Thursday, December 13, 2012

A Dinner with Chef Brad Kilgore

It's not often that my photos draw much attention beyond a small group of food-obsessed Miami locals. But when I posted pictures from a dinner that chef Brad Kilgore put together a few months ago, discerning folks around the country took notice. I think Brandon Baltzley, the chef behind the nomadic Crux "micro-restaurant" traveling roadshow, summed it up when he tweeted: "Who the fuck is @brad_kilgore and why is no one following him?"

In direct answer to that question: Brad Kilgore is a local chef who until recently was working at Azul restaurant on Brickell Key. He was a sous chef under Joel Huff when Azul did our Cobaya dinner last year, and along with chef de cuisine Jacob Anaya, took on added responsibilities when Huff left a couple months later. Before coming to Miami for Azul, Brad had been working in Chicago, including stints at Alinea, L2O, and Boka, then became Executive Sous Chef at Epic. For his complete backstory, read here.

But you can't just walk in and order a dinner like this at Azul, for at least two reasons: (1) we had assembled a small group for a "let me cook for you" kind of night, so what you see here isn't on the regular menu; and (2) Kilgore is no longer at Azul. So why am I posting this now?

Well, the good news is that Brad left Azul in order to partner up with Jeremy and Paola Goldberg of Route 9 in Coral Gables and the recently opened Exit 1 on Key Biscayne. Brad has been putting his menu into place at Exit 1, and while that stunning whole pig you see here isn't on it, there should be plenty of other opportunities to taste Brad's handiwork. For just one, he's doing a dinner with Cigar City Brewery next week on Tuesday, December 18.

So consider the meal described here something of a prototype.

Our dinner started with an amuse bouche modeled after one of my favorite unlikely combinations: vitello tonnato. Brad's version substituted a melting puddle of braised veal breast, topped with a frothy emulsion of egg yolk, tuna and lemon, all dolloped with warm goat butter. This rich bite was a preview of the indulgence to come.

And it came quickly. The primary notes of the first dish - cauliflower and caviar - were a riff on the French Laundry's cauliflower panna cotta with beluga caviar.[1] Kilgore's version started with a puddle of a cold, creamy cauliflower and white chocolate "vichysoisse"[2] Next to that was a generous mound of really fine royal osetra caviar, topped with a quenelle of a darkly caramelized roasted cauliflower gelato, mounted with a few crisped florets to reinforce the notion. This was rich upon rich, but it still found its balance. I loved it.

(continued ...)

A crudo of cobia, cured in sour orange juice and rubbed with Aleppo pepper, showed a more delicate side. An emerald green sauce of culantro and shiso brought more bright clean flavors, as did a scatter of fresh  leaves, herbs and their blossoms.

The next dish was one of the most unusual I've had in some time: an XO consommé (subbing a smoked Virginia country ham for Chinese Jinhua ham), in which was basking a torched, miso-rubbed plank of banana, some caramelized figs, and a grapefruit and Aperol "ile flottante" floating on a nasturtium leaf. It's not often that I say "I've never had anything remotely like that before," but this came close.[3] Salty, bitter, tart, sweet, fruity, vegetal - there was a lot going on here. I can't say it worked perfectly, but I can also say I was intrigued enough that I'd gladly have it again.

Back to decadence: Wagyu beef cheek, braised until practically collapsing into itself, glazed with soy, dill and mustard seed, served over creamy grits bolstered with Tallegio cheese and a hint of almond oil, a powder of sesame oil, some slivers of apple, and brightly flavored dill flowers providing some welcome contrast.

One of the most stunning presentations I've seen all year, the squab was served cocooned within a crispy "nest" festooned with sweet potato leaves and plump, fragrant anise hyssop buds and leaves. The bird's rosy breast, along with some Butter Snap Pretzel gnocchi, were napped with a sauce of squab jus and pickled peach purée.

The meal could easily have been coming in for a landing at this point. Instead, we got an intermezzo, a round of cucumber gelée topped with shaved marcona almonds and ringlets of pickled onion. The reference point here shifts from Keller to his one-time protegé Grant Achatz, who has done a green almond set in cucumber gel at Alinea.

It did little to prepare us for the next course, dubbed "Anatomy of a Suckling Pig," which required a team of cooks to bring to the table. The pig (two, actually) came on a marble platter practically the size of our table, broken down into components and re-plated in head-to-tail order.

There were rounds of sticky, intensely porcine tete de cochon, studded with pistachios and topped with crispy pig ear chicharrones. There was a gorgeous, juicy crown roast rubbed with butter and herbs. There were macarons with delicate pistachio cookies sandwiching a whipped bacon filling. There was the pig's liver, soaked in milk before being poached sous vide, tender and surprisingly mild. There was a fine boudin blanc style sausage, finely ground with apples and nuts and stuffed into the intestine. There was a Mediterranean style roulade of one leg, basted in goat feta and layered napoleon-style between lavash. There were rillettes of the other leg, supplemented with wagyu beef fat and rolled in sheets of daikon radish. There were trotters, all wobbly with gelatin and fat, and stuffed with mushroom duxelles. There were at least three different pork jus based sauces in copper sauciers - butterscotch, truffled, foie gras infused.

It was a truly astonishing display, worthy of "La Grande Bouffe." And not just a visual feast by any means: though the macarons and the tete de cochon were really exceptional standouts, each of the components was delicious.

That would have been hard to top, and the next course - a pre-dessert "cheese" course - had more modest intentions. A cheddar mousse sandwiched between crumbly, cheese sable cookies tasted uncannily like its inspiration: a Cheez-It.

For a finale, several takes on chocolate and coconut: a fairly traditional chocolate cake, a coconut sorbet, a twisted pretzel of coconut meringue, a flexible ribbon of coconut gel, a dab of caramelized coconut like a thick cajeta.

Chef Kilgore is an exciting young talent, and I'm particularly hopeful to see what he can do given the opportunity to create his own menu at Exit 1. I've not been there yet but I'm looking forward to my next trek out to the Key.

In the meantime, the Route 9 / Cigar City Beer dinner is Tuesday December 18. Start time is 6:45 p.m., and the price is $75 all inclusive for five courses each paired with a Cigar City brew. The menu includes oysters with a carbonated beer mignonette and pickled shallots; foie gras mousse and duck confit with beer foam and a golden raisin agrodulce; a sweetbread and hen of the woods mushroom ragu mille-feuille with yeast chantilly; and a Maduro glazed suckling pig with black garlic polenta, puffed barley and garlic chips. As of this post seats are still available, so call 305.569.9009 to reserve.

[1] In the French Laundry Cookbook, Thomas Keller describes how his dish started from failure: "I was hoping to make a cold lobster-cauliflower soup - cauliflower purée on the bottom with a clear 'mirror' of lobster consommé on top, finished with caviar - but the cream in the cauliflower purée clouded the consommé." All failures should end so well.

[2] And here with the white chocolate and caviar, another reference point: "TGRWT," i.e., "They Go Really Well Together," a pairing concept driven by the idea that components which have common volatile aroma compounds ought to taste good together. I recall from years ago that white chocolate and caviar was one pairing idea that seemed to have some traction. I went to google it, and - are you fucking kidding me? - the roundup is posted on Chadzilla's blog, and the first one listed is from ... Brad Kilgore.

[3] But, now that I think about it, I remember having an awesome banana pho a few years ago.

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