Lobster with green curry sauce
Lobster with green curry sauce
Photo by CandaceWest.com

Top Chef Winner Jeremy Ford's Stubborn Seed Hints at Greatness

At Washington Avenue's Stubborn Seed, homemade buttermilk glosses the bottom of a dish. Raw, dense slices of Hawaiian kajiki, also known as blue marlin, are added along with jalapeño paste culled from fermented and dried peppers. There's also a purée of Japanese seaweed and ginger perfumed with tarragon. Sour apple cubes are compressed with vinegar and scattered across the plate with briny sea grapes and crisp, dime-size potato chips. When the $16 dish is complete, the seasoning perfectly amplifies the fleshy fish's savory intensity.

It sets a high bar for Jeremy Ford's two-month-old restaurant situated in Miami Beach's tony South of Fifth neighborhood (101 Washington Ave., Miami Beach; 786-322-5211). The 32-year-old won Bravo's 13th season of Top Chef and is a product of the kitchens of chefs such as Jean-Georges Vongerichten and Los Angeles' Ludo Lefebvre.

The bustling 70-seater that houses his first restaurant with Grove Bay Hospitality Group is a casual space with industrial leanings. Vibrant, graffiti-style artwork hangs on concrete walls above black-lacquered tables surrounded by heavy metal chairs with beige cushions. An oversize window cut into one wall offers diners a glimpse into the kitchen. Ford, who was born in Florida and says he couldn't imagine living anywhere else, says he wants the place to be a neighborhood spot where patrons can come as they are. Indeed, on a recent weeknight, people in shorts and sandals huddled around the bar.

Though there are no white tablecloths or crystal chandeliers, the kitchen cooks at a level often reserved for a refined setting. Each dish's components are painstakingly prepared. Service matches the cuisine with a level of attentiveness and knowledge that is hard to come by. Though Ford says his kitchen has used some familiar, safe ingredients while getting started, the results are pristine and hopefully augur a bright future.

The menu is a curt, 20-item affair with small plates condensed under the heading "Raw/Snacks," while entrées are listed under "Meats/Fish." There's also a $95 tasting menu that provides nine courses with luxury embellishments; servers are kind enough to warn diners that these meals can last two and a half hours. When ours stretched beyond three, staff apologized profusely and sought to make amends with hefty pours of champagne.

Despite the hiccup, the tasting menu was a worthwhile order. Things began simply with snappy, sweet West Coast oysters ($23) embellished with crisp radish slivers and spiced with a Thai chili mignonette and Fresno chili pepper oil.

Next came a riff on the Asian bread lavash ($6). Though the classic version is a chewy, pliable, pita-like round, pastry chef Dallas Wynne, who worked at Michael Beltran's Ariete, coaxed it into more of a cracker. On it went an ultrasmooth, ultrarich chicken liver mousse punched up with onion and bourbon and whipped with a heroic dose of butter. The ingenious finishing touch came in the form of a chili jam packed with sugar, salt, and smoke that's created by cooking down a kitchen sink of spicy peppers with the fish sauce caramel that's common in Vietnamese cooking.

Hearts of palm
Hearts of palm
Photo by CandaceWest.com

Much of the menu at the moment is dedicated to fall flavors, and few dishes express it as well as a puck of warm celery root ($15) braised with herbes de Provence and some lemon to freshen each bite. Here, Ford and company treat the root like meat, pairing it with slivers of maitake mushrooms crisped in tempura batter and served with a frothy mustard sauce spiked with Tabasco. A similar bit of ingenuity lies in the charred beets ($15). Though at its core the dish is a salad of beets and goat cheese, the addition of an impossibly thin rye crisp, pickled chilies, blackberries, and piquant yogurt whipped with lemon and garlic gives each bite a shock of spice, sugar, and sharpness.

Jabs run throughout the menu. Foie gras ($28) comes with a slick of vinegar pooling under a hunk of sourdough bread on which the luscious liver rests. The meat boasts the penetrating flavor and aroma of charred wood, which the kitchen achieves by first freezing it and then sealing it in a smoke-filled vessel before it's seared. A classic accompaniment of quince paste and shaved almonds rounds out each bite.

That intensity carries over into entrées, which start with an umami short rib ($29). Here, the fat-ribboned meat is braised in an elixir fortified with dried shiitake mushrooms, Japanese seaweed, and leeks, all meant to push natural MSG into the meat. Once on the plate, it's again bombed with umami in the form of a miso-mustard-butter sauce. Despite all of this, it's the multiple carrot preparations that make the plate special. Translucent petals of pickled carrots float atop a velvety carrot puree. A combination of carrot juice, orange juice, and chicken stock is reduced with lemongrass and shallots to become a sweet, fragrant foam. Alongside sit tender peeled and roasted carrots.

Hawaiian fish crudo
Hawaiian fish crudo
.Photo by CandaceWest.com

The ingredients orbiting around a sweet hunk of Maine lobster ($42) show off similar elegance. The meat is poached in a combination of lemon and Japanese seaweed and then glossed in a rich butter sauce accented with rosemary, thyme, and lemon. It's paired with a charred cauliflower floret and sprinkled with garlicky breadcrumbs. A server sets the plate on the table and slowly fills it with a pale-green curry sauce, issuing the pungent aroma of ginger, lemongrass, and coconut.

Comforting, homestyle desserts are similar to those Wynne offered at Ariete. A corn pavlova falls flat with a synthetic-tasting bay leaf meringue. Yet her snickerdoodle cookie ($8) bursts with the nutty aroma of brown butter and a molten chocolate-hazelnut center. A moist block of stout cake ($11) is like a gingerbread cookie on steroids and only gets better when it shares a spoon with bourbon caramel and spicy ginger ice cream.

Despite the quality emerging from the kitchen, many of these dishes won't be around long. "In six months, we want to be blowing this menu out of the water," Ford says. Let's hope that means the chicken breast and salmon will be replaced by more adventurous, interesting, and ultimately tastier proteins. Perhaps Ford's celebrity will persuade diners who usually demand those two dishes to explore unknown territory with the kitchen's guidance and panache. The surrounding restaurants are experts at providing the tried-and-true and the familiar. Stubborn Seed has moved things ahead in a short time and could soon have the others playing catchup.

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