Imagine! One chef, one week, and thirty-one courses. Zod Arifai, the fascinating, rocker-turned-chef, invited me to dine at his restaurants, Blu, Next Door, and daryl - a Tour de Zod, if you will. The dining experience left me, in a word: seduced. In the afterglow, one question remained: how does this untrained culinary genius do it?
“I don’t think anyone taught me how to cook.” Zod says, with a lingering European accent, “there were influences in my life. My mother’s cooking was very simple, but it was always very delicious.”
Zod’s cuisine, which he describes as “pure, unmasked food,” is largely due to the local purity of Zod’s homeland - a small countryside town in Albania, where everything he ate as a youth was a product of the land.
“We ate extremely, extremely natural. The only thing we bought was salt and oil. My family ground their own flour, made their own bread and butter. If we wanted milk, we’d go to the cow. During the day, my friends and me would take our animals out for grazing, and then we’d go play soccer or swim all day. On the way home, I’d stop to pick up some beans, cucumbers, or tomatoes at the farms. Mom would do something with them, and that was dinner.”
In his teens, Zod was Kiss[ed] by the rock n’ roll bug while watching the over-the-top theatrics of Kiss on the Paul Lynde Halloween special. It was then that Zod decided to become a musician. Years later, he decided to put down the ax and pick up the chef’s knife to pursue his second passion - food.
“I improvise a lot. It comes from playing music. I learned how to do things by mistake."
Zod works improv in the kitchen, changing his menu to suit his creative mood. The tasting menu, which I dined from, is currently available, but subject to change at anytime.
In his cuisine, Zod blends cultures and combinations with flawless execution. At Next Door he creates an Italian inspired charred octopus with chick peas and raisins, a Thai-inspired ditty with mussels in savory tomato-garlic chili broth, and a shrimp ceviche rife with lime and cilantro. At Blu, Zod’s divine onion carbonara with crisp duck is an adaptation of the classic Italian carbonara. It is the essence irresistibility, exuding pure olfactory ecstasy.
Zod also explores American cuisine with a very stylized meat loaf, atop soft polenta and wild mushrooms. Then, there’s the quintessential American icon - the burger! Put simply, you could smell it coming. The aroma of caramelized onions, sharp white cheddar, and high quality beef, hits your nose with a carnivorous urgency!
In nearly every Zod dish, there is a presence of textural play. “There are instances,” Zod says, “where I want you to taste something very soft and creamy. I just don’t want to put a piece of fish with some vegetables on a plate. I’ve always been about textures."
At daryl, the pairing of opposing textures, crispy and creamy, could be seen in a dish that features a soft, seared scallop, adorned with duck confit and crisp fagioli. Or, at Blu, the smooth housed cured salmon gravlox juxtaposed with crisp pickled radish, is nothing short of a perfect teaser that leaves you wanting more.
Among the best examples of seductively creamy texture is the raw Maine shrimp with lemon purée, chili, strawberry, and micro greens, which may also be interpreted as a sweet little twist on ceviche, without the harsh acid. Another instance of palate coating creaminess is the ethereal truffled risotto at Blu, which features a tenderly poached egg nestled in the center of the Arborio rice. This dish is unequivocally, the most satisfying dish I’ve ever eaten. An honest to goodness Harry Met Sally moment.
Zod creates a tour de force of crispiness with Asian duck salad at Next Door. Imagine, if you would, duck confit latkes, scattered atop julienned Napa cabbage and Asian greens tossed with an aromatic peanut-chili dressing. It’s crispy, it’s savory, and it’s delicious!
At daryl, somewhere in the textural netherworld, lies the seductively tender cured beef carpaccio with wild mushroom salad, potato skin crisps, and pecorino. This dish feels more like a French kiss than anything that's ever graced my palate.
Zod is not a fan of molecular gastronomy, but he does use foams, froths, and gels, but only to “push the main ingredient to the forefront – not to overrun.”
At daryl, the tender house cured salmon that I had was surrounded by delicate green apple foam, and adorned with thinly sliced fennel. The subtle acid of the green apple foam balanced the creamy oils of the salmon, and the fennel, was crisp and cleansing. Zod reprises this concept at Blu with mackerel, typically an oily fish, that is tempered by a tart, acidic green apple foam and horseradish.
Zod’s sauces, which are just as great as the proteins, are applied with great discretion and versatility. At Blu, he provided a sweet and sour sauce to accompany the veal short rib with Brussels sprouts with yam purée that lent just enough tang to the meaty bite of the veal. For the duck breast, Zod paired a red wine fig emulsion, with caramelized turnip and red cabbage, to create a stellar entree. Without a trace of gaminess, it was my most memorable duck yet.
The improvisational chef he is, Zod will sometimes turn things around, and feature the sauce as the main ingredient of a dish. For instance, his dish featuring bay scallops with crisp radish, aromatic, seductive vanilla oil, and savory soy caramel, the scallops provide a subtle background allowing the soy caramel sauce to play the lead. According to Zod, "The scallop is there just to compliment the vanilla oil and soy caramel.”
At any of Zod’s restaurants, dessert is an encore showcase of sweet and savory that will, test your notion of traditional dessert. While you may opt for his time tested deserts like the sumptuous chocolate cake accompanied by a creamy, savory peanut butter ice cream, Zod also creates a savory alternative. Most recently, Zod has taken the cheese plate concept and transformed it into a dessert in the form of cheddar cheese soup with poached pear.
After thirty-one courses of pure culinary seduction, I became a groupie. Zod riffs on his understanding of food with common sense, courage, and pure, untrained imagination to create inspired fare that is framed with unmistakable visual and textural nuance.
It’s a possibility that Zod may embark on a NYC restaurant venture. If he does ever make off to NYC, he will be sorely missed. Shortly after I was seated in the dimly lit dining room at Blu, a woman in her seventies, with a thick French accent, opened the door and asked the host, "You didn't change your chef, did you?" "No." said the host. "Oh, thank goodness. Table for two please." That about says it all.
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