Best Restaurant When Someone Else Is Paying 2001 | Azul | Best Restaurants, Bars, Clubs, Music and Stores in Miami | Miami New Times

Best Restaurant When Someone Else Is Paying


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.
Most of us are introduced as children to The Sandwich, various processed foodstuff squeezed between two slices of white bread. People ask, "Did you eat?" and we reply, "I had a sandwich." Everyone knows it isn't the same thing. Well, everyone except the Sandwich Mill's John Rossetti, whose inspired creations include the Tuscan Tower (roasted Italian vegetables with basil cream on a French batard), the Smokestack (roasted pork, caramelized onion, stewed apple, and vinegar mayo, also on a French batard), and the Taste-o-Tradition (roasted chicken, caramelized onion, and sweet potato spread on sourdough). And Rossetti makes everything, including half-a-dozen varieties of bread, right on the premises. Now that's good eatin'.
As the saying goes, you've had the rest, now try the best. The rest in this case is unsubtle glop: white starchy glop that tastes more like bacon and potato than seafood if it's something like New England-style clam chowder; red starchy glop that tastes more like chili powder and tomato than seafood if it's something like Manhattan clam or Caribbean conch chowder. So now try the best, which you'll no doubt be able to do for a good many years, since Norman Van Aken's regulars would probably kill the chef if he discontinued his conch chowder. Slight variations have occurred over the years (like the current cloud of foam on top), but forever ambrosial is and will be the inventive chowder: panko-crusted pieces of tender conch plus garnishes of citrus, shaved coconut, and a few vegetables floating on a slightly hot, slightly sweet, rich yet refreshingly reduced (not starch-thickened) shellfish stock flavored with saffron, star anise, Scotch bonnet peppers, orange juice, coconut milk, and a generous dollop of cream. The rest simply can't compare.

We'll tell you straight off the bat -- or fishing line, if you prefer: This seafood market and restaurant has absolutely no charm. Bare (fish) bones to the extreme, the market features only a few kitchenette-style tables, plastic and paper tableware, and a powerful aroma of freshly scaled fish. So why does it win? Easy. In order: Captain Jim's fresh garlic crabs, a three-and-a-half-pound bucket of which will run you only $16.95. A pile of fried Key West shrimp for $7.95. (Captain Jim does a lot of fishing in the Keys.) Cracked Caicos conch, which comes with hush puppies or beans and rice for the same amount of dead presidents. And "extras" like fried clams, conch chowder, smoked fish dip, and smoked marlin. Get the picture? Good. Now go get the seafood before Captain Jim runs out of those garlic crabs -- at his prices, the eats go as fast as his reel.
As a rule, perkiness is annoying. But politeness, freshness, brightness? All good. And in the morning hours, even better. That's what you'll get when you stop in at Jamba Juice for a healthful taste sensation. Left Coast influences (the California-based Juice Club became Jamba Juice in 1995) have obviously infiltrated Jamba Juice's Kendall outpost, which features a tremendous menu of fruit- and soy-based smoothies plus a fresh-juice bar (even wheatgrass grows in patches behind the counter). Ask your upbeat server to toss in a free Jamba Boost (select vitamins, minerals, herbs, and amino acids) for immunity, women's health, or energy, and you'll be treated to a pick-me-up that packs more of wallop than anything you'll get at that gloomy Starbucks next door. Creamy smooth drinks are filled with the fuel your body needs any time of day: Combinations of berries, bananas, peanut butter, peaches, mangos, and more mingle endlessly with nonfat yogurt, sorbet, and ice. Nothing artificial here -- even the shiny happy people who man the blenders and make sure every last drop finds its way into your jumbo cup are genuine. So if they want to be perky, we'll just go ahead and let them.

A little piece of Spain is hidden in the heart of Little Havana. Step inside Casa Panza, wind your way past the old wine barrels, and chances are you will be greeted by the owner himself, if not some other family member, who will guide you inside. The first thing you'll notice then is how big the place is. After the sangría starts to flow, you realize there are chunks of fruit in there, and not the Libby's cocktail variety. Four days a week there are live flamenco performances by world-renowned dancer Celia Clara and her singer/guitarist husband, Paco Fonta. Despite all the heel thumping and hand clapping, you'll still be able to hear the grease sizzling as waiters serve up tasty fried chorizo. For large parties the paella is a must. We say large parties, because otherwise the plethora of seafood and meats will go to waste. Dining alone? The tortilla española is a light and fluffy treat. Whatever you choose, rest assured the taste will be authentic, the entertainment will be rousing, and the service will be impeccable.
It might take a little while to get used to. Here you are, all ready to enjoy the best seafood in town, and not a chair in sight! Yet the place is packed, and hardly anyone is ordering take-out. Amid all the roiling humanity, keyed up further by the salsa music on the radio, giving everything a (very) slight beach-party ambiance, you manage to order. You don't have to wait too long. Pretty soon you're leaning against the counter along with everyone else, diving in, and, you got it, thinking it's fun to eat standing up! Next time, sneakers instead of platforms. There's a brand new Fico on South Beach, and the food is probably just as wonderful, but they surely couldn't improve on the original -- seated, standing, or prone.

The name sounds like an Argentine steak house, but the Gaucho Room in the landmark St. Moritz Hotel, part of the oceanfront Loew's complex, really is more an Argentine-theme restaurant. Family portraits on the walls and plush faux-steerskin dining couches instead of chairs feed the fantasy that you're eating in the living room of a wealthy pampas cattle rancher, while twentysomething Boy Wonder chef Frank Randazzo more literally feeds fantasies. In fact while the Gaucho has never hyped its steaks, the all-American cuts beat any in town (assuming you're looking for quality rather than quantity), and the superbly flavorful beef, grilled on a traditional parrilla grill and served with three garlic and chervil-spiked chimichurri salsas of varying heats, is even better. But inventive South American/Southwestern fusion specialties such as savory wild mushroom tamales, queso fresco pulled duck empanadas with smoked chili sauce, or annatto-glazed Chilean sea bass with a crunchy jicama/spinach sauté (not to mention desserts like poached fresh exotic fruit with bittersweet chocolate-coated coconut mousse and Malibu rum consommé), would tempt even a genuine gaucho to bag the beef.
This isn't a big sweaty American slab of beef hanging out of a bun. It's a Cuban twist on the he-man classic and thus must have some pork in it somewhere. And so it does -- a slice of roast beef atop a slice of roast pork, lettuce, and tomato, all pressed between two pieces of toasted Cuban bread. Melts in your mouth, not all over your shirt.
Many Miami brunch venues are beautiful (the Biltmore's spectacular Spanish fountained courtyard immediately comes to mind), with prodigiously packed buffet tables. But few settings are waterfront. And cuisine, no matter how impressive in quantity, rarely is of cutting-edge quality in typical Sunday brunch steam-table settings. Which is why Baleen, whose executive chef is Robbin Haas, beats the competition. Luxuriating at an oceanside table in Baleen's elegant outdoor dining area, separated from the sea by only a few lush palms and a waterfront walking path, brunchers enjoy plate after plate of appetizer items atop several big buffet tables in the indoor dining area: fresh fruit, just-baked croissants and breads, and the usual smoked salmon/cold shellfish assortment, plus unusually imaginative cold salads such as chicken with fresh cherries and walnuts, seafood with impeccably fresh briny clams, and caprese with top-quality tomatoes and fresh mozzarella. Move on to hot entrées: grilled shrimp with citrus beurre blanc and risotto, tiny tender lamb chops with rosemary/ricotta polenta, Belgian waffles with real whipped cream, and smoked salmon as well as standard eggs Benedict. Definitely save room for the hazelnut/mocha cake, chocolate-covered strawberries, mousses, flans, and buttery homemade cookies on the dessert buffet table.

Best Of Miami®

Best Of Miami®