Review: Four stars for exceptional Alter in Wynwood

Alter photo via Flickr, courtesy Gourmandj.
Alter photo via Flickr, courtesy Gourmandj.

Brad Kilgore is out to change what fine dining looks like in Miami. With Alter, his fantastic new white box in the middle of Wynwood, he does just that.

He and his partners have created an exquisite dining experience in what he dubs “a rock-‘n’-roll atmosphere.”

“I didn’t want a place just for special occasions but a place people come on a Tuesday or Wednesday and come because they are hungry,” Kilgore said.

It’s in a hard-to-find warehouse with gray and white rough-coated walls, an open steel kitchen and a squiggly neon art piece over the bar that matches the EXIT sign.

It feels like any crowded, cozy hipster spot until the food hits the rustic wood table, and you realize you are in one of Miami’s very best restaurants. And you — like the waiters — are wearing jeans. 

Like the setting, the menu is bare bones. Descriptions — if you can call them that — read like Tweets, but shorter and without verbs. There are only eight appetizers (one being a loaf of delicious $8 seed-encrusted bread with a secret, umami-laden whipped butter) and seven entrees, all described in eight words or fewer.

That can lead to some surprises. But trust that every dish is worth a try if not exactly what you expected. On three visits, I managed to eat pretty much everything and was not disappointed. 

This is not comfort food. Quite the opposite. This Kansas City native who cheffed alongside Laurent Gras, Grant Achatz and Jean-Georges Vongerichten, creates dishes that are exacting, stunningly beautiful, disciplined and, for some, challenging.

Indicative of Kilgore’s style is the deceptively simple soft egg coddled to just warmed through and served in a shallow bowl. Spoon through the ethereal scallop foam to a disc of crisp Gruyere and tiny tapioca-like truffle “pearls.”

Equally exquisite is the blue crab, a variation of a signature from J&G Grill. The golf ball of succulent meat encrusted with Japanese puffed rice floats in a pool of butterscotch-yellow sauce given serious spice from the Peruvian aji amarillo pepper. Lemongrass and peppery cress lend bite.

Crudo of bracingly fresh amberjack is diced as uniformly as LEGO blocks and lent crunch from perfect matchsticks of black radish and tangy green mango, while the closest thing to a salad here is the beet a l’orange, a rainbow of raw that might as easily be on the wall of the Pérez Art Museum Miami.

Hand-hewn guitara noodles enrobed in a creamy burrata sauce made bright with lemon balm arrives slightly cool but still maintain a vibrant richness.

Main courses range from a whole leek spiced up like a chorizo to a gorgeously charred strip loin served with classic pommes puree and creamed greens.

The insanely tender and tasty short ribs in a sweetish glaze get contrast from spiky ramp greens and coriander seeds. 

Plump grouper cheeks as big as peaches are served over nutty black rice and a feathery blend of sea vegetables in a creamy shoyu-spiked hollandaise. A puff of dill foam and baby bouquets of fennel flowers enhance.

Some of the best shrimp I have ever tasted are coated in a thick layer of tangy, spicy tajin and served alongside smooth white grits zigzagged with a zippy mole verde and an earthy tinge of huitlacoche, a fungus also called Mexican truffle.

The steaky, local swordfish with its bronzed, caramelized miso is inspired by the Japanese cod classic and includes a range of baby vegetables poached in a bacon- and avocado-infused dashi with a chili-spiked shrimp mousse-filled gyoza.

Don’t think the foams and gels are part of some elaborate science experiment. Kilgore’s young but practiced hand displays the precision of a surgeon and the artistry of a painter. He can sous vide, slice and spherify with the best of them, but his dishes are all about flavor that he coaxes from hyper-local and fresh ingredients.

As impressive as the food, the service team headed up by manager Antoine Lecas is a near miracle. The young staffers are knowledgeable, well-trained and enthusiastic.

Lecas also leads the drinks program with innovative cocktails and a brilliantly curated wine list that includes well-priced bottles, decanted and served at perfect temperature. 

Kilgore does his own desserts, combining elements of homey favorites like chocolate, banana bread, caramel and fruit with savory items like parsnips, nori, tamari, curry, pepper and pretzels. The effects, as in the whipped yogurt with pineapple and lychee, can be exciting while others like the local J Wakefield Brewing porter foam over parsnip fudge can be off-putting.

Did I mention that prices here are not much more than a nearby spot I go for burgers and pasta with my kids?

The only problem I foresee with this newcomer is scoring a reservation. We hope with the eventual addition of more seats on the terrace, everyone can see things a little bit differently.

Critics dine anonymously at the Miami Herald’s expense. Follow Victoria Pesce Elliott on Twitter and instagram at @VictoriaPesceE.