The Year in Dining

2007 might go down as pivotal for Miami gastronomy.

So many things seemed to go wrong with the Miami dining scene this year. First there were the big-name closures, most notably Norman's, Pacific Time, Chispa, David Bouley Evolution, and Johnny V South Beach. Then an onslaught of national chains poured in at a pace heretofore not seen in these parts; worse, an obscene number were steak houses, which is the last thing we needed. And quite a few chefs in charge of helming our nonsteak newcomers jumped ship just as their establishments were launching: Howie Kleinberg started up the kitchen at The Food Gang in Surfside and then abruptly left for his 15 minutes of sweaty fame on Top Chef. Michael Jacobs helped seed Grass's regrowth in the Design District before bolting. Acclaimed New Orleans chef Alex Patout kicked off Christabelle's Quarter and then vanished back into the bayou. (Interesting side note: None of the three was talented enough to produce praiseworthy food.) Yet, to paraphrase Bob Dylan, after losing every culinary battle, we won the war: 2007 will go down as having been a pretty good year for Miami gastronomy.

There are two divergent dining trends taking place nationally: On the one plate is well-sourced cuisine that reflects the personal vision of a professional chef. On the other is a steroid-era notion of bulked-up, celebrity-fueled, franchisable venues less interested in quality than quantity — as in how many diners and dollars it can attract. Both movements trace locally to Nemo, which debuted in South Beach in 1995. Myles Chafetz and Michael Schwartz partnered the venture until the latter left in 2002 (although the homepage of Nemo's website still touts the cuisine of "Chef Schwartz"). Chafetz remains the proprietor of Nemo and other popular SoBe spots, but his cash cow is Prime One Twelve. This swank steak house served approximately 150,000 meals in 2006, raking in $17.5 million — the 16th-highest-grossing restaurant in America. Schwartz can't boast those numbers, but the opening this year of his Michael's Genuine Food & Drink brought him national press and prestige that few restaurateurs in our city's history have ever received. In Miami, sadly, the quest for profit is more powerful than pride in personal achievement.

If we sift through the negatives, we can catch some positives. Although DeVito South Beach proved a disappointment, other meat emporiums that debuted in the past year bring distinctive twists on carnivorous fare. Prime Blue Grille, for instance, is the first to offer natural, antibiotic-and-hormone-free beef. And just last week, star chef Michael Mina's Bourbon Steak, arguably the most heralded steak house in the country, premiered in Turnberry Isle.

Joe Rocco

Steak houses are merely a spinoff of national chains in general. The proliferation of these, too, has a silver lining: That so many big-ticket businesses are entering Miami signifies serious investment money flowing into our restaurant market. And although monolithic establishments are taking over the mom-and-pop spots of a simpler time, these are not your mom-and-pop's chains. Take Mary Brickell Village, the tenants of which include P.F. Chang's, Rosa Mexicano, Oceannaire, Grimpa Steakhouse, and the soon-to-open Abokado Sushi. Can't speak for the last, but the others are, respectively, among the finest Chinese, Mexican, seafood, and rodizio establishments in town. Chipotle Grill, with its emphasis on smartly sourced ingredients, opened branches this year in North Miami and South Miami. Best burritos in town? Very possibly. The dark lining of the silver lining: That such franchises outshine our homegrown ethnic joints points out how far we still have to go to become a truly great food city.

It isn't often that a town develops a whole new neighborhood of eateries, as it has in Mary Brickell Village, yet this year saw Miami spawning two. Schwartz's pioneering success has led to a burgeoning restaurant row in the Design District. In the past few weeks, Brosia and Domo Japonesa have moved into the hood, with more set to follow.

The most encouraging dining trend of 2007 was the emergence of fun, affordable neighborhood venues such as Boteco, Soya y Pomodoro, Indomania, Con Tutto, Chéen-Huaye, and the recently opened, quirkily monikered Dolores but You Can Call Me Lolita. A slew of new wine and tapas bars likewise has appeared, and our choice of Mediterranean options has vastly improved: Maison d'Azur, La Marea at the Tides, and Ideas Spanish Restaurant in Coconut Grove each offer deliciously prepared fish freshly flown in from the European coast.

Even the aforementioned restaurant closings reflect a strengthening of our culinary environment. A few years ago, losing a quintet of this magnitude would have left our city nearly bereft of fine-dining options. Not anymore. We are a more mature restaurant city now, one with a wide array of established eateries that don't rely on the trendiness of being new, but rather represent solid, serious venues for dinner: Chef Allen's, Escopazzo, North One 10, Ortanique, Osteria del Teatro, Pascal's on Ponce, Talula, Timo, and Two Chefs (there are so many I have to leave a few out); hotel restaurants like Acqua, Azul, Mark's South Beach, Nobu, Palme d'Or, Vix, and Wish; institutions such as Christy's, The Forge, and Joe's Stone Crab; plus a few fantastic eateries that didn't exist two years ago — Michy's, Sardinia, and Table 8.

Plus we didn't really lose Norman and company. Mr. Van Aken recently opened Tavern N Town in Key West, Johnny V is still shining at his Las Olas location, Chispa retains a sparking presence in Doral, and Bouley will be trying again in the same location, this time a take on his less formal Upstairs at Bouley Bakery in New York. Eismann has laid low, but he is merely biding his time before an inevitable comeback.

Weaknesses remain. Affordable places where working-class families can dine without forfeiting their weekly paychecks are almost nonexistent. Ethnic joints — Greek, Indian, German, Chinese, Mexican, etc. — are, with few exceptions, timid and formulaic. Our bakeries, butchers, fish markets, and breakfast joints are not first-class. Seven years into the 21st Century, Miami does not have a single decent vegetarian eatery. And, notwithstanding the kind words I've expressed toward some of the incoming restaurant chains, we stand in danger of becoming Las Vegas-ized. Govind Armstrong, David Bouley, and Michael Mina are big-name chefs, but, like Vegas, all we get are the big names — not the chefs. We have, as I've mentioned, developed a fair amount of homegrown talent, but eminent food cities likewise rely on the import of professional culinarians from other parts of the world. Miami is very much deficient in this regard.

The final feebleness: us. Up to this point, the citizens of our fair city have proven themselves extremely fickle in supporting fine restaurants. Or, to put it another way: If steak houses, Italian restaurants, and sushi joints are packed and everything else is empty, chances are we're going to keep getting only steak, Italian, and sushi places opening up. Then again, the rousing success of many of the aforementioned establishments (Michael's, Michy's, Sardinia, etc.) offers hope that our dining population is becoming more sophisticated. Time will tell if this development pans out. If it does, we will likely look back on 2007 as a potentially pivotal year in Miami dining history.

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