Talula
Duluth's feisty alternative newspaper, if it has one, probably doesn't accord a Best Outdoor Dining award in its annual roundup of the city's finest. That's one reason we don't live in Duluth, Minnesota. Miami, on the other hand, features a plethora of al fresco restaurants all year round. How can one choose among so many options? Hint: Select the surroundings with the best food, wine, and service. Talula is that place. The canopied garden patio, which seats 55, is lushly landscaped, luminously lit, and -- in summer -- tented and air-conditioned. The contemporary American cuisine of chef/owners Frank Randazzo and Andrea Curto-Randazzo likewise shines. In fact you really don't need to feel the warm night breeze caressing your face in order to fall in love with a starter of cascabel-crusted barbecue quail with brandy-porcini demi-glace, or with crisply fried Chesapeake Bay oysters with watermelon-blackened corn salsita. And entrées such as sake-marinated Alaskan halibut with miso-orange glaze, or porcini-crusted venison loin with truffle-parsnip puree, would be luxuriously delicious even if eaten in a dark, dank alley. Appetizers range from $8 to $18, main courses $24 to $32. Service is as friendly as you would find in Duluth (they are very polite out there), and Sunday wine specials bring discounts on the savvy global selection. Look hard enough and you can probably find a grander open-air setting for dinner, but you will not discover a better outdoor dining experience than the one Talula consistently delivers.
La Dorada
"The sign of good paella is really in the rice," says Beatrice Bajares, owner of Spanish restaurant La Dorada. "It's the same as with pasta. If pasta is not cooked al dente it tastes bad." And to get the rice right, explains Bajares, a good paella must be prepared fresh, slowly, and on the premises. La Dorada offers two varieties of the dish: a traditional fish and shellfish version, and a black paella cooked with squid, baby calamari, and fish. Every evening around 11:15 p.m. (5:15 a.m. in Spain), Bajares phones her contacts in the Spanish port city of Malaga as the daily fish market opens. She ascertains what seafood the fishermen have that morning and then places an order according to her needs. "The fish are put on ice and flown from Malaga to Madrid to Miami that day," she informs. "The razor clams arrive at the restaurant still alive." In addition to the best rice and just-off-the-boat seafood, she says La Dorada uses only fresh saffron and high-quality extra virgin olive oil. The paella costs $26 per person and is worth every penny.
Shuckers Waterfront Bar & Grill
Photo courtesy of Shuckers Bar & Grill
Shuckers is a dive in the most gloriously comfortable and time-worn sense of the word. Boaters, beachgoers, and tired worker bees are all habitués of this outdoor bar/restaurant. You don't need a platinum card or a tie to gain entrance; you simply need to know how to navigate the mazelike parking lot of the North Bay Village Best Western. If you can do that (just follow the sound of the jukebox or of pool balls clicking on the coin-operated table), you will find one of the best waterfront views in Miami and a chance to eat fresh grouper or snapper fillets ($8 with a side of French fries) without taking out a new mortgage.
Mofongo is the signature dish of any Puerto Rican restaurant worth its salt. Whether served as an entrée or an accompaniment, the mashed plantain concoction must not be too dry or too mushy, and it must strike the perfect balance between the mild saltiness that keeps it from being bland, and overseasoning. Benny's, which has been serving Puerto Rican food for twelve years, offers several mofongo dishes, all served in a wooden mortar bowl. Chewy on the outside, soft in the middle, liberally seasoned with crunchy pork bits and garlic ... this mofongo -- whether you order it con langosta, con camarones, or plain -- is perfect. Prices vary, from $23 for the most expensive mofongo dish, which comes with an array of seafood, to $8 for plain. (While you're at Benny's, try some of the other Puerto Rican food, like fried blood sausage, and green banana ceviche stocked with chicken gizzards.)
Bahía, the outdoor tapas lounge on the Four Seasons Hotel's seventh-floor terrace, offers the European snack with a distinctively Latin American, oceangoing twist. Tapas developed from an old Spanish bar custom of placing a saucer on top of wine glasses. Someone put a few olives on the saucer, and from that evolved today's finger-food-as-a-meal. In Spain, tapas bars really get going around 3:00 a.m., and much of what is served is some variant of tinned meat. Bahía, which takes its name from a region of Brazil, uses that country's marine bounty as its tapas template. Among a dozen choices are the staid aceitunas variedades (assorted olives, $3); pimientos del piquillo rellenos de bacalao ($9), which are pickled peppers served on baguette slices with cod; croquetas de marisco ($8), stuffed with lobster (but also available in ham and spinach); boquerones en vinagre ($8), a larger, paler, spicier type of the much-maligned anchovy; and patatas aioli ($5), forever unhumbling the potato. Specialty drinks at Bahía -- takes on the mojito and margarita -- are tasty and market-priced around $12, but go for the "caipiroska" (vodka, fresh strawberries, and froths of sugar). Bahía is in an awesome spot facing the water, but the space itself -- nearly an acre plain featuring a vast lap pool and a lighted waterfall -- is incredibly tranquil. Bahía serves tapas and escapism 5:00 p.m. to midnight Tuesdays through Saturdays.
Big Fish
It's not so much the sweeping view of an iridescent Miami skyline that excites the senses -- though no place in the city offers a better scenic setting. Rather it's the outdoor dining patio's location adjacent to the water, which provides a rare, eye-level view of passing freighters, fishing boats, speed boats, dinghies, and yachts. It gives the sensation you are sitting right inside the skyline; that's what gets the juices flowing. And flowing some more once you grab a cocktail from a bar that wraps itself around a giant banyan tree. This a popular late-afternoon gathering spot -- especially during Friday's happy hour when downtown workers flock to Big Fish like pelicans to dock posts. But atmosphere is not the only draw here; most of the faithful clientele come for hearty portions of fresh Southern Italian-accented seafood and pastas. Catches include sea bass with roast peppers and fennel ($32); crisply fried whole yellowtail ($23); a mixed grill for two that includes a plethora of crackly crustaceans ($64); and possibly the plushest, lushest crabcakes south of Maryland. Pillows of porcini-filled agnolotti ($23) and homemade tagliolini with shaved truffles ($17) serve as savory reminders that this is not just a seafood house. When seeking waterfront dining that combines picturesque visuals with delectable victuals, you need not fish around: This is your spot.
"What is ackee?" the newcomer to Sonia's will ask. And the proprietor will answer, "It's a Jamaican fruit that looks sort of like scrambled eggs." Eeeew! But no. Listen. For $5.49, you can get an ackee patty, made with tomatoes, onion, and cod fish, whose fragrant spice and flaky pastry will hook you forever on the savory little purses of joy. Also available are beef, plantain, curry chicken, or vegetable patties for less than $2; shrimp and lobster patties are priced less than $5. The deceptively simple concept (filling, dough) will transport you instantly to a Jamaican beach. Seriously. Call ahead and order in bulk for your next picnic.
The Restaurant at the Setai
To say this place looks like a million bucks would be to vastly underestimate the money invested. To describe in detail the gray stone walls tweaked with teak and bronze accents, expansive exhibition kitchen, lofty ceilings, plushly pillowed chairs, modern artwork, intricate woodwork, towering wine cabinets, and the other handsome attributes would not do The Setai justice, either. What wows is the way Asian sensibilities of simplicity and elegance are integrated so effusively into some 10,000 square feet of multiple dining areas, each unique section seamlessly melding into the next. It's as though Cecil B. DeMille and fashion designer Hanae Mori bore an offspring and -- well, all right, we don't have to go there. Suffice to say The Restaurant's dining room is stunning in a grand, chic, sophisticated manner. Even more impressive is that it might not be the prettiest place to dine on the premises. That distinction arguably goes to the lushly landscaped outdoor garden, where podlike seats are set along the perimeter of a peaceful reflection pond trellised by pergolas.
If there were an official Florida state fast food, it would have to be the conch fritter. Although Florida's queen conch population is so depleted that our conch meat comes from the Bahamas (and beyond), the fritters are everywhere. Too bad most are mediocre at best -- bland lumps of batter as devoid of conch as Florida's waters. But you will not find meager specimens at Captain Nate's, which was opened about a year ago by two former Key Largo fishermen. The fritters here ($7.99 for five) contain sizable chunks of conch (so much more satisfying than the mushy ground conch most traditional recipes use) plus diced red and green peppers for crunch and a jolt of cayenne to enliven the zeppole/frybreadlike batter. The accompanying dip, truly tart tartar sauce that is more like a New Orleans-style rémoulade, is a welcome addition, but is by no means a necessity.
Dear Abby: I have an inordinate fear of dining out by myself. Whenever I enter a restaurant alone, I am seized with a feeling that everyone in the room is staring at me and wondering why I couldn't find someone to eat with. Because I am single, live alone, and don't know how to cook, I find myself in this situation quite often. What can I do? Self-Conscious in Miami
Dear Self-Conscious in Miami: Easy solution -- take my husband out to eat with you, and believe me, after listening to him drone on with his tedious stories, you will forever consider dining alone a blessing. If that doesn't interest you, try lunch or dinner at Joe Allen in South Beach. The staff is good at putting folks at ease, and everyone else in the unpretentious, pared-down room will be too busy digging into their meat loaf with mashed potatoes, sautéed calf's liver, and homemade prosciutto-and-ricotta-stuffed ravioli to even notice you. Besides, you will be so enthralled with your gazpacho Andaluz, goat cheese pizza, and cherry cobbler -- or perhaps banana cream pie -- you won't notice anyone either. They don't call this comfort food for nothing. And prices are moderate enough (almost all main courses are less than $20) that you can keep coming back until you are a regular. Most diners here are. After dinner, slide up to the bar, which is generally filled with gregarious locals. It wouldn't hurt if you schmoozed a little; perhaps you might find yourself a mate with some culinary skills. Bon appétit!

Best Of Miami®

Best Of Miami®