Pure and Demure
There exists an inherent elegance through simplicity." That's one of Chef Jeffrey Brana's talking points concerning the cuisine at his and wife Anna Elena's new Coral Gables dining establishment, but he could just as well be describing the 50-seat restaurant's modest decorative scheme. Pale yellow walls in the tasteful rectangular room are minimally adorned, one side with flowers in glass sconces, the opposite with three photographic portraits that form the image of a single enlarged orange. Wide-slatted wooden blinds cover the front windows, and the back of the space features a marble-top bar and a wine-storage cooler stocked with bottles from heralded boutique vintners (many of whose selections are available by the glass). Crisp white linen cloths drape meticulously set tables.
Mr. Brana is a Miami native of Spanish, Cuban, and Welsh descent. During his three-year stint as executive chef of Norman's, the restaurant received a James Beard nomination for Best Restaurant in America (Anna served as Norman's marketing manager for six years). Jeffrey comes from the Alice Waters and Thomas Keller school of culinary purity, which urges a commitment to permitting the inherently natural splendor of fresh, sustainable, locally procured comestibles to shine through with integrity of flavors intact. Restaurant Brana's cuisine, billed as "modern with influences of Old Florida," is infused with indigenous ingredients such as Indian River honey, Loxahatchee frogs' legs, and fresh produce hauled in from Homestead and nearby organic farms.
Proponents of this cooking style like to say, "Food talks, good food shouts, and great food whispers." (Actually I just made that up, but it sounds like something purists might say.) Some of the cuisine here is so quietly shaded it entertains the palate like a gastronomic mime, achieving results through thoughtful compositions, well-rehearsed execution, impressions of spices, hints of herbs, and a subtle sleight of smoke, sweet, and salt. Brana's food is to that of a more typically traditional restaurant what a foreign film is to a Hollywood blockbuster. Or, put another way, it is Penelope Cruz to Pamela Anderson (and this metaphor works for portion sizes too). Or Martha Graham to Tucker Carlson. (Stop me if I lose you. Okay, I'll move on then.)
A flounder appetizer exemplifies Brana at his best. Our waiter described it as being "sealed with lemon leaves and olive oil and cooked very slowly" an unpretentious way of saying sous vide, a French style of cooking that yields a distinctively soft texture and which is very much in vogue right now. One bite of the pristine fish had me scrambling down memory lane, trying to recall a better piece of flounder, the natural sweetness of the meaty white fillet imbued with a tangible olive oil flavor lightly perfumed with citrus. Delicate green threads of lemon leaf, from a tree behind the restaurant, were scattered across the top of the fish, which was bookended by a sea-salt-speckled artichoke bottom and a saffron-color, aioli-like emulsion yellowed and flavored with harissa (a chili-and-spice sauce from Tunisia, traditionally used to accompany couscous).
A main course of yellowtail snapper was likewise luscious, and emblematic of Brana at his frou-frou-iest. The presentation was precious two halves of an impeccably sautéed fillet surrounded by sundry and colorful summer vegetables that tasted as if plucked from the garden just minutes earlier: patty pan squash, sugar snap peas, teeny baby turnips, and teeny sweet round carrots that looked just like the turnips, except orange. All sat in a shallow white bowl pooled with clam and fish broth, dotted with a quintet of baby clams (out of the shell and regrettably overcooked), laced with dainty pink chive flowers, and capped by a white puff of buttermilk froth flavored with shallots and thyme. Another fine fish dish featured a moist slab of black grouper slathered in a pine-nut-spotted blue crab emulsion that tasted like frothy hollandaise sauce. Thin slices of smoky, really terrific Tennessee country ham came tucked under the grouper; woodsy matsutake mushrooms leaned on its side. That's all she needed.
(Small surprises occasionally make their way to the table, such as an intermezzo of thick, juicy, unadorned carambola slices, grown in Homestead, drizzled with Indian River honey, and compressed via vacuum-packing, which, much like sous vide, is a means of altering texture. If I didn't tell you this, you'd figure it was simply the ripest, sweetest star fruit you'd ever tasted).
This is food that sophisticated diners will likely embrace, but the miniaturized size of many main courses might have the meat-and-potato crowd mooing for Morton's instead. For instance, a hefty man at the next table ordered beef rib steak with chanterelle mushrooms, soft-boiled egg, and homemade ketchup. It's a brilliant combination that really can't be anything but delicious, yet there were only a few petite pieces of meat. Had our neighboring diner possessed a penchant for rapid mastication, he easily could have polished the plate off in less time than it took for the waiter to describe the farm where the cow was raised (this staff is as eager to intricately explain menu items as Gordon Ramsay is to spit epithets). Restaurant Brana isn't more expensive than other high-end spots around town, with entrées hovering in the upper-$20 to upper-$30 range, but probably would be considered much pricier if the food were costed out by the pound or by the hour, determined by the amount of time it takes to consume each course. Those who favor quality over quantity, however, surely won't balk at the bill.
A couple of the appetizers seemed capable of disappointing even those who don't fit the meat-and-potatoPamela AndersonTucker Carlson mold. Smoked trout roe that crowned a pair of pink Key West shrimp was lip-smacking good, but the crustaceans were unexpectedly bland, and the roe's backup hazelnut dust and a minute smear of avocado purée contributed no discernible taste. And though a tiny square of tomato terrine melded well with tender slices of smoked chicken breast and a smudge of charred eggplant, it was the sort of food that excites the head more than the heart.
The rest of the cuisine had no such problems. A main course of softly poached spiny lobster came cradled around a single, plump, perfectly delectable nugget of creamy, pan-browned sweetbread, the plate pooled in velvety corn sauce. On the side was a roasted tomato Japanese variety, grown in Ohio, fire-engine red, practically seedless, and as swelled with true tomato taste as any such fruit my wife and I have ever sampled outside Macedonia (which we have long touted, to great skepticism, as growing the best in the world). Another entrée veal brisket sated via soft slices of meat matched with maple-sweetened turnip greens and fresh cranberry beans cooked in Parmesan water (with some gratings of the organic cheese on top). This is amazing stuff, and as comforting as modern gastronomy gets.
As is the style these days, guests are privy to choosing among a set five-course dinner ($60), a chef's tasting menu ($95), or à la carte items. All options offer a cheese course, an ever-changing rotation of three artisan selections ($5 each or $15 for the trio). I especially enjoyed Ewe's Blue, a sheep's milk from Old Chatham Sheepherding Company in upstate New York; and a firm Holly Springs goat's milk cheese from Sweet Grass Dairy in Georgia, which came plated with strawberry-red slices of dinosaur egg plum from California. Brana, incidentally, has spent time working with top cheese makers in Sonoma Valley and holds a unique distinction among local chefs: Sweet Grass Dairy named a new batch of goat's milk blue cheese Brana's Blue.
If this were a French restaurant, our dessert might be termed huckleberry fin, for we completed our meal with a dish of distinctively dense vanilla ice cream drizzled with syrup prepared from that alluringly astringent berry. A different ice cream, Jamaican mint, was so infused with pure spearmint flavor it tasted as if churned in an herb garden prompting me to ask the waiter if it was made on the premises. He assured me everything is made on the premises. This includes the predinner breads dark wheat, whole-grain, and rye which come accompanied by sweet Vermont butter creamed with cow's milk cheese from the dairylands of Georgia.
Chef Brana makes quick stops around the room to see how guests are enjoying their meals. So do the manager and waiters all staff members as amiable as they are professional. Service is exceptional. In fact the Branas seem intent on ensuring that every aspect of the dining experience is sublime, and they succeed to an admirable degree.
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