What's the Matter with Miami?
Miami is home to glitzy multimillion-dollar restaurants, a sea of sensational sushi spots, and more than its fair share of satisfying bistros, trattorias, and steak houses. Central and South American immigrants, as well as those from the neighboring islands, have blessed our area with a plethora of exemplary and inexpensive ethnic eateries no other North American city boasts the arepas, empanadas, medianoches, churrascos, griot, or rotis found here. Added to which, our stone crabs are peerless. What's more, South Florida boasts a group of talented chefs who multihandedly ushered in a vibrant new American regional cuisine based on the area's indigenous crops. So we can't be blamed for thinking we live in one of the nation's most dynamic restaurant cities. Still, it might be time to think again: According to a number of 2005 "best restaurant" and "best restaurant cities" lists, Miami ranks with well, nobody. We're not ranked at all. We are, literally, listless.
"Sunk" is how John Mariani of Esquire magazine succinctly summed up the Miami dining environment a few years ago, and it appears not enough has changed to sway the nation's other food writers from this sentiment. None of our dining venues appears in Bon Appétit's "Top 5 American Restaurant Cities" survey, none in Gayot.com's "Top 40 Restaurants in the United States" (though Honolulu, Scottsdale, and Los Gatos, California, host eateries that made the grade), and none of our up-and-coming chefs was deemed up-and-coming enough to make Food & Wine's "Best New Chefs" issue.
The British magazine Restaurant conducted an international poll of chefs, restaurateurs, and food journalists for its "50 Best Restaurants in the World," and we didn't show up in that one either. Miami couldn't even crack Toptable.com's Top 20, although it should be noted that Norman's, Mr. Van Aken's eponymous Coral Gables establishment, was one of only five contestants competing for the James Beard Foundation's prestigious Best American Restaurant Award. As for the other 200 Beard nominations in categories such as best chef, pastry chef, rising chef, service, and wine service Miami came up empty. And Van Aken recently announced plans to sell his restaurant.
Our fancy-schmancy places might not match America's finest, but a city's dining scene is not measured by haute cuisine alone; another barometer is the number of restaurants serving quality renditions of everyday foods. Jane and Michael Stern, authors of the Roadfood cookbook series, traveled the country and published their own list of the Top 10 spots for breakfast, burgers, barbecue, doughnuts, hot dogs, ice cream, pizza, sandwiches, seafood, soup, et cetera 210 entries in all. Miami was shut out, once again. Sadly we also missed the cut on Esquire's "Best Barbecue," the Chinese Restaurant Association's "Best Chinese Restaurants," and Vegetarianrestaurants.com's "Top 16 Vegetarian Cities in the USA." Groucho Marx once said if ten out of ten people tell you you're dead, you'd better lie down.
Only a decade ago our gastronomic prospects seemed so sunny. National food magazines were cooing over the New Florida cuisine put forth by an influx of innovative Miami-based chefs, the most prominent of these pioneers being Norman Van Aken, Jonathan Eismann, Robin Haas, Mark Militello, Pascal Oudin, Doug Rodriguez, and Allen Susser. Although each put his own name and spin on the genre (New World, Floribbean, Nuevo Latino, Palm Tree Cuisine, and so forth), they all used South Florida's indigenous ingredients as a starting point, and later would be loosely labeled "the mango gang." Just as Alice Waters prodded Californians to take notice of locally produced products such as gorgeous goat cheeses and orgasmic organic foods, these mango fellas ripened awareness of the tropical fruits and vegetables in our own back yards, as well as the stellar seafood abundant in our waters. Those were the halcyon days of local dining. So what happened? I've compiled a list.
Ten reasons why Miami, though good, hasn't matured into a great restaurant city:
1. Our original innovative chefs are all still doing their thing, but much in the way the Rolling Stones are they weave new dishes in with crowd-pleasing signatures, in an undeniably proficient fashion, but many have expanded their restaurant empires more than their repertoire or range.
2. Michelle Bernstein (whose Michy's is preparing to open its doors) and Tim Andriola (Timo) come to mind as former mango gang sous-chefs who have since achieved great success while thinking globally but still stressing locally grown products. For the most part, though, New Florida cuisine has been hijacked by amateurish chefs and their nail-in-the-coffin concoctions such as macadamia-crusted shrimp with mango sauce, macadamia-crusted meat loaf with mango sauce, and macadamia-crusted cheesecake with mango sauce and a drizzle of raspberry coulis, of course.
3. Our culinary minor-league system is in a shambles. If you want to see and taste the grim future of Miami dining, try dinner at Johnson & Wales's faculty-and-student-run London Tavern in Bay Harbor.
4. South Florida lacks enough of a sophisticated food culture to sustain a serious culinary environment. One indication of this is the region's distinct lack of small, privately owned bakeries and meat, fish, cheese, or produce markets partly because it's practically impossible to sell fine quality cuisine to a populace whose majority can barely discriminate between freshly baked rhubarb pie and the sugar-laden confections found at Publix.
5. Many of Miami's restaurants are overpriced. Blame this on restaurateur inexperience, Miami being a tourist destination, and, most of all, greedy landlords.
6. Immigrant restaurateurs provide some of Miami's finest low- and midrange eateries, but many monied foreigners who open upscale places in the United States have dated concepts of what constitutes contemporary American dining; the resultant restaurants serve food that is often more retro-Eighties than 21st Century.
7. It's not just immigrants who seem to be in the dark. The majority of American-born restaurateurs appear equally clueless when it comes to cryovacking, molecular gastronomy, organic foods, sustainable foods, raw foods, slow food, Spanish deconstructionism, and all the other exciting, innovative ideas sweeping the nation's gastronomic consciousness. The recently opened Afterglo shines a light on raw foods, Mosaico plays at reconstructing Spanish deconstructions, and a few other local menus occasionally reflect new trends, but otherwise Miami is out of the loop. If local hair salons operated at the same pace as our restaurants, the Jennifer Aniston look would still be hot.
8. Miami's gastronomic shortcomings also extend to the midrange eateries, both ethnic and non. In the latter category, there are few restaurants where a working-class couple can eat a soup or salad and a light main course for less than $50, other than at a diner. Not that we have many decent diners, or for that matter, much in the way of great barbecue, Chinese, or vegetarian restaurants. Our Mexican, Indian, Italian, and Greek establishments consistently fail to venture into any regional cuisine that transcends tired tacos, tandoori, tiramisu, and taramasalata. And most cities surrounded by water showcase any number of fine oceanfront seafood restaurants, as well as a multitude of rickety fish stands where a few bucks brings a paper plate or bag of freshly fried treats. Not us.
9. Urban areas such as New York and San Francisco draw top chefs from Europe and Asia, as well as young, rising talent from the best American culinary schools. Such chefs don't seek out Miami for the same reason Shaq didn't join the Clippers: Nobody voluntarily signs on with a second-tier team unless, of course, the money is extravagant. Regrettably many Miami restaurant owners have little grasp of the difference between a professional chef and a cook, and pay scales glumly reflect their ignorance. In other words, if you were an experienced chef with a degree from a prestigious culinary academy, would you choose a high-paying position with a cutting-edge New York restaurant, or take part in the moribund Miami scene for a lot less?
10. Very little real restaurant criticism is being exercised by the city's so-called restaurant writers. The role of a reviewer is that of consumer advocate, and when the reviewer is beholden to advertisers or PR agencies, that advocacy is compromised to the detriment of a community's dining standards.
Get the Dining Newsletter
The week's top local food news and events, plus interviews with chefs and restaurant owners, dining tips, and a peek at our print review.