In a Food Network-fueled era in which every celebrity chef is opening a Miami outpost, Beaker & Gray — much like the Pubbelly Group and 50 Eggs — is a refreshing local exception. It is the creation of Brian Nasajon and Ben Potts, who together attended Miami Country Day School in Miami Shores, parted ways to seek higher education and mismatched careers, then reunited when each found his real passion.
Chef Nasajon earned a philosophy degree, had a “What am I going to do with this?” epiphany and entered hospitality as an unpaid intern at Lure Fishbar in New York. Bar manager Potts started in banking, hated it and worked his way onto the bar staff at Purdy Lounge on the Beach and then Blackbird Ordinary and Broken Shaker, learning to master the art of cocktail making.
Nasajon returned to South Florida and into the chef’s toque at SushiSamba Dromo. From there, he and Potts conceived Beaker & Gray, opening the Monday of Miami Art Week 2015.
After the typical array of road-bumps at startup (the pastry chef, Camila Velez, finally comes on board this month), Beaker & Gray has soared into the upper echelon of Wynwood dining. Nasajon’s super-creative, ingredient-rich menu has Yelpers yapping and snapping, and Potts’ broad and dazzling cocktail menu and artisan wine list is putting the place squarely in the sights of any self-respecting hipster.
The 115-seat space has a vast, brick-walled, open-kitchen dining room. Seating also is available on a tight balcony and at the massive bar, whose back walls resemble the whiskey aisle at Total Wine & More.
Nasajon’s menu jumps eagerly onto the tapas bandwagon, with Bites, Colds, Smalls, Not So Smalls and a bonafide dessert menu rolling out any day now. The self-trained chef is the first to admit he likes to experiment, and while dishes occasionally seem to reflect the late-night musings of a mad scientist, others are magical combinations of ingredients you did not expect to see.
First Bite we tried was shrimp and chorizo “churros.” This is not the sugary treat they try to sell you waiting in the car to leave Tijuana but a savory dough made with potatoes, ground shrimp and chorizo, ginger and garlic. The dough is squirted out of a piping bag as you would real churros, breaded with panko, fried and served with a chimichurri aioli. Five fat pieces to the order, they are hot, moist and deeply savory. Bite No. 2 was Oaxaca, a mini cast-iron pan filled with baked Mexican cheese studded with pieces of beer-pickled tomatillo, charred waxed peppers chopped into a chutney and oregano. It’s served with grilled bread from Wynwood neighbor Zak the Baker, brushed with chorizo oil. The sharp peppers and briny tomatillo nicely interrupt the gluttony of a pan full of cheese. Bite No. 3, pan frito, is a case of creative chef run amok. Savory fried doughnuts of steamed bun, blanketed with stracciatella di bufala and chewy ribbons of cured pork jowl, is a texturally disjointed mess that is difficult to eat. Even Spanish green olive tapenade, which could save almost anything, doesn’t help.
But lest you think everything here is heavy and cheesy, you must try Cold No. 1, cobia. The firm-fleshed, mild local fish is filleted raw over a light and creamy butter of roasted cashew, cucumber juice, vinegar and salt, blended and drizzled. A cucumber relish with basil, jalapeño, honey and lime juice adds texture and brightness. The gorgeous chorus here is a bright-green ball of palate-cleansing cucumber juice sorbet.
Other Colds: Spanish octopus is chargrilled and chilled, mixed with charred hearts of palm and cubed watermelon compressed with Thai chile and lemon, all drizzled with a sauce of coconut milk, cilantro, candied ginger, Sriracha and jalapeño. Crispy sweet potato shoestrings go on top. The octopus is tender and provides natural sea salt, which helps bring out the other flavors — particularly the spicy-sweet watermelon. On another dish, housemade ricotta is flavored with basil and garlic, served tablas-style with sliced emerald-green Castelvetrano olives, chorizo, dried black mission figs steeped in vinegar and spices and sourdough. Well executed, not a must-try.
On to Smalls. Vegetarian wild mushrooms are whatever fungi are fresh — creminis, shiitakes, trumpets, etc. — roasted with thyme, salt and butter and stirred into a delicious hash with grilled Asian pears and apple cider gel. Scallions and sliced watermelon radish are scattered on top, and a puddle of rich butternut squash puree rounds out the generous plate.
You’ll rave about pumpkin gnocchi, a mix of pumpkin varieties roasted, then riced, strained and mixed with flour to make the dough. Meanwhile, spice-rubbed baby back ribs are chargrilled, slow-braised with bacon, pineapple, fish sauce, carrot and fennel. The strained pumpkin juice mixes back into the braising liquid, lemon butter added, to make a pleasantly sweet, rich sauce. The gnocchi goes into a bowl with pulled rib meat, grated Manchego and a gremolata of toasted panko with paprika and basil. Micro purple shiso goes on top. A work of art.
If that’s too fussy for you, dig into a plate of chicken nuggets, house ground breast meat flavored with mustard and apple juice and cooked both sous vide and cryovac, yielding a deeply flavorful, succulently juicy meat. The chicken is cubed, breaded and quickly fried. Cut the richness with a pickled salad of Kirby cucumber, garlic and shallot, with avocado puree and a sweet and sour onion dipping sauce with star anise and basil.
The idea of oxtail brings visions of wrestling with bones and stringy meat, but this hits the highest height. The tails are braised seven hours with onion, miso, brown sugar and pineapple and sit overnight. The meat is then pulled, and the braise is reduced to a super-thick sauce. Meat and sauce are spiked with vinegar, scallions and sweet soy and packed into a cryovac bag, molded and vacuum-cooked into a block. The loaf is sliced into squares and seared. Served with sweet potato puree, grilled pearl onions and pickled chiles from Nasajon’s dad’s garden in Bay Point. Meatloaf and mashed, meet cryovac.
Nasajon’s humble turkey leg happened by accident. They had thought of featuring duck but … opening night was right after Thanksgiving. They treat the turkey leg as you would duck one way, curing, confiting and pulling the meat, serving it in a hash of Yukon golds roasted with pork fat, cream and garlic. A bed of red cabbage with beer, brown sugar, mustard and fish sauce adds sharpness, as does sliced green apple on top.
Yellow curry rice noodles are cooked wi
th red onion, red pepper, Chinese sausage and coconut milk with purple basil, simple enough. The nice surprise comes with the generous topping of sweet snow crab, tossed in a cilantro chimichurri aioli.
You really don’t need entrees after all these tapas, but here goes. A nine-ounce portion of grass-fed short rib is slow-braised and served over fennel puree with Spanish onion, nutmeg and cream. The meat gets a bright nudge from cubes of pickled daikon. Charred leek and charred fennel add a rustic element, and flash-fried basil leaves are an Asian tease.
For his risotto, Nasajon uses sushi rice, just starchy and creamy enough to work. Cooked not with wine or vermouth but with sake and dashi, it has an oceanic natural background. Pieces of blackened shrimp and beech mushroom add more umami. Butter made with uni, or sea urchin, intensifies the seaweed flavor. Manchego cheese adds richness.
Prince Edward Island mussels and Melbourne littleneck clams dance together in a coconut saffron broth made with Pacifico beer steeped with lemongrass. Upon order, the broth is enriched with ground pork, shallot, garlic and chorizo, with hunks of sourdough alongside. Lime juice and scallions sharpen this well-executed take on the Portuguese combo of pork and shellfish.
Desserts we tried and enjoyed — carrot cake donut holes with a Froot-Loopy dipping sauce and a creamy layered chocolate dessert in a highball glass — are gone, replaced with Velez’s new menu. Which makes the creative process at Beaker & Gray complete.
@KHamersly. Miami Herald critics dine anonymously at the newspaper’s expense.