This week I was treated to a truly exceptional dinner at J&G Grill by Bradley Kilgore and Antonio Bachour, went to what I believe is probably the best steakhouse in town and ate at the two “female” concepts from the Pubbelly group (the Spanish and the Italian).
Miami is rapidly turning into a great food city thanks to tenacious local chefs and a growing number of out- of-town chefs and restaurants that have decided they want a 305 area code number. High-end, fine dining as mostly evident in Michelin starred restaurants around the world is not what this growth is characterized for, rather for ” farm to table”, small plates, gastropubs and clever fast casual concepts. Nobody in town has yet ventured down the classical french-influenced style of dizzying diners with the amuse-bouche, multiple-course, petit-fours tasting menu combination the finest restaurants in the world typically offers. Only 3 restaurants in Miami come to mind where such a formula could perhaps be enjoyed, two of them classics (Palm D’Or and Pascal’s On Ponce) and the two year old db Bistro Moderne.
This makes perfect sense. Miami is a coastal city and where flip flops rule over blazers and tie sales probably rank as low as scarfs. But every once in a while, it’s refreshing to be able to enjoy a Michelin star standard meal surrounded by palm trees and without having to fly hundreds of miles for it. This week, recently appointed executive chef Bradley Kilgore and Antonio Bachour treated me to this pleasure, at the J&G Grill restaurant in the St. Regis Bal Harbour resort.
The hiring of Bradley into the swanky import (I refer as imports to restaurants that were not originated in Miami) was praised by the local food community. Ever since he was tagged during the Cobaya dinner at the Mandarin Oriental’s Azul restaurant, food bloggers and critics have been carefully monitoring his every move, from his departure from Azul to his pop-up dinners and ad-hoc events, to rumors about opening his own place or leaving town. At the young age of 27, he already boasts an impressive resume with stints at Chicago’s L2O, Denver and Italy. The kitchen at J&G Grill offers the perfect ground for Bradley to flawlessly execute Jean Georges Vongerichten’s inspired menu whilst deepening his creative skills.
The duo he now makes in that kitchen with pastry chef Antonio Bachour, is a tough one to match in town. I had the pleasure to assist a full blow, dessert only tasting menu with Antonio a few weeks ago and was amazed at his ability to present and create not just visually stunning, but powerfully flavorful combinations. When the first opportunity rose to surrender myself to their combined abilities, I knew it would be one to write home about. The 12-course tasting menu Bradley and Antonio created was the best dining experience I have had the pleasure to take part in within the boundaries of Miami, and has set a new, higher standard for what fine dining should be in town.
After devouring the fluffy black truffle brioches that had substituted the bread basket, things got started with an ingredient usually saved for the end: cocoa. The amuse bouche consisted of a fine cracker topped with an unsweetened cocoa mousse hosting an olive oil cube and a few edible flowers. First up and in seamless continuation to the cocoa theme was a juicy plump scallop, swimming nicely in a cocoa butter emulsion and toped with candied fennel and grapefruit segments. In true collaborative fashion, they both presented us with the next course, a combination of raspberries, beets and goat cheese which included textures such as foam, powder and glaze. The deep, sweet flavor of the beet glaze vaguely reminded me of Argan oil, one of the most flavorful of the nut oils out there. The dish was another sweet/sour demonstration of the impressive talent behind these two.
Brad and Antonio aren’t just highly skilled chefs. Their devotion to service is in tune with the highest of standards, a must for anybody wishing to be successful in an industry which belongs, at the end of the day, to the service sector. They remind me in that respect to perhaps the ultimate example of excellence in service, Thomas Keller, and how his devotion to his customers is to vividly present across all his brands.
Bradley took over for the next part of the menu, focused around three proteins: veal, poussin and salmon. His veal marrow was beautifully presented on a bed of black rock salt, and came with a combination of braised oxtail, horseradish, medjool dates and almonds on top. The spark from the horseradish cut right through the fat like a sharp knife, and the sweetness from dates and nuttiness from the almonds provided the perfect balance. Poussin breasts were carefully shaped into a small vase to host dark leg meat which had been mixed with porcini mushrooms that had been cooked with espresso, onions and toasted garlic to elevate their earthiness.
A light garlic jus at the bottom provided the perfect liquid in which to soak each bite prior to consumption. The salmon course, a brilliant take on the classic fish/pork combination consisted of a salmon piece so soft it had to be just briefly touched by the fork to separate. This is thanks to 8 minutes of Sous-vide at 46.5 deg. C, in case you feel like trying it at home!. The pork flavor came from rendered fat used in the sous-vide from iberico chorizo that had been diced and cooked for overnight dehydration and subsequent grind in order to obtain the deep and intense powder that covered the salmon. Three outstanding dishes that made us all conclude that in order to eat like this, a flight somewhere is required.
Antonio took turns and of course, made sure Bradley’s brilliant performance up to then wasn’t destroyed. Au contraire, it was elevated. We had already experienced Antonio’s wildly creative desserts in the past, but perhaps the reason one can always go back without fear of tiredness is the fact that he’s constantly coming up with new combinations, creations, or different techniques for familiar ingredients. He got us started with raspberry and lychee sorbets, which also included two other raspberry textures (gel/compote) and pistachio cake. Refreshing, acid, sweet, nutty. His next combination included the alcohols vodka and Campari, used respectively inside compressed melons and as gelee. White chocolate cremeux and frozen cubes of yoghurt added the perfect balance of flavor and texture. Of his many sweet creations, the ones I enjoy the most are the ones where a fruit based, jelly texture cover a deep dish and various foams, fruits and flowers decorate the top. This was his next presentation, the base being coconut “panna-cotta” and the toppings a combination of mango, pineapple and dragon fruit in various textures and forms. Tropical and sweet at it’s best.
Next up: the pear. Single ingredient, multiple textures showcasing technique and creativity. Poached, in sorbet, crisps, puree all scattered around and surrounded by small dollops of Crème fraîche for balance of flavour. Finally, one of Antonio’s latest creations: a creamy Valhona chocolate popsicle, placed face down on a plate and surrounded by a string of chocolate cream and mango both in foam and in gel. The feast couldn’t end until Antonio’s petit-fours hit the table, and so did the raspberry and carrot macaroons, bonbons, and chewy caramel covered in chocolate.
Obviously I haven’t eaten at every restaurant in Miami, but I’ve had my fair share and believe I’ve covered a great deal of at least, the ones I consider to be the best, both local and imported. I can say with certainty the meal I had this week at J&G Grill by these two highly talented chefs will remain until further notice as the one to beat, and the highest bar by which I will measure Miami’s fine dining scene.
If one were to characterize the Pubbelly group of restaurants as a family, it probably resembles an American one during the post- World War II era that gave birth to the “baby-boomers”: 6 kids plus another bun in the oven in less time than it takes couples from this day and age to plan, and have, their first one. We could continue building the story and speculate that mom is Spanish; her dad is Italian; dad is Asian. So 3 boys and 3 girls (two twins) sounds about right, and the looks range from mediterranean, to Asian, to a mixture of the two.
I digress. The purpose of the story was to provide an opener to the three girls from the Pubbelly group: Macchialina and the Barceloneta twins, both of which offer sensational Italian / Spanish influenced food and which I visited this week.
Barceloneta was the third installment in the series of Pubbelly branded concepts, and it is the brainchild of chef Juliana Gonzalez, Daniella Rezai and Manuel Suarez-Inclan, three friends that lived in Spain for many years and that are executing their vision for a Catalan “mercat” style dining. The menu is tapas based with a wide charcuterie and cheese section, rice based “paellla” style dishes, flat breads and proteins from both land and sea cooked “a la plancha” and offered with different sauces.
Their tapas based dishes are brilliant. Gorgeous “boquerones” (sardines) come with crispy sliced garlic and parsley, their perfect companions. Mediterranean flavors jump at you from the “esqueizada”, or snapper crudo with tomato, black olives and pearl onions. Albacore white tuna is elevated with a sweet gazpacho vinaigrette. Little gem lettuces are split in half and added to the grill, then seasoned with a herb based vinaigrette and plenty of shaved “zorita” cheese. Who doesn’t eat lettuce like this? Some of their tapas come in piping hot small iron pans, such as the “garrotza” cheese filled peppers swimming in onion compote and sprinkled with hazelnuts.
The execution of the main proteins is brilliant as they soak up smokiness from the “plancha” and are paired with different garnishes or toppings. Large shrimp from Madagascar allow you to suck up their heads for maximum flavor and a perfect match for the plump, succulent bodies. Large squid from Vietnam is presented whole, sliced and including its tentacles; striking presentation, and gorgeous taste from a helping of pesto. Likewise for the soft, flawlessly cooked octopus.
Barceloneta is one of the best places in town for a large group meal. There are many family style tables suited for this, and the food is best enjoyed when shared. The ambiance is lively and the staff is both knowledgeable and friendly. Another winner from the Pubbelly family.
The Italian girl, Macchialina, was born in 2012 and is a joint venture between the Pubbelly group and New York born chef Michael Pirolo, who used to head the kitchen at Scarpetta. It quickly positioned itself as one of the best Italian restaurants in town, as per the blog posts of local food bloggers, food critics reviews and the general public. I concur since I have no other local Italian restaurant higher on my ranking.
The food is “rustic Italian fare” and they aim to resemble a place you would find in New York’s East Village. The food is impressive. The menu boasts a large raw bar and charcuterie section, antipasti, pizza, home-made pasta and entrees. Let me start by the pizza: if you like them Naepolitan style, this is one of the best in town.
As with all Pubbelly branded ventures, the flavors are there. Crudos part of the antipasti section carry depth in fish tones, unlike the vast majority of the crudos offered nowadays by just about every restaurant in town. Broccolini are nicely seared and offered “caesar” style with garlic aioli and shaved parmesan. The meatballs are probably the best I’ve had in town, dense and with plenty of herb, swimming in rich, thick tomato sauce. Octopus and quail, two challenging proteins are perfectly executed and paired with baby potatoes and polenta respectively. The quail was juicy and sweet from a balsamic reduction that had been poured over it.
Pastas struggle to find competitors in town, perhaps Salumeria 104 and Scarpetta from the imports team. They are home made, but I believe home made pasta is as much a marketing gimmick as “farm to table” specially if the execution is wrong. I’ve had both outstanding pasta dishes with dried pasta (Cafe Martorano) and inedible home made pasta dishes (thou shall remain unnamed) that make me believe the fact that they are fresh and “fatto a casa” is irrelevant. Fortunately, Macchialina’s execution is spot on, and the tagliolini al funghi I had was sublime. When it came to the main course, Pirolo hit a home run with a tender, juicy, succulent half-chicken that begs the question: how? Coupled with a creamy corn base, it made for a perfect poultry main course. Dessert is something you should stop reading this and go have: their Tiramisu. Anyone would be pressed to find a richer, creamier pot of goodness in the 305.
Macchialina and Barceloneta are fantastic. They are not just some of the best options in town for a fun night out filled with great food, they are strong contenders for winning best in their respective genres. As I’ve written before, the Pubbelly group is one of the best things to happen to Miami’s dining scene in recent years and the three ladies of the group are proof.
I’m no food historian nor I intend to be, but I wouldn’t be surprised to find out that the steakhouse is America’s oldest and most popular restaurant concept. Few things represent more the culture of North American food as a great grilled steak, plenty of sides and a cheesecake for dessert.
There are plenty of steakhouse chains in America, most of which are present in Miami: Morton’s, Palm, Hillstone, Smith & Wollensky, Capital Grill, Ruth’s Chris, to name a few; Miami also has it’s own personal
brand of steakhouse with local favorites such as Prime 112, Edge Steak & Bar and PB Steak.
But as I tweeted out a year ago after trying their Prime, Dry Aged ribeye for the first time, my money is on Red, located in Miami beach and an import from Ohio. As with most great things in life, Red was born from the inquisitive mind of someone that was not happy with the available choices: restauranteur Brad Friedlander from Ohio. He opened the original Red in Beachwood 7 years ago and expanded over the last 2 years to Miami Beach and Boca raton.
The fact that Red has served me the most tender, juicy, perfect ribeye in town is beyond the point. Why Red is such a fantastic restaurant has to do with executive chef and partner Peter Vauthy’s focus on the overall dining experience. You see, most steakhouse may see sides, starters, seafood items, etc as “fillers” to the menu. At Red, they are also main characters and you could easily have a tremendous meal and not even have steak. Take the grilled shrimp for instance, with grilled crab salad placed on the head, served on a bed of creamy parmesan risotto and spicy tomato sauce. Or the buratta, with beefy heirloom tomatoes and the cheese wrapped in iberico ham. Zucchini flowers are stuffed with goat cheese and come on a bed of creamed corn.
When it does come to steaks though, the purveyors at Red have a simple strategy: what is the best available steak out there? And what else could be done to it to make it even more tender? This is how you end up with USDA Prime quality steaks, available as such or dry aged in house. There simply is no better steak! and of course they cook it perfectly. The sides are also great compliments, mac n’ cheese, corn, brussel sprouts, you name it. Also available at Red is the mysterious Wagyu imported from Japan, which comes to you with it’s own certificate of origin from Miyazaki. Never had I tasted steak so delicate and succulent, almost foie-gras like as it virtually melts in your mouth. A word of warning: I’m here to find you great food not to save you money!, so please don’t come complaining to me if you get stuck with a 500$ check for steak and potatoes. It’s worth every penny.
Not risking the final bites go to waste after such a perfect beef feast, Peter offers equally comforting desserts such as fluffy jam doughnuts, perfect cheesecake and key lime pie and phyllo apple crisp with vanilla ice cream to die for.
There are plenty of great steakhouses in town, there is no reason to complain about that genre. But Red stands out as the best in my opinion.
Write to you next week!