By David Villano
By Jose D. Duran
By Michael E. Miller
By Allie Conti
By Kyle Swenson
By Luther Campbell
By Frank Owen
By Allie Conti
In the end, James explains, neither the owners nor the patrons were clear on what ESP was supposed to be. "You really have to have a concept where everyone has the same feeling about what it is," he says. "Look at all the successful restaurants: you can put them in unambiguous categories." James says he lost about $300,000 in the venture.
Undaunted, he opened The Spot, a popular bar, later that year and is a partner in Tony Goldman's Riviera Kitchen and Bar on Ocean Drive.
While starry-eyed restaurateurs scrambled to capitalize on the South Beach boom -- and there were far more failures than successes -- a seismic shift was under way on the Greater Miami restaurant scene, one that was strong enough to rattle silverware halfway around the world. Seemingly out of nowhere, the national culinary press descended, hailing Miami as the nation's newest dining emporium.
"Something new is happening under the tropical sun in this metropolis by the sea," gushed Bryan Miller in a March 1991 New York Times review of several Miami restaurants. "From Coral Gables to Miami Beach, from North Miami to Little Havana, a colorful new wave of cooking is washing over the landscape." It's a "gastronomic revolution," Miller declared.
Others took up the cry, including correspondents from Time, Bon Appetit, Gourmet, and Esquire, and soon glassy-eyed food writers across the U.S. were filling Miami-bound planes, their notebooks and American Express cards in hand. "A generation of young chefs has made Florida cuisines a New World marvel worth a detour," trumpeted Time in August 1991. "Food lovers from all over are unfolding napkins in Southern Florida." Waxed Esquire this past fall, "In America, there's no better place to eat."
Most of the attention was lavished on four chefs -- Mark Militello of Mark's Place and Allen Susser of Chef Allen's, both of which are located in North Miami; Douglas Rodriguez of Yuca in Coral Gables; and Norman Van Aken of a Mano in Miami Beach. Their accomplishment: an inventive style of cooking varyingly dubbed "New World cooking," "nuevo mundo," "nuevo Cubano," "fusion cooking," and, by the Timesman, "Miamiamerican." The cuisine draws on regionally relevant ingredients: tropical fruits including papayas, mangoes, plantains, key limes, malangas, guavas and coconuts; vegetables like yuca, chayote, boniato, hot chilies, and black beans; and seafood such as pompano, snapper, grouper, and Indian River soft-shell crabs. The four chefs's names, repeated again and again, became a mantra. Susser, Van Aken, Militello, Rodriguez. Susser, Van Aken, Militello, Rodriguez.
In the process of heralding the arrival of this hybrid wizardry, the national food writers took notice of the changing restaurant landscape in Miami Beach. And even though Van Aken was the only South Beach denizen of the four young toques, one Time writer was so taken by the proliferation of restaurants there that she inaccurately declared the area the center of the "new gourmet."
The call was so seductive, in fact, that local promoters of the food scene began to experience a somewhat misguided self-actualization: We eat, therefore we are deserving of international press scrutiny. "For those who love to eat, the good news is that SoBe's restaurants have begun to match the architecture in appeal and style," wrote Miami Herald restaurant critic Geoffrey Tomb in a December 1992 article for Food & Wine.
"The action is here, the market is here," affirms Tony Goldman, South Beach's veteran cheerleader. "We have the press, the interest, the excitement, the sex appeal, the inspiration, and the energy. The rest of the country is doom and gloom."
"I think that South Beach is still on its way up," says Geoffrey Murray, co-owner/executive chef of BANG, the district's newest trend magnet and an outpost of BOOM in Manhattan's SoHo district. "I think you'll see more serious, real restaurateurs coming down here, not little bistro-type places." I Tre Merli, another SoHo success story, already had cloned itself down the block from BANG on Washington Avenue; the two new restaurants now share dual residency status with Barocco Manhattan's southern outpost, Barocco Beach, located in the erstwhile Lucky's site at the Park Central Hotel. This past month the Raleigh Hotel on Collins Avenue imported chef Kerry Simon, formerly of the Edwardian Room at the Plaza Hotel; and rumors abound that Wolfgang Puck, the legendary chef of Spago in West Hollywood, California, is also looking for a place to ply his knives in South Beach.
While the streets of South Beach are unarguably becoming chock full of restaurants, good isn't necessarily a byproduct of plenty.
As the multi-courses of reviews are collectively digested by the nation's readers, some food critics are clearing their palates and reassessing the Miami dining experience, as well as their own gluttony. "There was nothing else to write about," confesses GQ's Richman. "Food writers have become food-trend junkies." In the Eighties, he points out, there seemed to be a food trend every six months. Californian cuisine, tapas, Italian, comfort food, Southwestern cuisine, and the mini-trends of Thai and sushi -- at some point each captured the souls of food aficionados everywhere. "I can't tell you how many people would come up to me and say, 'So what's the next food trend?' People have been dying for another food trend," Richman says.