There are only a few times in my life that I recall being in the presence of greatness. In early July, my first dinner at NAO, the Culinary Institute of America San Antonio’s new restaurant, was my latest moment. A coming together of one chef, among with other chefs, in one space, with selected ingredients (some rare), for two nights, in one location. These meals would never be replicated again. Not even if I were to travel to Lima, Peru, and dine at Malabar. Managing director Chef David Kellaway told the students to take it all in as they would probably never cook with some of these ingredients ever again in their professional lives.
The seven-course Peruvian dinner showcased the cuisine of Chef Pedro Miguel Schiaffino of Lima, Peru, the inaugural chef instructor in the CIA’s in Latin Cuisines Certificate Program. Chef Schiaffino’s restaurant, Malabar, in Lima, is considered one of the top restaurants in the world, and Chef Schiaffino himself is a CIA grad and has been recognized as one of the most innovative chefs in the world who uses his country’s native Amazonian ingredients to create dining experiences unlike any other. In 2009, Food & Wine magazine named Malabar one of the 20 most interesting culinary experiences on the planet; in 2010, the magazine named his bar one of the 10 best in the world.
These chef dinners will occur about once a month at NAO, when the school hosts their visiting chef instructors. For regular dinner service, NAO is open Tuesday-Saturday with a prix fixe 3-course meal where diners can choose from an array of Latin dishes. For the Peruvian dinner, I sat at the kitchen in front of the grill to watch some of the action. (While a fun view, it does get toasty in that five-seat area. I recommend wearing light clothing.)
The evening’s menu was the following:
Scallops with Wild Caigua and Cushuro (Andean cucumbers, high altitude lake “seaweed” and maca root)
Our delightful server, Jaime, made it a point to helpfully describe each exotic dish. The maca root he explained as a natural Viagra. When pressed for more info, he blushed ever so slightly, then said it was like ginseng. Both were right. The quantity balancing on top of the scallop slice was not enough to produce any effects though. The Andean cucumber had soft spikes on its edges and reminded me of a crisp cross between an English cucumber and a nopal. A nice starter spoonful, it was a burst of herbal clean.
Tuna Brule with Cocona (light gratin of ahi tuna with Amazonian tree tomatoes)
Another citrusy starter, this one was progressing to creamy and rich, with a crispy tuna piece in a shooter-like vessel.
Ceviche with Tumbo (freshest raw grouper quickly dressed with “Leche de Tigre” accompanied by Amazonian bana passion fruit)
The Peruvian citrus marinade known as leche de tigre (“milk of the tiger”) cured fresh grouper served on a slices of plaintain, which gave a nice weighty contrast to the tartness and softness of the fish.
Paiche with Masato and Black Tapioca (the king of Amazon river fish)
The most exciting course. Besides an unusually textured fish, Paiche is pre-historic looking, with two layers of bone-like protective scales. Also referred to as “hog of the sea,” the flesh of Paiche is even firmer than tuna and more mild tasting. It charred beautifully on top, lingering and smoky like that of meat. (If you want to try your hand at cooking it, local seafood market Groomer’s carries Paiche.)
Arroz con Pato (duck leg and rice simmered with cilantro, cumin and “Chicha de Jora” corn beer)
There wasn’t anything too spectacular about this course, which was reminiscent of a really nicely seasoned Arroz con Pollo. The standout was the pato in this case, or the duck, which was so incredibly tender and juicy that I needed to know the secret. NAO’s executive chef, Geronimo Lopez, a native of Venezuela, explained that the duck was marinated for 6 hours, then baked at 300 degrees for 3 hours.
Pork Adobo with Sweet Potato (tender pork marinated with aji panca and slowly braised)
A solid dish with rich adobo sauce, roasted onions and whipped sweet potatoes.
Copoazu and Green Melon (Amazonian “white cocoa” with pisco-marinated melon)
A pre-dessert course that served well as a palate cleanser, it was more of a palate sanitizer with an ample amount of pisco (grape brandy).
Lucuma and Deep Fried “Truffles” (Peruvian “egg fruit” with chocolate preparation)
This earthy liquid chocolate-filled ball was like a bittersweet luxurious version of an inside-out Cadbury Creme Egg candy.
All in all, the flavor combinations and textures were unique, and dishes artfully executed, with subtle flavors that kept me snug without ever feeling flashy or overdone. Priced at $56, this menu was a definite bargain considering the high level of cooking, ingredients sourced, and rare chef at the helm. If this is a sampling of NAO’s epic monthly visiting chef dinners, book your seat now:
(Disclosure: This was a business dinner covered by the CIA with no knowledge of any publicity on my part whatsoever.)