For Miami dining, 2014 was the year of simplicity. There was, as has long been the case, the onslaught of celebrity chefs planting their flags on our shores. But beyond these big names, homegrown culinary talent continued to boil down cuisine into its simplest, most delicious form.
Kris Wessel and his beloved barbecue shrimp returned to a healthy regional spot just off Lincoln Road with unfettered proteins like roast duck and one of the city's best stewed goats in a guava-perfumed sauce. Danny Serfer traded his Blue Collar work boots for a pair of loafers at Edgewater's Mignonette. Here the focus is simple: seafood with eight daily oyster varieties alongside a bounty of local fish. There is also a bloody-as-hell prime rib, $95 Russian Osetra caviar, and fried oysters on white bread. Later in the year, former Bourbon Steaker Justin Flit became the pizza renaissance's newest acolyte with Proof Pizza & Pasta across from the midtown mall. The oxtail pizza along with the house made pasta with crab and lemon breadcrumbs were an instant hit.
2015 already has some outstanding-sounding places on deck (Michelle Bernstein's Seagrape, 27 Restaurant at Freehand Hostel) but they'll have plenty of carpetbagger competition. Let's see who cuts away the check-ballooning frill, kills small plates, and ends the apartheid of too small two tops.
10. Basil Park
A couple of years ago the longtime chef and owner of Timo in Sunny Isles Beach found himself overweight and sluggish. The answer, a move to so-called "whole," unprocessed foods led him to the new concept that now sits next to his namesake restaurant. Tim Andriola doesn't compromise flavor or technique. He makes the sour cream in house with cashews and nutritional yeast creating that unmistakable tang. It perfectly complements the fish taquitos, coddled in brown rice tortillas.
Uvaggio is an understated place, which is part of what makes it such a delightful find on the boisterous Miracle Mile. It's easy to miss with the Tarpon Bend's cacophony across the street. Though chef Bret Pelaggi appeared on Bravo's cooking reality show Top Chef, he stays mostly out of the limelight. Instead he prefers the tiny kitchen in back that lacks even gas burners. No matter though, because Pelaggi turns out an ever-changing lineup of exciting dishes that are perfectly balanced and pair with whatever is being poured.
Vaunted Peruvian toque Gaston Acurio's Brickell Key spot offers a refined look at his native cuisine without being too serious. The restaurant, on the ground floor of the Mandarin Oriental Miami, offers stunning views of Brickell highrises alongside anticuchos, an array of punchy ceviches and dramatic whole fish presentations.
None of the cooks at Justin Flit's Proof Pizza & Pasta have any pie-baking experience, but that hasn't stopped the grey box on North Miami Avenue from becoming a favorite in the waning days of 2014. Among the best selections are the homemade angel hair pasta with crab, Calabrian chilies, and lemon breadcrumbs. At once light and decadent, the effortless dish will make you question whether you're at a high-end, white-tablecloth restaurant instead of one with metal picnic tables.
Kris Wessel enjoys a cult following in Miami and with his latest off-Lincoln Road spot has expanded that group to include the health-minded, gluten-free set. Best of all Wessel has done it without compromising his signature flavors that blend Florida ingredients with New Orleans techniques. Wessel calls it healthy regional, we call it a perfect comeback.
With his second restaurant, Blue Collar chef and owner Danny Serfer proved that he has more up his sleeve than delicious latkes, sandwiches and everything parmesan-style. Mignonette offers an ever-changing list of eight oyster types as well as smattering of crowd-pleasers . At lunch, a toasted Portuguese roll packed with buttery lobster provides a proper midday respite. At dinner, throw on a bow tie and opt for the monkfish with salmon roe, broccolini and lobster sauce.
While lines stretch to the door of Zak Stern's Wynwood bakery, the fact that people are here to buy food at all is a surprise. Stern planned to open the place as a showroom for the bread, which is now found on plates and menus across town. But it wasn't long until a crew of like-minded folk turned out to use Stern's deeply flavorful breads as the base for the now-famous toasts.
Jackfruit tofu with Hokkaido uni alongside steamed kingfish at N by NAOE.
3. N by NAOE
What's inside the bento box at N by NAOE varies slightly from season to season. In July, the summer's house-made tofu was born of jackfruit with a slightly sweet, almost bubblegummy flavor and a loose consistency. More recently, a winter version was made with boniato, a white sweet potato that yields a denser tofu with a starchier flavor. Both iterations came topped with a firm lobe of Hokkaido uni that added a touch of creaminess and salt. NAOE chef Kevin Cory's latest project is a relief in a town where most so-called Japanese restaurants proffer California and JB rolls alongside pad thai and green curry.
2. Niu Kitchen
The pocket-sized downtown spot is the most exciting thing to happen to the neighborhood since Biscayne Boulevard was temporarily transformed into a park. It offers giddy, flavorful Catalan cuisine - such as raw shrimp tartare and mustard "ice cream" - under the careful eye of Red Light Little River and Barceloneta alums.
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Some dishes but might remind you of typical Chinese take-out. But chef and owner Richard Hales' renditions are much better. For his wonton soup, he crams shrimp and aromatics into handmade wontons. The finished dumplings bob in an auburn broth made from rabbit bones and chicken necks. He adds roast pork and house-made bucatini-style noodles -- thick, sturdy, and chewy. Finished with fried noodles, this wonton soup might just become your go-to nine-buck lunch.