Norman's
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.
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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.
Big Pink
To most people "comfort food" means something that's reassuring because it's what we ate when we were kids. Oddly, though, most restaurants' idea of comfort food is meat loaf. How many modern moms made meat loaf? TV dinners are more like it. Why were these especially comforting? For one thing they were served in conveniently compartmentalized trays that kept sauces and juices and flavors separated. For another they became associated with an indulgent adolescent pleasure: zoning out in front of the tube. The problem with the TV dinners of yore, of course, was the actual food they contained. But Big Pink's TV dinners, a different special each day, present no problems in that regard. The food does sound like the old standards (turkey, pot roast, eggplant parmesan, fried chicken) but one bite and you know it's the real thing, not some processed gunk from an assembly line. The mashed potatoes are real. The vegetables are fresh, not frozen. The macaroni and cheese features firm pasta and cheese with real character. The crisp chicken is creatively coated with panko. Desserts include items such as red velvet cake and key lime pie instead of those tiny old Styrofoam brownies. And thanks to Big Pink's delivery service, this updated version of the TV dinner from your past can be placed right in your lap -- just as dear old Mom did lo those many years ago.

Scully's Tavern
Photo courtesy of Scully's Tavern
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.
Capt Crab's Take-Away
It's what Long John Silver's pretends to be but never has been: good seafood on the fly. Capt. Crab's has the fish sandwiches (fried and grilled), the shrimp, conch, clam chowder, and so on. But especially notable in this little shack of a fast-food restaurant are the crabs. A moist and delectable crab sandwich goes for $6; a bucket of heavenly garlic crabs ranges from the one-pounder at $8.50 to the jumbo tub (four pounds) for $29. Pair it with a cold beer, sold by the bottle at the drive-though window, and a two-dollar key lime pie and you're good to go. The drive-thru is open 11:00 a.m. to 11:00 p.m. Monday through Saturday.

There aren't a lot of chili restaurants in Miami-Dade County, despite the presence of chili in various forms on numerous menus. In fact it's probably safe to say there are no places in Miami-Dade where you can find traditional chili. This void forces us to travel up to Broward County to push a renowned style of chili available only at Skyline. If you know anyone who's ever lived in Cincinnati, or if you've visited the Queen City yourself, then you know that chili is a staple of the diet there and that the type of chili they serve is unlike chili anywhere else. It's nearly as thin as water and is served atop a plate of spaghetti. Accompaniments include a mound of shredded cheddar cheese and/or onions and/or plump red kidney beans. The recipe is a closely held secret but we think we taste chocolate and cinnamon in there somewhere. Skyline is the dominant chili chain in Ohio, founded in 1949 by Greek immigrants Nicholas and Alexandra Lambrinides. Thankfully one of the Lambrinides grandsons migrated to Florida and brought some outlets with him. Skyline is an acquired taste, that's for sure. And for those who've acquired it, the drive north is well worth it.

Las Culebrinas
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.
Joe's Stone Crab
Photo courtesy of Joe's Stone Crab Restaurant
It seems such an easy dessert. No intricate baking techniques, no rare ingredients, no specific occasion or purpose. And yet it saddens to know how often this creation can turn out so awfully wrong. A perennial favorite among "Best of Miami" readers, Joe's Stone Crab sticks to some trusted basics from a closely guarded recipe and delivers one hell of a slice of homemade key lime heaven. Cool, creamy, and with just the right tartness from the choicest limes, this pie gets the nod over some fair competition. The crust is a straightforward but delicious graham cracker. No whipping cream is used to desecrate the delicate yet rich filling. And the color is correct: not gaudy green but rather a slightly pale, sour-apple shade. The only chink in this pie's armor is the fact that Joe's closes for the summer, leaving its fans to pine away until fall. It's worth the wait. A nine-inch pie costs $18; by the slice it's $4.95.
Smith & Wollensky
Courtesy of Smith & Wollensky
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.
For some people this tiny, tangy citrus fruit is the key to happiness. And there's no better place to buy joy than the source -- the Tree itself -- where the shelves are dedicated to products flavored with this coveted concentrate: key lime-covered pecans; key lime-frosted graham crackers; key lime marmalade; key lime jelly beans. Diehards can even wash their hair with key lime shampoo and bubble up their baths with key lime soap. But the most obsessed among us probably won't even make it into the shop, given that the patio area contains dozens of potted key lime trees. The three-gallon containers go for ten bucks, and while you might not see limes on the limbs for a few years, it's a good investment nonetheless. Just keep it to yourself. We wouldn't want the canker crowd to get aromatic wind of it.

Best Of Miami®

Best Of Miami®