The letters on the door of J&G Grill stand for Jean-Georges Vongerichten, the French-born, Michelin-starred chef whose Asian-spiced food is celebrated at restaurants worldwide.
But it’s Brad Kilgore, Vongerichten’s wildly talented, 28-year-old chef de cuisine, who has catapulted this restaurant in the St. Regis Bal Harbour from excellent to exceptional.
Vongerichten’s touch is evident in dishes like his black truffle and fontina pizza with a tangle of frisée — so pinch-me good, there’s a reason every table seems to order one — and a classic red snapper with a crust of seeds and nuts.
But the menu gives Kilgore’s creativity ample room to shine, especially in the prix-fixe chef’s tasting, a choice of three courses for $75 (now’s the time to kick yourself if you missed J&G’s $39 Miami Spice deal).
One of his transcendent progressions may begin with quenelles of hamachi tartare plated with ribbons of Iberico ham, a seemingly unlikely pairing that pops with flavors of brine and salt, of sea and earth. Crackers made of tiny, puffed tapioca pearls add crunch and sweetness; pickled seaweed and dots of truffle-yuzu vinaigrette reinforce the dish’s ethereal earthiness.
Kilgore channels Vongerichten’s melding of Thai flavors and French techniques in a blue crab appetizer that’s new to J&G’s menu. He coats a fistful of crab meat in rice flour, gives it a crispy sear, then centers it in a shallow pool of beautiful yellow curry punctuated with red chile oil and green culantro. Its beauty is overshadowed only by its flavor: delicate crab carried on fiery waves of aji amarillo and cooled by the curry’s coconut milk and herb relish.
The Vongerichten-by-way-of-Kilgore concept of an entrée looks something like this: slices of blush-pink, cardamom-cured duck breast atop a tangy, nutty, acidic cashew-lime sauce, garnished with pickled Fresno chiles and — the pièce de résistance — crumbles of granola made from furikake, an umami-packed Japanese seasoning. Because licking your plate is frowned upon in a classy place like J&G, I asked for more bread to finish things off.
Contrasts of texture, temperature, flavor and color are present in every dish I encountered at J&G, from the chef’s tasting-menu whims to straightforward grilled proteins, like a smoky, medium-rare Australian lamb loin with pickled onions that Kilgore preserved from springtime.
(The chef delivers tasting-menu dishes to tables when he can, as he did on a few of my visits. Despite being spotted, I don’t believe I received better food or service than other J&G diners.)
Food alone does not make a restaurant complete. J&G’s service is impeccable, professional and responsive. The way servers can sense that you need a sharing plate or that you want a little more wine before you have to ask — but without hovering — is textbook fine-dining.
And J&G’s sommeliers aren’t just there to sell you wine — they want to get you excited about it. Luis Mejia bounces on his toes as he animatedly describes the terroir of Germany’s Rheingau region. On another visit, one of his fellow somms declares, “You’re my hero of the night!” for ordering the wine list’s lone Slovenian bottle, a relatively inexpensive but obscure option.
Perhaps nowhere in town does the save-room-for-dessert cliché hold true more than at J&G Grill, where pastry chef maestro Antonio Bachour holds court. His recent showstoppers have included “Pearl of Qatar,” a hollow chocolate sphere filled with white chocolate-rose water pudding, and carrot cake crumbles with cream cheese sorbet, carrot custard and tangy passionfruit curd.
The restaurant’s taupe décor makes it feel somewhat like an international airport lounge, a mood no doubt supplemented by the high-end hotel’s business-traveler guests. But the thump-thump music and apathetic servers that plague so many Miami hotel restaurants are thankfully a world away from here, all the more reason for locals to give it a look.
Kilgore, a Kansas City native whose professional kitchen journey started when he was a 13-year-old dishwasher, joined J&G as chef de cuisine a year ago, following the departure of Richard Gras. The restaurant earned a 3 1/2-star Herald review in 2012 under Gras, whose food placed J&G “on the short list of serious Miami dining destinations,” critic Victoria Pesce Elliott wrote.
Kilgore’s cooking has taken J&G Grill from a short-list contender to a top-seeded champion. Four stars.
Critics dine anonymously at the Miami Herald’s expense. Follow Food Editor Evan Benn on Twitter: @EvanBenn.
J&G Grill photo by Giovanny Gutierrez.