Ad Lib’s High Concept Takes Flight
Restaurateur John Kunkel’s latest creation on Ponce de Leon is a bright example of how a fresh take on fine dining can win an immediate following, even in the dragon slaying restaurant world of Coral Gables. Kunkel is the man, you may recall, who launched Fresh Lime on Miami Beach, selling it when it became a chain. Since then he has dabbled in concept-driven restaurants, like the Beach’s southern flavored Yardbird, and Swine, the popular pork-obsessed eatery that previously occupied Ad Lib’s space.
But whereas a food genre was the focal theme for Yardbird and Swine, Kunkel says he now believes the winning formula is a small, chef-driven restaurant. To prove his point, he has partnered with Norman van Aken, the legendary James Beard Award- winning chef who put Coral Gables on the national culinary map with his restaurant Norman’s (on Almeria Avenue, since closed). Van Aken is in fine form at Ad Lib. As the name implies, the idea is to create new and spontaneous dishes, based on what is seasonal and fresh (they are also conscientious about humanely raised animals, so don’t expect any veal dishes).
The dinner menu is brevity itself – six choices for appetizers, six choices for entrees, and two off-menu specials. While they do offer a chef ’s tasting menu (three of the appetizers and one of the entrees), it’s as though the entire menu is a chef ’s tasting menu. And these are inventive dishes; their “Surf & Turf ” Tartare is sea urchin tartare with American caviar on toasted brioche with crème fraiche. Having never eaten sea urchin, we had to taste it, and the effect was brilliant, the soft sweet urchin balanced by the salty caviar and crunchy brioche. The crème fraiche was the icing on the cake.
That same sense of lightness, with a creative play of flavors and textures, runs throughout the dinner menu, from the Brazilian conch chowder with coconut milk, saffron, citrus and cilantro leaves, to the rum & pepper painted scallops. While it may seem a humble dish among its companions, we loved the Little Gem Lettuces. Who knew lettuce could taste so wonderful, as though it was cut from a garden out back – crisp and flavorful, and served with gooseberries, marcona almonds and a delicious Gochujang-buttermilk ranch dressing. Likewise the zucchini blossoms: Though stuffed with ricotta cheese, they were almost airy in substance, enhanced by preserved kumquats and a gingery jus that elevated the taste from the good to the sublime.
Among the entrees, our favorite was the ancho-guava BBQ breast of duck. Two plump pieces of dry-aged duck meat, each with the skin crisped along the edge, and each with a different sauce – one dark guava and one a lighter, mustard-based – on a bed of rice and herbs that was itself crisped on the bottom. A remarkably sophisticated flavor combination. We also ordered both the specials: the soft-shell crab (the best we have tasted in South Florida) and the richly savory seared lamb chops. Both standouts. Our only disappointment was the “Beef Two Ways;” while the filet mignon with sauce Béarnaise was perfectly done, the overnight braised short ribs with red wine reduction was dry and a little acerbic. The restaurant itself is as different as it could be from the dark, rustic world of Swine. The former wooden wall panels are gone, replaced by white painted bricks, with long, proto-Japanese paintings hanging from an 18-foot ceiling. There is a balcony with seating above, buttressed by steel work so smoothly crafted that it looks soft. The light fixtures perfectly fit the main space, hanging in grape like clusters from above.
The restaurant layout is like a puzzle box, with discrete seating areas: downstairs at a table for four to six (or at the bar), further back at a high communal table that looks onto the kitchen, or upstairs at a table for two along a balcony that looks down on the main space. At the back of the second floor loft is another bar, with a stylishly retro ’50s look.
Pushing the chef-driven concept to the limit, Kunkel has also brought in high powered talent for the desserts and drinks: Pastry chef Hedy Goldsmith (formerly of Michael’s Genuine), sommelier Daniel Toral (formerly of the Setai) and New Yorker Sam Ross, the director of cocktails and spirits. Their contributions are immediately evident in desserts such as the Meyer Lemon Tart (sweet and pungent), in wines such as the Fernando de Castilla (like velvet) and in drinks such as Penicillin (scotch with fresh lemon, ginger and honey).
Ad Lib may come across as an exercise in impromptu cuisine, but its dishes are as carefully crafted as Fabergé eggs. It is an exciting and fresh new addition to the Gables dining scene.
2415 Ponce De Leon Blvd. 305.504.8895