Francis Holder's little family bakery in Lille, France, which opened in 1889, was mostly known for its viennois breads, which are pretty much the same sort of artisan loaves you can find at Paul French Bakery in Aventura, in North Miami Beach -- and in some 300 other branches around the world. That is because Holder's son took over the Lille bakeshop in 1958 and parlayed the family recipes for pastries and breads into the hugely successful Paul chain of bakery/cafes. The old-fashioned black storefronts and quaint, tea-shop interiors are the very antithesis of cold, franchised design, and the food does not taste mass-produced either. Soups, salads, quiches, crpes, and cheese plates are prepared freshly on premises. Some of the breads and rolls, made from stone-ground grains and imbued with crunchy crusts and tangy tastes, are delivered from France unbaked and frozen, or prebaked frozen, but even that is a plus -- they pop from the oven fresh and hot, and contain the intangibly important French water. These breads also make for excellent sandwiches -- try the Normand, with Camembert, butter, and lettuce on sesame paulette bread. And the Flan Normand rocks too -- an ethereal apple pie topped with custard and almonds. And the éclairs, napoleons, Italian roast coffees, cappuccinos, frappés ... It's nearly impossible to conceive of Paul being a chain restaurant. Which is what makes it the best.
Five reasons why Spris is better than the place you go for pizza:
1. It boasts alfresco seating on Lincoln Road, the Piazza Navona of Miami-Dade County.
2. Paper-thin pizza crust is properly crisped, charred, and blistered in a fiery, wood-burning oven.
3. It offers more than 30 toppings, including prosciutto, arugula, wild mushrooms, and aged speck ham.
4. A beat-the-clock deal from 5:30 to 7:00 p.m. means you can order a pizza for the price that matches the time ($5.30 to $7 per pie).
5. Your favorite pizzeria might serve salads, sandwiches, antipasti, carpaccios, and calzones that are as tasty and sprightly as those at Spris (or maybe not), but does it offer you the menus from a full-service Italian restaurant (Tiramesu) and a Belgian mussels-and-beer establishment (Le Bon)? Didn't think so.
Connoisseurs of the good greasy stuff usually drive to Hollywood, an area disproportionately blessed with real-deal diners, to get their fix. Meanwhile, back in Miami, there is Airport Diner, a nine-year-old restaurant that fails one test: It is Spartan and spotless, way too clean compared to its peers. What's worse, the food is not nearly as greasy as its competitors'. Make a mess and add your own grease, because this high-flying eatery scores big in other categories: (1) The coffee is robust and delish. (2) The "light and tender" -- as the menu puts it -- pancakes blow away those at the nearby IHOP and Denny's. And you can order them as a five-stack ($4.99), short stack ($3.99), or in various combos with eggs and meats. (3) Waffles. (4) Bagels. (5) French toast. (6) The eggs -- ordered sunny-side-up to judge the cook's skill -- tend toward perfection. Runny yolks, fully cooked whites, firm around the edges. Served with equally perfect hash browns, toast, sausage, and bacon ($4.99), and you can change the starch to home fries or grits. Twenty-one egg combinations are listed on the menu. The cook -- not chef -- griddles eight "steak" and egg meals such as pork chops, burger patty, New York strip, all priced less than $9. (7) The waitresses don't smile much. (8) The owners are of Greek heritage, so one of the eleven renditions of omelets features feta; another also includes tomato and black olives. (9) Yes, they have biscuits with sausage gravy and "chicken-fried steak," which the menu calls "country fried." (10) All the classic entrées are served, from liver and onions ($7.99 with salad or soup, bread, vegetables, and starch) to a twelve-ounce T-bone ($14.99). (11) Four outstanding Greek dinners, less than $9. (12) Pasta. (13) Beer and wine. (14) The dessert list includes baklava, right there next to the key lime pie. (15) Ten breakfast specials offered weekdays from 6:00 to 11:00 a.m. (16) You don't have to go anywhere near I-95 to visit.
Sara's has been around for more than twenty years, and for fifteen of those years my husband Harold, may he rest in peace, dragged me here to eat. "Such a selection," he would say, who knows how many times, during social situations with other people. "More than 150 items to choose from." Then he would begin rattling off dishes, one after the other, like a crazy person. "Potato pancakes, cheese blintzes, and stuffed cabbage the size of my fist." He'd hold up his fist when he said this, and he'd have a funny look in his eyes. "Southern-fried Chick-In, Chick-In Parmigiana, Chinese sweet-'n'-sour Chick-In -- can't tell it from the real thing." Oy, how he could go on. "Enchiladas, chimichangas, whole-wheat pizzas, baba ghannouj, falafel, whitefish salad, Turkish salad, Rabbi Lipskar salad...." At this point one of his listeners would inevitably interrupt and ask, "Rabbi Lipskar salad?" "Don't ask," my husband would inevitably reply. I have been dragging myself to Sara's for the past three years. I go alone; I don't make a big deal. Sometimes I get the vegetable quiche, sometimes a tuna burger, sometimes a simple bagel with cream cheese and Norwegian salmon. It's nice that everything is vegetarian. Believe me, at my age I need to eat healthily. But still, would it kill them to put a real chicken dish on the menu?
La Sandwicherie
Photo courtesy of La Sandwicherie
In the early Nineties -- when Blimpie bases overran the land, Quizno's was not even a gleam in its mother's eye, and the Miami Subs and Grill on Washington Avenue lured SoBe's pioneer party people with Dom Perignon (at $95 a bottle, to give you an idea of how long ago those times were) -- Le Sandwicherie was a bright beacon for true hoagie aficionados. This remains true, especially at 5:00 a.m., which is still the outdoor stand's closing hour. Admittedly it may strike some as stretching it to call this French-owned place's creations hoagies; they are fresh-baked baguettes with top-quality fillings such as chunky country pâté. But wait for the toppings -- sacre bleu! The decidedly un-Gallic amount of this gut-busting garnish of lettuce, tomato, green and hot peppers, black olives, onions, cukes, pickles, mayo, and dressing makes these sandwiches as All-American as spaghetti and meatballs (even though the pickles are cornichons, and the dressing is a subtle mustard vinaigrette that even a Michelin Guide inspector could not fault). Prices? Petit: $5 or $6, up to $8 for a croque monsieur with a hefty side salad. Now that the national food media has proclaimed gourmet sandwiches fashionable, Miami has many newer sandwich shops. But those who may be over the mango aioli only need to order Le Sandwicherie's saucisson sec with everything ($5.90) to realize there is still no place that does sandwiches better.
Origin Asian Bistro & Sushi
Not all barbecue is slow-smoked pork (please don't tell that to any Southerners in the audience, though). It doesn't even have to be American. This sophisticated and accomplished Thai restaurant's killer 'cue is tiny lamb riblets ($8), whose tangy, tamarind-based Asian barbecue sauce glazes meat so tender it can fall off the bone with just a hungry stare. Stand the typical American barbecue on its head by substituting spicy green papaya salad ($5.50) for the ubiquitous coleslaw, and some carefully steamed brown rice for the icky-sweet baked beans. Finish with Thai donuts ($4.50), beignetlike puffs of deep-fried dough served with an unctuous condensed-milk dipping sauce. Next time you're in the mood for barbecue, try Thai. Why pig out when you can lamb out?
An area located off the tourist track -- despite being home to the largest collection of Moorish architecture in the Western Hemisphere -- and far from the ocean might not seem like the best place to go for a dynamite grouper-'n'-grits dinner. But Opa-locka's African-American population has given a big thumbs-up to this soulful smoke house. Other South Floridians reportedly drive here from as far as Palm Beach County for the housemade barbecue. Crabby's also offers numerous types of fresh fish and shellfish served with all the fixings, namely hush puppies, collards, mac 'n' cheese, and baked beans (all sides are $1.45). More unusual yet equally delectable Southern-style sides are also available, including a huge potato pancake studded with tingly hot pepper chunks, or pickled souse (often called head cheese because it originates from cheap, throw-away pig parts such as heads and feet). Unlike many soul food joints, this is a real smoke house, so ribs, pulled pork, and chicken do not depend on sauce for savor; the 'cue has intense black oak flavor even without the place's nicely tangy dip. Baby-back or spare ribs with two sides is $13.95; a "workin' man's" special plate (chicken thigh and leg plus two sides) is $5.95, as is a pork 'cue sandwich with fries. Nonsmoked seafood entrées include shell-on garlic crabs (blue crab is $8.50 per pound) -- a festive production served on paper, with a bib, and a big box of napkins that never seems to hold quite enough. Don't worry. This is the kind of homey place with a sink conveniently located in the main dining room to take care of the rest of the mess.
Pan-seared scallops
Pan-seared scallops
Nobu Matsuhisa is to fish what Harry Winston is to diamonds: the go-to guy for gorgeous, expensive jewels. Each has built an international reputation as master of his craft and gained renown for sparkling presentations. There are differences, to be sure. For starters, Harry mines his gems from the earth; Nobu fishes his from the sea. For another, Winston doesn't offer a chic array of boutique sakes. And, to state the obvious, oh boy do Nobu's diaphanous foods taste great. The South Beach outpost, nestled within the über-hip Shore Club hotel, draws acclaim for its classic Japanese cuisine expertly prepared with contemporary, multinational twists (and especially peppered with Peruvian touches). In particular, the Nobu name has become synonymous with exquisite seafood, and it doesn't matter which pearl on the menu you choose: yellowtail sashimi with yuzu jalapeño or freshwater eel nigiri; rock shrimp tempura with piquant cream sauce or arctic char with crisp baby spinach; diver scallops with wasabi pepper sauce or the signature Alaskan black cod infused with sweet, buttery miso (imitated by many, equaled by none). If you can't decide among the multitude of glittery options, surrender to the omakase, a chef's tasting menu ($100 or $140, based on the number of courses). Might seem a tad pricey, but it is still a lot cheaper than anything at Harry Winston's.
Bond Street Lounge
Even in a town swimming with cutting-edge sushi establishments, it is not every day you stumble on sun-dried-tomato-and-avocado rolls with garlic ponzu oil and green tea salt. If this sounds particularly healthy, perhaps it is because Bond Street is helmed by Japanese chef Hiro Asano, a graduate of the Hattori School of Nutrition (owned by Yukio Hattori of Iron Chef fame). After its first four years in the Townhouse Hotel, this South Beach outpost of the famed Manhattan restaurant had already built a reputation for sassy, highly creative sushi. When Asano came on board last year, he retained menu favorites such as spicy tuna rolls with chili mayonnaise ($8), and lobster tempura rolls with yellow tomato dressing and chive oil ($14). At the same time, he contributed his own sparkling new additions, like yellowtail sashimi with Szechuan pepper ponzu ($10) and spicy, crisp shrimp with chipotle aioli ($14). Yet it is not sheer inventiveness that allows Bond Street to roll past the competition. Sushi's delicate nature requires meticulous attention to detail: the pristine nature of the fish; the way it is handled and sliced; cooking the rice just right; getting the nori wrappings to retain their crispness. All require subtle sleights of hand, all are vital to the proper balance of tastes and textures, and all are evidenced daily at Bond Street. An extensive spectrum of sakes, some exclusive to the restaurant, complement the seafood in style. One warning, though: Sushi is pricey enough that dinner at the Townhouse might land you in the poorhouse.
Does OLA Steak grill up a better slab of beef than Morton's, The Palm, Prime One Twelve, The Capital Grille, Fleming's, or Ruth's Chris? In a word: no. But none of the above serves a house bread made from yuca flour and mozzarella cheese (pan de bono) that is out of this world. And though there is nothing wrong with a jumbo shrimp cocktail to jump-start your steak dinner, it is much more Miami to begin with yuca-and-leek vichyssoise dabbed with bacalao; or oxtail meatballs; or a $20 medianoche pressed with foie gras, duck Serrano ham, truffled cheese, and guava mustard. Other meat joints don't offer Doug Rodriguez's wacky and delectable ceviches either, like lime-and-cilantro-soaked corvina with red onions, pickled poblano peppers, spicy kernels of Peruvian corn, and a shocking scoop of Guinness sorbet. Starches include delicate yuca hash browns and creamy malanga purée, and -- oh yeah -- the steaks: a choice of dry-aged, USDA-certified Black Angus; or natural, grass-fed Uruguayan, accompanied with chimichurri, pungent huacatay sauce, and tamarind panca pepper sauce (think A1 Steak Sauce with balls). Yes, the meats here are undeniably dee-lish and sanely priced ($25 to $34), but it is the rest of the house fare that sets this steak house apart.

Best Of Miami®

Best Of Miami®