A brown earthenware bowl of mashed potatoes arrived at my table at Ember, and they looked so plain I didn’t even bother taking a picture — not with fried chicken topped in caviar butter, a 30-layer lasagna and curled escargot shells already crowding the table.
The swirled soft serve off-white cream was topped unironically with a pat of butter.
Then I smoothed my spoon into potatoes so creamy they evoked crema Catalan, the texture itself a luxury. Folded inside was a smoked gouda cheese foam and roasted garlic that infused the dish with the warmth of childhood.
The lesson: Brad Kilgore’s comfort food will make you gush over mashed potatoes.
That’s the sleight of hand Kilgore has managed in his week-old restaurant in the Design District, where he applies the advanced cooking techniques that made him a James Beard award finalist for best chef in the South to dishes diners recognize.
Poutine. Beignets. Beef Stroganoff. Mozzarella sticks. It’s a far cry from his groundbreaking Wynwood restaurant, Alter, a concrete laboratory, where the dishes resemble art installations with names to match. Ember may just be a gateway drug to his other restaurants.
The portions are generous. The tables all seat at least four. The restaurant encourages you to come as a group and share — just like a family dinner should be. People are clearly interested: Thirty five reservations were booked on Open Table on a recent Wednesday alone.
Ember is a throwback. The curving terrazo and marble floors are designed to evoke a 1920s train station. The playlist was all 1980s, from Prince to Tears for Fears. And the food is an ode the dishes that Kilgore grew up loving as a boy in Kansas City.
The ‘80s called — and Kilgore is sending out dishes we wish we’d had.
These five dishes remain with me and make me wonder how Kilgore would handle a TV dinner.
Start with: Beignets
Less a traditional beignet than a dinner roll, these are stuffed with pimento cream cheese and piled atop harissa hot sauce. They’re dusted with what Kilgore calls onion ash.
They clearly show the influence of the chef de cuisine, Nick Graves, who grew up in South Carolina, where pimento cheese spread is as important as Sunday service. There he helped his mentor, star chef Sean Brock, run Husk, later working in New Orleans, before joining Kilgore to add his own touch to Ember’s comfort food.
Three to a serving, they tear apart and encourage sharing.
Take a chance: Order the snails
Don’t be afraid of escargot. While the traditional French version calls for garlic butter, these Miami cousins are stuffed with chorizo and chimichurri butter, resting in a white bean cassoulet puree.
Sourdough crisps provided are fine for eating a composed bite of escargot and chorizo, but order the pumpernickel bread to sop up the savory white bean puree below. (Try not to eat the accompanying toasted onion butter with a spoon. Note: You’ll probably fail.)
Remember, it’s about fire
The reason the restaurant is called Ember is because many of the dishes are smoked, cooked over an open flame or in a Josper oven, a combination charcoal grill-oven that imparts food with a distinctive wood-fired flavor.
Enter the lasagna. What would be a traditional dish is instead made of 30 ribbon layers, flavor packed between them as it pulls apart with a fork. It sits on a gruyere fondue and is topped with a faux Bolognese made with Maitake mushrooms — giving it a meaty flavor but making it perfect for vegetarians.
Share the fried chicken
You’ll wonder if someone mistakenly doubled your order when a pile of four, generous pieces of fried chicken slides onto your table with an implied “tada!”
The organic, free-range chicken is smoked, brined overnight then dunked in a batter that fries to a crunch. What makes it Kilgore is what he calls a caviar butter, a sauce draped around the chicken that adds an umami layer. And just to make it Miami, it’s topped with a version of Haitian pikliz, shredded, spicy pickled veggies to give the Southern dish an appropriate (if not appropriated) kick.
Order a side of Kilgore’s barbecue sauce for dipping, just to change things up.
Finish with: rice crispy treats
When are homemade rice crispy treats the best? Seconds after they’re mixed with marshmallow and pressed into a pan, still warm. Ember understands this.
A mixture of rice, wheat and other grains are puffed on the spot, evoking a scent memory of Honey Smacks (Kilgore loved this cereal as a kid). They’re mixed with a housemade marshmallow mix and piled into a bowl lined with rich, dark dulce de leche and topped with a scoop of dulce de leche ice cream that completes a perfect, upscale, throwback bite.
How can you not order fries at a restaurant that espouses comfort food? Only when there’s poutine on the menu.
This is a beautiful version of this ugly-delicious Canadian comfort food — likely the only one you’ll find with a spring mix and truffle vinaigrette as a topping. That only means you’re eating truffle fries, drizzled with green goddess sauce and a boursin soft-cheese sauce.
Miami Herald critics dine unannounced and at the newspaper’s expense. For the latest restaurant inspection reports, visit dine.miami.com.
Editor’s note: Miami Herald dining reviews will no longer include star ratings. We believe a restaurant should be judged on its merits and the nuance of the dining experience, not simply on a grade. — Carlos Frías, Miami Herald food editor
Address: 151 NE 41st St Unit #117, Design District
Info: 786-334-6494; http://embermiami.com/
Hours: 6-10:30 p.m., Tuesday-Sunday.
Price range: Starters $8-$17; entrees $15-$29; steaks $22-$125
FYI: Metered street parking and nearby garages abound; accessible first-level entry and accessible restrooms. Reservations suggested through Open Table.