A La Folie Café
A la Folie Cafe
This charming crêperie replicates the design of a classic French café: the tile floors, the long wooden benches along the walls, lots of reading material lying about, and good, strong java. If the weather were cooler, one could easily picture a professorial type in corduroys perusing Le Monde over his afternoon espresso. Locals and tourists alike flock for the delicious savory and sweet crêpes, along with other simple fare like croque monsieur (the Gallic version of grilled cheese with ham), at prices that will make you wonder whether you are really still in South Beach. To avoid a wait, come earlyish on a weekend morning with a newspaper or a book, and ease into the day over a steaming bowl of café au lait.

Readers Choice: Starbucks

On weekends the lines go out the door at this diminutive gelateria. But in the case of this franchise of an Italian operation, it's absolutely worth the wait, even if you can't snag one of its precious few seats. The gleaming, high-tech shop is sparklingly clean without being sterile (even the bathrooms are outfitted with what look like designer fixtures). The staff is outfitted in bright yellow overalls and matching bandanas, and they keep things moving along efficiently. As in Italy, you place your order and pay, then take your receipt to a server who scoops up an artfully shaped mountain of creamy delights from a rainbow-hued selection of flavors. If you opt for a cup instead of a cone, your gelato is topped off with a crisp cookie, a nice touch -- and tasty too. The single portion is already decadently large; the double should satisfy even the greediest -- or do duty as a perfect shared dessert to top off a date in the Grove. Bacio also serves one of the best espressos this side of Roma.

There are literally dozens of frita joints scattered along Calle Ocho, some of which claim to be the reyes (kings) of fritas while others boast they're the magos (wizards) of the spicy Cuban hamburger (curried beef and fried onion topped with papitas, freshly fried potato shreds). But Fritas Domino has an identity all its own -- it's an original. Recently a fortysomething gentleman walked up to the counter and asked for the managers. He wasn't complaining, he just wanted to say hello. The man wondered if the managers remembered him. He used to work at Fritas Domino's original location, Calle Ocho at Twelfth Avenue. The Espivil family, who opened it in 1961 as a place where exiles could find authentic Cuban food, had given him his first job off the island. The conversation moved from sentimental recollections to fists-down declarations regarding Fritas Domino's stature among Miami frita shops. Referring to a competitor, the former worker emphatically declared, "They say they're kings, but they're not Domino!"

Jerry's Famous Deli
Despite its being located in the former and famed Warsaw nightclub, you don't have to arrive in a limo to gain entrance to Jerry's. And while you waltz in, valets will somehow find a place to park your beat-up Honda Civic, even at 2:00 a.m. on weekend nights (when there are no such places) for five bucks, which entitles you to two and a half hours in Jerry's. Which you will need, even if you order just a sandwich. Yeah, we've heard the beefing about Jerry's high prices, but you know what? Jerry's sandwiches are the size of two normal sandwiches (three normal sandwiches if you order the #10 triple-decker with roast turkey, Swiss cheese, pastrami, and Russian dressing). Other good eats: intensely poultry-rich chicken soup with matzo balls, cold beet borscht, hearty sweet/sour cabbage/tomato soup with short ribs, shredded crispy onion rings, foamy-headed chocolate creams. Also lox, onions, and soft-scrambled eggs, a breakfast dish that, like all breakfast items, is more satisfying when ending a day at 3:00 a.m. than beginning one at 7:00.

Readers Choice: Dennys

Restaurants rarely make their own bread (so much easier to source it from a good bakery), and those that do frequently limit their production to one or two specialties. Not so Bizcaya Grill. Maybe it's because, given its location in the Ritz-Carlton Coconut Grove, it has the space and resources to do it. No doubt having an overnight baker helps as well. But whatever the reason, the results are what you can count on, or depending on your mood, count calories on: fresh-baked Danish pastries and muffins for breakfast. Pain du chocolate and croissants at Sunday brunch. Parmesan buns and lemon brioche to partner burgers and fish sandwiches, respectively, for the midday meal. And at dinner the piéce de resistance -- pretzel bread dotted with coarse salt or pumpkin seeds. The object, of course, is not to eat so much of the bread that you have no appetite for the foie gras served with a shot of vinegar or the black-and-white rabbit cannelloni. But then, we were never ones to shy away from a challenge.

Readers Choice: Don Pan

Barton G. the Restaurant
Max Shapovalov
Barton G, how we love ya. For your style, certainly: You took the Starfish building, gutted it, built out the interior, and created an undeniably stunning venue, complete with orchid garden. For your way with fresh flowers and exotic animals, obviously -- don't think we've ever seen the combination of just-plucked lilies in a wall of bud vases and live giraffes at an opening before. For your sense of humor, most definitely; of course you should always serve popcorn shrimp spilling out of a movie container onto a bed of, well, popcorn. And for your commitment to your adopted town, positively, absolutely, and completely. We knew what you were after the minute we heard that you were going to add a restaurant to your empire of design and catering concepts, you party magnate, you: total adoration. You've got it. It's no more than what a workaholic, first-time restaurateur who has the confidence, ego, and guts to put his name on a marquee -- and then live up to it -- deserves.

It's not the bread. It's not the toppings. It's not even the tartar sauce, though when it's homemade it can only help. The ineluctable element that makes a fish sandwich worthy of wonder is the fish itself: fresh, moist, and succulent, drawn straight from the water and filleted. When it comes to that core ingredient, there's no one we appreciate more than Capt. Jim Hanson, lifelong Miami resident and veteran commercial fisherman. At his seafood market-cum-quaint-neighborhood eatery, you can request the fish of the day, usually mahi-mahi or grouper, or be as specific as choosing the fillet -- that red snapper, right there -- you want out of the refrigerated cases. Then Captain Jim's staff will fry, grill, broil, or blacken it for you, pop it onto a roll with lettuce, tomato, and coleslaw, and even give you a choice of side dishes with it. We recommend the hush puppies, along with a cold Hurricane Reef Pale Ale.

CARMEN GONZALEZ

CARMEN THE RESTAURANT, 700 Biltmore Way (David William Hotel), Coral Gables, 305-913-1944

The recent opening of Carmen the Restaurant completes a circle for chef/owner Carmen Gonzalez. In 1988, after testing her culinary skills at New York's Quilted Giraffe, Gonzalez left Manhattan for Miami. She landed in Coral Gables and in January 1989 opened her own restaurant, Clowns. New Times, in a praiseworthy review, had this to say: "The menu is on the cutting edge of what food critics are calling 'Americanized Caribbean.' Gonzalez calls it a blend of Southwestern, Caribbean, and California cuisine, but I prefer to call it Carmen-ized -- it's her creation." Clowns didn't survive, but Gonzalez moved on to executive positions at the Miami Club and the Tamarind Bar and Grill. Then she created a successful catering company. Now the lure of the restaurant business has drawn her back -- back to the creative challenge, to the Gables, and to an establishment of her own.

BEST LOCAL LANDMARK

The Biltmore Hotel.

BEST MONTH TO BE IN MIAMI

Any month where the temperature drops below 60 degrees.

BEST CHEAP THRILL

Chicken wings at Flanigan's.

BEST NOT-SO-CHEAP THRILL

Dining in Paris.

BEST PLACE TO SAVOR THE FLAVOR OF MIAMI

The original Casa Lario's.

BEST DINING TREND

Any -- as long as someone else cooks.

BEST NATURAL HIGH

Being in my kitchen.

BEST PICNIC SPOT

Crandon Park.

BEST REASON TO LIVE IN MIAMI

All the wonderful friends and colleagues I've met in my years of living here, and being a part of the culinary community.

RECIPE

ROASTED DUCK TAMALES WITH VINTAGE PORT SAUCE

Yields: Around 20 large or 40 appetizer-size tamales

1 pack corn husks, rinsed and soaked in warm water for one hour

Roast duck:

1 5-pound fresh duckling

1/2 medium onion

1 bouquet garni

1/2 carrot

5 garlic cloves, whole

3 celery stalks

Salt and pepper

Preheat oven to 425 degrees. Rinse duck under cold water and pat dry. Season both inside and out with salt and pepper. Stuff the duck with onion, bouquet garni, carrot, garlic, and celery. Place duck in a cooling rack and roast at 425 for one hour. Lower the temperature to 350 degrees and cook for another 30 minutes or until the inside temperature reaches 160-170. Remove from oven and let it cool. Cut or break duck into 8 pieces (2 breasts) for easier handling. With fingers and knife, separate as much meat from the bones as you can. Then, using just your fingers, tear meat pieces into thin shreds roughly one-half to one inch long (as you would for ropa vieja or pulled pork).

Vintage port sauce:

2 cups vintage port

1 cup red wine vinegar

2 tablespoons shallots, minced

1 garlic clove, minced

1/2 cup heavy cream

3 tablespoons butter

1 tablespoon chives

Heat 1 tablespoon butter in sauce pan, add shallots and garlic. Cook for 2 minutes. Add port and wine vinegar, reduce by half. Add heavy cream and reduce by half. Finish with remaining butter and chives.

Tamales:

(For the masa)

1/2 cup grilled corn kernels

1 medium Spanish onion

1 cup water

6 tablespoons unsalted butter

6 tablespoons vegetable shortening

1 1/2 cups yellow cornmeal

2 tablespoons honey

Salt and pepper

Purée the corn and onion with water in a food processor. Transfer to a bowl and stir in butter and shortening. Using your fingers, mix in the rest of the ingredients until it all comes together and there are no lumps.

To assemble:

Remove the husks from the water, drain, and lay on paper towels to dry. Tear two 1-inch-wide strips for each tamale to tie them. Lay two husks overlapping on a flat surface; place about 1/3 cup of the masa in the center; place 2 tablespoons of the shredded duck on top. Bring both sides of the husk up over the filling. Twist each end to wrap it up tightly, pushing the mixture to the middle as you tie it up. Steam the tamales covered on a bamboo steamer for 45 minutes. At this point they can be frozen for up to two weeks.

To serve:

Use a paring knife to cut lengthwise across each tamale and push toward the middle to expose filling. Place 2 tablespoons of duck on top and drizzle it with 2 tablespoons of port sauce.

Most conch fritters should be called "conch-flavored fritters," so little actual shellfish is represented. In fact, calling them conch-flavored would even be stretching it since the main taste impressions most of these deep-fried balls leave are: 1) traditional leaden cornmeal batter, no doubt invaluable in Florida's pioneer days when fritters doubled as cannonballs to knock out the Spanish armada; 2) too much too-old grease; and 3) too many chili peppers to mask the taste of too-old grease. At Captain Jim's fish market/eatery, in contrast, the fritter batter is fried puffy-light (like a Spanish churro, Italian zeppole, Seminole fry bread, or AnyStateFairUSA fried dough) in oil almost as fresh as the place's fish. And that is saying something. There are indeed jalapeños for heat, as well as sweet green peppers for crunch, but never enough to overwhelm each fritter's generous haul of big, chewy-yet-tender conch chunks. Each order comes with six fritters, and the only sane reason to not get two or three orders is that you want to save room for Captain Jim's simple but superb shrimp scampi.

Wall's Old Fashioned Ice Cream
Since opening in June 2002, Juliet and Jeffrey Wall's friendly little ice cream parlor just west of South Dixie Highway has been pretty steadily packed with people who appreciate the kind of ice cream they wished they'd had as kids: not air-inflated supermarket swill and not designer gelatos but classic creamy, comforting, country U.S.A.-style stuff with a slightly elastic quality reminiscent of Turkey's justly famous frozen dondurma. There's something for everyone, including a few sugarless flavors, among Wall's almost 30 daily choices: lush vanilla, fresh-fruity mango, bracing lemon sorbet, seriously fudgeholic triple chocolate, even playfully alcoholic (actually alcohol-free) beer-flavored stout ice cream -- best paired with a pretzel cone, one of a half-dozen kinds of cones. You can eat inside the cottage-style establishment, but there's also an outdoor area for nostalgic sorts who quite rightly feel that an old-fashioned American ice cream cone tastes better in a sunny summertime parking lot, licking and chatting with other drive-in patrons.

Readers Choice: Swensens Ice Cream Parlor & Restaurant

Best Of Miami®

Best Of Miami®