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Review: Stubborn Seed in Miami Beach has sprouted into sublime dining

 

★★★★

I’ll never be able to eat matzo with chopped liver at a Passover Seder again. Not after feasting on Jeremy Ford’s lavash with chicken-liver butter at Stubborn Seed in Miami Beach. We had been told by our server that we must try this $6 starter, and we did as instructed. It arrived on a white ceramic sculpture that resembled a tree trunk. The thin, unleavened flatbread levitated over the table. Its surface was coated with a creamy schmear of beige butter, a canvas dotted with orange and red dollops of smoked chili jam and oh-so-preciously-arranged herbs, microgreens and edible flower petals.

It was the type of food-as-art dish that I am inclined to despise, except for one thing. It was obscenely delicious. It was crisp and crunchy, light and airy, rich and fatty, and sweet, salty and spicy all at the same time. It had us salivating in anticipation for the rest of the meal. Nearly every bite that followed was just as exceptional. A tangle of housemade fettucine with Meyer lemon, truffle and Parmesan was expensive ($31) and worth it, simple, seductive and perfectly cooked. Cool slices of Hawaiian blue marlin, called kajiki ($18) were arranged next to little puddles of buttermilk and were topped with drops of fermented chili paste and tiny, briny sea grapes from Monterey Bay in California. A rectangular hunk of “umami short rib” with miso-mustard butter ($39) was accompanied by heirloom carrots in all forms (puree, foam, powder) and trumpet mushrooms. It was a dish that looked great, tasted great and had soul.

Stubborn Seed happily exploded some of my stubborn preconceived notions about modern dining in general and South Beach dining in particular. Ford, 32, has serious talent, and he opened Stubborn Seed for Grove Bay Hospitality Group in September 2017 after winning Season 13 of Bravo’s “Top Chef.” At that time, he was earning praise and buzz heading the kitchen at Jean-Georges Vongerichten’s Matador Room at the Edition Hotel in Miami Beach. “Jean-Georges said he would let me compete under one condition,” Ford told me in a followup interview. “That I win.”

Typically, I am leery of chefs who shoot to fame after competing on reality TV shows, just as I am leery of chefs bearing tweezers — Ford had his wedged atop his apron when I met him a week after my meal — and those who use the word “curate” for activities that do not involve museum exhibitions. “Sharing style concept curated by Chef Jeremy Ford,” the Stubborn Seed menu reads.

But I am willing to forgive Ford those trespasses because he is so energetic, charismatic and likable, and these traits are splashed all over his plates and the dining room. A candy-blue-and-pink mural painted by Miami street artist Ze Florist during Art Basel hangs atop the picture window that gives diners a glimpse of the frenetic kitchen. I sat with my back to the kitchen at the marble, family-style chef’s table near the window, but when I got up throughout the meal I was impressed with the way Ford himself was on the line humping it (in culinary parlance) throughout a busy service.

I later found out that Ford had recently lost his top two kitchen lieutenants, including the chef de cuisine whom he had known and worked with since they started together in Jacksonville. A diner would never have known it. Ford says much slack has been picked up by Dallas Wynne, the talented young pastry chef and clearly a rising star, who has helped him with the daily tasks of inventory and dealing with purveyors. Her opening bread course, rolls with fennel pollen and a scoop of green garbanzo-chili dip, is listed at $6 on the menu but was served as a complimentary starter. They were warm and pillowy and alerted us to the fact that this place meant serious gastronomic business.

The restaurant, on the corner of Washington Avenue and First Street, is casual, comfortable and sophisticated. On the night I dined, the crowd was older and moneyed, not hip and trendy, and it seemed as if people were here for the food, not the scene. The restaurant has 70 seats, with 20 in the lively front bar area. Both get filled up quickly. We had our reservation for 6 p.m., when the restaurant opens, and were whisked to our table promptly. In attitude and execution, the restaurant seems more like top spots found in Tribeca or SoHo in Lower Manhattan than in Miami Beach. That is a compliment.

Service was attentive, witty and polished, a South Beach rarity at places not named Joe’s Stone Crab. When our server opened the wine, a good Chateauneuf-du-Pape offered at a reasonable markup, he sensed that the bottle had been kept at too warm a temperature, so he chilled it a bit on ice. It was the right move. He steered us in all the right directions, including a humble-sounding dessert of snickerdoodle cookies ($9) that oozed a center jackpot of melted Valrhona chocolate.

One could accuse some of Ford’s froufrou plates of being busy and pretentious, but I can’t argue with the results. A smoked foie gras starter ($28) that belched aromatic smoke when a lid was lifted tableside was tempered with tart Granny Smith apples and Marcona almonds. A warm celery-root appetizer ($17) was sprinkled with crackling maitake mushrooms and topped with herbs and microgreens. Ford gets much of his produce locally, including from Harpke Farms in Dania Beach. But some food travels great distances. The wild Ora King salmon ($36) from New Zealand is perfectly seared, with medium-rare flesh inside and crisp skin on top, served with small and sweet Everglades tomatoes, spicy Romanesco and atop a mound of pork-smoked Anson Mills peas.

Many of the dishes involve painstaking labor, including the lavash. Ford described the process of smoking the chilis and blowtorching skins off berries and soaking livers overnight in milk. That’s a lot of work for a cracker.

Ford is a stickler for details and a perfectionist, and what he doesn’t serve is almost as impressive as what he does. We wanted to order the Kusshi oysters with Thai chili mignonette listed on the menu, but we were told by the server they were not up to snuff that night and the kitchen wouldn’t send them out. He wouldn’t let me taste the lavash again on my followup visit because it was made two days earlier and “stale,” and the kitchen hadn’t whipped up a fresh batch for service after a day off. He proudly proclaims that purveyors find him the hardest client to deal with, because he’s always complaining and sending back products. His high standards come from his good culinary pedigree, a resume that began with chef Dean Max at 3030 Ocean in Fort Lauderdale and continued with French chef Ludo Lefebvre in Los Angeles (whom he pays tribute to with a tattoo of his likeness on his arm) and Vongerichten in New York and Miami.

If Ford keeps this up, he’s poised to join their ranks among the nation’s culinary elite.

mmayo@southflorida.com, 954-356-4508. Follow my food adventures on Instagram: @mikemayoeats. Sign up for my weekly dining newsletter at SouthFlorida.com/EatBeatMail.

Stubborn Seed

101 Washington Ave., Miami Beach

786-322-5211 or StubbornSeed.com

Cuisine: Modern American

Cost: Expensive-very expensive. Appetizers cost $6 to $28, mains $31 to $48, desserts $9 to $14. Chef’s tasting menu costs $125 per person with optional $57 wine or cocktail pairing.

Hours: 6-11 p.m. Tuesday-Sunday (until midnight Friday-Saturday). Sunday brunch 11:30 a.m.-3 p.m. Closed Mondays.

Reservations: Suggested, phone or online

Credit cards: All major

Bar: Good craft cocktails and well-rounded wine list with some bottles below $50

Noise level: Conversational, can get loud when full

Wheelchair access: Ground level

Parking: Metered street or valet

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