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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Chef Spotlight: In the Kitchen with The Experience by Reif Othman

I’m often at a loss for words when I meet a great chef. They are the artists, the pioneers, and the visionaries that roam the culinary world with a constant thirst to learn, inspire, and create. At the risk of sounding too poetic, great food is more than just taste, it’s an emotion all on its own.

I had the privilege of watching chef Reif Othman glide through his kitchen with the cool-headed confidence of a culinary James Bond – he is suave, charming, and effortless. I did this twice, once as a guest at The Experience, and once as an active participant in his kitchen. On both occasions, it was an honor to say the least, and watching him transition from gracious host to king of his kitchen with ease and fluidity is an impressive sight.

Born and raised in Singapore, Reif developed his “mediterrasian” culinary style while working in cities such as Kuala Lumpur, London, and Lyon. His six-year stint as Zuma’s executive chef catapulted him into the leagues of the finest chefs in the region, and one could easily argue, worldwide. In fact, it was during Reif’s chef training for Zuma, which took place in a loft-style apartment in New York City, that would leave a big impression on him and is what planted the seed for what would eventually become The Experience.

Located on the 37th floor of the H Hotel with breathtaking views of Old Dubai, The Experience was born out of Reif’s desire to build a test kitchen in an empty space one floor above Play Restaurant & Lounge, where he currently resides as executive chef.

views of old dubai

Since the space was too big to build just a kitchen, Reif decided to take his concept a step further and create an apartment where guests can relax in an intimate setting – all while being wined and dined by the man himself! “Basically, this is like my apartment, my own villa. You feel cozy, you feel at home – it’s a chef’s dream! I have great investors and partners who give me the freedom to do what I love. I want to take this concept to the next level.”

As soon as you step off the lift, you enter the living room. There’s a full length mirror, coffee tables, and couches where you can sit and enjoy an aperitif – just like you would at a friend’s house – it is all very private and personal.

lidija's Kitchen mirror shot at the experience

When the doors open to the main dining area, the real fun begins and twelve lucky guests are seated at a large, u-shaped table facing Reif’s open kitchen “playground.”

The experience roland mouret full restaurant

lidija at the experience in the kitchen

All personal touches have been curated by the chef himself. From wallpaper and curtains from France, to locally sourced furniture pieces, fine cutlery and porcelain from Spain, with some pieces handcrafted especially for Reif in Japan. If his mission is to make you feel at home and comfortable, then it’s mission accomplished.

Dinner includes ten courses and can go up to a jaw-dropping twenty-five. “From the eighth course, I will say ‘are you ok, or do you want to go on?’” says the chef with a glimmer of mischief in his eyes. “You can do twelve, you can do fourteen, you can do sixteen. It’s up to you.”

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Rarely repeating the same dish at the Experience, Reif creates dishes that are based on what he feels and can tailor them to individual needs. “I don’t prep,” He says “I have my basic stocks. If you come in and say ‘I’m allergic to seafood,’ then I will create anything without seafood. That’s it.”

He sets the bar even higher with plans to open an Imax theater in a room at the back of the restaurant at the end of March 2017 – and we’re not talking reruns either. Reif’s Imax will be directly linked to Vox Cinemas, which means diners can watch movies that are new in theaters. “Whatever is new in the cinema will be linked to my Imax. Finish off your ten-course meal and you move to a movie. You’ll have homemade popcorn, cotton candy, you can even have your wine in there.”

On when he started cooking, he says, “I was 16. I think I got it from my mom. She used to have a small little store back home in Singapore, so I would help her with that. Even during my younger days, I’m the only one who would follow her to the market. All the moms would be with their daughters, and I would be the only boy!”

“So it’s in your blood?” I say to which he replies “A little bit.”

A mesmerizing journey was about to begin…

the experience full view shot

seaweed butter

Once inside Reif’s kitchen, I start my apprenticeship by making an amuse-bouche of caviar and Reif’s “secret” mousse. This isn’t just any caviar – made by Sturia, France’s leading caviar producer – these little black jewels are especially made for him.

sturia caviar

“With Reif caviar,” he says, “they clean the line, and pick the eggs. Anything irregular they put it aside.” He gave me the rundown on how the optimal maturation time for his caviar is 6 weeks to balance out the salt ratio. He is proud when he tells me about how his caviar contains a ratio of only 1.5% instead of the usual 3% found in most other varieties, and proceeded to tell me the conditions in which the sturgeon live. A milky pond, with freedom to swim freely in un-crowded conditions is what the fish need to thrive. Judging from the fine quality of the caviar, it is clear that Sturia raises happy sturgeon.

We piped the bottom of a little round box with the cream-coloured mousse. When I asked Reif what was in it, he shrugged his shoulders “I don’t know” he teased, “it wouldn’t be nice to tell you what’s in there!” With a tool that looked like a giant tweezer, we added caviar, followed by grated Sudachi zest (Japanese lime), and little pearls of crispy, puffed sushi rice.

It was almost too pretty to eat! Reif closed the lid of the box before ushering me to my seat in the dining room – it was time to taste. When my spoon slid onto the caviar through the silky puree, I knew that something special was about to hit my lips. I was right – it was unlike anything I had ever tried. When I guessed the secret ingredient (cauliflower, shhh, don’t tell anyone), Reif gave me a high five before his assistant topped up my champagne. We were off to a great start!

perspective caviar shot

the experience lable by reif othman

lidija amuse bouche at the table

Next on Reif’s agenda was Tuna belly tartare (otoro) prepared in two different ways. In the first, tuna was delicately scraped with the back of the spoon and served on deep fried nori.

closeup of totoro

closeup of tuna on wasabi cracker

reif and lidija making tuna candid shot

The second was the same tuna belly, this time diced into fine cubes, and tossed with wasabi mayo. Served on what looked like a simple crispy rice cracker, was actually cooked sushi rice that was blitzed with squid ink, and dried before being fried until crisp. When I asked Reif if he could make me the same thing tomorrow, he replied with a smile “You wouldn’t have anything you had today – except for the caviar!”

two types of tuna tartare at the experience

When it was time for our third course, thinly sliced, scored, and cured Japanese snapper was laid out onto a plate and cascaded with a broth of Umeboshi (Japanese sour plum) and fish stock.  Reif was keen on educating me about the snapper we were using and pulled out a book on Japanese fish.

A touch of Mizuna (Japanese mustard greens), crispy kale and spring onion oil finished the dish. Reif says it’s simple. I say it’s meticulous, crafted, and perfect.

cooking with reif othman at the experience

cured red snapper

Paper-thin Japanese Wagyu Sirloin was served over broth infused noodles, and topped Myoga – young Japanese ginger.

It was at this point I noticed that our dishes were transitioning from light to slightly heavier. Note to self, next time wear yoga pants. Reif pulled out a fresh Yuzu and held it up to my nose – powerful and insanely aromatic! I thought he plucked it off the tree in the living room entrance. “Nah”, he laughed, “that tree isn’t real! It’s just for show!”

yuxu pic

A man after my own heart, he grated fresh black truffle over the dish, then added hot beef consommé to “cook” the meat. While the liquid gushed over the dish, an amazing scent permeated the air. It was more divine than it sounds.

grating truffle

broth on noodles

lidija eating noodles

“I don’t boil with water, I only use vegetable stocks,” says Reif, while preparing course number five. “Water is very dull and flat. Even at Play, we always have a pot of boiling vegetable stock just for our pastas.” Plunging an individual “ravioli” into the hot liquid, I asked him what was stuffed inside the pasta. He gave me his ‘you’ll-have-to-wait-and-see’ look that I was growing accustomed to.

The lone ravioli was laid on a sauce made out of fresh cream, milk, and parmesan. It turned out that I had to eat it in one bite – no chewing allowed! Reif was clear with his instructions “Say Hakaaa! And eat the whole thing at once.” What happened next was somewhat of a revelation as the ravioli exploded in my mouth, oozing with a burst of liquid truffle-infused butter. It was rich, decadent, and as unexpected as the rest of my day. I’m completely convinced that Reif goes to sleep dreaming of what to cook and how to surprise his guests.

secret ravioli truffle and cream sauce

lidija eating secret ravioli

Just when I thought it was time for dessert, Reif pulled out grade ‘A’ Wagyu sirloin strips in preparation for his rendition of a classic Korean bibimbap. The sirloin strips – marinated with apple and soy sauce – were lightly seared unilaterally in a hot, cast iron skillet lined with Wagyu fat.

wagu sirloin searing

A pot dressed with sesame oil was filled with Japanese rice, and topped with soy dressing and vegetable-infused bok choy. Homemade Kimchi, our quick-seared Wagyu strips, and the ultimate runny egg (slowly cooked to perfection in a sous-vide) crowned our dish.

babimbap at the experience

Reif led me to the table to taste. I watched him break through the soft cooked egg yolk while it slithered throughout the dish, meticulously tossing all ingredients together. This was comfort food redefined!

As I was polishing off the last of my Bibimbap, Reif popped out of the kitchen with a box of lush-red strawberries. “From Japan!” He proclaimed. They tasted as good as they looked – even the packaging was perfect! It was time for dessert.

Plated on what looked like a porcelain log, nearly each component of the dessert had an element of strawberry to it. A strawberry filled vanilla sphere coated with white chocolate sat atop raspberry pop rock (bringing back childhood memories). Strawberry Swiss rolls made out of sponge cake, strawberry jam, and white chocolate soil, scattered across the plate. A brilliant finale to a spectacular meal!

talking with reif

closeup dessert

The Experience certainly does live up to its name and much much more! Thank you, Reif, for giving me a glimpse into your kitchen – you are the ultimate host and a force to be reckoned with. Here’s to more Hakaaa’s soon!

Double-O-seven would be proud!

lidija's kitchen with Reif Othman at the experience

lidija's Kitchen Reif Othman Experience pic 2

reif othman at the experience

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Shot on location at the Experience in the H Hotel, Dubai

Photos by Tara Atkinson Photography

Dress by Roland Mouret

Jewelry by Nadine Kanso for Bilarabi

Hair by Mustafa at Polished Salon

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