The start of the new year is a season as much for reflection as for anticipation. Past failures especially take on life all over again, a reincarnation that may prove uncomfortable for some. But it is this assessment, painful though it may be, that really allows us to look forward, make resolutions, and hope for better things to come. That might be why all those polls and lists you see this time of year -- such as the ones in the January issues of national food magazines like Food & Wine -- tend to include notes on what didn't work so well in 1996, along with what did.
I generally avoid making year-end summaries, living as I do by the maxim that complacency is the death knell of good writing (or cooking). Besides, I don't need a new year in order to engage in self-criticism; I confront my own deficiencies every deadline. (At any given time, I doubt I could make a list long enough to include all that I haven't accomplished to my own satisfaction.)
But this year several factors have prompted a reverie: guests and friends coming to town who want a list of the best places to eat. Food journalism contests (which means I have to re-read every single article I wrote this year). And Harvey Slavin.
Mr. Slavin is a frequent New Times contributor -- without him, our letters-to-the-editor page would be dangerously devoid of poison-pen commentary. Heated debates between readers would become lukewarm. And writers would rage on week after week and never acquire apropos nicknames like Kavetchnick.
As with fine cuisine, I generally take Mr. Slavin's peppery remarks with a grain of salt, a pinch of laughter, and an eensy-weensy dab of distorted-truth syrup. Then I forget about them. In fact, my only response up until now has been to adopt his pet moniker for me as my e-mail alias. But Slavin's most recent letter, in which he declared that "it is impossible for your current restaurant dolt Jen Karetnick to write anything positive or accurate about a fine dining establishment such as Walter's Cafe," struck a chord. He was actually referring to a restaurant I gave a pretty good writeup; his point seemed to be that someone must be impersonating me or writing under my name because I never give anything but negative notices.
Call me masochistic, but I wanted to try on that accusation for size. So I leafed back through all my reviews from 1996. And I was amazed to discover that I bestowed exactly the same number of out-and-out raves as I did raspberries. (Twelve, meaning I averaged one of each per month.)
It would be pretty pointless to pillory all over again those establishments that I didn't appreciate. But those that I adored the first time around -- well, no harm in mentioning 'em, in order of original appearance, again:
February. This month I began a love affair with Yuca numero dos, on South Beach. Owners Efrain Veiga and Amancio Suarez and chef Guillermo Veloso opened this distinctive nuevo latino eatery in a former Arthur Murray Dance Studio on Lincoln Road. With the help of popular Cuban singer Albita, who performs there regularly, it quickly became so popular that the partners decided to close the original Coral Gables location. And who could argue? The newer version supplies all the old Yuca favorites, such as plantains stuffed with dried beef and black bean soup with rice cakes, as well as fancified fried plantain baskets stuffed with sauteed seafood. Veloso often astonishes customers with seemingly experimental and largely successful main courses -- rabbit with a chocolate reduction, a veal T-bone served over lobster-accented purple mashed potatoes, and rummy penne mixed with grilled duck sausage and chunks of sweet plantains.
April. Restaurateur Dennis Max gave up Max's South Beach and turned on the lights at Astor Place Bar & Grill, located just down the street on Washington Avenue. Executive chef Johnny Vinczencz, a.k.a. the Caribbean Cowboy, has begun making national news with his risky Caribbean, Southwestern, and Latin combinations. Creative and ambitious mushroom pancakes topped with sun-dried tomato butter and balsamic syrup, curried smoked-chicken won tons, spit-fire chicken salad with salty watermelon salsa and pickled red onions, and corn-crusted yellowtail snapper over a lemon-scented boniato mash are several highlights. A chef who has always got something going on -- and who's going places fast -- Vinczencz frequently shares his talents at chef's table dinners, Sunday brunches, and other special events at Astor.
May. After being open several months, Mark's in the Grove began to find its mark. Chef-restaurateur Mark Militello's third spot, this handsome bayside restaurant on Grove Isle has an extensive outdoor seating area and a notable, multifaceted menu. Concoctions reflect a world of influences and can be rich -- pan-seared foie gras over French lentils, risotto with blue spot prawns and a truffled split pea broth, a warm brie pizza with apples. Or they can be light, a mirror image of the water dancing tableside -- pasta stuffed with peky toe crab, sea bass with a sorrel flower sauce, even a chocolate crepe layer cake. The menu does change daily, as it does at the original Mark's Place in North Miami (which reopened last week after renovations were completed) and Mark's Las Olas. Now you're not only faced with the tough decision of what to order, you have to choose at which Mark's to eat it.
May again. Matteo & Alfredo sparked a revolution of sorts when it opened in Surfside, an area dominated by similar family-run, homemade-pasta joints. Only this one's a little different: Asia helps out here, lending character to sea scallops with wasabi-tinged flying fish roe, to beef carpaccio with bamboo shoots, to tuna carpaccio with oyster sauce. Fish lasagna, flavored with ginger and topped with a creamy bechamel sauce, vies with ricotta gnocchi sauced with a lemon-zested veal ragu. For tradition or invention, chef-partners Matteo Giuffrida and Alfredo Alvarez, who used to enjoy the relationship of teacher (Giuffrida) and student (Alvarez), both earn A's.
June. I porked out at Porcao in downtown Miami and didn't regret a mouthful. This rodizio ranch has an extensive salad bar that includes a whole leg of prosciutto and a bowl of pickled quail eggs. Fill up on that, then flip over a color-coded card from red to green. This signals waiters carrying skewers of luscious meats to come over to your table and slice away. Bacon-wrapped turkey and filet mignon, pork sausage, lamb, flank steak, and even chicken hearts all tumble from sword to plate with the flick of a carving knife. The good news: Only desserts are a la carte; everything else is included in a $26.50 price tag.
July. Biscayne Boulevard construction forced Paquito's in North Miami to close and relocate nearby in the corner of a new strip mall. But neither the duress nor the seven months' interruption of business hurt the food any. Homey, spicy salsas and pico de gallo; cheesy nachos and quesadillas; meaty, marinated salpicon (shredded beef) salad; and char-grilled carne asada are all reasons for the clientele to remain faithful. In fact, though it's grown from 90 to 260 seats, it can still be difficult to grab a table.
August. Food may not always be entertainment enough, as proved by the talented singing waitstaff at Bravo! on Collins Avenue in North Miami Beach. Arias, expertly sung, ease the digestion of offbeat New American dishes conducted by chef Lawrence Wells. Roasted sweetbreads on a licorice satay, quail over watercress, rabbit curry braised with cumin, and venison loin with brambleberry sauce are rich and gamy; ceviche langostino and snapper with roasted pearl onions may be lighter but are equally show stopping. Love the singing-waiter concept or leave it -- but be sure to get takeout if the latter is the case.
September. Max's South Beach transmogrified into Mercury, under the direction of new owner Kenneth Jaworski. Chef Kerry Simon stayed on at first, fine-tuning his modern menu with select Eastern European influences, but he recently left the establishment; manager Michael Ward cites "creative differences" between Simon and Jaworski as the main reason. Chef de cuisine Marc Gruverman, who trained under Simon at both Max's and Mercury, is now running the kitchen, though Ward admits the restaurant is "investigating the possibilities" as far as executive chef goes. Meanwhile, the menu stays relatively the same: duck-filled pierogi, caviar pie, steamers, and roasted pepper soup for starters. Steaks with pommes frites or marinated in teriyaki sauce and served with wasabi mashed potatoes are mandatory main courses, as are a smoked pork tenderloin with stewed Granny Smith apples and lemon-chicken sausage scattered over rich risotto accented with broccoli rabe. Not hungry? Sip a silken martini at the in-house Hg bar and your appetite will jack up like quicksilver.
October. South Miami got its first real gourmet restaurant with Two Chefs, courtesy of co-owners Jan Jorgensen and Soren Bredahl, who also operate the adjoining cooking school. A wood-burning oven turns out fragrant pizzas, tartlets topped with snails, and Maine lobster-meat cassoulets. For the most part, the fare here is one-dish and seasonal, as good-looking as a display ad but much, much tastier. Look for fish or oxtail with Caribbean accents to complement the roasted game that frequently appears, and make sure to order your dessert souffle at the beginning of the meal.
November. A scaled-down Pacific Time, Pacific Heights nonetheless gave Coral Gables a lift when it opened a couple of months ago. Less Asian-influenced (the menu even offers macaroni and cheese) but no less skillfully prepared fare has a regional focus, with a host of independent and local purveyors contributing fresh goods to the mix. Organic salads with goat cheese, gazpacho with yellow pepper coulis, and steamed Costa Rican hearts of palm and leeks are refreshing appetizers. Main courses include pepper-encrusted strip steak with tamarind ketchup, a teriyaki-marinated portobello mushroom cap, black grouper Szechuan, and sake-braised sea bass. For those who think the light stuff sounds better for lunch, Pacific Heights now serves midday.
December. Back to South Beach for Savannah, a brand-new Southern fried experience where the chicken is boned before it's battered and hush puppies are stuffed with filet mignon. Mashed yams, pork chops, collard greens, even corn bread and biscuits are satisfying reinventions of familiar favorites. Sure the fare can be fattening, but unlike the majority of SoBe restaurants, this beautifully designed dining room has a soul as well as looks. I just reviewed this place and already I'm plotting to go back.
December. Another recent review, this one from December 19, yielded Bocca di Rosa in Coconut Grove, an Italian restaurant at once regional and sophisticated, with a warmly welcoming staff. Interesting is the key word here -- starters range from raw fish dipped in Sterno-warmed garlic butter to potato-mushroom puree garnished with rose petals, while entrees cover all categories with filets, game birds, and catches of the day. Pastas, particularly gnocchi and ravioli, are spectacular, as are desserts. And the wine list, arranged by region, may well be the only one in town that's exclusively Italian.
It's been a good year. But I'm ready to move on. How 'bout you, Harvey?
Astor Place Bar & Grill
956 Washington Ave
Bocca di Rosa
2833 Bird Rd
17004 Collins Ave
North Miami Beach
Mark's in the Grove
4 Grove Isle Dr
Matteo & Alfredo
9581 Harding Ave
764 Washington Ave
2530 Ponce de Leon Coral Gables
16265 Biscayne Blvd
North Miami Beach
801 S Bayshore Dr
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437 Washington Ave
8287 S Dixie Hwy
501 Lincoln Rd