ALL IN: Forget outside investors. Jeffrey and Anna Elena BraÒa opened their new restaurant with their own money.
BEYOND THE MANGO GANG: Chef Jeffrey BraÒa says that "when it comes to flavors, there exists an inherent elegance through simplicity."
Jeffrey BraÒa always knew where he was headed. But even he is probably surprised at how fast he got there—there being Restaurant Brana, which opened its doors six weeks ago in South Florida.
BraÒa first rose to national prominence back in 2004, when he was tapped as a Rising Star chef by website StarChefs.com. An interviewer asked him then where he pictured himself five years into the future. The response: "I see myself owning my own restaurant in the country. I want the ability to be at peace and let the restaurant speak for itself."
Decent guess. He wound up not with that little place in the country, but with a 50-seat operation in Coral Gables, FL. It's located almost around the corner from his previous place of employment, Norman's, where he spent three years as Norman Van Aken's executive chef. It was a period when Van Aken had begun to expand his reach by opening new ventures in Orlando and Los Angeles.
The 31-year-old BraÒa did not attend culinary school, opting for the University of Florida instead. His on-the-job culinary training came courtesy of chef Scott Howard (a Van Aken alumnus who later moved west and is now making a big name for himself at his eponymous restaurant in San Francisco) and, of course, Van Aken himself.
BraÒa's first tour at Norman's ran from 1998 to 2000. He spent time at the Ritz-Carlton in St. Thomas, then returned to Norman's as executive chef in 2003. It was during this latter stint that Norman's was nominated for a James Beard Foundation Award for Best Restaurant in America.
BraÒa got more than just valuable experience while working at Norman's. It's also where he met his wife and co-owner, Anna Elena Pedron, now Anna Elena BraÒa. She joined Norman's as Van Aken's executive assistant in 1998 and became the restaurant's marketing manager two years later, holding that position for the next six years.
This pair makes a formidable husband-and-wife team, one that has intimate knowledge of what patrons in their chosen market expect. So what have they come up with at their namesake restaurant?
Chef BraÒa describes his cuisine as "modern with influences of Old Florida." That means a menu where starters include Port Orange Shrimp with Citrus, Avocado, Hazelnuts and Smoked Trout Roe ($16); Flounder cooked in Lemon Leaves with Artichokes and Harissa ($13); and "Loxahatchee": Warm Garlic Soup with Frog Legs and Wild Greens ($12).
Entrèe standouts are Yellowtail Snapper with Clams, Summer Vegetables, Sprouts and Flowers ($31); "Fried Chicken": Buttermilk Marinated Poularde with Zucchini Blossoms, Gnocchi and Summer Truffles ($29); and Jamison Farm's Lamb Saddle with Indian River Honey, Charred Onions and Black Raspberries ($38).
In the early going, many guests have passed on these a la carte offerings to order the three-course ($60) or the sixcourse Tasting Menu ($95). The lunch check average is $25. It's $70 at dinner.
BraÒa is an accomplished chef, but not that well-known, yet. Does that make these price points a bit too aggressive?
Not if Anna Elena is the one doing the marketing and working the room out front. Her time with Van Aken gave her a highly refined sense of what upscale diners in Coral Gables want to eat, and what they're willing to pay for it.
And there are plenty of people who can pay these prices in Coral Gables, which locals say equates to Miami the way Beverly Hills equates to Los Angeles. Not just affluence, but deep affluence.
So don't be to quick to think that Coral Gables is just another suburb of Miami. It's a thriving city unto itself, thanks to the more than 175 multinational corporations that have key outposts here.
It's a presence that gives Restaurant Brana a shot at plenty of lunch business-—it's been open for lunch five days a week since the first day of operation—and virtually guarantees business dinners galore.
The couple self-financed their new restaurant, sweat equity included. "We did it ourselves," says Anna Elena BraÒa. "There was a lot of hard labor, scrubbing and sleepless nights to get this place going."
Let's add it up. A nationally recognized chef strikes out on his own with a co-owner wife who knows how to make a highend restaurant run like clockwork in the affluent town they both call home.
It takes a lot of guts to leave a iconic spot like Norman's, but it's hard to see how Restaurant Brana can miss. Watch for it when the critics start drawing up their "Best New Restaurants of 2006" lists later this year.