The exterior of this eatery, located right off a dusty (read: under construction) portion of Biscayne, doesn't look like much: a long, low building with lettering in the windows advertising Middle Eastern food. But don't go by judging the proverbial cover. Inside you'll find wonderful text, not to mention texture -- light, crisp falafel patties, steaming hot in the center and delicately deep-fried. For the best results, get the falafel encased in a soft pita bread with creamy tahini and tangy Turkish salad. The staff also stuffs in some shredded red cabbage and chopped tomatoes for good measure. But don't worry; none of the fillings overwhelm the falafel, which is, after all, the biggest plus of this pita place.
When the Portuguese "settled" Brazil and forced African slaves to cook for them as well as work in the fields, the result wasn't completely tragic, at least from a gastronomic point of view. Without native and African influences, no doubt Brazilians would still think salt cod is delicious. Fortunately for the culinary-minded, the folks who got taken advantage of wound up contributing to one of the most interesting cuisines in the world, a mixture of Portuguese, native South American, and African ingredients and cooking styles. And Barroco, a pretty Brazilian restaurant, is perfectly poised to educate our palates with dishes like black-eyed pea fritters with oven-roasted shrimp sauce; shrimp with coconut milk and yuca purée; and adobo-rubbed roast pork tenderloin with aged port sauce and collard greens. The truth is, of course, that you don't really have to know your colonial history to take advantage of supping on this sumptuous fare. There won't be a quiz after the meal. But there just might be some bossa nova.
First, the history. Renaissance Bakery, which has scored a bunch of awards from us in the past several years for its outstanding sourdough, olive, and sesame-semolina loaves, was founded by Ron Funt. Now, the present. Funt, along with brother Paul, decided to put Renaissance bread to even better use than selling it out of the back of the bakery and transporting wholesale orders to local restaurants and markets. They opened Upper Crust about a year ago, doing the chic décor -- lots of chrome, glass, stone, and marble -- themselves. So take the name literally. The appearance of this sandwich shop is literally a cut of bread above the rest, as is the Renaissance Bakery itself. The sandwiches are, too, giving a new meaning to portable lunch. Peanut butter and jelly, which is smoothed between two slices of raisin-currant-pecan bread, never had it so good. Now, there really is something better than sliced bread.
Chocolate's reputation as a caffeine-crammed, cavity-causing, pimple-promoting, fat-inducing treat has finally turned to mud. In fact the rich creamy substance these days is being touted as an antioxidant that packs a feel-good punch. Scientists are still fine-tuning their theories about phenylethylamine and theobromine (the chemical ingredients that put chocolate consumption on the level of orgasm). So while they're in the lab, you can conduct a little study of your own at Krön Chocolatier. This tiny shop, which spent seventeen years housed in Bal Harbour, has been sweetly ensconced on the second floor of the Aventura Mall for the past two. Chocolate-covered everything -- popcorn, potato chips, Oreos, pretzels, apricots, orange slices, pineapple, strawberries -- is made on the premises. You can mix and match a selection of creams and chews (dark, white, or light) or partake individually of pecan myrtles, rocky road bricks, oversize peanut-butter cups, and Nora's tacos (chocolate shell stuffed with crunchy chocolate, M&Ms, and Rice Krispies). Taste one of Krön's melt-in-your mouth, hand-cut, cocoa-dipped truffles and you'll understand why some addicts claim chocolate is better than sex. The research may be overwhelming, but remember, you're doing it in the name of science.
Doughnuts are sin. You cannot yield to the temptation of a low-fat or sugar-free doughnut. Such abominations are not doughnuts. Therefore, brothers and sisters, he who eats of the glazed, powdered, cream-filled, and all other manner of deep-fried dough, make damn sure it's worth sinning for. Can I get a witness? When you're out there hungering in the depths of your gut for a chocolate frosted, drive thou not into a Dunkin' Donuts parking lot, for that way leads to perdition. No, my children! Hold out for the worst sin! The very anti-halo! A still-warm glazed doughnut fresh from the Krispy Kreme kitchen! What is it, you may ask, that the Krispy Kreme people put in those doughnuts to render them so meltingly soft? So dangerously delicious? Oh, ye of little faith! Shut up and start sinning!
As the neon sign reads inside, everything in this bakery is made with "chispa Venezolana." The bread comes to you fresh out of the oven in all shapes and sizes. The cakes are topped with fresh strawberries, kiwis, and peaches. The meat, chicken, and cheese empanadas go a long way. Be sure to wash down the dough-wrapped lunch-in-a-pocket with a Frescolita ( a cherry-flavor Venezuelan soda in a glass bottle). Have a bomba (a pastry stuffed with cooked condensed milk) for dessert, or a flaky mil ojas (1000 leaves) covered in powdered sugar. They even have something to cure the lethargy that comes from eating too much.
The mallification of the once-distinctive Road is now complete. Just like every other mall, it has: (1) a Williams-Sonoma, and (2) a food court. Though restaurants are strung along its length, the culinary heart of the Road is at the artificial grassy knoll where skaters and homeless folks rub shoulders with the world's best-looking mall rats. What more could you want in generic upscale eatin'? There's the Joffrey's Coffee shop, the Thai/sushi place, the ... other Thai/sushi place. Okay, okay, there's no Cheesecake Factory, but there's the Nexxt best thing. And for dessert you've got the packed-to-the gills Gelateria Parmalat. All within striking distance of Coming soon, just down the street: Victoria's Secret! Just like every other mall.
You may want to call us predictable, common, okay even cheesy, but as far as chain-restaurant food goes, the Cheesecake Factory stands alone. We've even heard that other restaurants like to pick Cheesecake items straight from the menu and serve the delicious dishes themselves. That's the same menu that features page after page of tasty selections, like the sweet-corn tamale appetizer, Sheila's favorite blackened chicken pasta (hot, hot, hot), or the Chinese chicken salad. Leave room after the gargantuan portions for a slice from one of the Factory's 30-plus cheesecake selections. And leave some time to get your fill: You'll probably have to wait up to a half-hour on evenings and weekends.
Take a look on the other side of the counter in either one of these locations, and what you see could very well be a picture from a local agricultural promo. The fruits and vegetables are so fresh and ripe they look as though they belong on a billboard rather than in a blender. That's the way it's been for 58 years at the original Athens on Collins Avenue (the second location opened in 1997). As far as smoothies go, forget about the elaborate menus with clever names you'll find at other establishments. When ordering at Athens, simply rattle off whatever combination you want and it's yours, all for the same price: about three bucks for a medium cup. How do they do it? While other smoothie places choose to go with some frozen material or use bottled juice, the folks at Athens get up early every morning and select their produce from a stable of local farmers or the farmers' market in Homestead. But during September, take your thirst elsewhere; that's the low season for most of the local produce, and rather than work with inferior merchandise, Athens just closes shop.
Unfurling waves of hot-shot eateries have recently been splashing into South Beach, but this is nothing new. Big-money ventures and top-drawer chefs have been dashing onto our shores for years now, only to crash on the rocks of financial reality and roll quietly back out again. One, Pacific Time, has ticked consistently along like a fine-tuned watch since stunning locals with what was then radical for these parts: pan-Asian food. That was back in 1993, when PT was the only place to go for fine dining on Lincoln Road. Now, with cafés cluttering every corner and cranny, many maintain it's still the only place. Pacific Rim favorites like Szechuan grilled black grouper have been around from day one but the ever-evolving menu manages to keep surprising. Desserts, too, are legendary. Owner/chef Jonathan Eismann's steady presence and talent have kept Time like a Rolex in a neighborhood of Swatches.