At all-you-can-eat buffets of the cafeteria-inspired kind, the urge to gorge overtakes most diners. Maybe it's a Thanksgiving-related syndrome. Get it now or your brothers will be asking for seconds before you've taken the first bite. That experience is the opposite of eating at the Brazilian churrascaria Porcao in the Four Ambassadors Hotel. Although porcao is Portuguese for "pig," and one essential element is the same -- you can eat until you decide to stop -- the experience is more like theater for the tongue. You are attended to by a cast of waiters. There is a constant flow of different foods to sample. The tongue remains surprised. A churrascaria is a restaurant that specializes in meat. The style of cooking is rodizio, Portuguese for "rotisserie." Each table has a card, one side green and the other red, like a traffic light. If you flip up the green side, you will be approached by the phalanx of waiters streaming from the kitchen and fanning out through the dining room. Each waiter carries skewers of fresh-grilled meat. One time it will be pork sausages and grilled chicken. The next, buttons of filet mignon wrapped in bacon, perfectly charred roast rump, salmon with mushroom-butter sauce. If you want time to digest all that protein, flip over the card to the red side, order a drink from one of the carts wheeled through the dining room, and indulge in conversation. There's no rush. Or if you just want to give your taste buds a change, take a trip to the salad bar. The array of choices and the quality of offerings are dazzling. And then there is the dessert cart. Yummy. Gluttony never felt so good.
In The Beach, a novel about traveling, the central characters are constantly looking for the next undiscovered Eden, where they can play in splendid isolation. Take that concept, transfer it to dining on South Beach, and The Abbey becomes an oasis of an island. Although it's "undiscovered" by the masses, it's not so far off the Ferragamo-trod path that it's unfashionable. Thus the sophisticated eatery, featuring executive chef Philippe Baguette (can his name be any more apropos?), an eclectic menu, and a darling eight-stool bar, plus an airy but formal Mediterranean dining room and a beautifully landscaped terrace for outdoor dining, offers a temporary escape from the madding SoBe crowd. In other words it's the perfect place to talk about your friends, because while their ears may be ringing, they don't yet know where you are. And we won't tell if you won't.

Best Restaurant For The Hearing Impaired

Tantra

Perhaps it's the music, spun by DJs who damaged their own hearing so long ago they have ear-practice pads rather than ear drums. Possibly it's the ever-playing Kama Sutra movie, inspiring both moans of delight and screams of "No, not again!" Maybe it's the fashionable crowd, whose very clothing is loud, or the ever-present buzz that follows celebrity diners Jim Carrey or Will Smith like tinnitus. But the requirements for getting past the big boys holding the ropes at Tantra no longer stop at having a reservation. Now you have to be able to lip-read and speak in American Sign Language as well. And it's no use throwing a tantrum -- the only person likely to hear well enough to pay attention is, well, you.
Ah, the Grove, where people live in trees, bartenders look like clowns, and rickshas run wild through heavy traffic. Like a lot of Grovites, Mezzanotte is a little kooky. But in a good way. Take, for instance, the bistecca pulcinella: steak with peppercorn, brandy cream, and a touch of demi-glace. Kind of crazy! Or the insalata parmigiana: mushroom salad with thin slices of Parmesan cheese, virgin olive oil, and balsamic vinegar. Positively flaky! Or how about the calamari della casa: calamari, scallops, fresh tomato, peas, and a touch of cognac. Now that's outlandish! Or the pollo contadino: chicken with sirloin steak, sausage, mushrooms, potato, garlic oil, and white wine vinegar. Absolutely wacky! Even more insane is the fact that, in an area once bereft of good restaurants, Mezzanotte has several fabulous contenders, including Anokha (Indian), Baleen (seafood and steak), Bice (Italian), Le Bouchon du Grove (French), and Las Culebrinas (Cuban/Spanish). But Mezzanotte's prices (beef, chicken, and seafood entrées start at $14.50) are less absurd than most of them.
Yes, it's him again. And we might as well permanently retire this category to Norman Van Aken until he retires -- which he shows no signs of doing, possibly ever. While other superstar chefs would rest on their laurels -- especially if they had as many as Van Aken does -- or clean up financially by opening clone eateries, Van Aken remains in his Gables kitchen. And remains energetically, unceasingly inventive. How to equal still-superb old favorites like yuca-stuffed crispy shrimp with mojo and habanero tartar sauce? With Fire and Ice (a combo of warm lobster/boniato hash and cold tuna tartare, with wasabi granite and vanilla sabayon), or sautéed soft-shell crab with pancetta and basil/lemon butter, among many recently invented creations. As for tasting menus, there are always two. One is a weekly changing five-course feast based on seasonal ingredients and events, as well as Van Aken's sense of humor. A recent Judeo/Christian holiday menu, for instance, included both an amusing upscale Easter egg salad (quail egg halves stuffed with lobster or foie gras mousse, with a caviar crema and local spring vegetable accompaniment) and a Seder-ish dish of sea bass on a crisp latke topped with a "Balsamic Blessed ragout of teardrop tomatoes, accompanied by hearts of palm." The other is a tasting menu of signature dishes, for diners who don't want to gamble -- though no diner, no matter how high the bill, ever loses at Norman's.
As one of the original Mango Gang of chefs who put New World cuisine on the serious dining map a decade ago (and the first to win a James Beard Award), Mark Militello is a certifiable culinary star. But at his South Beach eatery, the real star is Militello's almost impossibly well-flavored fusion food -- and it's obvious from the clientele. Although Washington Avenue is South Beach's nightlife central, Mark's doesn't attract club kids but a casually classy twenty-five-to-fiftysomething crowd that knows from noshing. So settle back in the exotic movie-set glamour of the black-enameled, hardwood-paneled Deco dining room (or better yet the balmy, multipooled outdoor tropical terrace) and swoon over the masterpieces: succulent West Coast oysters in a golden-brown potato wrapping, topped with horseradish crème fraîche and osetra caviar; a "millionaire" organic green salad with Maine lobster, foie gras, and truffle vinaigrette; crisp anise and hazelnut-crusted soft-shell crab; spot prawns with silky black truffle sabayon; or a mushroom-dusted pompano with foie gras, warm green lentils and chanterelles, and rich, naturally sweet aged balsamic vinegar sauce. The extensive menu changes nightly, but thanks to the skill of the guy who actually cooks at Mark's while Militello supervises his ever-expanding empire, executive chef Tim Andreola (a protegé of fellow Mango Ganger Allen Susser), one can count on mostly magic.

Best Restaurant Pretending To Be A Nightclub

Touch

If one had to name just a single Miami restaurant trend for the past twelve months, it'd be restaurant/nightclubs. Or is it nightclub/restaurants? Whatever. The idea is having it all in one place: Diners eat and then stay to dance the night away. That's in theory. In practice these allegedly one-size-fits-all eats-and-entertainment spaces satisfy serious clubbers much better than they do serious diners. The latter tend to find the sounds too pounding for dinner conversation or digestion -- and having to run a gauntlet of velvet ropes and doorfolk with attitude to reach one's rib eye tends to ruin the appetite. At "American grill" restaurant/nightclub Touch, the rib eye is an intensely charcrusted, subtly spice-rubbed 24-ouncer with a generous topping of thin-cut onion rings just peppery enough to tingle one's tongue. And other food offerings are equally first-rate in terms of ingredients and preparation: a lobster blini featuring Maine lobster, or a custardy smooth ice-cream-topped bread pudding that's the sexiest thing most SoBe club kids have experienced in years. What makes Touch superior as a restaurant/nightclub is that you get to enjoy the experience. While Touch opened a year ago with the standard senses-smashing sounds and faux-glam ambiance, dinnertime music now is seductively smooth -- and subdued in volume (after the kitchen closes, all bets are off). Best, there's little velvet-rope snobbery; personnel are genuinely welcoming, even to those who don't look like J. Lo.

Best Restaurant To Die In The Past Twelve Months

Mayya

Forget chicken mole and everything else you know as traditional Mexican food. Consider instead cutting-edge nuevo Mexicano inventions featuring upscale ingredients and light but big beautiful flavors: a subtly spicy carrot and tomato chipotle chili soup; a seared foie gras and lobster sandwich on poblano cornbread with apple jalapeño sauce; or a precisely grilled-to-perfection beef filet with creamy corn and chili polenta, nopales cactus, and black beans in a complex chorizo/guajillo sauce that hit one's palate a half-dozen different ways. Creator of this unique personal vision was Mexican-born chef Guillermo Tellez, for years second in command at Charlie Trotter's culinary temple in Chicago. Icing on the cake -- which here would have been something more like a liquid-centered dark chocolate and chipotle ganache with crunchy caramelized bananas -- was Tellez's domestic partner, pastry chef Leslie Swagger. The restaurant was Mayya, which closed last spring, barely a year after opening. Why? Well, restaurant powers that be dissed South Florida diners as too unsophisticated to pay a premium for sophisticated fare. Meanwhile the rumor mill blamed restaurant powers that be for appalling cost-cutting suggestions ("canned lobster!" was reportedly the kicker for Tellez and Swagger). Admittedly haute Mexican cuisine is a hard sell. Even savvy Northern diners balk at paying prices like Mayya's ($24 to $37 entrées, a $70 ten-course prix-fixe tasting extravaganza) for what they consider refined versions of fast food. The tasting dinners at hopefully immortal Norman's, however, are almost as high ($55 to $65) for five fewer courses. And unfortunately all the publicity Mayya's high-profile owners garnered obscured the fact that the food was much more about Norman Van Aken (or Charlie Trotter)-type creativity than about Mexico. Yes, Mayya was expensive -- and worth every peso.

Best Restaurant To Die In The Past Twelve Months

Mayya

Forget chicken mole and everything else you know as traditional Mexican food. Consider instead cutting-edge nuevo Mexicano inventions featuring upscale ingredients and light but big beautiful flavors: a subtly spicy carrot and tomato chipotle chili soup; a seared foie gras and lobster sandwich on poblano cornbread with apple jalapeño sauce; or a precisely grilled-to-perfection beef filet with creamy corn and chili polenta, nopales cactus, and black beans in a complex chorizo/guajillo sauce that hit one's palate a half-dozen different ways. Creator of this unique personal vision was Mexican-born chef Guillermo Tellez, for years second in command at Charlie Trotter's culinary temple in Chicago. Icing on the cake -- which here would have been something more like a liquid-centered dark chocolate and chipotle ganache with crunchy caramelized bananas -- was Tellez's domestic partner, pastry chef Leslie Swagger. The restaurant was Mayya, which closed last spring, barely a year after opening. Why? Well, restaurant powers that be dissed South Florida diners as too unsophisticated to pay a premium for sophisticated fare. Meanwhile the rumor mill blamed restaurant powers that be for appalling cost-cutting suggestions ("canned lobster!" was reportedly the kicker for Tellez and Swagger). Admittedly haute Mexican cuisine is a hard sell. Even savvy Northern diners balk at paying prices like Mayya's ($24 to $37 entrées, a $70 ten-course prix-fixe tasting extravaganza) for what they consider refined versions of fast food. The tasting dinners at hopefully immortal Norman's, however, are almost as high ($55 to $65) for five fewer courses. And unfortunately all the publicity Mayya's high-profile owners garnered obscured the fact that the food was much more about Norman Van Aken (or Charlie Trotter)-type creativity than about Mexico. Yes, Mayya was expensive -- and worth every peso.

Best Restaurant When Someone Else Is Paying

Azul

A view overlooking the bay, back toward Miami, and down sparkling Brickell Avenue is the first thing you notice when walking into the elegant, nouveau-Asian lobby of the Mandarin Oriental hotel. Then, at the entrance to the restaurant, you glimpse the waterfall that separates the open kitchen from the dining area. The absolute succulence of the dishes devised by celebrity chef Michelle Bernstein dazzles you next. And finally a bill that surpasses monthly car and mortgage payments combined makes you gasp. If you stopped at the bar first, refinancing could be necessary. But if you've gotten someone else to foot the bill, this is the place to dine (and to stay warm; house pashmina shawls are available to wrap the chilly). Hamachi carpaccio in an Asian-spiced citrus sauce to start? On your own dime, maybe such an appetizer would be out of the question. On someone's else's -- go for it! It's sublime. Foods from the sea remain the best choice for a main course (no need to look at prices this time!). Signature Bernstein dressings, often combining an Asian flavor (a nuac nam or hoisin sauce?) with, say, rose water or papaya, enhance snapper, sea bass, and other fresh cuts. Add up the outdoor vista, the indoor décor, and the internal satisfaction, and Azul reaches the pinnacle of, well, good taste.

Best Of Miami®

Best Of Miami®