Running a successful Southern restaurant in Miami-Dade is a special challenge. As the area becomes increasingly health-conscious, chefs like Whisk Gourmet's Brendan Connor must balance creating traditional Southern dishes, which are typically butter-heavy, fried concoctions, with modern cuisine's lighter demands. At Whisk, the self-proclaimed "Miami boy" in the kitchen refuses to compromise on flavor.
His stubbornness pays off in dishes such as an off-menu yellowtail or red snapper. The whole fish is cooked in a spicy peanut sauce enriched with plenty of cilantro and comes with a side of jasmine rice and whichever vegetable is fresh that week. The 35-year-old chef, who majored in art history before getting into the culinary game, has plans to dole out more seafood dishes this summer. Expect seared scallops with ruby red grapefruit and avocado, as well as pickled shrimp. Whisk will also offer refreshing new salads incorporating citrus fruits and mangoes.
Speaking of seafood, shrimp 'n' grits ($10.95) is the first thing Connor learned how to make at a restaurant, and the version he creates here eschews cream and makes use of hot sauce, lemon juice, garlic, and butter. The result is a dish that boasts a complex flavor profile without being cloying.
The fried chicken ($19.95) is a must-have at Whisk. A Bell & Evans chicken breast is marinated for 24 hours in chili-and-herb-infused buttermilk and then fried in peanut oil. The trick, according to the chef, is removing the bird at the perfect moment so it doesn't overcook. Connor tops it with bacon gravy made using his grandfather's recipe.
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Less Southern but no less popular is the spicy seared skirt steak ($19.95). The tasty meat is lacquered in a lime-and-coconut sauce that renders it both sweet and savory. Adding to the already-aromatic dish is a side of jasmine rice enlivened by ginger, thyme, and garlic. It's one of a few plates at Whisk that incorporates Asian elements, but neither the beef nor the blue-crab-and-roasted-corn fried rice with ginger ($16.95) taste out of place amid the Southern fare.
The casual, affordable South Miami restaurant's menu also denotes items that are gluten-free and those that can be tweaked to become gluten-free. The team, which includes Connor's sister Kristin, is also scouting locations for a second concept. They're considering Pinecrest, Coconut Grove, and South Miami, Connor says, adding the new eatery will serve small plates with an emphasis on raw and cooked seafood selections.
At Whisk, be sure to finish off any meal with pastry chef Lorena Inostroza's key lime pie ($6.95). "We found a ratio that works for us so that it's not too sweet and not too tart. We can't make enough of it," Connor says.
That's the best kind of challenge a restaurant can have.