Hang out in Tokyo after working hours and you're likely to see hordes of men in suits, knocking back shots of sake or bottles of beer and feasting on sushi and yakitori at loud tavern-style eateries known as izakayas. Hang out in Coral Gables at the almost-hidden Japanese restaurant Su-Shin Izakaya and you're likely to behold the same sight. Of course those businessmen have wandered in from the hotel across the street, yet they seem right at home. What contributes to that feeling? The artfully wrapped rolls filled with the freshest slices of fish such as tuna, salmon, or yellowtail; daily specials such as maguro youke (lean chopped tuna topped with shiso leaves and served in a frosted glass bowl); and the most delicate sashimi. Makes you want to raise your glass and say "kampai!" too.

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.

When the entire glazed doughnut melts in your mouth like its velvety-crisp icing, you know you have a winner. Independently run Sunshine Donuts makes the kind of fluffy and sweet fried treats that people on diets dream of and drool over. Whether they be glazed, powdered, or Miami-style jelly doughnuts (filled with guava, dulce de leche, or mamey), you're getting fresh, made-on-the-premises goods that are worth the caloric indulgence. Sunshine also offers authentic Cuban café con leche, which is ideal for doughnut dunking.

Gordon Biersch Brewery & Restaurant
Power lunch no longer implies Eighties-style business suits meeting over plates of ostrich carpaccio served in white-linen restaurants where the valets earn more than your secretary. If we've learned anything from the dot.com era, it's that sometimes the sweetest deals are scripted in duds that have seen less holey days and sealed not by a slash of the Cross fountain pen but by the clink of two pint glasses topped off with a mousse of India Pale Ale. At Gordon Biersch, one of the only downtown venues to regularly draw the workaday crowd, you can actually find both kinds of players: the stuffed shirt and the beer belly, lunching on pizzas and gourmet salads and fresh-brewed suds. Rest assured they have two things in common -- something on the table and something in the works.

Delicias is a delightful little neighborhood eatery housed in an unremarkable building on Miami's main drag. The food is good and reasonably priced. The tables are covered in Peruvian blankets protected by glass tops. A tragic telenovela quietly plays itself out on a television mounted high on the wall. An old man sits at the counter, slowly finishing his fish soup. And you are sitting at a table near a window, about to order a fresh, expertly prepared ceviche. This place has six varieties (all marinated in lemon juice): octopus, shrimp, fish, shellfish, and combinations. Order it and a drink to go. Take the lot and walk east, down to the water's edge. Eat your grub and gaze out onto Biscayne Bay.

"You go to Versailles for the people," reflects Bill, tipping the last of his garlic shrimp from fork to mouth. "You come to Villa Havana for the food." Basic, inexpensive Cuban food deftly delivered is what has kept the lines at this restaurant long for years. For lunch, a $4.95 plate of tender ropa vieja (con arroz y maduros, claro!) is among the best in town, certainly for the price. The place is clean, unpretentious, and well lit. The vested and bow-tied waiters are fast, helpful, and occasionally flirtatious with the women. Of course if you are looking for something a bit more pretentious, the menu includes several lobster dishes in the $15 to $19 range. "Yeah, I know that place real well," says New York Times scribe Rick Bragg, who spent several years slumming in Miami before moving to a similarly decadent city, New Orleans. "They have a ham shank that will bring tears to your eyes, the best one outside Alabama." Pause. "If you don't eat it, you could always save it till someone you don't like walks by and use it to beat them over the head." The place is open every day from 11:00 a.m. to 10:00 p.m.

Readers Choice: La Carreta

Tasty Beach Cafe
Though this small café is named for the soft pseudo-ice cream it serves from a machine in the back (three flavors daily), the frozen dessert, which is not as gross as most cream-free "ice cream," is not the main attraction. What packs the place every weekday (closed weekends) are its tasty salads, wraps, and sandwiches made with extraordinarily fresh produce. Homemade sauces that are light but highly herbed substitute for butter, mayo, and high-calorie salad dressings. The tart, nutty, totally nongloppy sesame sauce coating the al dente noodles makes Tasti's pasta salad especially tasty. Everything served is meatless, though some items feature dairy and/or fish ingredients (a very light egg salad; a strongly tarragon-tasting tuna salad), and everything comes enclosed by, or accompanied by, fresh house-baked breads. During South Florida's three annual weeks of winter, the healthy homemade soups (different daily) are substantial, satisfying stuff too.

Readers Choice: Natural Chicken Grill

Puerto Vallarta
Not many of us think about checking out a Mexican restaurant when we feel like tucking into a stuffed crab-back and sucking the heads of prawns. Perhaps, being stone crab claw- and Key West pink shrimp-centric, we haven't had the exposure necessary to inspire such appetites. Or maybe, being offered mostly central Mexican cuisine here in South Florida, we simply haven't had opportunity enough to appreciate the fact that Mexico has a cuisine deriving from a couple of thousand miles of coastline -- and that's just on the Pacific side, where the town of Puerto Vallarta is located. Fortunately our education is at hand via El Puerto de Vallarta, and we're not just talking about the three R's of fish tacos, but the ABC's as well: avocado-garnished shrimp and snapper ceviche with pico de gallo; botana (appetizers) including shrimp quesadillas and oysters on the half-shell; and seafood caldos (soups) such as the piquant mariscos siete mares, a luxurious combination of seven different types of shellfish served with homemade corn tortillas. Finish off your secondary schooling with bacon-wrapped shrimp or garlic-sautéed lobster and a cool Tecate beer, and you'll be set to graduate with culinary horizons appropriately expanded.

Readers Choice: Joes Stone Crab

We grew concerned when we got no response to a letter sent to Willis Loughhead at Bizcaya Grill. We were inquiring about his interest in being one of eight chefs to host a "Personal Best" page in Best of Miami. A follow-up call elicited this: He was out of town and wouldn't return before our deadline passed. Out of commission was more like it. A bit more research revealed that he had been in a very serious car accident on the Julia Tuttle Causeway -- cut off by a driver who then disappeared. A slick roadway and an unforgiving guardrail left Loughhead with a broken nose and about 100 stitches in his face and head. The traumatic experience and slow recovery (now nearly complete) provided him with a new perspective on some of the best things about Miami. For instance, Best Natural High: "Walking away from a car wreck. I didn't get more than four steps or so, but at least I could stand. That, and endorphins." Best Emergency Room: "Miami Heart. It's never crowded." Best Plastic Surgeon: "Dr. Mark Broudo. From now on I'll send all my business to him." Best Medicine: "I don't know her name, but the ER nurse was pretty cute."

Judge a farmers' market not by the nature of its distractions but by the quality of its produce. So what if you can find stilt walkers juggling swords while balancing flaming pineapples on their heads and telling off-color jokes to bleary-eyed parents with toddlers in tow at other local markets. Elizabeth and Maurice Adams, proprietors of Gardner's Markets, have quite a different mission statement in mind -- promote regional products and educate, rather than entertain, the masses. Or as they note on their Website: "We sponsor this farmers' market in hopes of creating a dialogue between growers and consumers. Our mission is to present a forum for the sale and purchase of fresh food grown or produced by the people selling it." Which is why on Sundays from 9:00 a.m. till 1:00 p.m., from the beginning of January through the end of March every year, you can meet the faces behind the vegetables. Like Teena Borek of Teena's Pride, who is well-known for her two dozen varieties of colorful heirloom tomatoes, including Cherokee purple, green Zebra, and Brandywine red. Or Bee Heaven Farms's Margie Pikarsky, who heads up the Redland Organics, a community-supported agriculture cooperative that grows and sells locally everything from mustard greens to sunflowers. In short, the South Florida Farmers Market is really just another way of saying "teikei," a Japanese term that translates quite literally to "putting the farmer's face on food."

Best Of Miami®

Best Of Miami®