Another Year Devoured

The start of the new year is a season as much for reflection as for anticipation. Past failures especially take on life all over again, a reincarnation that may prove uncomfortable for some. But it is this assessment, painful though it may be, that really allows us to look forward, make resolutions, and hope for better things to come. That might be why all those polls and lists you see this time of year -- such as the ones in the January issues of national food magazines like Food & Wine -- tend to include notes on what didn't work so well in 1996, along with what did.

I generally avoid making year-end summaries, living as I do by the maxim that complacency is the death knell of good writing (or cooking). Besides, I don't need a new year in order to engage in self-criticism; I confront my own deficiencies every deadline. (At any given time, I doubt I could make a list long enough to include all that I haven't accomplished to my own satisfaction.)

But this year several factors have prompted a reverie: guests and friends coming to town who want a list of the best places to eat. Food journalism contests (which means I have to re-read every single article I wrote this year). And Harvey Slavin.

Location Info

Map

Astor Place

Hotel Astor, 956 Washington Ave.
Miami Beach, FL 33139

Category: Hotels and Resorts

Region: South Beach

Mercury Resort

100 Collins Ave.
Miami Beach, FL 33139

Category: Hotels and Resorts

Region: South Beach

Paquito's Mexican Restaurant

16265 Biscayne Blvd.
Sunny Isles Beach, FL 33160

Category: Restaurant > Mexican

Region: North Dade

Porcao Steakhouse

801 Brickell Bay Drive
Miami, FL 33131-2952

Category: Bars and Clubs

Region: Downtown/Overtown

Two Chefs

8287 S. Dixie Highway
South Miami, FL 33143

Category: Restaurant > American

Region: South Dade

Yuca

501 Lincoln Road
Miami Beach, FL 33139

Category: Bars and Clubs

Region: South Beach

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Mr. Slavin is a frequent New Times contributor -- without him, our letters-to-the-editor page would be dangerously devoid of poison-pen commentary. Heated debates between readers would become lukewarm. And writers would rage on week after week and never acquire apropos nicknames like Kavetchnick.

As with fine cuisine, I generally take Mr. Slavin's peppery remarks with a grain of salt, a pinch of laughter, and an eensy-weensy dab of distorted-truth syrup. Then I forget about them. In fact, my only response up until now has been to adopt his pet moniker for me as my e-mail alias. But Slavin's most recent letter, in which he declared that "it is impossible for your current restaurant dolt Jen Karetnick to write anything positive or accurate about a fine dining establishment such as Walter's Cafe," struck a chord. He was actually referring to a restaurant I gave a pretty good writeup; his point seemed to be that someone must be impersonating me or writing under my name because I never give anything but negative notices.

Call me masochistic, but I wanted to try on that accusation for size. So I leafed back through all my reviews from 1996. And I was amazed to discover that I bestowed exactly the same number of out-and-out raves as I did raspberries. (Twelve, meaning I averaged one of each per month.)

It would be pretty pointless to pillory all over again those establishments that I didn't appreciate. But those that I adored the first time around -- well, no harm in mentioning 'em, in order of original appearance, again:

February. This month I began a love affair with Yuca numero dos, on South Beach. Owners Efrain Veiga and Amancio Suarez and chef Guillermo Veloso opened this distinctive nuevo latino eatery in a former Arthur Murray Dance Studio on Lincoln Road. With the help of popular Cuban singer Albita, who performs there regularly, it quickly became so popular that the partners decided to close the original Coral Gables location. And who could argue? The newer version supplies all the old Yuca favorites, such as plantains stuffed with dried beef and black bean soup with rice cakes, as well as fancified fried plantain baskets stuffed with sauteed seafood. Veloso often astonishes customers with seemingly experimental and largely successful main courses -- rabbit with a chocolate reduction, a veal T-bone served over lobster-accented purple mashed potatoes, and rummy penne mixed with grilled duck sausage and chunks of sweet plantains.

April. Restaurateur Dennis Max gave up Max's South Beach and turned on the lights at Astor Place Bar & Grill, located just down the street on Washington Avenue. Executive chef Johnny Vinczencz, a.k.a. the Caribbean Cowboy, has begun making national news with his risky Caribbean, Southwestern, and Latin combinations. Creative and ambitious mushroom pancakes topped with sun-dried tomato butter and balsamic syrup, curried smoked-chicken won tons, spit-fire chicken salad with salty watermelon salsa and pickled red onions, and corn-crusted yellowtail snapper over a lemon-scented boniato mash are several highlights. A chef who has always got something going on -- and who's going places fast -- Vinczencz frequently shares his talents at chef's table dinners, Sunday brunches, and other special events at Astor.

May. After being open several months, Mark's in the Grove began to find its mark. Chef-restaurateur Mark Militello's third spot, this handsome bayside restaurant on Grove Isle has an extensive outdoor seating area and a notable, multifaceted menu. Concoctions reflect a world of influences and can be rich -- pan-seared foie gras over French lentils, risotto with blue spot prawns and a truffled split pea broth, a warm brie pizza with apples. Or they can be light, a mirror image of the water dancing tableside -- pasta stuffed with peky toe crab, sea bass with a sorrel flower sauce, even a chocolate crepe layer cake. The menu does change daily, as it does at the original Mark's Place in North Miami (which reopened last week after renovations were completed) and Mark's Las Olas. Now you're not only faced with the tough decision of what to order, you have to choose at which Mark's to eat it.

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