When people ask me about my approach to reviewing restaurants, a quizzical look of dismay inevitably crosses their faces as I offer my stock reply: "Everywhere is somewhere else, and you get there in a car." They'd likely be even more disappointed if I told them E.B. White wrote that, and he wasn't even referring to restaurants. Still, it's as good an explanation as I can come up with to describe my lack of premeditation. I never read about places before a review, couldn't care less if the owners are millionaires or immigrants who can't speak the language, and don't give a whit as to whether the cuisine is Indonesian or Italian. I only believe in good food and bad food.
The reason I wax philosophical is that this is my 280th and final column. My career as a Miami dining critic started with a review of Bang restaurant, written in 1994 for Ocean Drive magazine. Robbin Haas was the chef, I the novice reviewer scribbling notes blindly on a tiny pad placed on my lap under the table. Those words turned out to be indecipherable, and I would never again take a paper or pencil along to the job. If it doesn't stick in the memory, it probably isn't worth writing about.
My first review for Miami New Times, in 1998, concerned the then-new Tantra; I wrote that when I tried cutting the hard-crusted lemon tart with a fork, it "skidded across the table like a hockey puck." My final critique was last week's peek at Emeril's, so you might say I started with a Bang and finished with a Bam!, though it is only my coverage of Miami that's coming to an end -- hereupon I'll be reviewing for this paper's younger sister, New Times Broward/Palm Beach (in case you miss me: www.newtimesbpb.com).
Before I get up from the table, I'd like to thank that person who once wrote a letter to the editor saying how much they enjoyed my writing. I'd also like to express my gratitude to all the daily, weekly, and monthly Miami publications for employing wimpy dining critics that, by way of comparison, made Pamela Robin Brandt and myself seem like M.F.K. Fisher and Brillat-Savarin (well, almost). Above all, I must acknowledge the brilliant, charming, and all-around masterful editors at Miami New Times -- mostly so I can come crawling back if things don't work out, but also because they did just what I have always believed ideal editors should do: place my writing in the public domain in as uncensored a manner as the Paris Hilton videotape (well, almost).
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Next, a tip o' the toque to these top ten talented chefs who turned out terrific cuisine, at one place or another, during the entire term of my tenure: Tim Andriola (Timo), Michelle Bernstein (Azul), Jonathan Eismann (Pacific Time), Jan Jorgensen (Two Chefs), Klime Kovaceski (Crystal Café), Mark Militello (Mark's Las Olas), Philippe Ruiz (La Palme d'Or), Giancarla Bodoni (Escopazzo), Allen Susser (Chef Allen's), and Norman Van Aken (Norman's). I don't deny that Robbin Haas (Chispa), Willis Loughhead (Bizcaya Grill), Pascal Oudin (Pascal's on Ponce), Mike Sabin (Nemo), Michael Schwartz (Zemi), Johnny Vinczencz (Johnny V's), Kris Wessel (Elia), and a couple of others deserve to be included in this group as well, but "top ten" sounds better.
Smaller, cheaper thrills have come via grilled fish sandwiches at Garcia's Seafood Grille, nasi goreng at Bali Café, jerk chicken rotis at Christine's Roti Shop, lubina a la plancha at Delicias de España, lechón asado at El Palacio de los Jugos, facturas at Confiteria Buenos Aires ... far too many to mention here. Yet for all the cool ethnic joints and aforecited chefs, and in spite of the decade-long effort by local food writers to hype Miami as one of the most exciting culinary destinations in the country, inspired dining has been far and away the exception. A great restaurant city implies an expanse of ambitious cuisine, to be found not only in high-end dining establishments but also at any number of astounding pastry shops, gourmet markets, butcher shops, bakeries, bistros, and so forth. It means having so many delicious, affordable, mid-range restaurants in your neighborhood that when it comes to eating out, it's agonizing to have to choose.
A city's dining environment blossoms at the behest of a food-savvy citizenry who expect fresh, local ingredients, worldly-wise wine selections, and seasoned service. Miami isn't there quite yet.
Still undeniable progress has been made over the past couple of years as Aqua, Barton G, Bizcaya Grill, Cacao, Carmen's, Casa Tua, Chispa, Elia, Emeril's, Nobu, OLA, Pilar, Talula, and Timo represent a promising foundation for a future gastronomic mecca. Meanwhile I look forward to the challenge of prying and prodding about a whole new territory, as well as to finally finding out where Pembroke Pines is. All I know for sure is that it's somewhere else, and you get there in a car.