Our upside down seasons here in South Florida are a mixed blessing. On the one hand, we get gorgeous fresh tomatoes all winter. On the other hand, we have no real comprehension of the excitement the rest of the country feels as fresh green things like asparagus, and peas, and ramps start making their first appearances this time of year. For us, Spring is actually the end of our primary growing season. Other than lychees, then mangoes and avocados, there isn't much to look forward to other than six months of running the A/C non-stop.
Last week, Conor Hanlon, chef de cuisine at The Dutch Miami, and Brad Kilgore (last seen as chef at Exit 1 and previously sous chef at Azul), decided to celebrate the turn of season as experienced by the rest of the country. Their collaborative effort resulted in a "Spring Equinox Dinner" that offered a taste of the season's bounty.
(You can see all my pictures in this Spring Equinox Dinner at the Dutch flickr set.)
An elegantly simple salad set the frame of reference for the meal: an assortment of colorful, thinly sliced radishes, generously seasoned and dressed in a vinaigrette of fines herbes and pickled ramp vinegar, with a shower of grated parmesan over the top. A refreshing interplay of fresh, peppery flavors with just a hint of sweet and salty.
There's a certain courage in not putting too much on the plate. When two chefs work together, it may become even harder to summon that courage, as each looks to contribute "something" to the dish, maybe show off a little. But Conor and Brad refused to fall victim to that kind of hubris, which allowed the spring theme to stand out in each course. This assortment of green and white asparagus was perfectly complemented by picked stone crab meat, a silky truffled sabayon, fine shavings of lemon zest and snipped chives. It didn't need anything else.
Ditto for these delicate ricotta gnudi, one of the best pasta dishes I've had in recent memory (actually, come to think of it, the last one was at The Dutch too). The puffy pillows were served over a minted pea purée amid a scatter of fresh peas, pea tendrils, and shards of crispy bacon. Classic. And delicious.
Chicken is usually the refuge of the conservative, boring diner on most restaurant menus. This bird was something else entirely. A deboned spring chicken (just wing-bones and drumsticks still intact) actually tasted of chicken, not just some neutral beige protein. Plated with a morel and ramp green ragout, smoked carrot, and a foie gras jus, it was a great dish; my favorite of the night, and among the best chickens I've ever eaten.
There's something so warm and welcoming about family style service when it's done right. This spring lamb course is exactly how to pull it off. A huge platter of roasted leg of lamb, dusted with ras al hanout and sliced thickly like a steak, was the centerpiece. To accompany, there was a dish of thick, creamy goat cheese polenta topped with a tender lamb ragout and freshly shelled fava beans, as well a tangled pile of sweet grilled spring onions. Alongside were several sauces - a pickled ramp chimichurri (Chef Hanlon noted these were actually last spring's pickled ramps, not this season's - the glories of food preservation), a kumquat and rhubarb chutney, a complex Moroccan olive agrodolce, and a simple but delicious citrus-spiked goat yogurt. My only disappointment was not taking home some leftovers to make sandwiches the next day.
The Dutch's talented pastry chef, Josh Gripper, got into the spring thing too, serving a spin on a Peach Melba done with peach in fresh slivers and a soft gelee, raspberries, tender sponge cake, dots of meringue, and a champagne sorbet. In case that wasn't enough for everyone, he followed with a playful tumble of various macarons, blondies, brownies and other goodies.
There was a surprising and welcome maturity to this meal, given the relative youth of the chefs - a willingness to show off ingredients instead of technique, and let Spring be the star. Conor Hanlon and Josh Gripper are doing really good things at The Dutch, and it was great to see the result of them sharing their kitchen for the evening with Brad Kilgore, another young talent with a big future ahead of him.
2201 Collins Avenue, Miami Beach