Along with Michelle Bernstein, Willis Loughhead headed South Florida's "hottest rising young chef" list for years -- enough years that a new name for the list (say, "hottest aging young chefs") seemed imminent. Quick moves from a brief stint at Tantra through her own venue at South Beach's Strand to Azul at the Mandarin Oriental finally vaulted Bernstein from "rising" to "respectable." But Loughhead, her Tantra successor, gamely stuck it out there, cooking serious food in a silly venue, for three years. When the new Ritz-Carlton Coconut Grove opened this past September, however, its flagship Bizcaya Grill offered Loughhead a chance to get seriously serious. Ritz decorum, as well as supervision by dining-operations chief Roberto Holz from Germany, means that Loughhead's creative impulse is somewhat trimmed here. But the overall result is most interesting. Menu items like an heirloom-tomato salad with fig carpaccio reflect Loughhead's New American passion for locally produced, seasonal ingredients. Sautéed foie gras with Doktorenhof vinegar showcases Holz's classy Old World influence; and a "simply grilled" list enables diners to indulge their own creative impulses by pairing premium-quality meats or fish with a choice of imaginative sauces (lobster basil Hollandaise, Barolo wine/foie gras butter, saffron aioli, many more). An elegant outdoor courtyard and an indoor dining room accented by muted music also make Bizcaya a best bet for a business lunch or dinner.

Readers Choice: Caf Tu Tu Tango

Wolfie Cohen's Rascal House
"I feel like I've stepped back into Brooklyn, circa 1961," observed a Jersey-based visitor upon entering the Mecca of Miami delis. Rascal House was established in 1954, so the visitor wasn't too far off. Weekends and around holidays it can be a madhouse, although an organized one, as the clientele (which skews toward the blue-rinse, polyester-clad of a certain age) shuffles through lines divided according to the size of the party. The food is not always 100-percent fabulous, but one can forget minor transgressions when starting in on sour pickles, tangy coleslaw, and a slice of buttered challah bread. Almost without exception, portions are huge, whether it's the pot roast, a regular sandwich (never mind the sky highs!), or homemade desserts such as the chocolate bobka, guaranteed to keep you on a sugar high for at least two days.

Readers Choice: Wolfie Cohens Rascal House

The emphasis is on "nuvo" here, as Haiti-born chef/owner Ivan Dorvil puts his own spin on the cookery of his homeland with updated, more sophisticated versions that reflect his own training in Montreal and influences picked up at various stints during his career. That said, the traditional pumpkin soup haitienne is just that, hearty fare that spells comfort food for those with Caribbean roots. Friendly and personable, Dorvil will patiently walk you through the menu and his specials, and then disappear into the kitchen to whip them up. He is sure to come back out later to monitor your progress and chat in the pleasant dining room decorated with folk art and burlap curtains. Not yet open a year, Nuvo Kafe will, we hope, manage to stick around.

If you don't order one of the mofongo dishes at Old San Juan Restaurant, order a five-dollar mofongo ball with your entrée. The pork-and-mashed plantain combination is cooked perfectly. Puerto Rican cuisine may not be the pathway to weight loss (lots of pork, lots of pork and chicken cracklings, lots of fried everything) but it is undoubtedly comfort food with warm flavors (garlic and oregano are prominent) and no fiery spices. The restaurant isn't cheap, but with most entrées between ten and twenty dollars, it's far from the most expensive in Miami. The mofongo dishes come with just about everything, from the traditional fried pork to lobster, conch, or octopus. Other menu highlights include the pasteles (a Puerto Rican dumpling stuffed with seasoned chicken or pork and boiled in a green-plantain leaf), and the asopaos, rice stews served with combinations of seafood, meats, and (of course) fried plantains.

Los Gallegos
At some point several years ago, tapas acquired cachet, the kind of overpriced yuppie fodder that turns up on menus where it has no business. Los Gallegos, serving its namesake Spanish cuisine from a cozy Bird Road location for more than a decade, has seen that trend come and go, but it keeps supplying excellent, fairly priced food in an unpretentious setting. The restaurant has the feel of a family joint, right down to the checkered tablecloths and friendly service, and prices for the tapas dishes (between four and ten dollars) are just as congenial. Of particular note: chorizo served sizzling in a hot skillet, and airy croquetas bacalao.

Cafe Ragazzi
Alexandra Rincon
The only fresh variety of pasta regularly on the menu at this teeny restaurant is the pappardelle, which alone is worth a visit. Otherwise you'll have to take your chances when you go (low risk, high return). During a recent dinner there, these broad, melt-in-your mouth noodles were starring in two of the tempting daily specials. Should your dining companions fancy something else, the spaghetti or pretty much anything else on the menu will set them to rights. Given that the word is out on the consistently delicious Italian food dished out nightly, if you've got a hankering, you'd better call ahead. Mangia bene!

It depends on who you ask, what's in stock, or how well you count. But the list at Graziano's, a fab Argentine steak house that is lined with wine racks, runs between 450 and 600 bottles. That's a lotta grape juice, sugar, and much of it is tasty South American stuff -- Argentine Malbec, Chilean Cabernet Sauvignon, and so on -- that goes oh-so-well with the beef roasting on the asador. In the mood to really spend? Graziano's stocks Italian wines even the collectors wish they had in their cellars. In fact take a look around, 'cause you're probably sitting next to someone who knows what wine is all about. Just make sure you ask the waiter how much your neighbor's vintage might cost before you splurge on the urge to follow suit.

Readers Choice: The Forge

What's the point of Cuban coffee without Cuban conversation? One fuels the other, high-octane caffeine igniting chatter that is usually loud, hurried, and emotional. Versailles's walk-up window, a local landmark if ever there was one, is as close to the heart of the Cuban spirit as you can get without boarding a boat and heading south. It is the quintessential café cubano experience in Miami. And here they know how this volatile catalyst should be served -- black as pitch, lots of sugar, and steaming hot.

Readers Choice: Versailles Restaurant

The Fish House
From 4:00 to 6:00 p.m. every weekday the Fish House showcases its excellent fresh-fish selection with an earlybird special for seafood lovers. Fresh fillets of all their fish -- from yellowtail to grouper to tilapia -- along with a side (try the excellent coleslaw) are just $7.99. The only catch is the parking lot. There's nowhere near enough room in the lot for all the cars, so patrons park on the sidewalk and in the median between Miller Road and the strip mall where the restaurant is located. It's worth the hassle.

Picanha's Grille
This establishment again reaps kudos (for the third year in a row) for its winning combination of traditional cuisine (with a good selection of fish for the noncarnivores in your crowd), festive atmosphere, and dangerously delicious caipirinhas. Get down with your samba self during the live music and dance shows on Friday and Saturday nights (Picanha's hosts karaoke nights on Thursdays). During the week it's dinner only. Weekends they open the doors at noon to those who come for a leisurely lunch that well may include the traditional feijoada.

Best Of Miami®

Best Of Miami®