What's the Matter with Miami?

We just can't make anybody's A-list

Miami is home to glitzy multimillion-dollar restaurants, a sea of sensational sushi spots, and more than its fair share of satisfying bistros, trattorias, and steak houses. Central and South American immigrants, as well as those from the neighboring islands, have blessed our area with a plethora of exemplary and inexpensive ethnic eateries — no other North American city boasts the arepas, empanadas, medianoches, churrascos, griot, or rotis found here. Added to which, our stone crabs are peerless. What's more, South Florida boasts a group of talented chefs who multihandedly ushered in a vibrant new American regional cuisine based on the area's indigenous crops. So we can't be blamed for thinking we live in one of the nation's most dynamic restaurant cities. Still, it might be time to think again: According to a number of 2005 "best restaurant" and "best restaurant cities" lists, Miami ranks with — well, nobody. We're not ranked at all. We are, literally, listless.

"Sunk" is how John Mariani of Esquire magazine succinctly summed up the Miami dining environment a few years ago, and it appears not enough has changed to sway the nation's other food writers from this sentiment. None of our dining venues appears in Bon Appétit's "Top 5 American Restaurant Cities" survey, none in Gayot.com's "Top 40 Restaurants in the United States" (though Honolulu, Scottsdale, and Los Gatos, California, host eateries that made the grade), and none of our up-and-coming chefs was deemed up-and-coming enough to make Food & Wine's "Best New Chefs" issue.

The British magazine Restaurant conducted an international poll of chefs, restaurateurs, and food journalists for its "50 Best Restaurants in the World," and we didn't show up in that one either. Miami couldn't even crack Toptable.com's Top 20, although it should be noted that Norman's, Mr. Van Aken's eponymous Coral Gables establishment, was one of only five contestants competing for the James Beard Foundation's prestigious Best American Restaurant Award. As for the other 200 Beard nominations in categories such as best chef, pastry chef, rising chef, service, and wine service — Miami came up empty. And Van Aken recently announced plans to sell his restaurant.

Our fancy-schmancy places might not match America's finest, but a city's dining scene is not measured by haute cuisine alone; another barometer is the number of restaurants serving quality renditions of everyday foods. Jane and Michael Stern, authors of the Roadfood cookbook series, traveled the country and published their own list of the Top 10 spots for breakfast, burgers, barbecue, doughnuts, hot dogs, ice cream, pizza, sandwiches, seafood, soup, et cetera — 210 entries in all. Miami was shut out, once again. Sadly we also missed the cut on Esquire's "Best Barbecue," the Chinese Restaurant Association's "Best Chinese Restaurants," and Vegetarianrestaurants.com's "Top 16 Vegetarian Cities in the USA." Groucho Marx once said if ten out of ten people tell you you're dead, you'd better lie down.

Only a decade ago our gastronomic prospects seemed so sunny. National food magazines were cooing over the New Florida cuisine put forth by an influx of innovative Miami-based chefs, the most prominent of these pioneers being Norman Van Aken, Jonathan Eismann, Robin Haas, Mark Militello, Pascal Oudin, Doug Rodriguez, and Allen Susser. Although each put his own name and spin on the genre (New World, Floribbean, Nuevo Latino, Palm Tree Cuisine, and so forth), they all used South Florida's indigenous ingredients as a starting point, and later would be loosely labeled "the mango gang." Just as Alice Waters prodded Californians to take notice of locally produced products such as gorgeous goat cheeses and orgasmic organic foods, these mango fellas ripened awareness of the tropical fruits and vegetables in our own back yards, as well as the stellar seafood abundant in our waters. Those were the halcyon days of local dining. So what happened? I've compiled a list.

Ten reasons why Miami, though good, hasn't matured into a great restaurant city:

1. Our original innovative chefs are all still doing their thing, but much in the way the Rolling Stones are — they weave new dishes in with crowd-pleasing signatures, in an undeniably proficient fashion, but many have expanded their restaurant empires more than their repertoire or range.

2. Michelle Bernstein (whose Michy's is preparing to open its doors) and Tim Andriola (Timo) come to mind as former mango gang sous-chefs who have since achieved great success while thinking globally but still stressing locally grown products. For the most part, though, New Florida cuisine has been hijacked by amateurish chefs and their nail-in-the-coffin concoctions such as macadamia-crusted shrimp with mango sauce, macadamia-crusted meat loaf with mango sauce, and macadamia-crusted cheesecake with mango sauce — and a drizzle of raspberry coulis, of course.

3. Our culinary minor-league system is in a shambles. If you want to see and taste the grim future of Miami dining, try dinner at Johnson & Wales's faculty-and-student-run London Tavern in Bay Harbor.

4. South Florida lacks enough of a sophisticated food culture to sustain a serious culinary environment. One indication of this is the region's distinct lack of small, privately owned bakeries and meat, fish, cheese, or produce markets — partly because it's practically impossible to sell fine quality cuisine to a populace whose majority can barely discriminate between freshly baked rhubarb pie and the sugar-laden confections found at Publix.

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