Chef Bradley Kilgore says he and his partners named their 3-month-old restaurant Alter because they wanted to change our perception of what a restaurant can be.
Kilgore, 29, cooks with the imaginative confidence of a much older chef. Every dish is a technical jewel with ingredients weighed out, he explains, to the tenth of a gram. While foodies might call his style experimental, every dish includes just enough familiarity to keep less adventurous eaters grounded in restaurant reality.
For one of my favorite dishes on the menu, grouper cheeks ($25), Kilgore uses the most tender part of the Florida grouper, and insures its tenderness by using a white soy and lemon brine before cooking it sous vide style. He plates the fish with a white-soy hollandaise. There are a few thin slices of chili on the plate, a few curls of refreshing cucumber, some sea lettuce and nori nage.
It's hard to tell if you're eating a French or Japanese dish, and that's the magic of Kilgore. He judiciously borrows techniques and ingredients from the world's best traditions.
It all started, he says, in suburban Kansas City, Kansas, where he became seriously interested in cooking while still in high school. A former country club chef turned teacher showed him that he could make money as chef.
"He is definitely the reason that I turned this from an interest to a career," says Kilgore, who attended culinary school at Johnson & Wales University in Denver.
In Chicago, Kilgore was the youngest chef, at age 21, to ever be hired at chef Grant Achatz's Alinea. He worked with acclaimed, French-born chef Laurent Gras at L20 and then took on pastry at BOKA. In Miami, he has cheffed at Azul and Jean-Georges Vongerichten's J&G Grill in Bal Harbor.
Alter is set a half block west of Second Avenue, the main drag in Miami's Wynwood neighborhood. It has just 38 tight seats with room for another four at a chef's counter, over which hangs a playful neon piece by Miami's Bulldog Neon. Kilgore had a hand in creating every element of the open kitchen. Unfortunately, too little attention was paid to acoustics in what is essentially a high-ceilinged, concrete-walled room. This is a restaurant, not a gallery, and the obnoxious din can be a distraction from the food and exceptional service.
Starters at Alter include an amazing dish called, on the menu, soft egg ($14). Here's the menu description: "sea scallop espuma, chive, truffle pearls, Gruyere" ($14). As with the other menu descriptions, the writing doesn't do justice to Kilgore. The dish starts with a softly poached, locally grown organic egg. A spoonful of black Italian truffle pears goes on top with a bit of olive oil and chive. There's then a layer of herb-infused, dehydrated Gruyere cheese. It is an eggy delight.
Summer squash ($12) is flash-blanched before being plated with lemon curd, tarragon, citron vinaigrette, soft feta and puffed wild rice. Long chitarra noodles ($14) are swaddled in a mixture of burrata puree, clams and lemon balm. There's a dish on the menu called bread and beurre ($8), a tiny loaf of soft bread with a crust dotted with sumac and dill seed. Alongside is a bowl of delicious umami butter. If you want bread with dinner, order this to share.
Entrees include a very good brisket ($27), braised for seven hours in a 250-degree oven with red wine, coffee and onion. There's a bit of peppercorn mustard on the plate, as well as red plum harissa, updated condiments to Kilgore's childhood Kansas barbecue sauces. He understands meat.
Kilgore also offers a simple charcoal strip loin ($30), a kind of homage to the steakhouse dinners his family shared for birthdays and other special occasions when he was growing up. Instead of a baked potato, the chef offers potato puree with loads of butter and aged Gouda. There are creamy greens in another dish.
There's a roasted chicken dish ($25) on the menu that's served with Valrhona cocoa mole, calabaza puree and charred jicama. Cape Canaveral prawns ($25) are crusted with Mexican Tajin seasoning and offered shell-on with grits, salsa verde, lime cream and huitlacoche.
Kilgore is also in charge of pastry, including an amazing cajeta pot de crème ($10) with dulce de leche custard, tamari-milk chocolate gelato and apricot-candied nori. Lucuma ($10) is combination of sweet custard, lucuma and honey cake and carrot and passion fruit sorbet. A dish called chocolate and mint ($10) features dark Araguani chocolate mousse, black-mint ice cream and a bit of hibiscus and chartreuse.
Alter is so popular that snagging a weekend reservation isn't easy. The restaurant's popularity is a good sign that Miami's restaurant diners are ready for Kilgore's unorthodox but compelling style of cuisine.
223 NW 23rd St., Miami
Cuisine: Modern American
Hours: Dinner and lunch Tuesday-Saturday
Reservations: Strongly suggested
Credit cards: All major
Bar: Full service
Sound level: Obnoxiously loud
Outside smoking: No
Wheelchair accessible: Yes
Parking: Self-parking and valet