South Beach is known as sushi central, and it is arguably true that a greater concentration of very good Japanese restaurants can be found on any square mile of Beach than anywhere in the U.S.A. Still, visiting Japanese chefs, local Asian foodies, and others in the know head west to this small spot in a fairly downscale shopping mall for Miami's most authentic Japanese fare -- especially Matsuri's daily specials, dishes rarely found elsewhere like foie graslike (and nonfishy) monkfish liver in spicy broth, or shisamo, succulent salt-broiled smelts stuffed with their own "caviar." And well worth the drive by itself is Matsuri's selection of toro, buttery belly tuna often seen on sushi-bar menus but almost never available: silken chutoro (particularly tasty in negitoro, a steak tartare-esque preparation of chopped toro and scallions, topped with a quail egg), and even more marbled otoro, the ultimate in sushi/sashimi decadence.
A Grove favorite for years, Paulo Luigi's is a testament to the importance of consistent quality. Serving up outstanding Italian cuisine in hearty portions, the restaurant delivers the best traditional dishes, such as a decadent chicken marsala, while spicing up more modern fare with selections like a mozzarella-drenched shrimp Parmesan. Recent changes to Paulo Luigi's bar area are welcome. Once a legendary sports bar, it has been upgraded to a cozy lounge that will attract nightcrawlers eager for a down-tempo shift from the overbearing Beach scene, as well as diners who want to linger after a satisfying meal.
In terms of franchising, chef Nobuyuki Matsuhisa is hardly the Hard Rock Café, but a dozen restaurants worldwide is at least a mini-empire -- and that loss of control when the head honcho isn't in the kitchen most often means the loss of high standards. But both the food and the service at South Beach's Nobu are absolutely extraordinary. Unlike New York's more formal Nobu, this spot, though located in the glam Shore Club, is intended as a more casual hangout. It's possible to just walk in and get a table, especially early in the evening. And though prices are higher than those at the average sushi bar, it's possible to put together a terrific family-style meal of three to five shared items without breaking the bank (or necessitating robbing one). Signature black cod with miso is a must. Though many other eateries now do this savory dish of miso/mirin-marinated sablefish, Matsuhisa did it first and still does it best. Also highly recommended are delicate Arctic char with crisp leaves of near greaseless deep-fried spinach; the generous sashimi salad, silky tuna on mesclun dressed with a subtly sweet/salty ginger-soy vinaigrette; and especially a treat for those who won't eat raw fish, Nobu's "New Style Sashimi," thinly sliced fish or beef partially cooked by a brief pouring of hot olive oil. While psychologically the delicate slices seem seared, they retain the moistness and tender texture of raw fish or beef.
Surprise! (Not.) It's him, for the umpteenth time. In fact this year we considered permanently renaming this award "Best Restaurant in Coral Gables Except for Norman's," to be fair to some of the Gables' other eateries, several of which could top Best lists in any town where Norman Van Aken wasn't cooking. Naturally if Van Aken were a normal chef, such a drastic step wouldn't be necessary. After a decade or so of garnering America's major culinary awards, he'd either be diluting his talent by franchising Norman's nationally or coasting on his many past greatest-hit creations like a culinary golden-oldies radio station. But Van Aken is still cooking day in and day out at the same address. His signature dishes like citrus-spiked creamy conch chowder with saffron and toasted coconut (updated in recent years with a hip foam "cloud") taste as terrific as ever. And imaginative new dishes -- "Seared Raw Tuna Trio with Three Cool Fillings" (braised oxtails, chilled crab salad, and shiitake mushrooms); seared foie gras on Venezuelan corn cake with cachaca-laced exotic fruit chutney; a sly and scrumptious take on surf and turf featuring rare tuna and beef mignons with three sauces (Bordelaise, Bernaise, and aigrelette); warm guava tarte Tatin; and an assortment of new tropical ice creams made with rare imported fruits from the Amazon -- indicate that Van Aken shows no sign whatsoever of burning out and giving the Gables' other chefs a shot at this award for many years to come.
Imlee is a most welcome addition to a somewhat inconsistent local Indian-restaurant scene. In fact this pleasant newcomer (less than two years old) definitely raises the standard for all Indian restaurants in South Florida. Lovers of the subcontinent's magnificent cuisine (even if, like most of us Miamians, they're limited in the breadth of their connoisseurship) can now partake of some of the best Indian food to be found anywhere. Of particular note is Imlee's nuanced and sometimes innovative treatment of vegetables, legumes, and paneer (a tofulike cheese staple). The classics -- chicken tikka masala, chicken makhani, lamb vindaloo, shrimp Madras curry, among many others -- are acutely spiced and exquisite. The service can be a little slow sometimes, and the appetizers and breads aren't always perfect, but those are small complaints beside the general state of euphoria induced by a meal at Imlee.
There are plenty of things to like about this down-home place aside from the food. The décor is appealing. Lots of old polished wood and other casually classy touches that project warmth, an antidote to the velvet-rope pretensions of South Beach. The weekend live rock music is much more interesting than what's usually found in nightclubs, and so is the clientele. But co-owners Cass and Chris are happy to admit it's the bar food that has kept the clientele coming back since 1989. Formerly chef at a fancy-schmancy French eatery in the Gables, Chris has turned his talents to country comforts like smoked barbecue (both pork and fish), homemade dips from artichokes or smoked mahi-mahi, and tangy vinegar-sauced fried green tomatoes fresh from the nearby farms of the Redland. There's also some far healthier fare than you'll find in most bars -- snazzy salads of mixed greens and hearts of palm with gorgonzola cheese, for instance -- as well as more substantial dishes, including bargain-priced weekly specials like Wednesday's $9.95 roast beef dinner.
So Cuban and Spanish cultures have had a love-hate relationship throughout the centuries, but their culinary traditions at least come together at Las Culebrinas, where an extensive menu features specialties from both sides of the Atlantic. This presents a bit of a dilemma: Do you opt for the Cuban mainstays you've come to love, like ropa vieja (sautéed shredded beef stew), moros (rice and beans), maduros (plantains), and yuca (cassava), or do you nibble tapas while you wait for a steaming pan of paella for two to arrive at the table? If you're the adventurous type looking for something truly exotic, something you can tell stories about later, then perhaps the decision will be much easier. Choose from any one of several eccentric specialties: octopus Galician style, rabbit in garlic sauce, frog's legs, crocodile medallions French style, or deep-fried breaded beef brains. (Oh my!) Even the chicken is interesting here: You can have it breaded with Kellogg's cereal and served with honey-mustard sauce, or grilled and bathed in an orange-peach yogurt sauce. And since kids will vehemently oppose all of the above, thankfully there is a children's menu featuring fish sticks, chicken fingers, and a sirloin steak. The only problem you'll likely encounter at Las Culebrinas, where families gather around large tables to enjoy abundant portions of quality food, is indecision.
You'd think that in South Florida the contenders for this award would be many and formidable. Sorry. You'd also think waterfront dining would be at least as common as overpriced sushi. Sorry again. And while there are a few nice places to eat outdoors on the street or the water (river and ocean), why not go for it all -- ocean views, major people-watching, and seriously good food. For instance, try Smith & Wollensky's outdoor dining area on a Sunday afternoon. Every body shape that can be squeezed into a bathing suit is walking by on the way to the pier or the white sands just beyond your seat. Your direct line of sight is toward Government Cut, so the passing parade of pleasure craft and cargo freighters never ends. Then there is the blue of the sky and the blue of the sea, untainted by tall buildings or parked cars. It makes that American dim sum brunch -- newly introduced and consisting of things like mini-steak Wellingtons instead of pigs' feet rolling to your table -- taste all that more scrumptious.
Okay, so they already have a couple "Best of Miami" plaques hanging around. They'll just have to put up another one because there's nothing else quite like this place. Twenty-four hours a day you can soak up Nicaraguan ambiance and cuisine, and so much more, at Yambo. It's kind of like a Central American bazaar, bustling with such a riot of color and knickknacks and people that food sometimes seems to be a secondary consideration. But when you're ready to chow down outdoors (indoors is a little more formal), order at the counter from a long list of Nica favorites, including sauced-and-seasoned pork, beef, or chicken, as well as fish dishes accompanied by yucca and beans and rice, all for around five dollars. To wash it down, choose from a selection of coffees, beers, wines, and juices. Keep in mind that you can do this all hours of the day and night. You'll have to leave at some point, of course. But chances are you'll be back, sooner than later.

Unlike local patrons who vow undying devotion, we've never been huge fans of the original Red Thai Room in Hollywood. Not that we dislike it, but mostly we walk away merely satisfied and color-blinded by the vibrantly scarlet walls. Not so at this tropically designed sister location where no one seems to have discovered the terrific fare. The true character of the restaurant, located in the space that formerly housed a Dan Marino's Town Tavern, can't be glimpsed from the road. So passersby have virtually no idea that a thatched-roof porch is available for drinking and dining and that a multiroom interior yields some very romantic tables. The fare, ranging from excellent versions of standard pad thai and various curries to innovative dried-tofu salads, is also way above par. Come to think, it's been a year or so since we've been back to the original. Judging by the cooking and prompt service at this second locale, perhaps it's time to give the Hollywood joint another brightly hued shot at redemption.

Best Of Miami®

Best Of Miami®