Alex Benasuli joins Wynwood’s hipsters for some serious eating at a restaurant which is redefining modern fine dining
While Miami Beach has been a popular holiday destination since the 1920s, metropolitan Miami – America’s seventh largest city – is now having its time in the sun. Having always been international in its outlook not least due to its longstanding ties to Latin America, Miami is now bristling with arts, culture, shopping and dining scenes that are not only cementing its place as a global hot spot but also as one of the most desirable places to live and work in the United States.
From shimmering high-rise Brickell south of Downtown, up north to the Design District’s new luxury flagship stores, entire neighbourhoods are being created in Miami, each with their own distinct personalities and characters.
Ten years ago, Wynwood was an unloved stretch of concrete parking lots and half-abandoned buildings. Today it is Miami’s creative hipster hub and one of the city’s hottest areas, akin to Brooklyn’s Williamsburg or London’s Shoreditch, and has been made Instagram famous by Wynwood Walls, a collection of outdoor spaces decorated by some of the world’s leading graffiti artists.
Though some trendy brands and tourists have arrived in Wynwood, at its heart the area continues to evolve as Miami’s creative and artistic heart. And a world away from Miami Beach yet a mere 20 minutes across Biscayne Bay, Wynwood is an inherent part of the new Miami, a thriving city marching to its own tropical beat abounding with nightlife options for creatives looking for funkier options beyond those which the city is commonly known for.
Never really renowned globally for its standout world class cuisine, part of Miami’s ascendance has been its recent emergence as a foodie destination. Critically acclaimed restaurant openings – in varying formats and showcasing a multitude of cuisines – have helped to propel the city to the top of the country’s culinary leagues. Never before has Miami boasted more exciting and diverse places to dine and Wynwood has been at the forefront of this trend.
While by day Wynwood can be steamy and sultry, at night the area bursts with activity. Art galleries throw open their doors; music from passing cars, bars and restaurants spills onto the streets; sidewalks hum with hip Miamians and visitors commingling with gritty urbanites to create a fun, relaxed and truly distinctive vibe.
When Alter opened in 2015, it significantly elevated Wynwood’s already impressive selection of dining establishments by skillfully combining gastronomically innovative and seasonal tasting menus with casual and hip surroundings.
Tasting menu-format establishments can tend towards being overly formal and a tad stuffy. Not at Alter, where a youthful post-industrial former warehouse design aesthetic creates a fun and intimate setting in which to engage in a new American culinary adventure. Concrete floors, white cinder block walls and exposed ceilings are offset by moody lighting and a vibrant, open kitchen.
Servers clad in denim jeans, blue shirts and denim aprons positively exude Miami cool-as-cucumber confidence and style. Meanwhile, the relative snugness of the venue, which can seat no more than fifty diners, lends an air of nonchalant exclusivity to Alter.
With the overall ambience so easy and sexy, there really is no need to rush an Alter experience. Best to start with one of the many delectable cocktails on offer, such as Mango Clove which combines Hendrick’s gin, raspberry liquor, mango syrup and lemon juice.
Executive chef Bradley Kilgore is very much the brainchild behind Alter. Formerly exec chef at Jean-Georges Vongerichten’s J&G Grill in Bal Harbour and having worked at some of Chicago’s finest eateries, in 2016 Kilgore won Food & Wine’s Best New Chef award at Alter. Numerous other accolades have been bestowed upon Kilgore since then. Kilgore has clearly realised his dream at Alter, at the same time hitting upon a winning formula by serving sophisticated fine dining fare in a casual and ambient environment.
Freshly sourced ingredients from local farms and fishermen are at the heart of the regularly changing menus. Kilgore excels at ingeniously reinventing classic dishes with unusual add-ons and funky preparations. Tasting menus are offered as five or seven courses with accompanying wine flights reasonably priced.
Sumac and dill seed-encrusted bread, served with umami butter, sets the tone for a culinary journey that hits multiple taste and texture highs. A cooling palette cleanser of asparagus chowder served with parmesan foam and watercress and green peanut garnish followed.
Visually, courses are literally as stunning as they taste and servers passionately explain each dish as they are delivered, clearly loving their work and taking pride in everything carefully transported from the kitchen.
A bay scallop crudo with green tomato aguachile, black lime, maracuyá and radish deftly brought together Middle Eastern and tropical flavours. The next course of Arctic char appeared floating within a chorizo-coconut emulsion and was served with carrot veil and wild ramp – the holy grail of wild edibles from the leek family which grow during the spring months in the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains.
Other courses came and went that similarly cleverly combined the local and well-known with the wild and exotic. Even if it’s not on your tasting menu, be sure to ask for the divine soft egg dish with sea scallop espuma, truffle pearls, chives and Siberian caviar. It is a classic Kilgore concoction and one of Alter’s signature dishes.
Alter’s wine pairings are some of the best curated and forward-thinking you may ever have sampled. New and old-world wines hailing from around the globe are showcased side-by-side. And while some vintages from better known makers are served, most come from relatively small and unheard-of vineyards. Oenophiles will undoubtedly delight at some of the hidden gems they will sip at Alter.
My nest-like dessert of 72% Araguani chocolate (made from rare Venezuelan cocoa beans) and combined with variations of pear, young spruce and chestnut would have alone been worthy of a visit to Alter.
Usually, such a high level of culinary expertise is paraded in a much more formal or pretentious setting. But not at Alter, where the hip and cool engage in some serious eating in easy, breezy and edgy Wynwood. Alter is not only helping to put Miami on the American culinary map as a foodie destination but is also redefining for the modern age what fine dining should really be all about.