Best Of :: People & Places
AZUL, 500 Brickell Key Drive (Mandarin Oriental Hotel), Miami ,305-913-8358
Michelle Bernstein is that rarest of Miami creatures: a true native. Which is why last year she was honored as Best Local Girl Made Good: "After working for others and then co-owning a short-lived but ambitious venture (The Strand), Bernstein took a major leap: She left South Beach for Brickell Key and the luxe Mandarin Oriental Hotel. Within a year Esquire magazine named her restaurant, Azul, the best of 2001. The Food TV network hired her to host a series on tropical foods. And the Vita-Prep people picked her for an advertisement that numero uno trade mag Food Arts featured prominently. Can any other native make that kind of claim to national fame?" So what's left to say? Well, only that Bernstein's Azul has since received the American Automobile Association's highest commendation: the Five Diamond Award. No other Miami-Dade restaurant can boast that distinction.
BEST PLACE FOR FRESH FRUIT
I probably sound like a princess for saying this, but Epicure is my favorite place for fruit. The colors are vibrant, the fragrance hits you when you walk in the door. What kills me is that I buy a huge amount of produce on a daily basis for the restaurant and I never get such beautiful fruit as Epicure does. Not just that, they get seasonal fruits before we do. I patiently wait for cherry season, plum and peach season, and sure enough, Epicure is loaded with not just the fruit I search out but specialty types like white cherries, sugar plums, and doughnut peaches. They make a honey tangerine juice that is addictive.
BEST MONTH TO BE IN MIAMI
Being a Miami native, there is definitely one month that sticks out in my mind: December. Where else can you spend Christmas on the beach? There is a certain magic in the air. The tourists are here scrambling for their SoBe purchases, the restaurants are boisterous and hopping, the sun is shining, and we have a total of, say, eight days to wear our best winter couture.
BEST PLACE TO SAVOR THE FLAVOR OF MIAMI
I cannot imagine showing off our city's flavors without first stopping at El Palacio de los Jugos. I marvel in their fruit juice selection (made to order), from sugar cane to tamarind to papaya-coconut. As you try to make a fruit-drink decision, the chicharrónes call out your name like a little devil on your shoulder. Take no more than two steps and the fresh mariquitas (thin slices of green plantain) are being thrown into the fryer. They're placed into a little bag so you can attack the crispy critters on your way home. But don't leave just yet -- the best part of this little jewel is the pan con lechon (shredded pork on bread). Ask for a little extra mojo while you're at it. Savoring these Latin flavors is part of our lifestyle; it's what I grew up with and what I live for.
BEST CHEAP THRILL
One of my greatest thrills in Miami is a very personal one. I started going down to Homestead when I was four, to the various U-pick fields, as I do today. First wed stop at the field where you can pick tomatoes, warm and fragrant from the vine. Then corn on large stalks and lettuces of different types. But the best part was (and is) the strawberries. Oh, the strawberries! A group of Old German Baptists run a place called Knaus Berry Farm, which has the sweetest, juiciest, biggest strawberries youve ever seen. The best part: Once youre done picking, you stop at the roadside stand to gorge on strawberry shakes made with fresh strawberry ice cream and the just-picked strawberries. Its the most intense frozen-strawberry smoothie you can ever imagine. But dont go anywhere yet. They also sell big hot cinnamon buns fresh from the oven.
BEST REASON TO LIVE IN MIAMI
There is one good reason why I'll probably always consider Miami my home: the passion. Our city is smoking hot from the sizzling sun, combined with beautiful people, zestful food, and a fusion of many different languages, cultures, and music. Behind all these is a passion that is incomparable. We cook with our hearts, dance with zeal, speak in voluminous tones. Our achievements are accomplished by following our hearts more than our minds. If we don't believe strongly in something, with our hearts and souls, it probably won't even be attempted. Our clothing is bright, our senses alive, and we strive to let ourselves show.
CHOCOLATE MOLE PAINTED FOIE GRAS OVER PORT GASTRIC BRAISED CHERRIES
1 teaspoon ground ancho chiles
1 teaspoon ground almonds
1/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon
Pinch of Hawaiian sea salt
1 cup extra-bitter chocolate, melted in a double boiler
Combine above ingredients and keep warm over hot water until just before serving; use a paintbrush to "paint" the mole onto a white plate.
In a pan, sear a 3-ounce piece of fresh foie gras. When golden, place foie gras into a cold pan, set aside.
In the hot pan with foie fat add:
1/4 cup pitted cherries
1/4 cup port wine
2 tablespoons red wine vinegar
1 tablespoon sugar
Reduce until it coats the back of a spoon.
Heat the foie gras in the oven at 350 degrees until medium rare to medium, approximately 3 to 4 minutes, until it feels soft when you press lightly on it. If there is hardness, heat for 2 more minutes. Glaze the foie gras with a little extra chocolate. Place 2 tablespoons of sauce in the center of the "painted" plate. Top with the chocolate-glazed foie gras. Top the foie with a little sea salt and serve immediately.
ANDREA CURTO-RANDAZZO & FRANK RANDAZZO
TALULA, 210 23rd Street, Miami Beach,305-672-0778
They could be Best Power Couple. Andrea Curto-Randazzo and husband Frank Randazzo individually have made big waves in the culinary world. But now they're teaming up for a new venture, Talula Restaurant & Bar, and their combined talents might well unleash a tsunami. While zooming up the culinary ladder, Andrea and Frank twice worked together before tying the knot -- at the famed Tribeca Grill in New York and at The Heights (formerly Pacific Heights) in Coral Gables. Frank then launched the Gaucho Room at the Loews Miami Beach while Andrea took over at Wish, both in South Beach and both of which brought them international acclaim. Love changes everything, of course. They married, quit their jobs, had a baby girl, and now are ready to unveil Talula by the end of this month. The name? It's a simplified version of Andrea's childhood nickname, after actress Tallulah Bankhead -- an early indication of her dramatic flair.
BEST LOCAL LANDMARK
Jimbo's on Virginia Key. A real hidden treasure and so much more than a bait shop. Pulling up by boat through Shrimper's Lagoon is the only way to arrive. It's such a cool place, the opposite of Miami's polished side. Jim Luznar opened this landmark in 1954 and it remains the best place in Miami for fresh smoked fish and cheap cold beer.
BEST CHEAP THRILL
Tourists and newcomers are always told that Ocean Drive and Lincoln Road are the best places to people-watch, but those of us who live here know that the Publix on Twentieth Street is really the place. Stroll up and down the aisles and you will see everyone you know, even those you didn't think knew how to cook. Most men don't like to go grocery shopping, but Frank doesn't mind it because the scenery is so good.
BEST NATURAL HIGH
Each time we drive back to Miami Beach we remember how pretty it is here. I grew up here and sometimes take the place for granted but Frank reminds me by talking about the beauty. From our balcony we get to see the cruise ships leave. It's the perfect view and it is so cool.
BEST PLACE TO SAVOR THE FLAVOR OF MIAMI
When we think of local flavor we think of Cuban food, and we are fortunate that Nelson DeLeon, architect for Talula and a local of Cuban heritage, took us to a place we really like -- La Casita Restaurant in Coral Gables. La Casita has a casual, friendly atmosphere where everyone is comfortable.
BEST REASON TO LIVE IN MIAMI
We were tired of the snow up north and enjoy simplicity. Miami Beach seemed like the right place at the right time. Everything is within walking distance, just around the corner. We are simple people who want a simple, laid-back lifestyle. We found it here.
CALABAZA AND MUSHROOM RISOTTO
1 1/2 pounds sautéed mushrooms (shiitake, portobello, oyster, and/or crimini)
2 cups calabaza, diced and cooked (approximately a quarter of 1 calabaza)
1/2 pound butter
1 large onion (diced small)
1 pound arborio rice
2 bay leaves
2 cups white wine
1 gallon vegetable or chicken stock (hot)
2 tablespoons lime zest
1 cup Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese (grated)
2 tablespoons truffle oil (white or black)
To sauté mushrooms:
Preheat large sauté pan over medium heat. Slice mushrooms lengthwise (be sure to trim down oversize portobellos). Add 1 tablespoon olive oil and 1 tablespoon butter to sauté pan. When butter melts, add mushrooms and sauté for 5 minutes stirring often. Season with salt and white pepper. Reserve.
To cook calabaza:
Remove skin from calabaza and dice into quarter-inch cubes, removing seeds and pulp. Place in salted boiling water and simmer until tender (about 5 minutes). Strain and cool immediately.
To prepare risotto:
Add 2 tablespoons olive oil and melt 3 tablespoons butter in a preheated rondeau. Add diced onion and sauté on medium heat until onions are tender and translucent. Add arborio and bay leaf and stir with wooden spoon until coated with butter. Add 2 cups white wine and stir, simmer until wine is absorbed. Add 1 cup hot stock at a time, stirring until absorbed. Continue adding stock slowly, 1 cup at a time, stirring very often until rice is tender and creamy. Stir in mushrooms, calabaza, herbs, lime zest, cheese, and remaining butter. Season with salt and white pepper. Drizzle in truffle oil. Serve immediately.
Ahh, the impersonal nature of banking. Sure, that ATM perennially spouting cash is convenient, and that check card can be pretty handy too (even though your account's been drained three times by retail-sector thieves). And yes, online banking means you can monitor funds and pay bills right at your desk -- just like your boss does when he isn't watching his stocks! But admit it, you yearn for the days when banks would dole out toasters and clock radios as a reward for opening a new account, when lots of smiling tellers would utter their names and mean it when they said: "May I help you," and when the darned places were open on Saturday. Because who has the time to sneak away from the job and deal with money matters during the week? Well, a number of banks have begun throwing their doors open on Saturdays. But only Beach Bank can boast Sunday hours. The official day of rest for many is a day of work for them. Located in mid-Miami Beach, home to a heavily Orthodox Jewish population, the financial institution caters to those who don't do squat on Saturdays -- by religious mandate or not. But come Sunday, from 9:00 a.m. to noon, anybody can take care of his financial business.
Or should we say "bus benches" -- because who are we trying to fool? We all know these new contraptions are lucrative mini-billboards disguised by Sarmiento Advertising Group as seating units for the bus-riding masses. And as bus-riders themselves will tell you, the proof is in the scorching heat that radiates from the benches' metal bars after a few hours absorbing solar radiation in 95-degree heat. In some locations Sarmiento didn't even bother with the bench decoy; only the sign. City of Miami planning directors, former Manager Carlos Gimenez, and all five city commissioners fell for the company's crafty sales pitch, in which the billboards were described as "street furniture." Apparently Sarmiento's metallic sofas looked so cool in photos that city officials agreed to let the company place some right next to those old advertising-delivery devices known as "bus shelters," and even alongside the old wooden "bus benches" the new ones were to replace. But they turned out to be so uncool that Sarmiento executives were soon scrambling to apply a heat-repellant coating to protect the tax-paying public's backsides, as well as their own.
At the Eden Roc it's always the Fifties, baby. Just like it oughta be. You walk into the lobby, with its staircase floating down from the mezzanine, fluted rosewood columns, and ornate terrazzo floors. Spin in a circle. So much open space it's breathtaking. You can almost see Sammy Davis, Jr., tapping across the floor toward Harry's bar, where Frank Sinatra is ordering a martini and chatting up Liz Taylor. The Roc opened in the mid-Fifties, a creation of purest swank from the mind of daffy architectural genius Morris Lapidus. After Hollywood left, though, the 349-room hotel was sold and renovated many times, resulting in a creeping horror of Seventies and Eighties-era notions of style covering the old splendor. In 1999 new owners pumped millions into a makeover that essentially restored the grand dame to her original self. And we like her, yes we do.
Miami-Dade Transit's Route B is a study in contrasts. Originating downtown, your bus soon offers a postcard view of the concrete jungle you left behind and of the Brickell skyline as it crosses the Rickenbacker Causeway on the way to the manicured municipality of Key Biscayne. This trip affords access to several of Miami's prime recreation locales. You can hop off to visit Virginia Key's sandy coves or Seaquarium; the golf course, tennis courts, and beach of Crandon Park; or stay to the end of the line to reach Bill Baggs Cape Florida State Park (for the park, the bus sign must indicate "Key Biscayne by Way of Crandon Boulevard"). By taking public transport you also save on the Bill Baggs admission fee.
Nestled in a classy residential neighborhood just south of Sunset Drive, this designated historical landmark is the last resting place for more than 200 Miami pioneers, many of them unidentified, most buried in the late Nineteenth and early Twentieth centuries. It officially became a cemetery in 1906, but settlers south of the Miami River were buried there as early as 1855, making it the oldest cemetery in the region. (Prior to Miami's 1896 incorporation, people living north of the river buried dead kin on their properties.) Not long ago a Boy Scout troop cleared out a lot of the overgrown brush as part of a renovation project, but the place is still dense and lush. Depending on your frame of mind, it's even a bit spooky in its lonely silence. Some tombstones have been restored or replaced by preservation societies and living relatives, while others are weathered beyond recognition. Confederate soldiers are among those interred here, and you can see the C.S.A. insignia along with the Stars and Bars on some markers. A section along the east side mutely testifies to an intriguing family tragedy. This is where the Brook family buried their young. The firstborn, Virginia, died in 1921 before she turned two. Beside her lie siblings Patrick (girl), Patrick (boy), Brown, and Scott, all born between 1923 and 1934, none having lived more than two years.
The Calle Ocho street festival isn't just sweaty Spandex, lip-synching, hip-swinging, and flag-waving. It's also a multimillion-dollar fundraiser that allows the Kiwanis Club of Little Havana to provide desperately needed services to the neediest residents of the poorest city in the United States. With more than 150 volunteer members and a full-time staff of five, Los Kiwanis are busy year-round: running basketball, soccer, and baseball leagues for inner-city kids; building playgrounds and parks throughout the city; caring and feeding for senior citizens and the homeless; funding a scholarship program that currently puts 48 students through Florida universities. But the list doesn't end there. The Kiwanis Club runs voter-registration drives, plants palms along city streets, and passes out presents to kids at Christmastime and school supplies come September. They send cash-strapped softball teams to championships, urban teens to camp, and drug addicts to treatment. There is hardly a charity in town that has not benefited from Kiwanis largesse, from the Catholic Home for Children and Boystown to the Children's Miracle Network, Capernaum House, Deed Cancer Clinic, and Dade County Public Schools. Chances are if somebody needs help in Miami-Dade County, the Kiwanis Club of Little Havana will figure out a way to lend a hand.
The Miccosukee Resort's Café Hammock has the best steak-and-lobster dinner deal in town: $6.95 for surf and turf at the tribe's Eighth Street and Krome Avenue gaming palace on the edge of the Everglades. After the bargain meal you can lose all the money you saved on the food by sitting down at the casino's poker tables, slot machines, or in the cavernous bingo hall.
Three years ago we said Ricker was our Best Gadfly. Given his dedication and perseverance, this new honor, Best Citizen, is well deserved. Ricker goes to 2500 mind-melting meetings annually, from the Public Health Trust's purchasing subcommittee to the Efficiency and Competition Commission to the Alliance for Human Services' nominating council to the school board's audit committee. Sometimes he's the only public observer. Object: to be the Public Citizen for all those out there who can't attend, and to connect and serve as an information bridge among the special-interest-dominated Miami-Dade governmental institutions that seem so problematic and indifferent to the democratic process. This month his e-mail newsletter, The Watchdog Report, celebrates its fourth anniversary. In a former life Ricker made a handsome living as an international salesman of heart pacemakers. As the hard-working publisher of Watchdog, though, he's struggling financially -- this despite the fact that his weekly compendium of meeting summaries, analysis, interviews, and commentary has become essential reading for anyone involved in public affairs. What his written work may lack in polish, it more than makes up for in comprehensiveness. So raise a toast to the man whose official slogan says it all: "A community education resource -- I go when you cannot!"
Ever since the Miami Herald killed Balmaseda's column last June, the paper just hasn't been the same. Frankly, we miss the flood of woeful tales about hapless Cuban immigrants who pine for the homeland. Her weepy prose was like a warm blanket. We also miss the fact that when it was pointed out she wrote endless columns about hapless immigrants who miss Cuba, she reminded us she won a Pulitzer Prize. And of course we miss the way she injected herself into the story, like the time she joined a prayer vigil at Elian Gonzalez's house. But we understand, however reluctantly, that change is good and necessary, though Balmaseda is quick to point out she's still writing for the paper, as well as working on screenplays. There was a time when her writing had genuine intensity. And she did kick butt years ago with her immigration reporting. So here's hoping that a newly invigorated Balmaseda emerges from the ashes of the old one.