Best Of :: Food & Drink
Yes, it's him again. And we might as well permanently retire this category to Norman Van Aken until he retires -- which he shows no signs of doing, possibly ever. While other superstar chefs would rest on their laurels -- especially if they had as many as Van Aken does -- or clean up financially by opening clone eateries, Van Aken remains in his Gables kitchen. And remains energetically, unceasingly inventive. How to equal still-superb old favorites like yuca-stuffed crispy shrimp with mojo and habanero tartar sauce? With Fire and Ice (a combo of warm lobster/boniato hash and cold tuna tartare, with wasabi granite and vanilla sabayon), or sautéed soft-shell crab with pancetta and basil/lemon butter, among many recently invented creations. As for tasting menus, there are always two. One is a weekly changing five-course feast based on seasonal ingredients and events, as well as Van Aken's sense of humor. A recent Judeo/Christian holiday menu, for instance, included both an amusing upscale Easter egg salad (quail egg halves stuffed with lobster or foie gras mousse, with a caviar crema and local spring vegetable accompaniment) and a Seder-ish dish of sea bass on a crisp latke topped with a "Balsamic Blessed ragout of teardrop tomatoes, accompanied by hearts of palm." The other is a tasting menu of signature dishes, for diners who don't want to gamble -- though no diner, no matter how high the bill, ever loses at Norman's.
The sun may have set on the British Empire long ago, but one of its key rituals continues weekdays at the Biltmore Hotel. The rapacious guardians of civilization knew that whether it be the languid tropics of the colonies or the drizzly comfort of hearth and home, nothing beats a good cuppa as the day turns dozy around midafternoon. Beneath the vaulted ceilings of this grand hotel's lobby, for an hour and half starting at 3:00 p.m., the tradition continues as high tea is served. It all begins with the raw materials from a 115-year-old English tea company. A gracious attendant wheels in a cart filled with teas accented by exotic flavors that carry names like Imperial Gunpowder, Afternoon Darjeeling, and Tippy Assam. The last of these is harvested each year, between April and June, from the Brahmanputra Valley in northeast India. Off to the side a woman plays piano softly. The server pours the tea into china cups, through silver strainers that are then placed into individual silver bowls. She brings fresh fruit and a selection of crustless finger sandwiches that range from salmon to cucumber. Next come wickedly rich scones made of fluffy shortbread dusted in powdered sugar. A dish laden with whipped butter and a complete selection of fruit preserves complements the pastries. At this point, rather than risk the perils of overindulgence, pause and appreciate the beautiful orchids atop the five tables, the plushly comfortable chairs, and, of course, more of that delightfully calming elixir. The last course arrives as if by magic, a plate brimming with confections: little macaroons, diminutive lemon tarts, and mini-pecan pies. When the $15 check comes, it seems a small price to pay for the burden of being civilized.
Just the name, written in big old-fashioned script above the entrance to this 32-year-old bakery, makes you think of sweet treats. And here there's an abundance of just about every Latin-American-style treat that can be baked. Homemade tamales simmer in a crockery pot by the cash register, and periodically a kitchen helper carries out fresh loaves of Cuban bread. In the morning and afternoon, people stop in on their way to or from work to pick up empanadas or pan gloria, maybe some pasteles de guayaba, cookies or cupcakes for the kids. The cakes at Bon-Bon are beautiful (it's best to order first and pick up later to ensure freshness), and the pies are dense and heavily crusted. The chocolate, coconut, and almond brazos -- a rolled log of cake that looks like an arm -- are festively decorated and even more fun for the palate.
Since Miami no longer is the nation's southernmost city but Latin America's northernmost, a yearning for Old South Florida cuisine rarely becomes urgent. But after a day gaping at gators in the Glades, nothing hits the spot like cracker cuisine, primo of which is barbecue. And the primo place at which to get it is the Pit, conveniently situated at the outskirts of the Everglades on the Tamiami Trail, miles before the road morphs into Calle Ocho. The décor in this small spot is perfect for a Florida barbecue joint: rustic wood booths inside, tiki-hut-covered picnic tables outside. And the food is even more perfect. This is genuine you-can-smell-the-smoke-for-miles pit barbecue, cooked slow over smoldering blackjack oak. The tender yet toothy ribs are terrific. But hard-core classicists order the $3.95 triple-winnerer: juicy pulled pork topped with crunchy, slightly sweet chopped coleslaw right on the sandwich, just like in North Carolina. And for noncarnivores, there's elegant fried fresh catfish. Among side orders, lightly floured crisp real onion rings are required eating, as are tangy-sweet barbecue beans. For dessert skip the overly sweet key lime pie and order another beer, since the Pit has imported Beck's and some Hank Jr. (or Senior) on the jukebox.
Molina's has a large and dedicated fan club; it's certainly among the best Cuban restaurants in town. Thus Molina's black bean soup, as a staple of any Cuban cuisine, has to be perfect, and it is. Very hearty, a nice thick broth enriched with just enough of the right seasonings to complement, not overpower, the succulent legume.
When Picanha's opened a couple of years ago in the former Tark's, which was attached to a Dairy Queen, we thought it would be another restaurant serf, dredging the lower realm of the dining public for customers. We're not ashamed to admit we were wrong about this honest Brazilian eatery, which is named for the cut of rump roast called a pincanha. Indeed the eatery was so successful with both Brazilians and the uninitiated alike that it recently took its meaty linguincinha sausages and rich prawns sautéed in palm oil and coconut milk to a more conducive venue: the former Mark's Place. Now the Grille is even more packed, especially on Thursdays for Brazilian-style karaoke and caiprinhas, and on weekends for executive chef Edson Milto's traditional feijoada. And here we thought nothing could ever take the Place of Mark's.