Best Restaurant When Someone Else Is Paying

Hamiltons

You might think that restaurateur George Hamilton would overcook his meats the way he does his face. But that would be an urban legend. Not only does Hamiltons provide a terrifically tender rack of lamb and succulent duck, he "auto-bronzes" his face with a self-tanner that he developed and sells at the restaurant. And if you look solely at the entrée prices, which top out at about $30, the coddling experience at this handsome supper club might not seem that pricey. Another myth. Here's the truth: It's the padding that counts here -- appetizers no less than $12, desserts a tenspot. Add on a martini and a cigar from Hamilton's own line and you're looking at a meal that costs, if you like to come by a tan the natural, skin-cancerous way, as much as a one-way ticket to the islands.
What is this, LAX? The Top of the Port, the restaurant in the towering Miami International Airport Hotel, is a genteel Continental eatery. But its lobby, located on the departure level, is now a bustling sushi bar. For those of us sick of Cuban coffee and sandwich shops, the California rolls and tender tuna sashimi are a welcome relief from the humid, heavy heat. How the fare flies is a different story altogether -- raw fish, rice, and seaweed may not be the thing to settle a turbulent stomach on a rocky flight. But it sure calms the savage beasts we all turn into when we realize we're grounded yet again.
This is cantina-style Nicaraguan eating. That means sangría, for one thing, and an emphasis on food, not décor, for another. Nicaragua is cattle country and food there is often synonymous with beef. Argentines will lay claim to originating the churrasco steak and its featured chimichurri sauce, but the Nicas have a subtle way of making it their own. La Hormiga de Oro's churrasco is butter-knife tender. Try it with the jalapeño sauce. You can also have your chicken churrasco-ed. Even the fried beans have a Nicaraguan nuance: a big spoonful of gravylike sour cream concocted on the premises. Nicaraguans have put their brand on tamales, too: the nacatamal, which has a juicier dough than your average Mexican variety. The red- and white-check tablecloth may be cheap, but you'll appreciate it when you get the inexpensive bill.
Executive chef Frank Randazzo doesn't want you to call this place, located in the St. Moritz building of the Loews Hotel, a steak house. And we can see why. His starters, like the delectable seared foie gras with chili syrup and blue-corn arepas, and his entrées, like the seared turbot with brown-butter escabeche and quinoa, have a seductive South American accent that's hard to resist. But he doth protest a little too much. The Argentine meat here is simply a cut above the rest. The churrasco, a whole skirt steak, shimmers from its meeting with the parrilla (grill); the ojo di bife, or rib eye, arrives sizzling like Chinese food. The waiters then slice the steaks for you tableside and serve them on carving boards, a delicate bit of theatrical service so rare on South Beach we go back again and again to see the show. Randazzo dazzles; he won't steer you wrong with his grilled rack of lamb with a three-chili demi-glace. No matter how you slice it, you get the real meat of the matter.
Round about midday at this venerable institution off the 79th Street Causeway, a member of the kitchen staff walks out to the dock that flanks the back of the restaurant. You can watch him through the tall windows that give off a stunning view of the water and passing boats. The man carries a bucket or two. Below the dock enormous tarpon, some five feet long, circle, and wait for dinner. They churn the water as the man dumps the buckets of leftovers into their realm. Inside, surrounded by dark wood and the memorabilia of more than 50 years of existence, patrons feast on fresh seafood. Awed spectators dig into everything from clam chowder to grouper with equal relish. A feast for the eyes as well as the taste buds.

Let's face it, a bowl of black bean soup can be a bounty of blasé. But the chefs at these little Mexican diners add a magical elixir to their pot: a splash of beer, Dos Equis Special Lager, to be precise. That's why they call it drunken bean soup. You won't get a beer buzz, but the effect is definitely euphoric. A dollop of sour cream and some shredded cheese (which you can ask them to hold) round out the unexpectedly flavorful recipe. Please, señor, some more. ¡Ándale!
Contrary to popular belief, the Italians didn't invent pizza. The Greeks did, who in turn got the idea from the enterprising Etruscans, who used focaccia as plates. But the Italians certainly improved the dish. In Naples they added tomato sauce, and in the late Nineteenth Century the classic Margherita (four-cheese pizza) was invented and named for the then-queen of Italy. Elsewhere in the country, pizzaiolos, or pizza makers, vied with each other to create the most original toppings, using whatever local ingredients they could lay their flour-covered hands on, including cured meats like prosciutto and soppressata and homegrown vegetables such as olives and eggplant. You can see the fruits of this ancient labor at Spris, which offers delicate, thin-crust pizzas, similar to the ones found in Naples, for contemporary consumption. Owned by the folks who run Tiramesu, only a few doors away, Spris satisfies the pizzaiolo in all of us by offering more than 30 choices, including the tonnata (with tuna, onion, and basil), the gamberetti (with shrimp and arugula), and of course, the Margherita.
"Wait, let me get you a warm one," the counter clerk says as he hovers a hand above the trays of doughy bagels. In no time his heat-seeking fingers land on a poppy-seed bagel that's as piping hot as it is flush with flavor. At Bagels & Co. freshness is never in question. Beyond fresh, the bagels are unusually dense and chewy, with a nice flavor. There are more than a dozen varieties available, all of which, we've found after extensive research, are extremely satisfying. The bialys (a kind of puffy, holeless bagel with onions on top) are the best we've ever seen. And did we mention how fresh everything is? And warm? And chewy?
Think French fries and plump white potatoes cooking in a deep pool of sputtering oil comes to mind. Certainly not health food. The menu at healthy Oasis Café features staples such as tofu, brown rice, and garden burgers, but they're not your ordinary bland concoctions. Oasis gives their food a decidedly Mediterranean twist. And they give their menu a twist as well. The restaurant offers a hearty batch of fries ($2.95) as one of their appetizer-size mezze or "little plates." Not just potato sticks oozing grease. These are thin but substantial fries with skin on one side, coated in a spicy cumin-coriander mixture. They're the perfect accompaniment to an Angus New York steak or a grilled vegetable sandwich. Or they're a fine main course, if you're into throwing all dietary vigilance to the wind. To raise the fat content a wee bit, they throw in a few marinated green olives with your order. No ketchup needed.
The Spaniards may not have invented the appetizer, but they are conquistadors when it comes to premain-course specialties. They have even captured a foothold in the English language with the word tapas (means appetizers, yanqui). Back in the land of Sancho Panza, tapas are free at many an inn, as long as you and your compadres order beer or wine. Here in the New World you'd be tilting at windmills for that arrangement, but you'll want to pay for any number of this Calle Ocho establishment's 35 tapas. They cost from $3 to $6.50 and come in two categories, hot and cold. Among the hot: garlic shrimp, fried squid, and mussels in broth. Among the cold: real Spanish olives, a garlicky potato salad like only the Iberians can do, and the Spanish tortilla (a thick, but mysteriously delicious, potato omelet). Chomp tapas, slurp wine, flirt with the sexy long-haired flamenco dancers (male and female) who are been wrist-flicking and heel-stomping on this little restaurant's tiny corner stage. Get to the inn early or make a reservation if you want a table.

Best Of Miami®

Best Of Miami®