Friday, October 12, 2007

A Hunk of Malarkey: Top Chef Brian in Orlando

There was no application required for Top Chef: Miami contestant and fourth-runner-up, Chef Brian Malarkey. Bravo TV called him at the Oceanaire Seafood Room in San Diego, where he spends long days listening to Bon Jovi and Bob Marley in front of the stove as executive chef. They asked for his participation in the third season of the most highly-rated food show on television. For Brian, the prospect of being asked to“climb a coconut tree and cook” was daunting, but he accepted and went on to be a fierce competitor.

Brian is obsessed with seafood, and regaled me with anecdotes about eating freshly cooked squid on the docks in Marrakesh in Morocco, ink squirting from the grilled flesh. He smiles widely at me – and I can’t help but blush - as he talks about the “spirit of the fish,” its wild and untamed nature coming through in each of his dishes.

Recently voted San Diego’s Chef of the Year for 2007, Brian is at the top of his game. It’s no wonder that the uber-quirky chef from Oregon, donning a brown fedora instead of a toque, was such an exciting competitor. He’s easy on the eyes, too – and his food can only be described as inspired. Brian preaches “freshness, flavors and fun” as the main components of his food at the Oceanaire, and that mantra is seared into his culinary stylings. His food is the definition of unpretentious, even though his repertoire once included an indubitably rich blue crab crème Anglaise, and a famed foie gras sorbet, which he lovingly named, “ducks on a frozen pond”.

Chef Brian hosted a beautiful dinner at the Oceanaire in Orlando, the newest addition to the restaurant group’s thirteen other locations, on Thursday night. Five courses, five wines, innumerable flavors. Ethereal is the only word to describe the experience.

Picture this: A creamy scallop, deemed the “essence of the ocean” by Chef Brian, hit at the last minute with a squirt of lemon juice, black caviar and finished with red sea salt, sits next to an oyster shell filled wit ruby-red ahi tuna tartare, a classic kicked up into a perfect juxtaposition of delicate and fiery. An oyster on the half shell, spritzed with champagne and a strawberry mignonette finishes the beautiful trio d’amuses.

Second course was blast of Asian and Latino flavors called a “seafood sausage.” Rich Corvia sea bass and shrimp are held together by a delicate scallop mousse, sitting atop a sweet chili glaze and vibrant cilantro-ginger vinaigrette. It was paired perfectly with a Kabinett Reisling (the driest of German Reislings), the crispness of the wine cutting through the Asian spices and the heat of the sriracha and the minerality (hints of chalkiness and wet limestone) complementing perfectly the white wine poached mussels and conch toast sitting in the middle of the table.

A creamy turnip puree complemented a gorgeous dish of Alaskan Halibut, probably my second favorite fish after salmon. A crunchy fennel slaw offsets the flaky white flesh of the fish, glazed with a sweet and tangy sauce of orange juice and Absolut Citron, making it the perfect “screwdriver.”

The crowning glory – the most innovative incarnation of Surf ‘n Turf I have ever experienced. In most restaurants, a slab of New York Strip sits next to an awkward-to-eat in-shell lobster tail and a lifeless brown demi-glace. Not so with Chef Brian’s stylings. Several pieces of medium-cooked steak perched happily on top of vibrant red lobster claw meat, nestled in tiny asparagus tips and purple potato hash. Drizzled around the plate was not the useless and generally flavorless demi-glace, but a garnet colored beet and veal reduction, adding richness to the dish that no other sauce could even dream of accomplishing. It was topped with crispy fried slivers of parsnip, and let me just tell you - any chef brave enough to use parsnips on anything earns my Chef of the Year award. In my pants.

Port-poached pears stuffed with Camemzola cheese (a juxtaposition of Camembert and Gorgonzola, does it GET any better?) and a 150-year-old Balsamic vinegar reduction is only my favorite dessert in the history of eating. Paired with a frizzante Moscato d’Asti, the dessert was the perfect ending to the meal.

The vibrancy of Brian’s food matches his dynamic personality. Talking with him, or rather listening to him talk, one can’t help but wonder if the 11-plus hour days he works in the Oceanaire’s kitchen has taken a toll on his sanity. His body language is animated to the point of spasmodic, and his facial expressions are nothing less than cartoonish. But no one, much less myself, is telling him to pack his knives and go. I could have talked to him all night. The achievement of the evening was when he signed the evening's menu for my best friend, Veronica, a huge fan of the show, and Brian Malarkey groupie. As I flirtatiously tell him that she drools over his charm and wants to be the mother of his children, he scribbles, "Veronica - what shall we name our babies? - Brian Malarkey." Yes, I want to marry this man as much as every other woman in America.

The new location at Pointe Orlando, opening in May of this year, has become the 14th location for the Oceanaire Seafood Room, a “power seafood dining concept,” styled to look like the inside of an oceanliner from the 1930s. The restaurant captures the grandiose, luxuriant lifestyle of the era without compromising the intimacy that fine-diners crave.

With the freshness of the seafood (nothing stays in-house longer than 36 hours) and the inspiration of chefs like Brian Malarkey and Garey Hiles (executive chef of the Pointe Orlando location) the Oceanaire Seafood Room captures the “spirit of the fish,” and the translation of that spirit onto the plate is never lost. The impeccable service, charm, and calibre of culinary professionalism in this restaurant is staggering, and there's no way that the words "pack your knives" could precede the word "go." So do it. Go.

1 comment:

Veronica said...

Hooray! Brian and I are having babies together!