Best Of :: Food & Drink
This is a lifetime achievement award one can win only once. The first five inductees were Norman Van Aken, Mark Militello, Allen Susser, Pascal Oudin, and Philippe Ruiz. This year's entries into our hallowed hall of fame are two toques who have been wowing Miami diners for more than a decade and who are, at the moment, presiding over the pinnacle of their careers. Michelle Bernstein and Michael Schwartz are not only the hottest, most talked-about chefs in South Florida (or, for that matter, Florida), but also their respective restaurants, Michy's and Michael's Genuine Food & Drink, are near universally acknowledged as the very best we have. Bernstein broke into the big-time ranks during her dazzling stint at Azul in the Mandarin Oriental Hotel; Schwartz made his name as chef/co-owner of SoBe's perennially popular Nemo. Both had to deal with obstacles on their way up — need we remind Michelle of her short work at The Strand, or Michael of his ill-fated helming of the Atlantic Restaurant? — but they worked hard, with full integrity and passion, until they succeeded on their own terms. That the two are known to be genuinely nice, humble human beings only makes the story of their rise that much sweeter.
Remember that trip to Buenos Aires? There was supposed to be tango dancing until dawn and a smoky-eyed lover. Instead you tripped over your own feet and got fat eating alfajores. Now that you're back in Miami, the porteños are gone, but there are still alfajores. Buenos Aires Bakery offers three kinds of the cookie and dulce de leche sandwich at $2 a pop: dark chocolate, white chocolate, and maizena. The cookies are moist and the Argentine caramel perfectly gooey. Take a bite, make peace with your chubbiness, and daydream about the Paris of South America.
Argentine steaks are revered not because of how they're cooked, but because the meat is incredible. The cattle roam the fertile pastures of the pampas and are never forced to exert themselves (because exercise makes the meat tougher). They are carted around the country in train cars. This special treatment produces beef that melts when it hits your tongue and is unrivaled in tenderness and flavor.
But until just last year, the USDA — out of protectionism and semi-legitimate fears of hoof and mouth disease — banned the import of Argentine beef. Now that it can again be imported, you don't want to go to some fancy Argentine steak house and have them jack up the price on you just for cooking the meat. That's where Estancia Argentina comes in. It's a Miami-based chain owned by Buenos Aires transplants, with locations in Aventura, Coral Gables, Kendall, and Miramar. It's half restaurant, half market, and all good. The empanadas ($1.55) and sandwiches ($8) are delicious, made fresh with quality ingredients. The walls are lined with bottles of wine, so you can buy a Malbec and drink it with your meal. The meat counter is to drool over, with all sorts of Argentine beef cuts, cheeses, chorizos, and chimichurris. They also have great desserts ($1 to $5). The place is always packed with Spanish speakers enjoying a cup of vino or guarana soda with meaty skirt steak or prosciutto and mozzarella sandwiches. Join them.
There's no Brie, quail eggs, or diced jalapeños baked into the dough of the bagels at this Kendall joint. Nor is there any caviar-infused shmear or exotic fruit toppings shipped from some remote village in the heart of the Amazon. That's because The Bagel Express, a non-descript delicatessen squeezed into a small, suburban strip mall, simply makes great bagels. There's greatness in the first bite. And the second. And the thirtieth.
Made from scratch and baked fresh daily, the bagels here are classics — pumpernickel, sesame, egg, poppy seed, garlic, salt, cinnamon, plain, and everything. The price: $6.60 for six and $11.95 for a baker's dozen. For the carb-conscious, there's also whole wheat and eight-grain available with your choice of regular or low-fat cream cheese (plain, chive, vegetable, strawberry, and honey walnut) for $2.75 a pop. Speaking of pop, The Bagel Express has Dr. Brown sodas (diet and regular). Then there's fresh, hand-sliced Nova lox for $7.99 per quarter pound and delicious, buttery rugelach for $10.95 a platter.
Still not convinced? Oy vey! Then swing on in after the morning rush and try a Boar's Head deli sandwich served in a large woven basket with your choice of bagel, for $7.95. While you're there — now don't get all verklempt — ponder this: Although a bagel topped with Alba white truffle cream cheese and goji berry-infused Riesling jelly sounds superb, it'll run you $1,000 at the Westin Hotel in Times Square. But these tasty bites in Kendall will cost you a mere $1.25 each. Enjoy!
If great bread is the staff of life, all of us here in South Florida are living on borrowed time, eating mushy, pallid, tasteless loaves made from ultrarefined flour that no self-respecting Parisian or Italian would use for a doorstop. But thankfully, for those special occasions, we have La Provence, where you can get a proper baguette ($2) or crusty loaf of sourdough ($2.25) or hunk of multigrain ($4.35). But man (and woman) doesn't live by bread alone, so if you're hungry for a light, flaky croissant; luscious Danish, fruit tart, or cheesecake; even savory quiches or empanadas, La Provence has you covered there too. Just no doorstops.
For more than nine years, Aziza Yuself has made Varanda's a place where Brazilians can savor authentic cuisine. That's why the low-key eatery draws so many of the Brazilian expatriates residing in North Beach, who can watch Brazilian television and have long conversations in Portuguese while dining on exceptionally good food, especially the muqueca de peixe, fish perfectly simmered in a coconut sauce ($14.95). Meat lovers will enjoy the picadinho ao mohlo, beef strips in a delicious hot sauce, for $10.95, or the frango ao mohlo curry, curry chicken in coconut sauce for $13.95. For many folks, Varanda's is a home away from home, but even if you're not from São Paulo, you can drop by too.