You won't taste the gator. It's cooked in a thick, fiery gumbo with okra, shrimp, and boar, so you're fooled by its familiar aroma, which is blended with sassafras and smoke. The greenish liquid, fortified with spices and herbs, veils the exotic flavors of reptile and wild boar.
Sure, you can ignore the menu and pretend you're eating chicken and pork. Never mind that the rest of your meal is so unusual -- staggering servings of goose prosciutto, antelope salami, and pan-seared Asian snakehead fish. Soon you'll realize this place actually welcomes the timid. At Box Park, even you can learn to love invasive pests.
Matt Hinckley began prepping his pantry last year for this restaurant's big debut. The chef worked for Michael Schwartz until landing his current gig under former Nobu executive Santiago Rodriguez. Now Hinckley cooks at the Hoxton, a Hamptons-style beach house; and Box Park, a Brickell fine-dining establishment that opened in July. Venture into his new kitchen, and you'll notice the kombuchas, vinegars, and beers that have been fermenting and aging for months.
There's nothing cutting-edge about his approach, which emphasizes local produce, whole animal butchery, and ancient preservation techniques. What's fresh is the setting, fringed by sheer curtains and neatly arranged ivory chairs. And while you're eating age-old foods, the down- town crowd keeps it modern. On a recent Friday night, a woman Instagrammed a photo of her cocktail, a guy perused his iPhone for wine scores, and Hinckley tweeted the hashtag #EatTheInvaders when he wasn't working the line. The dining room is quiet and dim, but it includes an open kitchen, lit up like a ballpark, that shows off a crew of young, busy chefs.
Hinckley's cooking can transform the wonted into something unique. Often, stand-bys are tweaked: There's chilled beet salad with mint and yogurt, Hawaiian pizza with duck ham and chives, and duck liver pâté with smoked peach jam. Burrata, the fresh Italian cheese, dumps the wedged tomato it's been shacking up with for years. Here it finds a new mistress: grilled baby eggplant, sprinkled with purple basil and chili salt.There's a kicker in the pickles too. An order delivers lip-puckering slices of star fruit and peaches, along with mainstays such as cucumbers, radishes, and long beans.
The kitchen shoves slices of freshly baked bread into brown bags and serves them not with butter, but with olive oil and dukkah -- an earthy blend of Egyptian nuts and spices. "What is this? Quinoa?" one guy asks his cute date. He dips his finger into the dukkah. It certainly doesn't taste like quinoa, but he nonetheless goes for seconds.
At times, the menu at Box Park can read like a page torn from Gwyneth Paltrow's cookbook. The ancient grain salad melds freekeh, quinoa, goji berries, citrus, and nuts in a fine tribute to wholesomeness. You could make a healthful meal out of it by adding the chickpea stew. But the cauliflower steak is an even better bet. The thick slice cooks in a blazing pizza oven until its exterior is blistered and charred. Served atop a black-olive aioli, it's delicious.
Hinckley's greatest strength lies in curing and conservation. His charcuterie, prepared in-house, varies from whipped lardo to wild boar salami and cured pork loin. He buys his ducks whole and uses every part: breasts for hams and prosciutto; legs and thighs for confit. The meaty limbs are aged in duck fat for 90 days, developing an intense flavor that can be achieved only with grease and time. Proffered with a sweet potato hash and spiked with Chinese mustard aioli, the confit sounds comforting, but it's robust flavors are far from homely.
Servers are just as dedicated to the restaurant's craft. "We encourage you to sample rarer proteins like guinea hen," our waiter says before relaying the same message to other tables. The waitstaff draws comparisons between fowl and chicken, and the dish sells almost every time.
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It doesn't take that much effort to peddle Box Park's sundae. The dessert, prepared by pastry chef Crystal Cullison, stacks halved bananas atop a swoosh of dark chocolate that's smeared with a paintbrush on a tiny plate. Bits of peanuts and chocolate adorn a ball of ice cream that you might expect to be chocolate too. But under the guise of a classic treat, this dessert sneaks up on you. It's made with a bold, bitter stout beer.
Sometimes, in the right hands, even an old-fashioned ice-cream sundae can taste new again.
Follow Emily on Twitter @EmilyCodik.