BEST NEW RESTAURANT Miami 2004 - Carmen the Restaurant
This winner is no surprise. Chef Carmen Gonzalez's Latin-influenced, post-New American eatery has landed on the hottest-new-restaurant list of so many national publications that any other pick would be scandalous. If the place were booked any more solidly (even on weeknights), diners would have to crowd onto the chef's lap -- difficult given that Gonzalez is a petite four feet eleven. Nevertheless she turns out some mighty big, bold food. Though her heritage is Puerto Rican, her food is not so much Nuevo Latino as Nuevo Pan American, creatively incorporating influences and ingredients from both hemispheres into North/South American fusion dishes, with an occasional pinch of Asia thrown in for fun. Carmen is actually two eateries in one, a formal restaurant and a casually elegant wine bar with a menu of "chef's favorite" light bites such as Florida lobster and avocado terrine, garnished with house-made key lime mayonnaise and crisp plantain fritters. In the formal dining space, grilled whole pompano with island mojito and yuca mofongo is a typical entrée. And everything everywhere, from the ketchup topping the bar's burger to the olive-pimento-roasted-garlic-cilantro compound butter that comes with the restaurant's bread, is made from scratch.