A tip of the toque to Pascal Oudin, who five years ago left the safe and prestigious confines of the Grand Bay Café's grand dining room and set off to open a little French bistro of his own. It was a roll of the dice, a decision to work harder for less security and surety of financial reward. He did it because he wanted to cook his food his way in his restaurant. And it has paid off for him and, more selfishly, for us: There is nothing better than eating in a small, personal dining establishment run by a talented chef/owner. Tim Andriola followed suit by leaving Mark's South Beach for his own Timo; Dewey LoSasso sailed from China Grill Management to open North One 10; and Frank Randazzo and Andrea Curto-Randazzo bid adieu to the Gaucho Room and Wish to form a tasty tandem at Talula -- and we have three more great restaurants because of it. This year Frank Jeannetti jumped from Pearl to his own Ernie's Restaurant, Michelle Bernstein took the big leap from Azul to Michy's, and Norman Van Aken has plans to establish a more intimate eatery of his own in Key West. This all bodes well for those who crave authentic, chef-crafted cuisine served by staff who care -- in other words, a great dining experience. It also provides an optimistic countering force against the worst new local dining trend: upscale-casual restaurants.
Michy's
Not every kitchen crew breaks down its own chickens, ducks, steaks, and fish; rolls and cuts all the pastas; and prepares molé, mayonnaise, and madeira-laced foie gras torchon from scratch. Not every restaurant rustles up rustic dishes such as polenta with runny poached egg, bacon, Pecorino-Romano cheese, and shaved truffle; Southern-fried quail with honey and peaches; and watercress/tarragon salad with goat cheese, caramelized shallots, and halved green grapes. Nor, for that matter, do many eateries offer all menu items by the half-course (ranging from $6 to $12), which makes sampling multiple plates much more affordable. You will not easily find an in-house pastry department that churns out comfort desserts with contemporary twists -- specifically the baked Alaska with dulce de leche ice cream, though the strawberry shortcake perfumed with orange blossom would fit the bill as well. Admittedly Michy's is not alone in affording patrons a comfortable dining room, amiable service, pristine raw bar, and concise, cutting-edge wine list, but it is unique in having a chef of Michelle Bernstein's caliber working in the kitchen. Her influence alone is enough to make Michy's big news, but it is all of these other distinctive characteristics that make it the best new restaurant in town.
This category was established last year as a sort of hall of fame -- win once, and you're no longer qualified. Because we have a lot of catching up to do in honoring our best chefs, from here on in we will induct two at a time. Last year's inaugural winner was Norman Van Aken, which makes Mark Militello and Allen Susser the obvious choices to follow. These three, after all, are most closely associated with rediscovering the region's bounty of fresh fish and tropical produce and resuscitating them into a vital, nationally recognized New Florida/New World cuisine. Mark has a few more restaurants, Allen a few more cookbooks, but between them they have won so many awards there is probably no room on their walls to display this one. What a slap in the face! Still, we salute the passion, integrity, charitability, and unbridled culinary talent of these two prominent pioneers, who unlike typical hall-of-famers continue to excel in their fields: Chef Allen's (since 1986), Mark's South Beach, and Mark's Las Olas (the original Mark's Place opened in 1988) are still, after all these years, counted among South Florida's elite restaurants.

Best Fight to Stay in Business While the City Keeps the Street in Front of Your Restaurant Busted Up for Two Years

Cocopelli Café

From the exterior, Cocopelli looks like the sort of bistro where the soupe al'oignon comes crusted with construction dust. Or like a place you can't enter without overcoming great obstacles. Worse, it resembles a restaurant that's closed. That's because this homespun bistro opened on a stretch of Biscayne Boulevard just as renovation on the road was beginning. Jackhammers blasted away. Dust and debris went flying. Frustrated drivers leaned on their horns, and gas fumes plumed from idling cars. Rather than head out on the town for a casual French dinner, the café's customers battled a slow crawl through what to the untrained eye looked like Kabul. Yet through it all, Cocopelli kept cooking up rustic renditions of classic bistro fare. Tender escargots. Foie gras terrine. Steak frites. Grouper en papillote. Homemade fruit tarts. And a funny thing happened: Loyal locals struggled through the hostile territory for the delicious food, affordable prices (most entrées cost less than $20), and accommodating service. Now that the war zone has moved south and the dust has settled, we'll all be able to see more clearly what an exemplary little neighborhood restaurant this is.

Best Restaurant to Bite the Dust

M Woods

In May 2004, Marvin Woods opened his cozy, low-country restaurant at Biscayne Boulevard and 129th Street. In May 2005, M Woods' fried chicken was deemed best in these pages. Now it's May 2006, and Mr. Woods and his award-winning birds have flown the coop. Farewell, lobster dumplings in vanilla-bean lobster broth and coconut-steamed shellfish. See ya, Cajun rib eye and luscious pulled pork. Bye-bye, Caribbean jerk duck cake, braised oxtail, and gumbo with fresh crabmeat and homemade duck sausage. Let's hope Marvin finds another place to roost real soon so we don't have to forever bid adieu to his outrageously scrumptious, seven-layer red velvet cake. Somewhere Elvis must be frowning.
Pacific Time's original pastry chef created what is generally regarded as South Florida's first chocolate bombe. Nowadays every restaurant serves a version of this warm bittersweet chocolate cake with melted bittersweet chocolate center. Some call it "molten chocolate cake" or "chocolate volcano"; more than a few deceptive proprietors refer to it as "soufflé." Regardless of how it reads on the menu, the dome-shape product is usually delivered to the restaurant frozen and then is warmed to its oozy state in the microwave. Pacific Time is one of our finest dining establishments and, as such, does not have a microwave on premises. The flourless bombes are baked in the oven, per order, and make competitors' renditions taste like cupcakes pumped with Hershey's syrup. Other desserts are explosively rewarding as well, and much like the cuisine at this Pan-Asian eatery, they are defined by clean, exquisite flavors. Apple tatin is crisply crusted and drizzled with rosemary-flecked caramel sauce. A pink pepper tuile cuddles fresh strawberry ice cream infused with aged balsamic vinegar. Pot de cr?ème, an ethereally creamy pudding, delves decadently deep in espresso and bitter chocolate. Baked Alaska and key lime are merged into one wondrous delight. Prices for these precious treats run from $7.50 to $11.50. Dessert wines by the glass include popular Bonny Doon Framboise and a riveting 1997 Far Niente Dolce. Choose from excellent coffee drinks too. Go to Pacific Time for one of the finest seafood dinners in town, but linger over dessert. It's the bomb. And more.

Best Restaurant to Survive Indifference

Plein Sud

Inconspicuously tucked into a nondescript strip mall, Plein Sud defines the term quiet little bistro. No star chef, glossy magazine ads, or featured appearances at the South Beach Wine & Food Festival. No breathless word-of-mouth among the SoBe arbiters of hot spots. No marketing maven marveling at the rustic, flower-dappled décor. No PR machine boasting about the homemade foie gras terrine, blanquette de veau, or beef Bourguignonne -- which, incidentally, bursts with lusty red wine aromatics. Still, the seats are filled at this North Miami restaurant, mostly with locals who luxuriate in the unpretentious ambiance, personalized service, and authentic provincial French fare. Patrons also get a good deal, because just about every entrée costs less than $20. There are bigger and bouncier bistros, to be sure, but Plein Sud is plainly one of the best. Regardless of whether you care or not.

Best Show of Humility by a Restaurant

Oggi Caffé

Oggi Ristorante
Located off the 79th Street Causeway for fourteen years, the popular Italian café ran an ad in this paper that contained the tagline: "It is hard going from 'Very Good' to 'Great,' but we keep trying."
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.

Best Of Miami®

Best Of Miami®