Best Of :: Food & Drink
With restaurants such as Nobu, Casa Tua, Talula, Pacific Time, Prime 112, Vix, OLA, o-R-o, et al., it would be easy to forget about Mark's South Beach. After all, the stylish Deco restaurant is tucked away invisibly in the boutique Hotel Nash, and namesake culinarian Mark Militello is the quietest of star chefs. Also, many of the aforementioned spots have had splashy openings and attendant press coverage within the past couple of years, but Mark's has been excelling since 2000. Although this fact should be a plus, it has relegated the restaurant to yesterday's news. Fact is, Militello's menu of Caribbean-, Mediterranean-, and Latin American-influenced cuisine is as up-to-date and relevant as any in town, and executive chef Larry LaValley orchestrates the sunny fare with a consistently deft touch (he is as underrated as the venue). The food here is light, delicate, brilliantly conceived, and meticulously crafted. Witness the cracked conch ceviche-style scorched with vanilla rum. Or line-caught Gulf pompano with rock shrimp and ethereal vegetable agnolotti ($38). Or black grouper in sweet herb broth with baby artichoke potato hash and blue crab rémoulade ($30). Every note on the menu is played cleanly. Pastry chef Juan Villaparedes shines, too, and uses El Rey chocolates to create unimaginably luscious treats. The wine list boasts an array of mid- to high-end bottles from Old and New World vintners, and offers two dozen selections by the glass. Service is among the most polished in town. The overall dining experience here is simply superb. And very memorable. Which means that the only folks who will forget about Mark's place are those who've never dined here.
In the beer wasteland that is South Florida, Ray Rigazio owns an oasis: the Abbey Brewing Company. Since taking the helm in 1995, he has worked hard to make this microbrewery nothing like a typical South Beach bar. He rid the door of snobbery and, more important, the refrigerators of quotidian beers. In their place chills an eclectic selection of brews from around the world, including the hard-to-find La Fin du Monde. His own recipes are not brewed on the premises but by Key West and Ybor City brewing companies, and Rigazio's calorie-rich assortment of ales packs a punch. His Father Theodore's Imperial Stout won a gold medal at this year's Best Florida Beer Championships in Tampa, and his Belgian-style Brother Ban's Double snagged the silver.
What is your greatest triumph?
I think the greatest triumph Ive achieved is bringing great crafted beer to South Florida. When I came here twelve years ago, the best beer you could get was maybe a common import. Now I see dozens and dozens of restaurants carrying great microbeers and hundreds of thousands of people drinking them.
Nowadays the 210-acre enclave south of Fifth Street, which used to be a no man's land populated by graffiti and panhandlers, is indisputably Myles Chefetz's land. The Miami native has marked his territory with four of the most popular restaurants in Miami Beach -- Nemo, Big Pink, Shoji Sushi, and Prime One Twelve. When Chefetz, a former real estate attorney, opened Nemo, his first South Florida spot, in 1995, it shared space with a boarded-up crack house. The area has improved, but it seems nothing can deter his insatiable appetite for accomplishing what he set out to do. Not even Mother Nature. Even without power in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, his crew was still at it, slinging burgers off a grill set up on a Second Street sidewalk.
What is your greatest triumph?
That's a pretty general question. I mean, there are a lot of them. To be able to loan my family money when they need it. How about to be able to loan my family money when they need it -- without interest!
The Argentines have tasty empanadas, wonderful chorizos, delightful sweetbreads, and charming ceviches. But let's quickly establish one thing: A true Argentine culinary experience is a steak-eating experience. Argentina is, after all, a place where eating a decent rib eye is a birthright. For the penultimate carnivore splurge in South Florida, head to The Knife in Coconut Grove. With its thriving community of exiled Argentines, the Magic City has numerous parillas that serve heaping platters of red meat. But what is extra-special about The Knife -- a bright, airy, no-frills upstairs joint with a giant barbecue pit in the middle -- is the price. For $23.85 at dinnertime Monday through Thursday, and $25.95 Friday through Sunday, or for even less at lunchtime ($17.95 Monday through Friday, $20.95 on weekends), you can chow on as much churrasco, strip steak, and filet mignon as you want. It will tempt you, but don't waste stomach space on the bread: Your meal also includes unlimited trips to the salad bar, as well as a beverage (two glasses of beer or one bottle of wine per person), dessert, and coffee (you will need this, trust us). All in all, for anyone who likes steak, a trip to The Knife is a mind- and stomach-expanding experience. It's open late -- from noon till 11:00 p.m. on weekdays, till midnight on weekends.
Le Boudoir is sort of a stealth bakery. It looks like a café, is self-labeled a tea salon, and has a menu mainly devoted to elegant Parisian-style sandwiches and salads. But the sandwiches' astonishingly good bread serves notice that baked goods are truly taken seriously here. Proprietor Michel Chiche is a master patissier who grew up in France and interned in perfectionist French restaurant kitchens before studying at the famed LeNôtre school. But the real proof of his sweet supremacy is not in his resumé or roster of celebrity clients (ranging from Steven Spielberg to Bill Clinton) but behind Le Boudoir's bakery counter. The selection of pastries displayed daily is small but flawless, especially Chiche's specialty, macaroons -- seasonal fillings sandwiched between a pair of almond macaroons with delicately crunchy shells and a melt-in-your-mouth interior. For those craving something extra-special, custom-catered orders range from elaborate sculptural spun-sugar fantasies to a dozen cookies. And if you are searching for a wedding cake that doesn't look like it was decorated by a baker with all the taste and subtlety of Miss Piggy, Le Boudoir can make you a stylish showpiece cake that tastes even better than it looks.
Although this café/bakery originally opened as part of the Tasti D-Lite frozen yogurt chain, it became immediately clear its main draw was not faux ice cream but the rest of the menu: sparkling, crisp salads; genuinely light yet assertively flavorful spicy sesame linguine; and baked goods. The bagels (95 cents each, $1.75 with cream cheese) are not housemade -- not so surprising considering the small place's commitment to quality: Tasti's owners do not begin to pretend a decent bagel can be crafted without New York City water. Consequently, their bagels -- flavors include plain, sesame, and onion, no chocolate chip/sun-dried tomato sissy stuff -- are flown in from H&H in NYC. Pay no attention to boobs who claim H&H has gone downhill. Jerry Seinfeld refuses to eat any other brand of bagel. And if they are good enough for Seinfeld, they're good enough for us.
This is one of those books-by-the-cover things. If you glanced at this nondescript Japanese market while fighting the endless traffic on Coral Way, you would have no way of knowing that inside is a tiny dining room surrounded by shelves of chopsticks, pottery, and produce -- a prime destination for superlative Japanese cuisine. Though sushi is obviously a large part of the restaurant's focus (like, duh!), flip through the massive illustrated menu and all sorts of good things will jump out at you. Like fabulous shiso-wrapped uni tempura and light, flaky sea bass with silken yuzu butter sauce. All the usual sushi suspects are first-rate (and cheap, too, most less than $3 apiece). More inventive variations on a theme, like slices of yellowfin tuna anointed with a subtle sauce of yuzu, soy, and olive oil, rival the creations of any pricey sushi emporium on the Beach.
When Paul opened last year in the newly built Biscayne Commons mall -- located on a stretch of Biscayne Boulevard formerly known only to those stocking up on 50-pound packages of chicken wings at Costco -- it instantly became a worth-a-special-drive destination for true gourmets. The salads and sandwiches are good, and the authentic French pastries even better. But Paul's heart is the staff of life: bread. Despite owner/baker Francis Holder and his family owning more than 300 shops worldwide, the North Miami Beach branch (their first on North American soil) makes the substantial, old-fashioned artisan loaves pioneered by his Croix, France boulangerie in the Sixties. There are at least a couple dozen varieties available daily, almost all crafted from custom-grown-and-milled flours and traditional methods. Although these loaves take longer to make -- an average of seven hours -- the bread stays fresh longer. That means you can look forward to days of savoring a black olive-studded Niçoise fougasse ($2.95), a nuttily aromatic "Paulette" baguette, or a white sandwich loaf ($4.95), which is similar to American white bread yet with a denser crumb and briochelike flavor. Breads range from $2.45 for a plain baguette to $5.95 for a walnut loaf; rolls and similar small breads begin at 50 cents. Whatever the variety, one bite of Paul's bread will evoke memories of your last trip to Paris (sans the attitude).
Asia Bay brings a big bang for the buck. A bowl of miso soup is $2. House salad or steamed edamame is $3. Most of the other starters don't cost more than $8, and dozens of entrées served with soup or salad go for less than $15 -- including steak teriyaki, chicken tempura, shrimp pad thai, and sizable bowls of soba or udon noodle soup. For $16 you can create your own three-item Japanese box dinner. There are 66 splendid sushi and sashimi items from which to select too. Medium-size rolls are just $5 to $10 and range from routine (California, futomaki) to rowdy (crunchy katsu with deep-fried chicken). Lunch delivers an even deeper discount: six pieces of sashimi, three pieces of sushi, half a California roll, steak teriyaki, and miso soup or salad for $12. Though the final bill might suggest bargain-basement fare, the quality of cuisine is sky-high -- deftly prepared, pristinely presented, and bursting with bright, cleanly delineated flavors. By charging such reasonable prices, Asia Bay has removed the only obstacle to eating sushi out every night. How does one say "thank you" in Japanese?
The best time to visit Carnaval is weekdays from noon to 3:00 p.m. Why? Every Monday through Friday this market offers a hot lunch buffet that features different homemade dishes, from traditional specialties like feijoada to adopted Brazilian favorites such as beef stroganoff. Choose from anything on the buffet for only $7.50 per pound; then grab one of the coveted indoor seats and tuck in. Even if you can't make it during lunchtime, this place serves great snacks -- warm pão de quiejo as well as empanadas and panini sandwiches -- all day. And if your sweet tooth is aching for some treats, get there early and grab some brigadeiros before they run out. Of course, Carnaval's shelves are well stocked with a wide selection of Brazilian products -- including guaraná and requeijão -- if you prefer cooking at home.
It is supposed to be a flaky, crescent-shape roll painstakingly prepared by rolling butter and pastry dough into thousands of microlayers. The crisp, crusty exterior should give way to so ethereal a bite that it will taste like a Ferran Adriá concoction called "butterair." And, preferably, it should be made fresh daily. The croissants at La Brioche Dorée match all of these criteria, which is why so many French expatriates, as well as locals, cram the quaint little storefront bakery every morning. The secret ingredient that makes these croissants so buttery is -- and this is a shocker -- the butter. It comes from France and is denser, richer than the American stuff, which is served on the side but is totally superfluous. Croissants are $1.50; a cup of espresso $1.50. A copy of Le Monde would be a few francs extra.
What hamburgers are to Americans, roti is to many Caribbean islanders. In Trinidad and Guyana, roti is considered soul food, and few places outside the islands do it better than Caribbean Delite. This hole-in-the-wall is embedded in a strip mall that amounts to a miniature Caribbean district. Reggae music blasts from the record store down the way, and Jamaicans emerge from the shop next door, carrying grease-stained brown paper bags stuffed with hot beef patties. Caribbean Delite serves up spicy saffron-color curried meats like chicken, beef, goat, and shrimp with a generous dollop of curried potatoes and chickpeas (also eggplant, cabbage, and pumpkin if you come on a Thursday). These dishes -- accompanied by paratha, a scrumptiously soft flatbread also known as buss-up-shut -- are traditionally scooped up by hand. Succulent chickpea-filled doubles cost $1. For a more filling meal, consider a shrimp roti for $7 or feast on curried boneless chicken with paratha roti for $6.50. But roti is not Caribbean Delite's only specialty. It also sells pholourie, fried balls of dough that you dip into zesty mango chutney. For dessert, try some sweet-and-sour tamarind balls, or khurma, sticks of crisp fried dough sprinkled with ginger and sugar. Check out the well-stocked cooler of carbonated beverages, which can be difficult to find in the United States, such as Jamaican favorites grapefruit-flavor Ting, red-orange Kola Champagne, and sorrel, a customary yuletide brew made from crimson blossoms. The glass cabinet at the store's counter contains myriad strange island imports, like mauby, a concentrated concoction made from tree bark; and Milo, a chocolaty drink known and loved throughout the archipelago.