Stubborn Seed – Miami Beach, FL
I think my lack of dining out has really caught up to me, because as you can probably tell I've been eating at a lot of really great places in Miami, where outdoor dining at great restaurants is as ubiquitous as overpriced mojitos with little umbrellas. Many of these meals have been worthy of blog posts, which is why I find myself blowing up your emails with new restaurant reviews every couple of days. Forgive.
My friend Jake has been watching my apartment in Charlotte while I'm away, which has been a great arrangement for both of us, since he needed a place to land for a few weeks while he plots his next move (he's been a globe-trotting nomad for three years) and I needed someone to water my plants. He is interested in settling in Miami, so he drove down to visit for the weekend and we have been spending a bit of time together exploring, and he offered to take me to a nice dinner as a "thank you" for letting him crash in my place. I knew exactly where to go.
Ask any food-minded person in Miami for their top five restaurants in town and they all will probably include Stubborn Seed. The first time I had my feet on the ground in Miami, anticipating an overnight layover en route to Havana, I intended to stay in Miami Beach overnight and brunch at Stubborn Seed, but wound up on an earlier hop to Cuba so just slept on a bench outside the TGI Friday's in the Miami airport. This time, I knew I couldn't miss out.
Stubborn Seed is the dream project of Chef Jeremy Ford, an absolutely rad Florida native who was the season 13 winner of Top Chef. Situated in the stylish south of 5th neighborhood in the heart of South Beach, Chef Jeremy's passion-filled kitchen churns out some of the most exciting cuisine in Miami, and at remarkably affordable rates. Jake insisted on a place with a tasting menu and great cocktails (twist my arm!), so I snagged us an outdoor table on my last night in town.
I spent a couple hours in the afternoon hanging out with some new friends from Minnesota I’d met at my hotel. They are big Vikings fans, and had some other friends in town, so we watched the (disappointing) end of the Vikings-Bears game and then strolled over to the way-too-busy (but still socially distanced) beach to relax and observe the sunset. Not feeling the scene, or rather growing tired of their exceptionally drunk (but still rather entertaining and potentially pretty hot) friends, I ducked out a little earlier than planned and strolled down the main drag of South Beach along the now-pedestrian-only Ocean Drive, having an absolutely terrible time immersed in nonsense tourist bullshit the likes of which can only compare to the slime of Bourbon Street, with too many people, few masks, little social distancing and less clothing, and enough ambient marijuana smoke to give one a fairly robust contact high (that part wasn’t so bad, though).
Once I cleared through the tourist cadre, I emerged slightly stoned into the much quieter, tree-lined south of 5th area, a really lovely residential district. Stubborn Seed is deep in this neighborhood in a small storefront that shares environs with multi-million-dollar luxury condos and obnoxious high-end chain restaurants like Milos and Fogo de Chão, and yet I can confidently say after our meal is one of the most impressive, inventive, and reasonably priced restaurants of its caliber in the country.
I wandered slowly around the neighborhood until I was just too thirsty to wait any longer (was humid!), and arrived about 20 minutes early for the reservation, sitting outside at one of the sidewalk tables and waiting for Jake to arrive. The cocktail program is just about as legendary as the food here, so I grabbed a refreshing drink, called “Sunny day,” with Grey Goose vodka, St. Germain, watermelon juice, lime, and a paprika-clove syrup. Super refreshing, yes, but also with a magnificent, if subtle, smoky spice. Disappeared far too quickly.
Jake arrived just before our reservation time and we both sprung for the remarkably inexpensive tasting menu, as planned, me opting for their insanely reasonable (like, margin-crushing) premium wine pairing and Jake asking the bar to create a cocktail pairing for each course, which prompted the bartender to come out and visit us, expressing how excited he was to create his own pairing with the menu.
A seeded honey biscuit was up first, with honey butter and bread-and-butter pickles. So, bread and butter two ways, I suppose! As loyal readers may know, I am always happy to see a bread service these days. The warm, sticky biscuits absorbed the sweet butter beautifully, and the pickles, despite my general aversion to them, were a good acidic foil to the rich sweetness of the bread and butter.
I will say that our server, delightful as he was, didn’t do a great job explaining the components in each of the dishes. My sense is this is because it seems that each table's tasting menu is a little different, and the kitchen sort of improvs what the call a “secret” menu, so perhaps a rehashing of the ingredients for diners isn’t a rehearsed event for the wait staff. He brought out a glass of sparkling wine with little description and no bottle to observe, telling me only that it would be “perfect” with the next course. I certainly hope so!
Indeed, he was as correct as he was incomplete. The first bite was an oyster with Granny Smith mignonette and a sake granité, and the bubbly was absolutely singing with essence of green apple, especially after the oyster was on the palate. The combo sweet/tangy/allium mignonette was delicious, and the chilly sake granite added a sort of almost savory complexity that brought forth the shallot in the mignonette. Stellar dish––we both really enjoyed. Jake paired it with the same cocktail I’d started with, and it was also great, seeing as how I had a few sips left of mine and could taste the oyster with both beverages. I will say that we had a really hard time removing our oysters from the serving dish––with ice in the bottom and some sort of smoke still lingering, the ice had sort of glued the shells into the dish. Jake nearly lost his entire oyster, while I was lucky to observe his struggles and dislodged my oyster without losing a drop of flavor.
The server poured me an exceptionally flavorful sauvignon blanc from Brancott in New Zealand, which exhibited all the notes I’d expect from a Marlborough sauv blanc––grass, herbs, lime, and apple––with an even brighter intensity than less remarkable expressions of the grape from the new or old worlds. Terrific.
A yellowtail tartare topped with thinly sliced fennel and radish was next, served with a rice cracker with little bits of lemon curd, and perched atop an umami-bomb dashi espuma. Stupid good and may have been the course of the night; the salinity and complexity of the dashi espuma was critical, and the sauv blanc had the pucker, intensity, and complexity to tie it all together. Jake’s was paired with their signature negroni, which included mezcal instead of gin; I didn’t try the pairing, but he was quite happy with it, and it was at that point that I decided I needed to sample his cocktail pairings, and he my wine pairings, with each course as well.
The next wine made me very excited for what was to come. Paul Hobbs is one of the great cult producers of cool climate wines in Sonoma County. His pinot noirs, particularly from the Sonoma Coast, are some of my favorites. This one, however, was from further inland, a warmer climate––the Russian River Valley––and was teeming with deeply concentrated flavors of cherry, soil, umami, and a hint of tobacco and leather. A veritable flavor nuclear weapon, and a REALLY expensive bottle of wine to serve with a pairing this reasonably priced. Forgive the blurry picture––I may have been a little too excited to taste the pinot.
Mr. Hobbs’ flavor bomb was paired with a flavor bomb of a dish consisting of two of sort-of lonely pieces of ricotta gnudi (similar to gnocchi but made with much more cheese than flour) with maitake mushrooms, mushroom foam, a pine nut crumble, shiitake caps, and a green I had trouble identifying; I think it was baby arugula or spinach. The server wasn’t much help identifying the green, and even if he had concretely said what it was, I’m not sure I’d have trusted him, because he told me that the dish had fresh-shaved truffles, which is most clearly did not. Either way, the mushroom essence of the dish was loaded with flavor, but the pine nuts were the critical component of a lingering, succulent finish. And paired with the earthy Hobbs? Bravo.
We’d reached the midway point of the meal and were told an intermezzo course would be next. A little chilled key lime sphere was to cleanse the palate for the next two savory courses, with a few shavings of key lime granite atop. While it did cleanse the palate, I found the liquid inside the spherification to be fairly watery and mundane, though I did appreciate the nod to a Florida ingredient.
Jake had been served a wonderful gin- and citrus-based cocktail called “Egyptian sting” to accompany the mushroom course, and I liked the sip I had of it so much I added one of my own to cleanse the palate further before the next course. Here gin is paired with an Egyptian chamomile tea and citrus, giving what can be a pedestrian and predictable pairing of gin and citrus an elevated, floral, almost earthy profile. Exceptional.
Last two savory courses of the night were fish and beef. Sancerre was the next pairing, which wouldn’t have been my choice since I already had a sauvignon blanc earlier in the meal, and I found the otherwise good wine to be a bit of a miss in the progression of pairings, particularly when we were being served such immensely flavorful dishes and this Sancerre carried itself so delicately.
Indeed, the fish course, too, was bursting with flavor. Almost too much flavor. A “true” red snapper from local waters was served over a grilled cauliflower cutlet topped with mojo verde sauce, and a kombu (kelp) broth poured in the bowl. The fish was perfectly cooked and the skin gloriously crispy, but certainly a bit over-seasoned. The remainder of the flavors worked well, however, and I appreciated the soft, saline umami of the kombu broth as a sort of bridge to all the other ingredients on the plate. A spicy fruit purée of some kind was atop as well, and when I asked what it was, and the server came back with tangerine, I knew he was wrong, unless there’s a spicy purple tangerine hanging out somewhere in the world. Jake’s cocktail was a combo of bourbon and passionfruit liqueur the bartender brings in special from the Dominican Republic, and was a much better pairing with the fish than my wine. Again, folks, passionfruit is the greatest of the fruits.
Almost too shortly after the fish was cleared, the next course arrived, and man was I glad to see a glorious cut of beef. It’s been a while since I have had a sensational piece of well-marbled beef, and this prime ribeye cut was pecan smoked until cooked rare and then finished off in cast iron and seasoned perfectly with thyme and salt and pepper. Alongside, a ginger sauce was mixed with natural jus, and root veggies in various forms decorated the left side of the plate. The beef was just so good. The only thing missing was a glass of wine, which was brought out post-haste when I mentioned to the server it was missing and didn’t want to keep eating without it!
This “nth Degree” cab from Napa was everything a Napa cab should be––complex, earthy, not aggressively oaked, with a hint of leather, and driven by silky blue fruit. Fantastic. The star pairing again, however, was Jake’s vieux carré, made with whisky, cognac, vermouth, bitters, and Benedictine, which spoke brilliantly to the unique smokiness of the meat. I’m telling y’all, they should make cocktail pairings more of a thing. It was also getting pretty rad to have the director of the beverage program come out with each course to describe each drink. I may have been a shade jealous!
Dessert followed, and three dishes were presented simultaneously, to which Jake declared he is not a “dessert person” so I would have to conquer most of what had been placed before us. Ok, fine.
First dish was two donuts filled with passionfruit and coconut, garnished with fried coconut on top. Jake almost finished his and I was more than happy to demolish the mine and the rest of what he had left. God. Damn. It. Passionfruit, y’all. The second dessert plate was a cherry and ancho chili panna cotta (in a sphere!) with some sort of soft cake, cacao nibs, and horchata. The last dessert offering was a caramelized pear with a gingerbread French toast, crumbled gingerbread, and corresponding sorbet. All three were fantastic and unique. Add a little glass of Graham's 10-year tawny port and you have a wonderful closeout to an equally fabulous meal.
Let me be clear––I do not think you can purchase a better tasting menu in the United States at this price. You certainly can't get a better meal in Miami Beach for these prices. There was not a single miss on the menu. The food is as inventive as anything I’ve had this year (except Sushi Noz, which is a high bar). These are not Miami Beach prices, and the quality is vastly superior to anything (except the uni ceviche at Surf Club) I had in Miami. The intensity and inventiveness of the flavors, the magic of the pairings, and the outstanding cocktail program… this place is a real winner, and will likely be my first stop next time I find myself in Miami, which, given how much I enjoyed the city, won’t be too far away!
That is my last restaurant review of 2020, and likely one of the last for a few months, as I will be resuming my work at Davidson in January and don’t plan to travel much of anywhere until I get a vaccination (but perhaps there will be things to review in Charlotte!) However, I am still planning a magnificent meal for myself and mama on Christmas Eve (the same type of meal that was the subject of the first post I added to this blog two years ago), and you all (both) can look forward to the Big Drunk Gay Awards 2020, cheerfully nicknamed the “Dumpster Fire Edition!”