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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In the cheese room with jones the grocer

My love affair with cheese started years ago as a little girl. I could easily gulp down full-fat milk by the gallon, put extra cheddar on my burgers, and sprinkle grated cheese on just about anything I could get my hands on – obviously, dairy was my food group of choice.

As I got older, and for reasons I can’t even remember, I shunned cheese from my diet for a brief period of time. Thankfully, I came to my senses on our honeymoon in Italy where parmigiano reggiano, fresh mozzarella and soft, silky burrata made for a drool-worthy jaunt across the Italian countryside. After a few trips to France, as well as discovering London’s acclaimed La Fromagerie, my cheese buds were rekindled and I haven’t looked back since.

I was very excited when Jones the Grocer first opened their doors in Dubai, and I was even more excited when they opened a new location just steps away from my home. A casual gourmet eatery where service is warm and the space is comfortable, Jones is a place where I often sit down for a bite in a relaxed atmosphere.

While there’s no denying that the food and coffee are both great at Jones, it’s the cheese room that adds a unique dimension and really sets it apart from other restaurants in the city. Lucky for me, their location at the Dusit Thani is fully licensed, which makes an evening of wine and cheese pairings easy, fun, and accessible.

Reminiscent of La Fromagerie, the Cheese Room at Jones has a great selection of artisanal products, which can sometimes be challenging to find in the UAE. I was fortunate to have resident cheese expert Leony guide me through a visit before building one of Jones’ mouthwatering cheese platters. A cheese platter is always à propos, especially during the festive season.

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A pair of sliding glass doors led me (and my holiday ready shoes – wings and all) into the cool, climate-controlled room, which was stocked with some great varieties of cheese that ranged from soft to hard – each with a clear description of origin, unique characteristics, and suggested wine pairings. The smells are intense, and they should be, it’s a cheese room after all.

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Within the cheese room, fresh Italian Buratta, bowls of antipasti, as well as wine, spirits and cookbooks were peppered between logs of chèvre, brie, pecorino, blue, comté, raclette, and the list goes on… Leony was quick to point out December’s cheese of the month – a soft, triple cream Brillat Affiné (in other words, a truffled brie) from France made with cows milk and stuffed with a layer of shaved Italian truffle. As a self-proclaimed truffle lover, I could have stopped right there and walked out with my arms loaded with luscious, truffled goodness, but resisted the urge. We started talking about wine pairings, and I discovered that this cheese goes beautifully with Champagne and Chardonnay.

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While I worked my way through all the cheese in the room, Leony selected what would work well on our platter.

Keeping in line with my truffle obsession, we started off with a Pecorino Moliterno al Tartufo – a raw, sheep’s milk cheese from Sardinia. This is a hard cheese with thick “veins” of truffle woven throughout, perfectly paired with wines such as red Barolo, Barbaresco and Amazon.

Leony pulled out a massive double-handed blade, and with the skill of a seasoned samurai, she cut evenly through an enormous wedge of pecorino. When it was my turn to cut into the cheese, I thrust my entire upper body strength into the knife – not as easy as it looks – and while my samurai skills didn’t come close to Leony’s, I managed to carve out an even wedge that would make it onto our platter.

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Our next cheese was a soft Valbrie from France. Made from cow’s milk and perfectly paired with dry white wine and Riesling, this double cream cheese has a black-peppered rind with a light and subtle taste, creating a nice contrast to the truffled pecorino.

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A Bûche de Chèvre Blanche – also from France – is a soft goat’s cheese with an edible rind. It is one of my favorite cheeses and I often eat it in its natural state, or lightly oven-baked with salad and fruit. The taste is strong without being overpowering, and works beautifully when paired with wines such as Pinot Grigio, Sauvignon Blanc, as well as champagne. We cut through the chèvre delicately with a wire (cutter) that was nearly as thin as string, careful not to break up the cheese. Since its quite soft, the chèvre would have stuck to a regular knife. By using the wire, we were left with beautiful rounds that were completely intact.

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Last, but definitely not least, a Cropwell Stilton rounded out our cheese platter. A semi-hard cheese from Nottingham in the UK, I thought that this blue-veined Stilton would be on the side of pungent. On the contrary, it was smooth, mild with only a subtle hint of sharpness. Pair it with Shiraz, Pinot Noir, or port wine and you’ll have some very happy taste buds!

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We assembled our four selections on one of the big, beautiful, wooden serving platters that Jones is known for. After adding dried apricots, roasted nuts, sweet grapes and salted biscuits, we tossed in a handful of dried cranberries for a festive touch. The contrast between the cheese, fruit, and nuts makes for a great balance between sweet and savory.

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A perfect cheese platter that’s fit for entertaining over Christmas and beyond – easy to put together and even easier to eat. From novice to seasoned foodie, there is enough variety to satisfy everyone’s palate. Pair some great wines and let the flavors speak for themselves.

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Shot on Location at jones the Grocer in the Dusit Thani

Photos by Murrindiefrew.com

Dress by Temperley London in the Dubai Mall

Shoes by Sophia Webster at Level Shoes

Hair by Mohammed Al Sagheer in the DIFC

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