By Damon Noisette // photo by Agnes Lopez
Celebrity chef Kenny Gilbert is back where he cut his teeth as a young man, working his way up from apprentice to chef de cuisine at the Ritz-Carlton, Amelia Island’s predecessor to Salt, The Grill Room, at the tender age of 23. His newest restaurant, Gilbert’s Underground Kitchen, is a return to his roots both professionally and personally, as his mother hails from St. Augustine.
Chef Gilbert hit the national stage when he starred on Bravo’s Top Chef: DC for most of season seven, thriving in the competition before being eliminated after a team challenge. After Top Chef, Gilbert returned to the area again, where he helped open Nippers Beach Grill in Jacksonville Beach before being lured away to Miami and then Barbados.
Gilbert’s Underground Kitchen celebrated its grand opening in early March, taking over the space formerly occupied by Merge Restaurant at A1A and Elm Street in Fernandina Beach. Southern cuisine is a trend gaining a lot of popularity these days, though Gilbert’s menu is a welcome departure from fried this-or-that and offers an international twist that changes weekly. The restaurant is intimate, seating just over 60 diners at a time, and it’s a short walk from the lounge up front to the homey dining area past the kitchen. Dishes are served family style.
Our server recommended we order three entrées to accompany the appetizers we selected: the field pea hummus ($7) and the skillet cornbread and drop biscuits ($7). Both appetizers came with a variety of pickled vegetables, and we enjoyed the pea hummus with grilled country bread and crackers, though not as much as the cornbread with cane syrup butter and green tomato jam.
Three house made grilled bratwurst ($17) with spring onions and a mustard sauce from the “Taste of Germany” weekly menu complemented the rest crispy GA Berkshire pork belly ($23) and the southern noodles with Mayport shrimp ($23). The noodles would have been a great solo meal and we found the combination of collard green pesto, potatoes and green beans delightful.
Of the entrées we ordered, the BBQ Alligator Ribs ($23) was as intriguing a dish as it was delicious. Served off the bone in a large bowl, the pinkish alligator meat had a velvety texture and was in total harmony with the rice porridge and Brussels sprouts.
The decision to add a cup of homemade vanilla cheesecake soft serve to each of our desserts for an extra dollar was a no-brainer as it paired brilliantly with both the Coca Cola chocolate bread pudding ($8/9) and bananas Foster pecan cobbler ($8/9).
On the way out, a Top Chef memento near the front door caught my eye and had me shaking my head. What were those judges thinking?
Gilbert’s Underground Kitchen
510 S. 8th St., Fernandina Beach; 310–6374, undergroundkitchen.co
Hours: Monday, 5-9 PM; Wednesday & Thursday, 5-9 PM; Friday & Saturday 11 AM-2 PM, 5-9 PM; Sunday, 10:30 AM-2 PM
Prices: Appetizers $7-$21; Brunch $8-$23; Lunch $7-$16; Entrées $21-$23
Saturday BBQ: Gilbert’s opens early on Saturdays for its express parking lot BBQ, with brisket, pork spare ribs, alligator ribs and a variety of house-made sauces served right out of the parking lot. The restaurant is expanding across Elm Street, with Gilbert's BBQ Shack opening this summer.
By the glass: The wine selection features bottles ranging from $24 to $80.
Top Chef supplies: Chef Kenny sells his own blends of spices, the same ones used at Sea Island and Omni Amelia Island Plantation, via his website.