The holidays bring a bounty of invitations. But every once in a while, an invite arrives that’s just too good to refuse. Zod Arifai, renowned chef and owner of Blu in Montclair, invited me to share a special dinner with Dimitrios Leivadas, restaurant manager of Heston Blumenthal's, The Fat Duck, who was visiting New York on holiday.
Suffice it to say, this was no ordinary meal I was invited to. It was a nineteen course Zod Arifai tasting; a series of preparations exhibiting color, balance, texture, and Zod’s signature instinct for coaxing complimentary flavors.
I’m no stranger to Arifai cuisine; throughout the course of the evening, I recognized a few classic Blu dishes, like raw scallops with vanilla oil, soy caramel, and avocado, as well as Blu’s perennially perfect duck with red cabbage.
Zod loyalists would also note that some dishes were re-interpretations of familiar combinations, like warm tuna tartar in a ginger broth, and a black risotto, with squid ink, mushroom powder, and a poached egg. A reinterpretation of Zod’s classic black olive cake and basil ice cream, took the form of a trio dessert featuring a Chai shake served with a black olive biscuit filled with fragrant basil cream. This dessert also featured a new twist, a saffron gellee with salt and almonds. I couldn’t help but notice how remarkably – though, according to Zod, unintentionally – the trio resembled a burger, fries and a shake!
The bulk of the tasting menu consisted new innovations that left me dazzled. Our first course, a horseradish cookie with gravlox and apple cream, was followed by supremely crispy potato skins in chicken livers. The third course presented a spoonful of yogurt, topped with duck fat and apricot, after which arrived a truffle sponge with goat cheese and caviar. Next, one of my favorites arrived, a crispy, creamy, delectable fig and foie gras baklava.
Zod, the quintessential executioner of proteins, approaches fish and meat with unwavering tenderness, coaxing the finest in flavors and textures. When Zod first opened Blu he considered having no ovens at all, only warmers and toaster ovens. Of course, today, you will find ovens in the kitchen at Blu, but never an over-cooked protein.
The fish courses all hit the mark. Impossibly tender oysters, with apple, tarragon and basil seed was followed by a remarkably delicious mackerel with pickled turnip and tapioca, followed by monkfish with shallots, crisp black bean and cilantro.
Then, there was lightly cooked beef with potato and cheddar, venison enhanced with the flavors of blueberry, yam and peppercorn, and, as I mentioned earlier, the perfect duck.
Dessert began with a savory cheese soup with figs and walnut cookie with apple and fennel, followed by charred pineapple with coconut pannacotta, then, a rich chocolate with chocolate meringue.
Throughout the tasting, Zod’s worldly elements of influence were manifest through a seemingly limitless imagination, with poised and perfect execution. By the end of the meal, Dimi and I, in a state of satisfaction and appreciation, could do little more than marvel at the wizardry of Zod’s creations.