If Brava by Brad Kilgore was a performance, I'd boo it off the stage. Unfortunately, it is a restaurant, so I just had to sit there and take it, course after expensive, pretentious course.
Consider the Alaskan halibut entrée ($39), as gorgeous a plate as I've ever seen. A perfect, white piece of fish swam amidst a foamy sea of green spinach nage, pistachio relish and lemon verbena, topped with thin slices of zucchini that gave the appearance of netting. I appreciated the artistry and technique. But the dish had little flavor and no texture. The fish was cooked sous vide, a fancy way of saying in a plastic pouch in tepid water, all the rage among some chefs. The method ensures that protein is cooked to an exact temperature. Kilgore later told me the fish is supposed to be finished in the oven, to give an exterior crunch, but my piece had no evidence of that. It was pure mush. If I had mashed it up with my fork and stuck it in a jar, I could have stuck a Gerber label on it.
Then, there was the $17 whipped clam chowder to start. The menu description: "Black truffle butter, potato puree, Floridian clams, celery root." My description: Imagine inserting chowder into a canister of Reddi-wip, then shaking and squirting the foamy contents into a bowl. The result: a dish that's more essence of clam, potato and truffle butter than actual soup. And my bowl didn't have "clams," plural, but clam, singular. I found an elusive whole chunk of bivalve on the final bite.
In a follow-up interview, Kilgore insists this could not be so. He says every bowl is meticulously portioned, with five clams placed at the bottom before the whipped chowder —with a base made from 120 clams, little cream and no flour — is shot through an air siphon. He says I might have missed some clams because they are "light." Or maybe they just got foamed into oblivion.
Brava is the formal dining room at the Arsht Center for the Performing Arts in Miami, and Kilgore was hired earlier this year to breathe new life into the dormant grand space. The high-ceilinged, 88-seat room is stunning, with a cascading wall of orchids as a centerpiece. Imagine Joey Heatherton and Lola Falana's Las Vegas feather boas mating and then throwing the result on a wall, and you get the picture.
Kilgore is a hot young chef with an impressive resume who has earned awards, accolades and near universal praise for Alter, his small eatery in Wynwood that opened in 2015. Kilgore's Brava debuted in September. Earlier this year, the James Beard Foundation named him a semifinalist in two categories: Best New Restaurant (for Alter) and Rising Star Chef of the Year (for those 30 and younger). Food & Wine magazine named him one its top new chefs for 2016.
Kilgore, 30, is a practitioner of molecular gastronomy. He likes to use foams and deconstructed ingredients, dried leaves and bold vinegars, and plays with food in ways that upend the expected. He gave Alter its name because he wants to alter dining. The cuisine at Brava is being marketed as "classics redefined." I've heard his food described as "challenging." That's fancy food speak for "You may leave hungry."
After recently eating disappointing meals at Brava and Alter, I'll just have to put Kilgore in the category of phenomena I just don't get, similar to Pokemon GO or "The Walking Dead." Maybe it's me. After all, my food philosophy favors simplicity and soulful cooking. Kilgore strikes me as more chemist and abstract expressionist, using the kitchen as a laboratory and sending out austere plates that are sometimes mostly blank spaces.
Kilgore, who grew up near Kansas City and started working as a dishwasher when he was 11, refined his talents in some of Chicago's top creative kitchens, including Grant Achatz's Alinea and Laurent Gras' L20. He came to Miami and worked at renowned places such as Azul at the Mandarin Oriental and Jean-Georges Vongerichten's J&G Grill at the St. Regis Bal Harbour before opening Alter. Now, Kilgore is bringing his refined plates to an artistic space, feeding people who attend operas, theatrical performances and concerts (the restaurant is also open to the public). His food looks the part, but falls short on flavor.
I tried three main courses at Brava last month and wasn't impressed by any. Kilgore tells me all three are off the menu. The halibut is being replaced by a salmon dish. I had a three-day beef rib ($38) that was also a mushy, sous vide creation, served with a brown muddle of a toasted shallot dashi, limp maitake mushrooms and smoked horseradish. The meat was an unappetizing brown, looking nothing like its pink and rosy publicity stills, and it lacked pop. It has been replaced by a lamb shank bourguignon. And I had a deconstructed Maine lobster ($41) that was artfully strung across the plate with piles of acorn-squash custard, tiny corn and harissa anglaise. It was as light as the wall of orchids and unsubstantial. Kilgore says it contained the meat from a 1 1/4-pound lobster, but he has replaced it with a lobster risotto that uses a bouillabaisse broth and will be more filling and satisfying for guests.
Kilgore's wife, Soraya, is the pastry chef at Brava, and her chevre (goat cheese) cheesecake with black cherry sorbet ($11) was different in a good way — all two bites of it. I wasn't a fan of the Key lime cube ($11), a jewel box of gelatinous Key lime and citrus juices surrounded by toasted merengue and flavored with African basil. My dining companion kept whacking the cube with a spoon. It was all shake and no break.
Service was professional and got us to our performance with plenty of time to spare. But the server didn't mention an automatic 18 percent gratuity is added to all checks, and I almost got tripped by the blank line for tip on the credit card slip. I caught it before I double-tipped, but this is a big pet peeve. Kilgore apologized, and said he'll address the issue.
There are inherent difficulties in a stampede, rush-hour, get-me-to-the-show-on-time restaurant. Everybody comes in a burst and leaves in a hurry. It can be challenging. The previous two chefs who tried in this spot, Barton G. Weiss and Hector Torres (who worked for Spectra, the Arsht's catering firm), didn't last long. Now, it's Kilgore's turn.
"It was a no-brainer," Kilgore says. "When the county comes to you and says they want you to be the chef at their showcase property, it's flattering and inspiring."
Suzette Espinosa, vice president of communications for the Arsht Center, calls Kilgore "a budding celebrity chef" and "an artist." She says, "We wanted to elevate the dining to make it as exciting as the performances on stage."
But my recent meals at Brava and Alter didn't leave me excited, mostly confused. I went to Alter, awarded three stars by my predecessor in 2015, to get a deeper sense of Kilgore, and to see if Brava was an aberration or a sign of an overextended, or perhaps overhyped, chef.
Many dishes left me shaking my head, leaving uneaten food and saying, "This just isn't to my liking." At Alter, there was a first course of pickled horseradish vinegar foam on top of flecks of beet and aged beef tartare with shavings of Granny Smith apple. It tasted like the toxic vapor cloud from a train derailment. His signature soft egg with sea scallop espuma, truffle pearls and caviar ($20) was a runny, viscous, umami bowl that I could only fully describe in vulgar terms. The ballyhooed grouper cheeks tasted bland and lifeless. The housemade cavatelli with fresh-shaved Perigord black truffle ($34) featured pasta that had been overcooked to glue and a dud truffle that had no flavor or odor.
Kilgore let out a profanity as I described all my disappointments to him. He seemed angrier at his kitchens, and himself, than at me. I asked if hopscotching between two high-profile places and all the opportunities that have come his way have taken a toll. He was recently in France to take part in a contest that might land a new dish on the menus of Waldorf-Astorias worldwide. He has cut out lunch service at Alter, and scaled back on dinner hours and menu items. He says he hasn't lost focus, and that all the praise only fuels his desire. The latest results speak differently.
Brava by Brad Kilgore
1300 Biscayne Blvd., Miami (inside the Arsht Center)
305-949-6722 or BravabyBradKilgore.com
Cuisine: American and European classics with modern twists
Cost: Expensive to very expensive
Hours: Open on performance days at 5:30 p.m., with seating at 8:15 p.m. for those not attending a show. All seatings are open to the general public.
Reservations: Strongly suggested
Credit cards: All major
Bar: Full bar
Sound level: Conversational
Wheelchair accessible: Yes, ramps and elevator
Parking: Valet and lots, discounted valet for 8:15 p.m. seating