Best Of :: Food & Drink
It's after midnight. You've just spent the past five hours studying for a big midterm exam or finishing a work project that has an 8 a.m. deadline. You need a sugar fix. Not just your run-of-the-mill Snickers bar high, but the sort of mental state brought on only by flan. The perfect flan. The kind with a smooth, sweet layer on top. You'll find it at Chico's, a Hialeah landmark that's open 'round the clock and serves some of the tastiest Cuban cuisine north of Havana. The chances you run into Mayor Julio Robaina are pretty good. The chances you see a customer savoring the flan are even higher. Chico's owner, Jesús Ovides, is there 24/7 to make sure the flan and all the other great eats meet his high standards. And don't let the city's confusing street names scare you. You can get to Chico's from NW 103rd Street (West 49th Street in Hialeah). When you reach West 12th Avenue, head south about nine blocks. Chico's is on the right side, behind a bank.
Each season yields a fresh crop of new restaurants. Sometimes they are highly anticipated due to a big-name chef. Other times they are preceded by a sizzling sister eatery in New York or L.A. Or maybe they boast a distinctive dining concept. Sugarcane brought none of those attributes to the table yet took this town by storm in a way few dining establishments have. The draw here is a grand, breezy, and urban-chic décor; an electrically charged bar scene pouring distinctive cocktails to a comely clientele; and a diverse menu of fresh, tasty New American cuisine at unexpectedly affordable prices (just about everything is $12 or less). The fare, orchestrated by chef Timon Baloo, is triumvirated into raw bar selections (oysters, crudos, sushi); foods cooked in a robata grill (chicken yakitori, squid, Japanese eggplant); and globally influenced small plates such as pork buns, lobster rolls, crisp sweetbreads, and goat cheese croquettes with membrillo marmalade. We didn't see Sugarcane coming, but we're sure glad it arrived.
Chef Michael Psilakis has put together the lightest, brightest, most brilliant hotel menu in town. Chef de cuisine Jason Hall executes the cooking impeccably: Lobster-and-sea-urchin risotto brings a bowl of yogurt, caviar, fried herbs, and a barely poached egg, and then the lobster and risotto get mixed in. Smoked octopus is shockingly good with diced pineapple, sopressata sticks, and paper-thin ringlets of fennel. Greek "paella" is jammed with clams, mussels, Merguez sausage, and jumbo head-on prawns in a saffron-spiced sauce spiked with Espelette pepper. Restaurateur Donatella Arpaia has trained the waitstaff to be one of Miami's finest, the room is gorgeous, and the outdoor terrace of the 15th-floor restaurant affords breathtaking views. Yet Eos charges noticeably less for its superior dining experience than every other top-tier hotel in town: Most plates, including that paella, run $10 to $16, and a dessert of two tropical fruit cannoli shells made from dried pineapple and filled with papaya, mango, passion fruit foam, and baby basil sprouts on coconut-vanilla tapioca goes for $6. Then comes the complimentary plate of petite sweet treats. Psilakis has already won a James Beard Award, and Eos was a Beard semifinalist for Best New Restaurant this year. Did we mention $5 valet parking?
All comebacks are impressive by dint of courage to change and the grit to make it work. But not all are alike. Chef Allen revived his long-standing landmark restaurant in brilliant fashion last year via refurbishment and a revamped menu concept. Solea first opened its doors around that time, but the highly anticipated venue in the glittering new W Hotel South Beach was greeted with sparse business and sluggish reviews. The jump-start occurred with the hiring from Por Fin of Marc Vidal, who had been named one of the top young chefs of Spain in 2005. Vidal installed a menu of small bites ($6 to $16) such as Iberico ham and fried egg over crisp potatoes, chanterelle mushrooms, and truffle oil; rice dishes and paellas served in cast-iron pans ($24 to $28); Mediterranean seafoods ($24 to $34) such as branzino with lentils, smoked sweet paprika vinaigrette, and potato purée; and meat dishes ($21 to $34) found nowhere else — like braised veal cheeks with porcini-Idiazabal cheese toast. Critics have loved the changes, and the swank indoor/outdoor space is buzzing. Solea was a James Beard semifinalist for Best New Restaurant this year. That's what you call a comeback.
It's easy to imagine you're lounging on the French Riviera as this two-level beach-club-cum-restaurant pulsates with pretty Europeans and presents peerless panoramas of the ocean (Atlantic, not Med) — as well as of the glimmering pool scene right by Côte's open-air tables. A DJ spins world music, bartenders blend tropical fruit cocktails, palm trees sway in the balmy breeze, and good-looking waiters carry plates of pristine cuisine imbued with the ingredients and flavors of the Mediterranean. The last translates to salad Niçoise (natch) with seared tuna, purple potatoes, and pert sherry vinaigrette; custardy tomato-and-Brie quiche; raw bar selections; jumbo prawns and branzino fish fresh off a sizzling grill; homemade pastas; and a Kumomoto oyster bloody mary shooter topped with celery foam. Prices are nicer than at Nice, with most plates ranging from $15 to $30. Yet while it is easy to imagine you're on the Riviera, there really is no need to — dining at La Côte, right here on beautiful and sexy Miami Beach, is as good as it gets.
Dear Cheapskate:These are just a few reasons I am leaving you for good:1. A cubic zirconia engagement ring.2. That used copy of the Sticky Fingers LP, without the zipper, that you gave my parents as a gift for their 50th anniversary.3. Your insistence on taking buses to restaurants in order to save on parking fees. Except when we go to Morgans and you get to park free in the spacious lot outside. Come to think of it, taking me to Morgans is the only smart thing you ever did. I remember seeing your eyes light up as you scanned the menu prices. "We can have panko-crusted tofu ($9), grilled rib lamb chops ($22), and coconut cake for dessert ($6)!" you exclaimed with glee. I was excited too, not realizing you meant we would share those three dishes. I can't wait to go out with somebody who will buy me my own meal. Chef Cory Smith's food is always so fresh and homespun, and the wines, as you pointed out more than once, aren't marked up nearly as high as at most other places. In fact, it was the only restaurant where you ever purchased a bottle. God, I used to die inside every time you would ask a sommelier at some fancy establishment for a taste of a certain wine, and then a taste of another, and another, and then refuse to purchase any on the grounds "it wasn't good to mix too many grapes." Morgans' workers are so nice, and the 1930s home atmosphere and wraparound porch are so, well, comforting and even — dare I say — romantic, or at least they will be when I'm finally sitting there with somebody, anybody, but you.