Dining from A to Zagat

The man behind the famous food guide eats up Miami

Before we arrived at Pascal's on Ponce, which won the award for Best Newcomer, beating out by only one point Azul and Liaison (which tied for second place), Zagat laid out the game plan. "We're just visiting. Forty-five minutes tops," he told us. "Besides, if we eat at the first place, we'll never make it to the last," which was scheduled to be Rumi, where we would enjoy a full meal at 10:15 p.m.

Famous last words. Wonderfully executed dishes of foie gras, scallops, and tuna tartare later, we finally departed Pascal's after 90 minutes or so of celebrating with chef-proprietor Pascal Oudin and his wife, Ann-Louise. Our next restaurant, top-rated Cuban Las Culebrinas, wasn't too far away on Flagler, but it was worlds and cultures apart, and Zagat was utterly enchanted. The staff wasn't quite so thrilled. Although Gordon had called ahead to every restaurant we planned on popping into, the Culebrinas people had either misunderstood or chosen to ignore her, so they were a bit confused about why their dining room was suddenly populated by Zagat and his chattering harem.

But it didn't make a difference to Zagat whether he was recognized, expected, or welcome. Vanity has little to do with appetite. While Gordon and Elliott attempted to communicate with the management, and the Deco Drive people interviewed the one customer in the joint who spoke English, Zagat had already seated himself and ordered churrasco and pork loin stuffed with mashed plantains. Before long we were all feasting on tamales, croquetas, tortilla Español, and a host of other representative dishes Zagat tucked into with gusto, saying, "Now this is what I came to Miami to find. I can have French food anywhere. But where else am I going to get the best Cuban food in the country?"

Where else indeed. Certainly not at Romeo's Café -- the next stop on our journey -- which is Italian. Chef-proprietor Romeo Majano is so hospitable, preparing six-course prix-fixe meals (there's no set menu) that are tailored individually to diners' tastes, his tiny seven-table eatery won this year's award for Top Service. And he was so excited to have Zagat as a guest that he kept the restaurant open for our party, despite the fact that we were running so late we didn't arrive until 11:00 p.m. -- on a Tuesday night no less. He also insisted on seating us, pouring wine, and feeding us, despite our protestations of "Please, no more food!" By that point we really meant it.

While Zagat can't seem to keep to a schedule or turn down eats, and while his palate might be somewhat jaded (like the rest of us in this business), one thing he doesn't do is skip out on a check. Naturally everyone wants to pamper him, flatter him, and impress him, three things Zagat is willing to take in stride. But he insists on paying -- or having Gordon pay with his credit card -- for the privilege, along with what he and his guests eat and drink.

Still, no matter how generous the evening's entertainment, I bowed out at midnight. The party would continue without me at Rumi and later still at KISS. Zagat, who also is a Harvard-and-Yale-educated lawyer and chairman of NYC & Company (formerly the New York Convention and Visitors Bureau), may have almost 30 years on me, but he has the stamina of a club kid, while I have -- well, young kids, along with pretty visible circles under my eyes.

When it comes to terrorism and the rebuilding of our tourism industry, Zagat may well be right in his paraphrasing of Franklin Delano Roosevelt: "The greatest thing we have to fear is fear itself." But when it comes to dining, it's pretty clear he takes into serious account the words of Virginia Woolf: "One cannot think well, love well, sleep well, if one has not dined well."

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