It's official -- and it's Esquire: Food critic John Mariani named Carmen the Restaurant one of 2003's "Best New Restaurants in America" in the magazine's 22nd annual survey. About the eatery in the David William Hotel, the only one that Mariani recognizes in the state of Florida, he writes that it serves "the kind of food previously found only in San Juan's best restaurants," and hails executive chef-owner Carmen Gonzalez as "an eighty-eight pound dynamo from Aguadilla, Puerto Rico, who has emerged as a savior to a Latino crowd." Gonzalez, who accepted the award in person in New York on Monday, October 13, says, "All I ever wanted was to be a chef and have a restaurant. To be recognized for doing what you love and for something that you are so proud of is an incredible reward for all the years of hard work." Amen, Carmen. But the hours she has put in have, in a twisted way, belied Mariani's statement. The diminutive diva confesses, "I'm now 87 pounds."
Also in the awards category, Wolfe's Wine Shoppe was recently honored by Food & Wine magazine as "America's Best New Wine Shoppe." Writer Richard Nalley tags the place "all wine all the time." A lesser-known fact is that the photo of Jeffrey and Christie Wolfe that accompanies the text was taken by another Miamian, Hallandale Beach photographer Stacy Shugerman, who also teaches in the Miami-Dade County public schools. Her subject? Art, not wine, though she has been known to make mosaics out of empty bottles in her spare time. Now that's recycling.
In the "Best New Nickname" category, welcome the "Eager Latina." Nope, she's not a porn star, although she is into form and function -- of the plating of her dishes, that is. The executive chef-owner of Food Café, Lorena Garcia, a.k.a. the earnest chica, has actually earned her credentials with five-star hotel stints all over Europe and Asia. Locally she put in three years with Pascal Oudin at the Grand Bay Hotel in Coconut Grove, following up with jobs at Miami's Mandarin Oriental Hotel with celebrity chef Michelle Bernstein and as a chef at China Grill, Nao, and Red Square, all owned by Rocco's backer Jeffery Chodorow. After hosting a bunch of shows for Latin television stations including Telemundo, Garcia decided to open a breakfast-lunch operation in the Design District a year ago July "because I have always liked this area and I felt that it was going to be the next up-and-coming part of Miami," she says. "Recently they approved several properties within a one-mile radius of my restaurant, so it is obviously growing in the right direction." Thus her decision to expand into dinner hours, joining One Ninety and Grass into making the area "a destination for fine food and nightlife. It seemed only a natural progression to do so." Well, maybe not as natural as grass. But given Garcia's dinner menu, featuring simple but sumptuous dishes such as honey-dusted duck with plantain cake over an herb salad or cilantro-lime churrasco with roasted corn-tomato salsa, not to mention a small but reasonably priced, internationally chosen wine program, aficionados just might be able to get as high.
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And speaking of Chodorow, is there to be another round of Rocco's? It's still only rumor, but I've been informed by more than one source who should know that NBC has requested six more episodes of The Restaurant. I'm not sure why -- it's not like Chef DiSpirito is about to win any awards in either the acting or the personality department. But for us, it's another chance to scout the box for locals, who just might reappear thanks to old -- or forthcoming -- footage.