A Preview of The Blackboard

The Center for Culinary Arts Culinary School Market Cafe at The Podium is about to undergo a makeover. French-born, American-raised chef Michel Cottabarren is bringing Manila his combination of classical French technique, creative flair and a preference for market-fresh ingredients that won over hearts and stomachs in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. The Blackboard will feature a rotating menu based on the best produce available, along with a selection of regular dishes that diners will be able to vote on.

By way of both background and disclosure, I was invited to a sort of preview dinner/meeting when I bumped into the Chef — who is the beau of a maternal aunt of mine — as I was walking aroind Shangri-la Plaza Mall. It turned out that CCA/Cravings group was holding their 25th anniversary party at the also soon-to-open Epicurious (According to the aforementioned aunt, who is also with the CCA group, this will be a deli-restaurant concept). They would be hosting some representatives of a cookware company from the United States for dinner at Market Cafe/Soon-to-be-Blackboard, and invited my girlfriend and I to come along. I was also assigned to bring the beer.

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We started our dinner with Chef Michel’s amazing chicken liver pate, which was dug into with gusto before a photograph could be taken. This is a staple at our family gatherings, and I can never get enough of it. I’m excited that more people will get to try this.

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Next up, some wild mushrooms in olive oil. Earthy yet delicate, accented just right by some subtle spice. Great as tapas to start a meal, and just as delicious as a side to a good steak, I’d wager.

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This dish of aubergines and finger chilies stewed in tomatoes was my favorite among the tapas served that evening. It’s undeniably vegetarian and healthy, but I guarantee that any carnivore wouldn’t mind scarfing this down.

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We also had this fish this with asparagus and roasted red pepper slivers. I forgot to ask what fish this was. I guess it would be a similar preparation to the traditional boquerones, but with a larger mackerel-type fish instead of sardines.

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I snuck into the kitchen to take a shot of the chef at work as he finished our paella while those at the table enjoyed their tapas. Several of the culinary students on their practicum also looked on to learn a few tricks from the master.
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This paella mixta was glorious, and easily the best I’ve had in recent memory. The rice was perfectly cooked and expertly seasoned. I made sure to scrape off the bits of socarrat, or what we Filipinos call “tutong” — those crunchy, burnt bits of rice clinging to the paellera. Lovely.

What really set this paella apart was how well the meat and seafood were cooked. The fish was luscious and buttery soft, the chicken and prawns were juicy to the bite, unlike the dry, tough and tasteless toppings one often finds in restaurant paellas.

No need for alioli for this paella. The dish speaks for itself. Expect paella nights at the Blackboard when this will be the only dish available. Not that you would want to order anything else.

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I had a tough time picking a bomber of beer to go with the paella, and thought that the Chatoe Rogue Roguenbier Rye Ale could go well with the rustic, earthy flavors. It turned out to have a robust maltiness and unexpected hop bitterness that overpowered the delicate flavors of the paella. Back to the drawing board for me on this attempted pairing. Perhaps next time, the Roguenbier will do better with a nice chargrilled hunk of meat.
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We capped the night with Chimay Grande Reserve, as our American-Taiwanese guest had an affinity for Belgian ales. It was the perfect nightcap to our meal: fruity, boozy and full-bodied.

I look forward to more nights like this once The Blackboard opens later this month. Hopefully I can try to organize a beer pairing dinner that will actually work.

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