Restaurant Spotlight: In the kitchen with Coya – part II

What a difference a year makes.

It’s been exactly twelve months since I waltzed through the doors of Coya Dubai, where chef Benjamin Wan left me mesmerized by his approach to fine Peruvian cuisine.

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I had the privilege of assisting Benjamin behind the ceviche counter, where together we composed some of Coya’s signature dishes. Although I was left with a taste of the complexities within each dish, something told me that this was just the tip of the iceberg, and that my journey through Coya was far from over…

It turns out that Benjamin had way more up his sleeve as he invited me into his kitchen for part two of our culinary experience. True to form upon my arrival, the atmosphere was buzzing with excitement even though we were still in the early morning hours.

Lidija's Kitchen Spotlight - Coya Restaurant Dubai, UAE

With the exception of some artwork, little had changed since my last visit – the restaurant was just as breathtaking as I remembered. I spotted beautiful ceviche bowls carved of wood with a telltale logo etched within – all hand crafted by a talented member of the Coya team.

Lidija's Kitchen Spotlight - Coya Restaurant Dubai, UAE

With preparations well underway for their yearly Halloween party, I could hear the echo of a live band rehearsing in the VIP lounge as I shimmied my way past the ceviche counter and towards the kitchen.

Lidija's Kitchen Spotlight - Coya Restaurant Dubai, UAE

Benjamin welcomed me into his space and filled me in on the dishes we would be making. He also gave me a brief on the restaurant’s expansion. In the year since our last encounter, Coya Abu Dhabi was born (in March 2017). With two restaurants in London, and a secret location in the works, Coya’s new baby makes it the fourth worldwide. It looks like a global culinary domination is underway!

Once in the kitchen, Benjamin pulled out the big guns and handed me a blowtorch that was bigger and bolder than the pistol version I use at home. I hope he has the fire department on speed dial.

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It turned out that we would use the torch to brûlée miniscule specimens of cucumber that had been pressed and cooked in a sous-vide. They were diced so perfectly, I could swear they were measured to exact specifications.

What do you do with lightly charred sous-vide cucumber? You use it to embellish King Crab with aji rocoto and Peruvian avocado (of course!). A coconut milk reduction infused with coriander stalks and chili was combined with cooked crabmeat, shallots, and coriander. The crimson flecks of chili against the pearl-white crabmeat was exquisite on it’s own.

After seasoning with salt, lime zest, and coriander oil, we were ready to plate. Paper-thin slices of avocado (and I do mean paper-thin) were placed on one of Coya’s signature plates, as circles of coconut milk reduction swirled around the edges. A quenelle of crab came next, hidden by more slices of avocado.

We spooned on the charred cucumber as Benjamin added a touch of oscietra caviar, “The caviar is just for you”, he said with a sly smile. After seasoning our dish with toragashi pepper, curry oil and coriander cress, we were left with a perfect piece of culinary art, waiting to be tasted. Note to anyone salivating over this dish… Canrejo al Coco is only available in Dubai.

Lidija's Kitchen Spotlight - Coya Restaurant Dubai, UAE

When Benjamin set out the ingredients for our next dish, Citrus Atun, I was struck by the intense color of the tuna – so bright you would think it had it’s own Instagram filter! The tuna was salted for a few hours “to draw out the juices” before it was patted dry and seared in a very hot pan. The contrast between the raw flesh and the cooked edges was magnificent.

We rolled the tuna into cigarillos, piling them on top of each other in a pyramid. After drizzling on a dressing of Peruvian passion fruit, hazelnut oil, orange juice, aji limo, and dates, we garnished the tuna with burnt orange, caramelized hazelnut, pickled daikon, tobiko and jalepeño. A little bit sweet, a little bit sour. Done.

Lidija's Kitchen Spotlight - Coya Restaurant Dubai, UAE

It was at this point that I began to appreciate the prep work involved in the details. From pickling to brûléeing, caramelizing to compressing, everything down to the tiniest garnish plays a critical role in Coya’s cuisine. Even chili peppers are boiled to remove any bitterness or excess heat. A calculating and extensive mise-en-place goes behind Every. Single. Dish.

Lidija's Kitchen Spotlight - Coya Restaurant Dubai, UAE

When Benjamin pulled out a fat ball of Burrata for the last of our cold starters, I was left scratching my head as to what could fresh Italian mozzarella possibly have to do with the flavors of Peru. He was quick to correct me on my assumption that Coya is a strictly Peruvian restaurant. “Some of our dishes, you would never find in Peru” he explains. “A lot of our new dishes use European and Japanese techniques but are flavored with ingredients from South America. Peruvian cuisine has influences from across the world, but mostly from Japan and China – hence the term Nikkei and Chifa cuisines.” Benjamin draws on his classic French experience at La Petite Maison, as well as his Chinese background to create new dishes that use European techniques with Chifa flavors. “Our Head Chef, Florian Becker, has worked at Zuma, which helps when we create dishes with a Nikkei element.”

Lidija's Kitchen Spotlight - Coya Restaurant Dubai, UAE

Still curious about how Benjamin would put his stamp on the burrata, I watched closely as he swirled together cherry tomatoes with olive oil and sherry vinegar, seasoned with Maldon salt and a touch of sugar. Simple enough, I thought to myself.

The twist came when cold green grapes (peeled to perfection), dried cherry tomatoes, pomegranate and aji limo were piled on top of the mound of luscious cheese. Fresh marjoram and mint were next, along with dried botija olives, panko breadcrumbs and mustard cress scattered throughout. A unique spin on a classic, this dish is offered in Coya’s member’s lounge only.

Lidija's Kitchen Spotlight - Coya Restaurant Dubai, UAE

Lidija's Kitchen Spotlight - Coya Restaurant Dubai, UAE

Benjamin must have read my mind when I spied the mother of all seafood on a cutting board beside me. A tender octopus tentacle – cooked in sous-vide with a fried exterior – was cut and ready to transform into Pulpo Rostizado.

I snuck a bite. It was insane (note the expression on my face)!

Placed on top of a bowl of creamy aji amarillo potato foam flavored with smoked butter, the octopus was finished off with bottarga – a dried compressed mullet roe. I snuck a taste of that too. It was insane in a different way… borderline offensive – powerfully salty and very strong – just a tad would do. A little smoked paprika, some chopped dried olives, and a dash of olive oil later – we set off to make our final main course.

Lidija's Kitchen Spotlight - Coya Restaurant Dubai, UAE

Lidija's Kitchen Spotlight - Coya Restaurant Dubai, UAE

Waiting in the wings was the star of our grand finale, Arroz Nikkei. A miso and mirin-marinated Chilean sea bass is cooked over hot coals on the robata grill and served over a Spanish bomba rice. The fish is delicate and meaty at the same time, while the rice is velvety, rich, and flavorful. It’s the ultimate match in foodie heaven.

Cooked like a risotto, the secret to the rice – says Ben – is in the stock. The stock (aka Dashi in Japanese) is made out of kombu (seaweed) that’s been soaked for 12 hours. Once strained, the kombu liquid is used to soak bonito flakes for another 12 hours. Those steps are critical in making a light, flavorful broth.

A fat nob of compound chili butter added a risotto-like creaminess and depth.

We transferred the rice into a rustic cast iron pot, and piled on the sea bass that was surrounded by puddles of creamed sweet corn purée.

Yes, it’s as good as it looks. He wouldn’t give me the recipe, even after I begged and pleaded…some secrets are better kept to yourself.

Lidija's Kitchen Spotlight - Coya Restaurant Dubai, UAE

Lidija's Kitchen Spotlight - Coya Restaurant Dubai, UAE

Always one to save space for dessert, I had high hopes our cooking session would end on a sweet note. It turned out that Cheesecake de Maracuya was the perfect finale to our decadent meal. The cake was made with a traditional filling of cream cheese and eggs, flavored with Peruvian passionfruit. The base and garnish were made of toasted kiwicha – an ancient Peruvian superfood (also known as amaranth or “mini quinoa”) – which gave the cheesecake a light taste and texture.

We added a fresh mango sorbet that was so divine, I could have swallowed the entire pot!

Elegant touches of brûléed mango, marigold, and delicate pieces of tuile finished off our dessert.

Lidija's Kitchen Spotlight - Coya Restaurant Dubai, UAE

It was time to taste all our hard work….

Lidija's Kitchen Spotlight - Coya Restaurant Dubai, UAE

…and man, was it ever worth it.

Awestruck by the rhythm of the kitchen, I discovered so much by watching contrasting flavors, textures, and techniques merge together. Thank you Benjamin for giving me a deeper understanding of Coya’s cuisine – wild creativity really has no bounds!

Coya Abu Dhabi, get your blowtorch ready – I’ll be coming for you soon…

Lidija's Kitchen Spotlight - Coya Restaurant Dubai, UAE

Stay tuned for my new website, where I will be sharing some of these recipes….which recipes would you like to see?  I would love to hear from you, please leave your answers in the comments below.

Shot on Location at Coya Dubai

Photos by Tara Atkinson

Outfit by Ted Baker

Hair by Mustafa at Polished Salon

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Restaurant Spotlight: In the Kitchen with Coya

How does it feel to be whisked into an era where time stands untouched by the hands of a clock? Walk into Coya and you’ll soon find out. To say that this Peruvian gem is majestic is an understatement, in fact, Coya has captured each and every detail within its carefully crafted space with elegance and intrigue.

Vibrant paintings hang on rich, textured walls, with Mayan statuettes and South American antiquity strewn throughout the bar and dining areas.

Pockets of lush, hanging greenery generously embellish the restaurant, and although the space is grand, seating is as social or as private as you wish, with little alcoves hidden among quiet corner spots.

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There are jewel-tones (hence my choice of dress) and eclectic colors juxtaposed among wood, leather, velvet and brass. I could go on about the decor, but with all that I’ve said, I still haven’t done this space justice. If Coya’s surroundings are a visual feast for the eyes, just wait until you get to the food.

It was early when I arrived at the restaurant. Servers were setting tables and sous chefs were prepping their mise-en-place for a busy lunch service. Still, there was an energy and a buzz within Coya’s walls that could not be ignored. Something tells me that if those walls could talk, they would ask you to have a seat, grab a drink, and lose yourself over the next few hours.

And lose myself I did. I’ve wanted to get into Coya’s kitchen for quite some time now, and as I would soon discover, it was totally worth the wait.

When I met Coya’s head chef Benjamin Wan, it was clear at the outset that his expertise was far more than what I bargained for – in fact, Bejamin was crowned BBC Good Food Middle East Chef of the Year just days after our meeting. Born in the UK to parents from Hong Kong, Benjamin spent his early culinary career working in London at various Michelin starred restaurants.

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About his culinary training Benjamin says, “My cooking background is classic French. Coya is a huge step away from that, but my Chinese background helps a lot in pushing Coya forward.” With experience ranging from private chef in Saint Jean Cap Ferrat to head chef at Dubai’s acclaimed La Petite Maison, as well as rigorous training in London before joining Coya, Bejamin’s skill and passion is impressive to say the least. Watching those skills come to life behind-the-scenes is a privilege I was fortunate to experience.

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We headed directly to the ceviche counter where all of Coya’s raw preparations take place.

Here is where you can see the influence of Japanese and Chinese food culture woven into Peruvian cuisine. Benjamin informed me that we would be making three dishes – two fish ceviches and a beef tataki. On his personal food philosophy and how it ties in with Coya, Benjamin is clear on his approach “What we do is led by the quality of ingredients. Our food at Coya is not overly fussy, we let the ingredients speak for themselves. We lift the whole dish with simple combinations, but with intense flavors”.

Those intense flavors were prepped and ready to go when we set out to conquer our first dish, a Seabass Clásico. A beautiful white-fleshed seabass was diced into cubes and placed in a shallow bottomed bowl.

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After seasoning the fish with sea salt and a fat squeeze of fresh lime juice, Benjamin tossed the ingredients together – his skill apparent in the deftness of his hands. He made it clear to keep the fish moving and tossing to allow the lime juice to “cook” the fish evenly. The fish must be cut into uniform cubes – too small and they’ll overcook, too big and they’ll be underdone.

As we added chopped coriander and fresh red chili into our bowl. The ceviche seemed so reassuringly simple until Bejamin took out the big guns – White Tiger Milk – the top secret potion behind this dish. Tiger Milk (“leche de tigre”) is the Peruvian term for the wet marinade that cures fish and seafood in a ceviche.

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Red Chifa Tiger Milk & White Tiger Milk

Coya’s white Tiger Milk is a laborious process, one where fish stock is infused with ginger, celery, onions, and coriander leaves before being blitzed together into a pearl white nectar. We added the Tiger Milk tossing for a few more minutes until the fish was ready for plating. We garnished the dish with cancha and choclo – both large kerneled varieties of corn found in Peru and Equador (one is fried, one is blanched). After adding a few slices of red onion, some coriander cress, and cubed sweet potatoes to finish off the garnish, we were done and my appetite was wide open for our next dish.

Coya’s Tuna Chifa was similar in preparation to the Ceviche Classico, with a variation on the ingredients. The tuna was cut in similar sized chunks, and tossed with salt and lime juice in the same way.  We spun through sesame seeds, lime juice, and Chifa Tiger Milk – a fiery red liquid with classic Chinese ingredients of ponzu, chili garlic paste, and sesame oil. One whiff of the Chifa Tiger Milk and you can understand why it lives up to its name – deliciously powerful stuff.

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The dish was garnished with a single crispy prawn cracker, chopped chives, and sliced spring onion. With the Tuna Chifa proving to be a tough act to follow (a favorite of mine), and with my stomach howling louder by the minute, we were on to our final dish.

A Beef Tataki of Australian Wagyu sirloin was our last stop on the ceviche counter. While definitely not a ceviche, this tataki is indeed a raw preparation. With only a slight sear on the exterior of the lightly marbled, crimson colored meat, the texture of the flesh was soft, buttery, and succulent. Benjamin had sliced the meat into paper-thin slices, lightly patting it down to render it almost translucent.

The meat looked insanely appetizing in its raw, unadorned state – I could have eaten the whole plate just as it was!  Thankfully I didn’t, there was some great stuff left to add. Benjamin generously spooned on a thick layer of Chili Dressing made with chopped red and green chili, roasted garlic purée, lime juice, and olive oil. It smelled as beautiful as it looked. A Cashew Nut Purée was carefully piped, dot-by-dot, on top of the meat. I was intrigued by the next ingredient – a crispy quinoa – which was cooked, cooled, and toasted to a crunch before it was strewn on top of the dish.

Grilled leeks, chopped chives, and pea shoots rounded out the garnish, and lucky for me, the tataki was ready to serve, but almost too stunning to eat.

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What struck me about all three dishes was not only the caliber, freshness and textures of the sea bass, tuna, and beef, but the sheer finesse in execution and delivery. They all seemed to be such simple preparations, yet each had a depth in complexity that went far beyond the ceviche counter – the labor intensive hours of preparation leading up to each finished masterpiece were definitely not lost on me. There is a reason why Benjamin has earned his accolades, and why Coya has risen to the cream of Dubai’s restaurant scene in such a short period of time.

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Thank you Benjamin and Coya for your finesse, your exquisite preparation, effortless execution, and attention to each and every detail. Look out guys I’ve got my eyes on your Robata grill next!

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Shot on location at COYA Restaurant, Restaurant Village, Jumeirah Beach Road

Photos by Tara Atkinson Photography

Dress by Roland Mouret in the Dubai Mall

Hair by  Mustafa at  Al Sagheer Salon 

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