhat dubious about this one, as I'm not a caprese fan. I'm a fan of Chef Fabian's caprese. This was off-the-charts good. I don’t know all the detail on the prep of this dish. I recall someone saying there's no sugar or anything else added to the tomato, which I find just mind-boggling, as it tasted like a deliciously sweet tomato jam; done with a cheese flan, basil-infused goat cheese ice cream, chocolate/balsamic syrup, and sprigs of micro-basil (which again were just delicious). All the typical elements of a caprese salad, but re-purposed as a sweet cheese course, and it worked perfectly. This was a knockout dish.
"BERRY GAZPACHO" (smoked chocolate cube, yuzu sorbet, frozen 70% choco-air) – chocolate was left to “cure” for a couple weeks with tobacco before being made into a sort of dense mousse/ganache, picking up a really distinct smoky flavor. Topped with a bit of “frozen chocolate air,” a trick which Ferran Adria originated by which chocolate (here, a dark chocolate w/ 70% cacao) w/ soy lecithin added is frothed and then frozen, resulting in a cool, super-lightweight whiff of pure chocolate (I don’t know if this is the technique used, just guessing). Served with a berry gazpacho and yuzu sorbet, the gazpacho and the sorbet were loaded with flavor. However, Mrs. F doesn’t like when anyone who sullies her chocolate with fruit. On the other hand, my absolute favorite combination is chocolate and orange (I still have vividly fond memories from growing up of a Baskin Robbins flavor called mandarin chocolate sherbet which was a dark chocolate sherbet w/ an orange flavor to it), although berry I’m less fond of. So perhaps there would ultimately be no pleasing us on this front. I thought a little chocolate candy and a fruit tuile that were plated with the dessert were both delicious.
So with dinner concluded, some other more general comments on the meal:
- portion sizes were well-done. One of the fears I always have for these kinds of meals is that you get 7 tiny bite-size courses and walk away hungry after 3 hours (though, as I told Mrs. F on the way in, there’s an El Rey de Chivito across the street so we could always fill up after if necessary!) We left full but not bloated - exactly what you want.
- the service team were great. All night they did an excellent job of doing what they needed to without being intrusive or making a fuss - bringing plates, clearing, replacing silverware, pouring, etc. I got a kick out of how they would assemble and descend to serve each course at once, as best as possible given the size of our group. They also did a great job of setting the table in order to have appropriate glassware out for each of our wines, while still leaving us plenty of space.
- the chefs did a great job of presenting the dishes. I think there's a real art in these situations to figuring out how much information your audience wants, to being informative without being pedantic, and they hit the right balance. Probably equally important, their enthusiasm and excitement about what they’re doing really shines through and is contagious.
Again, I have no idea if the regular restaurant menu at Neomi’s has any hint of this kind of stuff, though I suspect for the most part not. And for locals, I think hotel dining (particular at a great big behemoth like this one) is always sort of a tough sell. But clearly these guys can cook, you can’t pull off this kind of stuff without having the chops to do more traditional dishes first. And when given the opportunity, they can do some really interesting things that I don’t think you’ll see anywhere else locally. I’ve asked for more information on special event dinners and the like, and if you hear about anything, or are just looking for a nice spot for a dinner in Sunny Isles, I encourage you to check it out. We had a great experience.
I’ll hold off for now on more general comments on “alta cocina” as this post is surely long enough already, though there’s still plenty to talk about.
18001 Collins Avenue, Sunny Isles, FL 33160