Dog Day Chronicles
During the sultry stretch of summer between early July and early September, Siruis, the Dog Star (and brightest in the sky), rises and sets in sync with the sun. The Latin term for this is dies caniculares, or dog star days, which has since been modulated to dog days, or more commonly dog days of summer. In a broader sense, dog days is synonymous with a period of heat and stagnation that pretty much defines Miami in August. Concerning the reviewing of new restaurants, it is a relatively uneventful time.
Although it is advantageous for dining establishments to iron out operating kinks before the busy season begins, not many of them debut during these lazy, hazy days; lofty rents make spending a few months tinkering with niceties too pricey a proposition. There are exceptions, of course: the most noteworthy this year being Jeffrey and Anna Brana's Restaurant Brana, which premiered July 14 in Coral Gables. During Jeffrey's tenure as executive chef at Norman's, the famed Gables establishment was nominated for the prestigious James Beard Foundation's Best Restaurant in America. Anna formerly served as Norman's marketing director and is promoting the cuisine at their new digs as "modern with influences of Old Florida." This means menu items such as Port- and orange-marinated shrimp with avocados, hazelnuts, and smoked trout roe, and Jamison Farm's lamb saddle with Indian River honey, charred onions, and black raspberries. Chef Brana describes his cooking style as "a quest for purity and clarity ... with a focus on sustainability and a forward-thinking approach to technique."
One type of food business that is perfect for summer is the ice-cream shop. Rob Goldberg and Jorge Garcia shrewdly got their South Miami operation, Soli Organic, up and running this past spring, offering creatively flavored (and of course organic) ice creams and sorbets, gluten-free desserts, and a selection of coffees and teas. Soli has also recently unveiled the ultimate dog day treat: canine ice cream.
Though restaurant openings are few, summertime is not solely a down time for the industry. New chefs are hired, the fall lineup of upstart ventures is unveiled, and, as if to make room, some establishments inevitably bite the dust. Plus there is Miami Spice Restaurant Month (really two months: August and September), a program that offers specially priced lunches and dinners at more than 70 participating restaurants. Lunches run a flat $20.06, and three-course meals are $30.06 (excluding tax and gratuities), which is a great deal for patrons dining at the many finer eateries on the list. At other places, it means for a limited time only, flagrantly overinflated prices are brought into line. Which is still a good thing.
So is the appointment of Patrick Duff to replace Marco Bax as executive chef at Acqua, the signature restaurant of the Four Seasons Hotel Miami. Duff comes to town by way of Bangkok's Sukhothai Hotel, and has added an alluring Asian influence to what was formerly mostly Mediterranean cuisine. New items include summer tomato gazpacho with cherry tomato and basil sorbet; sesame-crusted sea scallops with wok-fried snap peas and wasabi foam; and mirin-glazed grouper, cipollini onions, and caramelized root vegetable ragout.
Barton G. Weiss of Barton G. The Restaurant is South Florida's most ambitious restaurateur, constantly working with his chefs to develop outrageously clever menus and eye-popping presentations, only to revamp and start again the next season with newly brilliant concepts and concoctions. So it doesn't surprise that this master events coordinator has pulled off the most intriguing hire of the summer: Richard Blais took over as his culinary creative director on July 24. Blais has the enviable background of having worked at two of the best restaurants in America Daniel Boulud's Restaurant Daniel in Manhattan and Thomas Keller's The French Laundry in California. He emerged as a nationally recognized talent while helming Atlanta's One Midtown Kitchen and will team with executive chef Ted Mendez to bring a fun, push-the-envelope, 21st-century aesthetic to our local food world (his specialty is ahem a foie gras milkshake). At long last, Miami will be privy to molecular gastronomy dabblings in liquid nitrogen, and the slow, old-time technique of cooking known as sous vide. If you don't know what I'm talking about, you will soon enough.
There are plenty of other innovative chefs heading into town for the coming season, none bigger than David Bouley, who premieres his eagerly awaited David Bouley Evolution at the Ritz-Carlton South Beach. When his first restaurant, Bouley, opened in New York in 1987, it instantly became the most critically acclaimed dining establishment in the land. Other Bouley successes include Danube and Bouley Bakery & Market, but this is the chef's first foray outside Manhattan. "Evolution," he says, "will be a celebration of what I've experienced and learned throughout my career and travels." The menu will specifically showcase influences from Spain, France, Asia, and the chef's New England background.
Another culinary talent creating a substantial national buzz is Govind Armstrong, who brings his Table 8 restaurant here via L.A.'s trendy Melrose Avenue, where for the past three years he has wowed diners with brilliant, market-driven, seasonal cuisine. Govind and chef de cuisine Andrew Kirschner plan to go the same route in South Beach, featuring an innovative, weekly changing menu of California-style cooking spiked with unique, organic ingredients. Look for dishes such as white corn soup with English peas, morels, and bacon vinaigrette; duck breast with figs and Marcona almonds; and American kurobuta pork sided by collard greens and mushroom grit cake.
There promise to be more good eats at Christabelle's Quarter, a Big Easy-style restaurant from Alex and Marcia Patout set to open in Coconut Grove. Sadly the Patouts were blown out of New Orleans by Hurricane Katrina, along with their well-known Patout's Louisiana Restaurant. N'awlins' loss is Miami's gain, because Mr. Patout has garnered nationwide accolades for his mesmerizing marriage of authentic Cajun and creole cuisines. Expect the menu to also highlight signature grain-fed steaks from Allen Brothers of Chicago.
Bouley, Blais, Duff, Armstrong, and Patout constitute quite an impressive group of imports, but one of the most anticipated openings will be from locally renowned Michael Schwartz, the well-traveled, well-respected chef of Nemo and Afterglo fame. Schwartz will finally have the chance to do things his way with Michael's Genuine Food & Drink, a casual bistro readying to swing open its Design District doors in late fall. His way is to emphasize, when possible, products sourced from local growers and small farmers, and to divide the bill of modern American fare into small, medium, large, and extra-large plates. Fresh, homemade dishes will encompass selections such as plump Vidalia onion roasted in a wood oven with a stuffing of grass-fed lamb and apricots; homemade Jerusalem artichoke ravioli; and pan-roasted yellow jack with sweet corn cake, yellow curry sauce, and vegetable stir-fry.
Two other familiar names will be back in the news: A second Chispa, under the direction of the original branches' executive chef Adam Votaw, will spark Doral's dining scene. And the owners of Karu & Y, the spacious dining/club complex near Wynwood that seems to have been imminently opening since 1993, have announced it will definitely premiere in the fall. Rather tellingly, they did not indicate the year.
Struggling restaurants really feel the summer heat, the weakest tending to melt down well before the snowbirds return. This season's dog day demises include the long-running South Beach bistro L'Entrecôte de Paris and another SoBe old-timer, Tutti's Café. Mosaico, the cutting-edge multiple winner of New Times's Best Spanish Restaurant, has gone belly up as well but Salero, the downstairs tapas bar, is still going strong. Toodles, too, to O-R-O, the posh South Beach waterfront spot that opened in the middle of last season with a big splash but just wasn't prepared for the instant deluge of business.
Before this year's deluge hits, we have a number of long, hot dog days ahead of us, which are ideal, incidentally, for taking a relaxing and replenishing afternoon nap. Please make sure to wake me when season hits it looks like this might be the year when Miami's fine-dining scene finally grows up.
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