About as appealing as the milk and raw eggs cinema prizefighter Rocky Balboa ingests before each workout -- that's flan to many people. Slimy, rubbery, rich to the point of nausea. But flan is a dessert, like Shakespeare said about Cleopatra, of infinite variety. The classic milk-and-egg concoction doused with caramel may boast coffee, chocolate, mango, and even coconut flavors. Cream cheese can also form its base. A mighty fine flan of the last type is served at Joe's, venerable home to famed crab claws and celebrated key lime pie. Velvety, dense, voluptuous. The confection's high calories come at a rather high price -- nearly four bucks a slice. Perhaps that's a good thing. Eat it too often and you're liable to become a heavyweight of a different kind.
While many of La Brioche Doree's fancy little pastries are beautiful to behold, the croissants take the cake, as they say. Why? Because Edouard Maillan, owner of this venerable boulangerie et patisserie, makes his light-layered treats, as he always has, with premium imported French butter. This stuff blows away the mass-market domestic butters used by less discerning croissant purveyors. A no-brainer involving high butterfat-to-water ratios, French butter seems to have been discovered by national food publications only recently. Maillan's secret, however, has been known for years by legions of devoted patrons. In fact the place is so popular you'd better get there early to score any of the favored minicroissants. If that bin has been plundered, try the equally delicious regular-size croissants, which include almond, cheese, chocolate, and seasonal fruits. Like many businesses in this largely Orthodox Jewish neighborhood, La Brioche Doree is closed Saturday. But it opens again Sunday morning at 7:00. Don't be surprised to find a knot of pastry addicts waiting outside as Maillan unlocks the door.
When Rashné Desai took over Stephans in March 2001, she immediately updated the heavily Italian menu of her predecessor. Her idea was to offer presentable gourmet food and sell it fast as take-out or eat-in. (Located in Miami's Design District, Stephans has 30 Berliner-style tables on the second floor and sidewalk.) A delicious sandwich, drink, and cookie; or soup, quiche, and side (try the rosemary-roasted vegetables and fresh bread from Spain) should price out at ten bucks or less. Rashné learned her stuff at Dean & DeLuca in SoHo before that food-and-wares store went corporate and lame, and is a graduate of the French Culinary Institute in NYC, where she studied with Gaulist master Jacques Pepín. After that kind of training you know the rules so well you can break them. So Stephans presents the best of various culinary disciplines: a black forest ham sandwich on a baguette with French Brie, crisp lettuce, tomato, and olive oil; pasta with roasted chicken, fresh basil, garlic pesto, sun-dried tomatoes, and shaved Parmigiano; the Ultimate Supremo of imported prosciutto, Genoa salami, hot capicollo, and fire-roasted peppers; or curried turkey chili. Presentation is half the battle. "When you work in restaurants," says Rashné, "you're down in some basement kitchen with a lot of smelly people. Here we make food meant to be consumed fast and that looks really good." Call it eat couture.
Chicken slow-roasted the Cuban way, with just the right touch of salt, pepper, and maybe a little mojo, is not that hard to find in Miami. But try to find better than here for the price: two dollars for a large breast with wing attached. Pick up a carton of moros and a bag of tostones and the family is well-fed for about ten bucks. But while you're here at the juice palace, have a look around. This place may have begun as a little roadside juice stand, but it's now a major Latino marketplace for foodstuffs and socializing. Lechon for sandwiches, of course. But also fruits and vegetables, tamal, uncooked black beans, chilled coconut, cheeses, and a unique fried rice. Have a coffee or a watermelon cooler and sit outside under the trees, though not too close to the troubadour on the electronic keyboard. And now watch Miami go by. Not just the guy in the parking lot with the hand-tooled belts and guajiro hats arrayed on his car, but all the rest of multiethnic Miami ebbing and flowing along the street that is at its heart.
Because Candace Lopez's TJP was getting all the action from the beach boys and girls bronzing near 22nd Street last summer, we followed the crowd over for a big twenty-ounce lemonade ($1.85). We were astounded by the taste, a kind of adagio of three sensations: tartness (fresh local lemon), sweetness (pure sugar), and a kind of energy boost. There's no caffeine added, so when we asked Candace, she pointed out that the major froth she achieves in the blending enhances the natural vitamin-C properties in her lemon juice, "opening" them and allowing for faster absorption. (Many fighters suck oranges before they go into the ring, so she may be right.) In addition Candace has an impressive collection of tropical-rain-forest smoothies from Brazil. The smoothies, great with vegetable-wrap sandwiches, go for $2.85 for 12 ounces, $3.85 for 20 ounces, and $5.85 for 32-ounce jumbos.
The problem with most Florida raw bars is Florida oysters, which come from the Gulf Coast and other locales where the water is so warm the wan, flaccid southern belles come out of it practically precooked and tasting mild to the point of nothingness. Not at Nemo, where the nightly selection of three to four varieties includes nothing but crisp cold-water beauties. According to chef/owner Michael Schwartz, there's usually at least one from British Columbia, such as refreshing Fanny Bays, whose unique sweet-and-salty taste and pronounced cucumber finish accent their typically Canadian brininess. Often there are Pacific Northwest oysters -- kumamotos or plump, creamy-rich Hog Island Sweetwaters -- and sometimes even eastern U.S. oysters from Long Island. An important plus for those who love oysters but don't love living dangerously (and risking the bacterium responsible for 1992's notorious nine oyster-related deaths in Florida): All Nemo oysters are farm-raised. By the way Nemo does serve other raw-bar items, and of course it is first and foremost a full-menu restaurant. But the friendly staff welcomes those who just want oysters. The interior "food bar," where diners can watch chefs work, is a fun place for shellfish, though a difficult place to resist escalating to a major meal.

Within the world of Cuban-style black beans there are many variations. The beans ought to be fresh and the seasonings tasty, but after that opinions diverge. What seasonings and in what combinations? Garlic, of course. But what about onions, green pepper, salt, pepper, cumin, even tomato sauce? This restaurant, a Little Havana fixture for 27 years, enjoys the talents of long-time chef Guillermo Martinez, who has found a formula that works. This includes garlic, green peppers, olive oil, and white sherry, according to restaurant manager Orestes Lleonart, Jr. Ah, but there's more. And that part is a secret. "The rest," says Lleonart, "is what only the cook knows." Dig into a bowl of black bean soup for $2.50.
Just to avoid confusion and, hopefully, controversy (as if!): This category involved a judgment call not just between ceviche eateries but between traditional and nuevo-ceviche styles, with the nod going to the new kid in town. Citrus "cooking" of seafood was invented centuries ago by South American Indians and, the point being preservation, involved long marination (at least two hours, usually much longer). Citric acid marination for longer than about twenty minutes changes the whole texture of fish, however -- an often nice but not necessary transformation, now that the world has fridges. Hence nuevo ceviche, where chefs marinate raw fresh fish only briefly before serving, resulting in a sort of South American sushi. And Sushi Samba is supreme at this style, owing to superior saucing. For a comprehensive course in "Modern Ceviches 101," try the mixed ceviche/tiradito assortment of eight different preparations, based on both market and chef's whim but including possibilities like fluke dressed New World AmerAsian-style with ponzu and grapefruit; slightly seared toro fatty tuna with lemon, lime, and red daikon radish; an almost Italian carpaccio-like baby yellowtail with black truffle oil; or salmon with either Dijon mustard/miso marinade or smooth strawberry/key lime sauce, with a red onion garnish.

Why go out for a burger you can make at home? And let's face it about those big fat "gourmet" burgers: With few exceptions anyone can buy and broil half a pound of prime beef with impressive results. What one cannot duplicate at home is your classic Castle burger, a roughly two-square-inch, two-bite patty not quite as thin as a communion wafer and producing perhaps not quite the same degree of spiritual ecstasy among true believers. But let's just say that Castles are an illusory experience one couldn't ever duplicate at home, probably because no home has a grill with a zillion years worth of accumulated grease on it. White Castles are the classics, of course. These aren't available down here, however, except in inferior frozen form in supermarkets. But still performing (live and in person!) since 1939, just a block west of I-95 in Miami, is Arnold's Royal Castle, where the succulent square slider is still supreme, and still sliding smoothly off the grill into $3.40 six-packs. Each diner will need at least two packs, unless you don't mind driving back an hour later -- which is always possible; Royal Castle is open 24 hours daily.
A pie they could have served proudly at Connie Corleone's wedding reception. Slices that could pass muster with Don Vito himself, thwarting pizza wars that would have rubbed out all those who employ fancy-schmancy ingredients like sun-dried tomatoes, arugula, and goat cheese. For the past fifteen years the masters at this tiny eatery have been turning out a simple crisp thin or thick crust coated with smooth tomato sauce, chewy mozzarella cheese, and myriad everyday toppings such as pepperoni, sausage, mushrooms, anchovies. The fabulous fare is made-to-order, so understand it takes a bit of time. Ultimately patience pays because it's a pizza you can't refuse.

Best Of Miami®

Best Of Miami®