This was the year Miami finally joined the big league of American food cities. A flurry of activity burst across our local restaurant world, delivering bistros, cafés, star-chef driven establishments, humble neighborhood hideaways, midscale chains, upscale chains, burger joints, sushi bars, wine bars, wine fairs, food fests, farmers' markets, Whole Foods Markets, and the accompanying cornucopia of culinary culture that cobbles it all together. The most dramatic improvement took place in high-end restaurants: Now we're privy to a far wider array of fine-dining choices than ever before.
There were other positive story lines, along with some less-than-rosy developments. Let's take a look:
The Design District and MiMo Take Off
Miami's dining scene 2008
For those who seek quality, not quantity: Has any Miami neighborhood ever boasted four better restaurants in closer proximity than Michael's Genuine, Fratelli Lyon, Pacific Time, and Sra. Martinez? Add Brosia and Grass and their stunning outdoor spaces, the charming Buena Vista Bistro, Joey's (just a bit over in Wynwood), and Jonathan Eismann's upcoming Pizzavolante, and you have a white-hot dining scene.
MiMo's blossoming was more of a surprise. When Michelle Bernstein premiered Michy's there in early 2006, expectations were that others would follow. It didn't happen — at least not right away. But this past year, Kris Wessel opened his shining Red Light, and the area soon saw second outposts of Moonchine (Indochine) and Moshi Moshi, followed by Anise, a Mediterranean place operated by the former Ouzo owners. Completing the strip are "veterans" such as the homespun Casa Toscana and lively Uva 69. Plus, what area boasts better burgers and franks than those sold at Kingdom and Dogma Grill? Balans will be part of the mix come June, with no doubt more to follow.
The National Economic Meltdown and Its Effect on Miami's Food and Beverage Industry
Baire's Argentine Grill, Cafe Tu Tu Tango, Cielo Garden and Supper Club, City Cellar Grill, Domo Japones, Joley, Karu & Y (since reopening under new management), Kyung Ju in North Miami, Le Bon, Mark's South Beach, Max's Grille, Michael's Kitchen, Novecento South Beach, Ouzo's, Oxygen Bar & Sushi Lounge, Paesano's, Palm Steakhouse in the Gables, Pearl Restaurant & Lounge at Nikki Beach, Rascal House, Red Lantern Chinese, Sheba Ethiopian, Smoking Rabbit, Social Miami at The Sagamore, Touch Restaurant, ViVi Italian. All of these, except Sheba, closed before the economy imploded. Buckle your seatbelts!
South Beach Sizzles. Literally.
Tourist numbers dictate that SoBe will always draw more diners that anywhere else, which means high-profile restaurants will continue to flourish — and so, apparently, will steak houses. Here's the lineup in the less-than-two-square-mile carnivore's corral called South Beach: DeVito's Chop House, Fogo de Chão, Kobe Club, Meat Market, Outback Steakhouse, La Parrilla Liberty, Prime 112, Rancho Argentino Steakhouse, Red The Steakhouse, Smith & Wollensky, Texas de Brazil, and Tuscan Steak. Coming up: Wolfgang's Steakhouse (nothing to do with Puck) and Laurent Tourondel's BLT Steak. That's a lot of sizzle. If you are what you eat, it's gonna be mighty hard to sleep in this neighborhood with all the mooing going on.
Other SoBe newbies: Mediterranean 660 moved into the Angler's Resort, replacing Maison d'Azur, which relocated to the Astor Hotel. Diners can now feast on pricey Eastern fare at Philippe in the Gansevoort or at Asia de Cuba in the Mondrian. Bartolome premiered on Purdy, Vita and the Prime 112 spinoff Prime Italian on Collins, 1116 Loftin's at Casa Casuarina, and Ratatouille bistro, Hot Tuna Asian lounge, and the New Orleans eatery Ahnvee on Washington. Enso, a sushi/Mediterranean deconstructionist joint, jumped onto Lincoln Road, while Hed Kandi Lounge, which also dabbles in molecular gastronomy, took over the old Afterglo space. Getting set to open: Two Barton G. projects in the Adrienne Arscht Center, and Apple Restaurant and Lounge on Española Way, with Bryan Ogden, son of pioneering Lark Creek Inn chef Bradley Ogden, slated to run the kitchen. The one we're looking forward to most, though, is the 24/7 bistro Au Pied de Cochon, due to debut any minute on the southeast corner of Washington Avenue and First Street.
The Fontainebleau Returns
Gotham Steak, Scarpetta, and Hakkasan, Britain's only Michelin-rated Chinese restaurant (coming in January), are just three of 11 new eateries at the dazzling hotel. There was talk of transporting the entire property to Key Biscayne so the folks living there could have a dining scene too, but the logistics proved insurmountable. Which brings us to:
Where the Action Is (Not)
While Por Fin in Coral Gables is a terrific restaurant, and Mint Leaf offers deftly prepared Indian cuisine, few other places of note have recently settled there. Even Coconut Grove had a busier year, adding L'Petit Paris and the ever-festive George's in the Grove, along with Pisco Seafood Bar & Grille, the New York import Angelo & Maxie's Steakhouse, and Cita's Italian Chophouse. South Miami saw its thin restaurant ranks puff a bit with RA Sushi and a branch of Sushi Siam.
Bourdain Becomes Miami's Toastmaster General
Anthony Bourdain reminded us how too-cool-for-school he is at the South Beach Wine & Food Festival, at Miami Book Fair International, and at the Adrienne Arscht Center for the Performing Arts. In retaliation, we will be sending Louie from Deco Drive on a speaking tour of New York.
Waiting for Boulud
Mary Brickell Village added Balans, Grimpa Steakhouse, and Blu Pizza e Cocina. And this year's rookie crop of Andu, Badrutt's Place, Il Gabbiano, Manny's Steakhouse, Rybak's Café, Thai Churos, and Area 31 have helped lift up downtown dining. But when chef Daniel Boulud brings a branch of his DB Bistro Moderne from Manhattan to Miami's Met 2 Tower in the coming months, it could prove to be a game changer.
Chefs Did What Chefs Do
Eismann, Lyon, and Wessel returned; Susser retooled; and Bernstein branched out with a new restaurant, TV show, and cookbook. Militello closed shop and took over the reins at 1 Blue at The Regent, while his longtime chef de cuisine, Larry LaValley, now helms Nemo. Chef Macaluso exited Cita's Italian Chophouse shortly after garnering the newcomer positive word-of-mouth, Christian Delouvrier left La Goulue (replaced by NY Goulue chef Antoine Camin), and Acqua in the Four Seasons switched Patricks: Patrick Duff out, Patrick Boucher in.
Still, Gerdy Rodriguez remains Miami chefdom's patron saint of fat resumés: La Broche to Mundo to Karu & Y to Café Sambal to 1 Blue to his current stint helming Abokado. A few other notable moves on the merry-go-round:
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Chef Tom Azar left Emeril's Miami Beach to head the new Ahnvee, as Brandon Benack became Emeril's new chef de cuisine. Maria Manso, who formerly worked for Norman Van Aken and China Grill Management, took over as executive chef at the Delano and its Blue Door restaurant. Andrew Rothschild didn't last too long at Bourbon Steak, the new top dog being David Mullen, who has worked under Wylie Dufresne, Boulud, and Laurent Tourondel. The Food Gang hired Paul Anthony Morello as top toque, and its first chef and former Top Chef contestant Howie Kleinberg has just opened his long-awaited Bulldog Barbecue. Jeff McInnis of Ritz-Carlton South Beach is our latest local Top Chef hopeful — and, we must say, a bit more camera-friendly than the last.
Postscript: So Near and Yet ...
Miami's upscale restaurants are first-rate, but certain foundation bricks of the dining scene are lacking, such as topnotch bakeries and singular fish, meat, and cheese markets. Then there's the absence of a virtuous vegetarian eatery. Our low-end ethnic joints match up with those in other urban areas, but where are the cool coffee shops, diners, and breakfast places? We are likewise short on classic oyster bars (though Oceanaire re-creates one pretty well) and old-time fish-fry joints (Garcia's, Heads & Tails, and a dwindling few more might qualify). The number of quality midrange restaurants that working people can afford remains pathetically small.
Returning to the sunnier side of the street, and to a bright spot indeed: We've come a long way awfully fast, and the city's gastronomic curve is trending sharply upward.