It was nearly 6 p.m. on a brisk Saturday, and only three tables at Key Biscayne's Exit 1 were occupied. A mural of a lighthouse scene filled a white stone wall, which was framed by dark molding and vintage photographs of old Key scenes. Smooth jazz played in the background. Four waiters clad in black uniforms hovered around the kitchen door. They were engaged in a dull debate — something about the froth atop the osso buco stroganoff. Was it garlic scape or just plain garlic? Not one of them really seemed to know for sure.
Two couples on a double date sat at a nearby table in the 200-seat dining room. Their hair was white, their attire was Façonnable, and their conversation rolled from Mitt Romney to crisp Chardonnay. The ambiance was all country club, white pearl necklaces, and baby-blue cardigans.
If you don't live on the Key, you should know this: To reach Exit 1, which opened in July, you must pay the $1.50 toll on the Rickenbacker Causeway, pass Crandon Park, traverse the Village of Key Biscayne, and turn left before Bill Baggs State Park. There, at the Towers of Key Biscayne, near the condominium's lobby, you'll find the restaurant entrance.
But at this seaside refuge, there is no water view, no wafting ocean air, and no outdoor seating. (Well, there is a patio, but it was closed on both visits. Only the main dining room and bar are in use.) From where we sat, the view was actually quite bleak: The tall glass windows were dusty, the floor was littered with crumbs, and the square white bread plates were smudged with grease marks. On one visit, I even found a defunct gray worm curled up by my chair. I became preoccupied with what I wasn't seeing: the kitchen, the walk-in, the prep area. What did those look like?
Every ten minutes, a server would pass by, take a look at our barely touched food, and ask questions like "How'd ya like the ceviche?" or "How's that black grouper workin' for ya?" Our concern elevated to unease when our waiter — Will Ferrell's more awkward, less humorous doppelgänger — said the caesar salad wasn't on the menu but was definitely a favorite.
Then more dishes arrived. One of them was a burger on a pretzel bun, with straight-out-of-a-bag droopy, shriveled arugula, disproportionately thick slices of pickled onions, and a mushy heap of something watery and pink. "It's basically poached bacon, which we mince and shape into a ball," one of the servers explained in perhaps the worst food description in history. It was actually braised pork belly, which was shredded, seasoned with whole-grain mustard, formed into a patty, and seared. And of all the possibilities for pork, this was a particularly poor choice. It had the consistency of aqueous, raw flesh and the taste of moist, salty meat.
Next to the rosy pork pap sat a platter with a boneless short rib, Taleggio grits, and sautéed broccoli rabe. A few thick rectangles of parsnip rested atop the browned protein. On the ivory root vegetable, I spotted something thin, short, curly, and dark. "There's a hair," I hissed to my dinner guest. "There's a hair!" We put down our forks as our waiter passed by.
"Want me to pack that up to go for ya?" he asked, unaware of the discovery. The answer was, obviously, no.
These are not oversights one would expect to witness at Exit 1. The restaurant's ownership is composed of two couples: Jeremy and Paola Goldberg, graduates of the Culinary Institute of America, also own Route 9 in Coral Gables, an eatery that this newspaper remarked in 2011 borders on "boring and uninspired." Bradley and Soraya Kilgore, graduates of Johnson & Wales University, joined the team this past November as partners for both restaurants.
Rising chef Bradley Kilgore comes to Exit 1 after a stint as senior sous-chef at Azul inside the Mandarin Oriental on Brickell Key. And if he sounds familiar, it's because he appeared on Andrew Zimmern's Bizarre Foods America in a segment that included the celebrity eater visiting Azul for a meeting of the Cobaya dinner club. Before that, in Chicago, Kilgore worked at Alinea under Grant Achatz and opened L20 with Laurent Gras. These are eateries known for pristine cuisine, artful compositions, progressive technique, and Michelin stars. Indeed, it's an impressive resumé. It's also makes it difficult to understand Exit 1's failings.
The restaurant is certainly not overly ambitious. According to co-owner Jeremy Goldberg, Exit 1 seeks to provide Miami with a nearby destination getaway on the reclusive key. For locals, the eatery is intended as a standby option for "topnotch" dining. It joins the neighborhood of eateries like the Rusty Pelican, Whiskey Joe's, and Novecento.
A few dishes worked. An heirloom red and candy-striped beet salad was paired with piped dollops of velvety pistachio anglaise, ethereal black sesame powder, and a perfectly astringent anise vinaigrette. A skin-on local snapper fillet was arranged artfully atop a creamy golden Romesco sauce. Next to it, the dish featured petite halves of curried potatoes, calamari stuffed with the same yellow sauce, and sweet shriveled grapes. Fish 'n' chips arrived with briny miso tartar sauce with capers, creamed vibrant green peas, and a side of fried thick-cut shoestring potatoes. The delicate fish was drenched with malt butter at the table. These are the dishes that show Kilgore's true potential.
But then there were things like the osso buco stroganoff, a dish closer to Russia than Milan. The tagliatelle was laced with an oleaginous, rich bone-marrow sauce, featuring pale chunks of stringy, chewy veal shank, and a side of buttered, thick, overtoasted Asiago bread. The pasta was topped with, yes, garlic scape froth — one of few throwbacks to Kilgore's molecular cuisine at Azul. The most notable parts were fat, more fat, and an anemic composition of a dish lacking even the slightest visual appeal.
Yet what was greasiest about the stroganoff was not the food, but the rim of the platter. The white plate was streaked with finger marks and the sloppy sheen of lustrous oil.
It is difficult to believe all of this was a fluke — particularly coming from a toque like Kilgore, who was trained in eateries esteemed for pristine execution and creative techniques, and experienced restaurateurs like the Goldbergs.
So far, there are few reasons to return to this reclusive dining room in Key Biscayne — until they clean up the menu, implement hair nets, and learn the wonders of a washcloth. In the medium term, I'll hope the Goldberg-Kilgore team starts running a tighter ship. They can do much better than serving a $25 stroganoff on a smeared platter in a dusty country-club setting.