AZUL, 500 Brickell Key Drive (Mandarin Oriental Hotel), Miami ,305-913-8358
Michelle Bernstein is that rarest of Miami creatures: a true native. Which is why last year she was honored as Best Local Girl Made Good: "After working for others and then co-owning a short-lived but ambitious venture (The Strand), Bernstein took a major leap: She left South Beach for Brickell Key and the luxe Mandarin Oriental Hotel. Within a year Esquire magazine named her restaurant, Azul, the best of 2001. The Food TV network hired her to host a series on tropical foods. And the Vita-Prep people picked her for an advertisement that numero uno trade mag Food Arts featured prominently. Can any other native make that kind of claim to national fame?" So what's left to say? Well, only that Bernstein's Azul has since received the American Automobile Association's highest commendation: the Five Diamond Award. No other Miami-Dade restaurant can boast that distinction.
BEST PLACE FOR FRESH FRUIT
I probably sound like a princess for saying this, but Epicure is my favorite place for fruit. The colors are vibrant, the fragrance hits you when you walk in the door. What kills me is that I buy a huge amount of produce on a daily basis for the restaurant and I never get such beautiful fruit as Epicure does. Not just that, they get seasonal fruits before we do. I patiently wait for cherry season, plum and peach season, and sure enough, Epicure is loaded with not just the fruit I search out but specialty types like white cherries, sugar plums, and doughnut peaches. They make a honey tangerine juice that is addictive.
BEST MONTH TO BE IN MIAMI
Being a Miami native, there is definitely one month that sticks out in my mind: December. Where else can you spend Christmas on the beach? There is a certain magic in the air. The tourists are here scrambling for their SoBe purchases, the restaurants are boisterous and hopping, the sun is shining, and we have a total of, say, eight days to wear our best winter couture.
BEST PLACE TO SAVOR THE FLAVOR OF MIAMI
I cannot imagine showing off our city's flavors without first stopping at El Palacio de los Jugos. I marvel in their fruit juice selection (made to order), from sugar cane to tamarind to papaya-coconut. As you try to make a fruit-drink decision, the chicharrónes call out your name like a little devil on your shoulder. Take no more than two steps and the fresh mariquitas (thin slices of green plantain) are being thrown into the fryer. They're placed into a little bag so you can attack the crispy critters on your way home. But don't leave just yet -- the best part of this little jewel is the pan con lechon (shredded pork on bread). Ask for a little extra mojo while you're at it. Savoring these Latin flavors is part of our lifestyle; it's what I grew up with and what I live for.
BEST CHEAP THRILL
One of my greatest thrills in Miami is a very personal one. I started going down to Homestead when I was four, to the various U-pick fields, as I do today. First wed stop at the field where you can pick tomatoes, warm and fragrant from the vine. Then corn on large stalks and lettuces of different types. But the best part was (and is) the strawberries. Oh, the strawberries! A group of Old German Baptists run a place called Knaus Berry Farm, which has the sweetest, juiciest, biggest strawberries youve ever seen. The best part: Once youre done picking, you stop at the roadside stand to gorge on strawberry shakes made with fresh strawberry ice cream and the just-picked strawberries. Its the most intense frozen-strawberry smoothie you can ever imagine. But dont go anywhere yet. They also sell big hot cinnamon buns fresh from the oven.
BEST REASON TO LIVE IN MIAMI
There is one good reason why I'll probably always consider Miami my home: the passion. Our city is smoking hot from the sizzling sun, combined with beautiful people, zestful food, and a fusion of many different languages, cultures, and music. Behind all these is a passion that is incomparable. We cook with our hearts, dance with zeal, speak in voluminous tones. Our achievements are accomplished by following our hearts more than our minds. If we don't believe strongly in something, with our hearts and souls, it probably won't even be attempted. Our clothing is bright, our senses alive, and we strive to let ourselves show.
CHOCOLATE MOLE PAINTED FOIE GRAS OVER PORT GASTRIC BRAISED CHERRIES
1 teaspoon ground ancho chiles
1 teaspoon ground almonds
1/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon
Pinch of Hawaiian sea salt
1 cup extra-bitter chocolate, melted in a double boiler
Combine above ingredients and keep warm over hot water until just before serving; use a paintbrush to "paint" the mole onto a white plate.
In a pan, sear a 3-ounce piece of fresh foie gras. When golden, place foie gras into a cold pan, set aside.
In the hot pan with foie fat add:
1/4 cup pitted cherries
1/4 cup port wine
2 tablespoons red wine vinegar
1 tablespoon sugar
Reduce until it coats the back of a spoon.
Heat the foie gras in the oven at 350 degrees until medium rare to medium, approximately 3 to 4 minutes, until it feels soft when you press lightly on it. If there is hardness, heat for 2 more minutes. Glaze the foie gras with a little extra chocolate. Place 2 tablespoons of sauce in the center of the "painted" plate. Top with the chocolate-glazed foie gras. Top the foie with a little sea salt and serve immediately.
Readers Choice: The Wallflower Gallery
Readers Choice: Miami-Dade County Youth Fair
TALULA, 210 23rd Street, Miami Beach,305-672-0778
They could be Best Power Couple. Andrea Curto-Randazzo and husband Frank Randazzo individually have made big waves in the culinary world. But now they're teaming up for a new venture, Talula Restaurant & Bar, and their combined talents might well unleash a tsunami. While zooming up the culinary ladder, Andrea and Frank twice worked together before tying the knot -- at the famed Tribeca Grill in New York and at The Heights (formerly Pacific Heights) in Coral Gables. Frank then launched the Gaucho Room at the Loews Miami Beach while Andrea took over at Wish, both in South Beach and both of which brought them international acclaim. Love changes everything, of course. They married, quit their jobs, had a baby girl, and now are ready to unveil Talula by the end of this month. The name? It's a simplified version of Andrea's childhood nickname, after actress Tallulah Bankhead -- an early indication of her dramatic flair.
BEST LOCAL LANDMARK
Jimbo's on Virginia Key. A real hidden treasure and so much more than a bait shop. Pulling up by boat through Shrimper's Lagoon is the only way to arrive. It's such a cool place, the opposite of Miami's polished side. Jim Luznar opened this landmark in 1954 and it remains the best place in Miami for fresh smoked fish and cheap cold beer.
BEST CHEAP THRILL
Tourists and newcomers are always told that Ocean Drive and Lincoln Road are the best places to people-watch, but those of us who live here know that the Publix on Twentieth Street is really the place. Stroll up and down the aisles and you will see everyone you know, even those you didn't think knew how to cook. Most men don't like to go grocery shopping, but Frank doesn't mind it because the scenery is so good.
BEST NATURAL HIGH
Each time we drive back to Miami Beach we remember how pretty it is here. I grew up here and sometimes take the place for granted but Frank reminds me by talking about the beauty. From our balcony we get to see the cruise ships leave. It's the perfect view and it is so cool.
BEST PLACE TO SAVOR THE FLAVOR OF MIAMI
When we think of local flavor we think of Cuban food, and we are fortunate that Nelson DeLeon, architect for Talula and a local of Cuban heritage, took us to a place we really like -- La Casita Restaurant in Coral Gables. La Casita has a casual, friendly atmosphere where everyone is comfortable.
BEST REASON TO LIVE IN MIAMI
We were tired of the snow up north and enjoy simplicity. Miami Beach seemed like the right place at the right time. Everything is within walking distance, just around the corner. We are simple people who want a simple, laid-back lifestyle. We found it here.
CALABAZA AND MUSHROOM RISOTTO
1 1/2 pounds sautéed mushrooms (shiitake, portobello, oyster, and/or crimini)
2 cups calabaza, diced and cooked (approximately a quarter of 1 calabaza)
1/2 pound butter
1 large onion (diced small)
1 pound arborio rice
2 bay leaves
2 cups white wine
1 gallon vegetable or chicken stock (hot)
2 tablespoons lime zest
1 cup Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese (grated)
2 tablespoons truffle oil (white or black)
To sauté mushrooms:
Preheat large sauté pan over medium heat. Slice mushrooms lengthwise (be sure to trim down oversize portobellos). Add 1 tablespoon olive oil and 1 tablespoon butter to sauté pan. When butter melts, add mushrooms and sauté for 5 minutes stirring often. Season with salt and white pepper. Reserve.
To cook calabaza:
Remove skin from calabaza and dice into quarter-inch cubes, removing seeds and pulp. Place in salted boiling water and simmer until tender (about 5 minutes). Strain and cool immediately.
To prepare risotto:
Add 2 tablespoons olive oil and melt 3 tablespoons butter in a preheated rondeau. Add diced onion and sauté on medium heat until onions are tender and translucent. Add arborio and bay leaf and stir with wooden spoon until coated with butter. Add 2 cups white wine and stir, simmer until wine is absorbed. Add 1 cup hot stock at a time, stirring until absorbed. Continue adding stock slowly, 1 cup at a time, stirring very often until rice is tender and creamy. Stir in mushrooms, calabaza, herbs, lime zest, cheese, and remaining butter. Season with salt and white pepper. Drizzle in truffle oil. Serve immediately.