Monday, November 13, 2017

first thoughts: Stubborn Seed | Miami Beach

Summer in South Florida isn't good for much. Mangoes. Avocados. Royal poincianas. That's about it. It's the season of 90° heat with 90% humidity, hurricanes, and restaurant closures.[1] But we've made it through to the other side! The thermometer occasionally dips below 80°, most of the trees downed by Hurricane Irma have been cleared, and new restaurants are popping up left and right. Among them is Stubborn Seed, which opened in late September. It is the first of two new projects[2] from chef Jeremy Ford, who was last heading up the kitchen at Jean-Georges Vongerichten's Matador Room, though many more folks probably know him from his victory in Top Chef Season 13.

This is a much more intimate affair than his last gig. Ford has traded a big hotel restaurant for a corner spot in South Beach's quieter SoFi (South of Fifth) neighborhood, where about sixty seats are divided between a bar area with high-tops as you enter and a somewhat stark dining room in back, all buffed gray walls and dark wood tables.

(You can see all my pictures in this Stubborn Seed flickr set.)

The menu at Stubborn Seed is somewhat stark as well: it comprises fifteen items all told, which includes a "bread service" that was brought to our table without charge.[3] It's matched by a cocktail selection that is nearly the same size – in fact, the actual drinks menu is in the form of a newspaper which dwarfs the size of the food menu.

The bread service and the cocktails are a good way to start things off at Stubborn Seed. The bread is a puffy version of Colombian pan de bono, dusted with fennel pollen and coarse salt, and served with a dollop of an herb-flecked green garbanzo dip whose bright color matches its flavor. And you'll want to spend some time with these cocktails, because they're a production. The "Negroni a la Ford" is made with Del Maguey Vida Mezcal in place of the gin, plus Ancho Reyes, white creme de cacao, and Xocolatl Mole bitters, as well as a passionfruit marshmallow suspended across the glass which you can toast over a flaming sugar cube.[4] The "Silver Dollar Old Fashioned" is a D.I.Y. project which literally arrives on a silver platter, with a cut-glass decanter of rye, a dropper of house-made bitters, a shaker of simple syrup, and a big ice block in a glass. There's a lot of ungapatchka here, but you could skip the s'mores and the silver platters and they'd still be very good drinks.

It's possible you've heard this before, but dishes "are meant to be shared," and "come out of the kitchen as they're ready." We ordered several of the crudos and "snacks" (which collectively make up 2/3 of the short menu) and one larger dish to share; happily, rather than the confused multi-plate pile-up that often ensues, our meal was coursed out in a series of rounds that actually made sense. But pity the diner who just wants their own appetizer followed by an entree these days.[5]

When Ford was on Top Chef, I nicknamed him "Crudo Bro," because every dish he made was a crudo,[6] and because he is clearly a member of the Broheim Tribe.[7] So we had to try both iterations featured on the menu. The one pictured at top was a winner: meaty, fatty Hawaiian kajiki (blue marlin), paired with creamy buttermilk and spicy fermented chiles, kombu, ribbons of Asian pear, and dried sea grapes. It was great.

The other, featuring local snapper cured in JoJo tea, with slivers of heart of palm and clementine segments, awash in a green bath of sorrel and celery, was dominated by the cloying sweetness of the clementine. This dish needs something to perk it up other than the smoke from dry ice added to the bowl.[8]

This lavash cracker, spread with chicken liver mousse and dotted with smoked chili jam, was just delicious – crunchy, creamy, rich, spicy, sweet. Shared between two people, it makes for only a couple bites, and may well leave you pining for another.[9]

(continued ...)

The "snacks" also include an intriguing combination of warm celery root (a hockey puck sized disk of it) paired with tempura maitake mushrooms and a frothy mustard aioli. Everything here tastes good, but it doesn't quite feel like a complete dish.[10]

For a main, we shared a chicken dish that was a surprise hit. The boneless breast is maybe just a tiny bit dry, but the skin, with a thin layer of truffle paste underneath, is crispy and well-seasoned, the gnocchi are slippery and buttery, fava beans and turnips complement the earthy aroma of the black truffle perfuming the rich chicken jus, and the silky potato purée might make Joel Robuchon crack a smile. A garnish of a couple more crispy chicken skin crackers is always welcome at my table.

Desserts are by pastry chef Dallas Wynne, a Hedy Goldsmith protégé who was last at Ariete in Coconut Grove. This corn "pavlova," with a creamy corn pudding topped with shards of bay leaf meringue and tart blackberries, borrowed Hedy's buttered popcorn gelato recipe as a graceful finishing touch.

A couple dishes could have used some refinement – more focused flavors, less dry ice fog. But there's a lot that I liked at Stubborn Seed – the kajiki crudo, chicken liver lavash, the truffled chicken, and the dessert would all get me back.

Stubborn Seed
101 Washington Avenue, Miami Beach, Florida

[1] The one that really hit me this season was Olla, Scott Linquist's ambitious Mexican restaurant on the west end of Lincoln Road. And though not a restaurant, the closing of Epicure Market around the corner marks the end of a Miami Beach fixture. I will miss its tuna salad, its chicken soup, its fine selection of gourmet products, and its overpriced fruits and vegetables.

[2] The second project, slated to open sometime next year, is supposedly going to be named "A-fish-o-nad-o," which is possibly an even worse name than "Stubborn Seed." They will both be run by the Grove Bay Hospitality group which also manages Giorgio Rapicavoli's Glass & Vine, Jeff McInnis and Janine Booth's new Stiltsville Fish Bar, Big Easy Winebar, and a few other local restaurants.

[3] Though I don't know any of the folks there, we seemed to get a bit of the "treatment" – maybe because they were in their first month, maybe (more likely) because they saw my camera. I have a couple thoughts on this. First: I fully get why restaurants kowtow to someone who they think may be some kind of "influencer." (I'm not suggesting that I am such a thing, I know I'm just a guy with a camera and a blog that gets a few dozen hits every so often, but the camera does sometimes trigger this reaction lately.) And, I suppose I get that most of those "influencers" actually really like having smoke blown up their ass. But maybe be a bit more subtle about it? It's a little weird having someone peek over your shoulder at your viewfinder and gush "That's going to be a great shot!" Second: if you're going to kowtow (and I'm not saying you should; I'm saying you probably shouldn't, at least not so obviously), at least do it for the table, not the person. When all of your attention, and all of your "How are you finding everything?" inquiries, are dedicated to the guy with the camera, without regard to the other person at the table, it doesn't come off as good service.

[4] I've seen and enjoyed enough of these mezcal negronis lately that I think they need their own name. Is there one already?

[5] Said traditional diner might also go home a bit hungry. Many of the "snacks" are quite dainty, and the meat and fish main courses seem to skew smaller as well. After the bread service, two crudos, two "snacks," one main, and a dessert, our party of two could have easily had a slice of pizza afterwards (but one of said party nixed that idea).

[6] OK, maybe not quite every dish.

[7] The video splash page for the Stubborn Seed website is an over-the-top and incredibly long montage of Ford and his CDC Joe Mizzoni riding around Miami on motorcycles, tattooed forearms cooking things, and billowing clouds of liquid nitrogen. It's like a mash-up of Grand Theft Auto and Chef's Table.

[8] This science fair trick does nothing for flavor.

[9] I still can't decide whether this is reasonably or unreasonably priced at $6, and I've had this conversation with someone else who ordered it and had the same reaction. The best point of comparison is perhaps the chicken liver crostini "snack" at Michael's Genuine, where $8 will get you three slices of baguette shmeared with chicken liver mousse and caramelized onions, and it somehow feels at least twice as substantial. I can't explain why, but I'd feel better about it if they charged you $12 for two of these crackers.

[10] In his new cookbook "Cheers to the Publican," chef Paul Kahan, while discussing the architecture of a good fettunta (a/k/a stuff on bread), nails it: "Our biggest criticism of a fettunta – or any dish – is that it can sometimes eat 'piecemeal-y.' If a dish is just a collection of bits, it's no fun to eat."

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