Best Of :: Food & Drink
Why are you dining alone? If it's because you have a personality most often described as "morose," the Sports Exchange is just the place to cheer you up. OK, who are we kidding? Let's just say this is the sort of place that might make you less morose. Maybe you're dining out by yourself because you meant to have dinner at home while watching the Marlins, but your TV set is on the blink. If that's the case, there are 27 high-def plasma screens posted around the room, including what is billed as the largest screen in town (there is also a 16-foot ticker with stock updates, but we're assuming you're not that much of a geek). Maybe you're out and about because you were feeling a bit cramped in your apartment. The Exchange touts the longest bar in the Gables — 50 feet, as in plenty of room to stretch out. And yes, there are brews galore — Guinness, Yeungling, and Shock Top on tap for $4 apiece; the same price nets a bottled import. Dining alone because you're cheap? Then come here from 5 to 8 p.m. and enjoy two-for-one well drinks and half-off appetizers. There are late-night food and drink deals too. Then again, maybe you enjoy the company of countless friends and dine solo because you simply relish doing so — and doing so at the Sports Exchange for all of the aforementioned reasons. Plus there's one other reason: The fare is finer than typical pub grub, and unless you're gonna go with the baby-back ribs, just about everything is under $20 — wood-oven pizzas, burgers, sliders, Buffalo wings, and delectable mini hot dogs in brioche buns topped with chili, onions, and cheddar cheese. Of course, if you make a habit of eating those, you'll probably be dining alone for some time to come.
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.