By Tali Jaffe Minor
Get ready to be whisked away to the Mediterranean by way of the tropics at Aba. Chef CJ Jacobson (of Top Chef fame) brings his restaurant concept to Bal Harbour Shops, following the success of its outposts in Austin and Chicago. On the heels of a very successful opening day, Chef CJ carved out a few minutes to share his first impressions, must-order dishes and how he’s infusing his menu with the natural bounty of South Florida.
Congratulations on opening Aba at Bal Harbour Shops! The doors are barely open, but what have been some of your first impressions?
We’ve only been open a few days and I’m pleasantly surprised by the turnout. Word is traveling fast!
Your California roots helped develop your seasonal, ingredient-focused menus. What are some of the ingredients you’re excited about incorporating from the local landscape?
It’s always exciting as a chef to see what ingredients are special to a place. While plantains may not find their way into Mediterranean food, we definitely plan to use guava and stone crab. Currently we use local mahi mahi, finger limes, lettuces, cilantro and many other herbs—one in particular that I can’t get enough of is purple-tinged watercress.
I see there’s an emphasis on California wines. Did you help in making those selections? Is there a region you’re particularly fond of?
I love the entire Napa region. If I could live in one place in the world, it would be there.
The interior design is stunning. Were you a part of the overall concept?
I was not directly involved with the design of the restaurant but I do love foliage in a restaurant. And we have fig trees. I love the Moroccan style patterns in the tiles and antique lamps illuminating the space. The food is unique in that its use of spices and herbs are transportive: We are hoping to offer an environment that will carry you away, too.
One item on the menu caught my attention (just reading the word ‘labneh,’ makes me salivate). Yours is a Spinach Labneh with blueberry, dill and chili oil. How did you develop that recipe?
The spinach labneh came about because I was trying to think of another dip or variety of hummus on the menu. I’ve created a boatload over the years through our two restaurant concepts, but I wanted a new one. I thought about spinach-artichoke dip and voila! I added dill for brightness, chili oil for heat and blueberries for sweet freshness.
The scallops with fig, fenugreek, sumac and date vinaigrette is another standout for its unexpected pairings. Where do you begin your exploration of ingredient combinations?
Fenugreek seeds smell to me of caramel and long cooked onions. I decided to enhance the caramel flavor with dates and then balance the dish with the acidic ground berry, sumac. I thought it tasted great and a perfect complement to the buttery scallops.
Are you constantly developing new recipes? And what’s that process like for you? Is it super controlled or more of an organic development?
My creative process varies, sometimes I see a dish in my dreams, sometimes I’m inspired by a work or art or nature. Usually, it’s an ingredient that fires me up. I want to showcase it, treat it with respect and hopefully share that with others. I also like to allow for a little space before finishing a dish, but Top Chef taught me that my best dishes come when the pressure is on.
Tell us a little about Executive Chef Leo Pablo. How did you two connect? Was he in the kitchen at your other locations?
I am very grateful for the addition of Leo Pablo to the Aba family. He has a great resumé, having worked for Michael Mina and Jean-Georges Vongerichten. Leo is a chef’s chef and has great technique and leadership. He proved this to our entire team while spending months at Aba Chicago, Ema and Aba Austin. Leo also has the best smile in all the land—an important trait working in a busy kitchen!
Who have been are some of your culinary heroes?
My culinary heroes are Nancy Silverton for her perfect sensibilities. Marc Peel because of his careful approach to hyper local and odd ingredients. Rene Redzepi because he taught me to think deeply about taste.
I’m sure you’ve been very busy preparing for the opening, but if you’ve had any downtime at Bal Harbour, how have you spent it? Any shops you’ve particularly enjoyed?
I love the French Dip at Hillstone. I’ve had it back in LA many times and twice here since we’ve opened. I haven’t had a lot of time to shop on my own, but my wife was not shy in touring me around the Shops and directing me toward the particular handbags she likes (Chloé and Stella McCartney). I have always loved James Pearse and I have lots of Le Labo, and I’m excited to check out more.