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Best Of :: Food & Drink

Carmen Gonzalez
Personal Best
Photo by Steve Satterwhite

CARMEN GONZALEZ

CARMEN THE RESTAURANT, 700 Biltmore Way (David William Hotel), Coral Gables, 305-913-1944

The recent opening of Carmen the Restaurant completes a circle for chef/owner Carmen Gonzalez. In 1988, after testing her culinary skills at New York's Quilted Giraffe, Gonzalez left Manhattan for Miami. She landed in Coral Gables and in January 1989 opened her own restaurant, Clowns. New Times, in a praiseworthy review, had this to say: "The menu is on the cutting edge of what food critics are calling 'Americanized Caribbean.' Gonzalez calls it a blend of Southwestern, Caribbean, and California cuisine, but I prefer to call it Carmen-ized -- it's her creation." Clowns didn't survive, but Gonzalez moved on to executive positions at the Miami Club and the Tamarind Bar and Grill. Then she created a successful catering company. Now the lure of the restaurant business has drawn her back -- back to the creative challenge, to the Gables, and to an establishment of her own.

BEST LOCAL LANDMARK

The Biltmore Hotel.

BEST MONTH TO BE IN MIAMI

Any month where the temperature drops below 60 degrees.

BEST CHEAP THRILL

Chicken wings at Flanigan's.

BEST NOT-SO-CHEAP THRILL

Dining in Paris.

BEST PLACE TO SAVOR THE FLAVOR OF MIAMI

The original Casa Lario's.

BEST DINING TREND

Any -- as long as someone else cooks.

BEST NATURAL HIGH

Being in my kitchen.

BEST PICNIC SPOT

Crandon Park.

BEST REASON TO LIVE IN MIAMI

All the wonderful friends and colleagues I've met in my years of living here, and being a part of the culinary community.

RECIPE

ROASTED DUCK TAMALES WITH VINTAGE PORT SAUCE

Yields: Around 20 large or 40 appetizer-size tamales

1 pack corn husks, rinsed and soaked in warm water for one hour

Roast duck:

1 5-pound fresh duckling

1/2 medium onion

1 bouquet garni

1/2 carrot

5 garlic cloves, whole

3 celery stalks

Salt and pepper

Preheat oven to 425 degrees. Rinse duck under cold water and pat dry. Season both inside and out with salt and pepper. Stuff the duck with onion, bouquet garni, carrot, garlic, and celery. Place duck in a cooling rack and roast at 425 for one hour. Lower the temperature to 350 degrees and cook for another 30 minutes or until the inside temperature reaches 160-170. Remove from oven and let it cool. Cut or break duck into 8 pieces (2 breasts) for easier handling. With fingers and knife, separate as much meat from the bones as you can. Then, using just your fingers, tear meat pieces into thin shreds roughly one-half to one inch long (as you would for ropa vieja or pulled pork).

Vintage port sauce:

2 cups vintage port

1 cup red wine vinegar

2 tablespoons shallots, minced

1 garlic clove, minced

1/2 cup heavy cream

3 tablespoons butter

1 tablespoon chives

Heat 1 tablespoon butter in sauce pan, add shallots and garlic. Cook for 2 minutes. Add port and wine vinegar, reduce by half. Add heavy cream and reduce by half. Finish with remaining butter and chives.

Tamales:

(For the masa)

1/2 cup grilled corn kernels

1 medium Spanish onion

1 cup water

6 tablespoons unsalted butter

6 tablespoons vegetable shortening

1 1/2 cups yellow cornmeal

2 tablespoons honey

Salt and pepper

Purée the corn and onion with water in a food processor. Transfer to a bowl and stir in butter and shortening. Using your fingers, mix in the rest of the ingredients until it all comes together and there are no lumps.

To assemble:

Remove the husks from the water, drain, and lay on paper towels to dry. Tear two 1-inch-wide strips for each tamale to tie them. Lay two husks overlapping on a flat surface; place about 1/3 cup of the masa in the center; place 2 tablespoons of the shredded duck on top. Bring both sides of the husk up over the filling. Twist each end to wrap it up tightly, pushing the mixture to the middle as you tie it up. Steam the tamales covered on a bamboo steamer for 45 minutes. At this point they can be frozen for up to two weeks.

To serve:

Use a paring knife to cut lengthwise across each tamale and push toward the middle to expose filling. Place 2 tablespoons of duck on top and drizzle it with 2 tablespoons of port sauce.

BEST BREAD

Restaurants rarely make their own bread (so much easier to source it from a good bakery), and those that do frequently limit their production to one or two specialties. Not so Bizcaya Grill. Maybe it's because, given its location in the Ritz-Carlton Coconut Grove, it has the space and resources to do it. No doubt having an overnight baker helps as well. But whatever the reason, the results are what you can count on, or depending on your mood, count calories on: fresh-baked Danish pastries and muffins for breakfast. Pain du chocolate and croissants at Sunday brunch. Parmesan buns and lemon brioche to partner burgers and fish sandwiches, respectively, for the midday meal. And at dinner the piéce de resistance -- pretzel bread dotted with coarse salt or pumpkin seeds. The object, of course, is not to eat so much of the bread that you have no appetite for the foie gras served with a shot of vinegar or the black-and-white rabbit cannelloni. But then, we were never ones to shy away from a challenge.

Readers Choice: Don Pan

BEST BREAKFAST SPECIAL

Sit in a booth, or sidle up to the counter and enjoy a massive repast with any and all combinations of the breakfast staples that make you want to go right back to bed: ham, bacon, sausage, waffles, pancakes, eggs, biscuits, gravy, grits. Chuck Wagon breakfasts provide the caloric intake you would need for ploughing your fields or rounding up cattle (rather than sitting at your terminal, wondering if co-workers can hear your stomach gurgle through the cubicle walls). Breakfast is available all day, and specials last from 6:00 to 10:00 a.m. Daily specials include a two eggs, grits, and bacon breakfast for $2, and omelet and breakfast combos that change every day, but hover around the $4-$5 price range.

BEST CHINESE RESTAURANT

A perennial favorite in the dim sum category, Tropical -- surprise -- also serves a great din-din. Traditional dishes include Hong Kong-style roast pork flavored with five-spice and then roasted; seafood-spinach soup; and always crisp, always succulent Peking duck. But innovative items are equally reliable, if unusual -- flounder pan-fried with peppercorns and jalapeños and served with bananas marinated in rice wine, for example, offers interesting counterpoints of textures, as does cherry-plum chicken wrapped with diced water chestnuts and fresh bamboo in egg-white crêpes. A healthy wine list replete with floral Rieslings adds to the fine-dining effect, giving aficionados of all kinds reason to make Tropical an evening as well as morning destination.

BEST CHOCOLATE

To borrow a line from the old ad campaign for Arnold's rye bread, you don't have to be Jewish to eat kosher chocolate. Indeed whether you follow those dietary rules or not, the ultimate issue is taste, for which Krön is an ecumenical experience of the heavenly culinary variety. Its tantalizing array of candies, truffles, and dipped fruits are all made by hand with top-notch ingredients (and prices to match). Coffee and baked goods like brownies and cookies are also for sale, though the tables set out in the middle of the mall are decidedly unatmospheric. Recent ink on the store has hinted at expansion plans. Let's hope any new outlets include a proper café.

BEST COFFEEHOUSE

This charming crêperie replicates the design of a classic French café: the tile floors, the long wooden benches along the walls, lots of reading material lying about, and good, strong java. If the weather were cooler, one could easily picture a professorial type in corduroys perusing Le Monde over his afternoon espresso. Locals and tourists alike flock for the delicious savory and sweet crêpes, along with other simple fare like croque monsieur (the Gallic version of grilled cheese with ham), at prices that will make you wonder whether you are really still in South Beach. To avoid a wait, come earlyish on a weekend morning with a newspaper or a book, and ease into the day over a steaming bowl of café au lait.

Readers Choice: Starbucks

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Carmen Gonzalez: Personal Best

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