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!
Tinta y Cafe
Courtesy of Tinta y Cafe
These fried snacks can deliver a hit-or-miss assault on the taste buds, depending on how long they have been sweltering under a hot light. Coated in a toasty layer of breadcrumbs, a properly prepared fresh croqueta should be tender, flaky, and mouthwatering. But when these thumb-size devils are left to ferment, they end up dry with a mysteriously gray interior. And if wolfed down in a fit of hunger, they can induce a nasty bowel-quivering experience. Most connoisseurs agree that the best approach to avoid fouling the tongue and cramping the innards is the old crack-and-sniff test. At Tinta y Café you never need to worry. Biting into one of the always fresh, plump gourmet delights will leave you hollering for more. Tinta y Café delicately prepares a variety of tantalizing flavors, including bacalao, spinach and cheese, and the more traditional ham and chicken. And at 65 cents a pop, they are affordable enough to order a take-away batch for friends who will undoubtedly be impressed by your command of croqueta perfection.

Best Restaurant for Intimate Conversation

Pascal's on Ponce

The dining room almost sounds like a library, respectful whispers rising and then dissipating like mist. The click of forks is audible, and conspires with other small, soft noises to form a subtle buzzing sound. Professional waiters, well acquainted with the contemporary French menu and exemplary wine list, provide attentive, even doting service -- while never trespassing into cuteness or obtrusiveness. Table appointments are crisp, flowers are dainty, and the seating is comfortable in this quaint, romantic 55-seat dining room. But that is only partially why Pascal's on Ponce is ideal for your seductive rendezvous. Since 2000, owner Pascal Oudin, one of South Florida's most accomplished chefs, has been delighting diners with refreshed, luminously luscious renditions of traditional French bistro fare. Maine lobster bisque is tweaked with corn flan and tarragon. Local grouper is teased with almond and cinnamon juice. Pillows of potato gnocchi are fluffed with mushrooms, mascarpone, and truffle oil. Go to a stuffy French joint if you want cloying duck a l'orange: Here the rosy-roasted bird bathes in its own natural juice with peaches, fingerling potatoes, and savoy cabbage. It's a lighter approach, which will leave you and your dinnermate feeling friskier. Appetizers run approximately $8 to $14, and most entrées are less than $28, which is on par with eateries owned by those who dream of delivering this level of dining. Finally, Pascal's signature bittersweet chocolate soufflé presents a happily-ever-after ending. What else could you ask for? Well, yes, the intimate conversation, but that's your responsibility.
Ceviche is to South Florida what ice cream is to the rest of the nation: a refreshing, warm-weather treat that comes in so many flavors that Baskin-Robbins is blushing with envy. There is tuna ceviche with crabmeat, shallots, jicama, and black beer sorbet at Ola on Ocean. Salmon with watermelon, sprouts, avocado, and chilies at Chispa. And Cacao wows with chunks of Mexican guachinango fish and poblano peppers. Still, sometimes chocolate and vanilla are more satisfying without the cookie dough and bubblegum, and Captain Jim's basic ceviche of raw corvina marinated in lime juice with red onions and cilantro is apt to satisfy a craving for this traditional Peruvian specialty in a way the others won't. Jim Hanson's Key Largo fleet catches the fish for his own restaurant as well as others in town, so the ceviche is always superfresh. Inexpensive, too ($7.99 per pound). And it won't melt in the Florida sun.

Best Place to Celebrate Your Birthday

Rusty Pelican

Rusty Pelican
Photo courtesy of Rusty Pelican
To most people, the ideal way to celebrate a birthday would be in a stunning environment, surrounded by good friends. We might not be able to help you with the friends, but we can with the location: Book a table on the outdoor patio of the Rusty Pelican. Sure, the interior is gorgeous: a collection of brightly colored chandeliers and a classy pianist parked behind a baby grand. But we are in Miami, and dining alfresco is a must. The restaurant's surf-and-turf offerings include elegantly prepared lobster, fish, shrimp, and steak, and you can enjoy a delectable entrée for less than $20. Order a drink: There's a full bar, and the bartender makes a fabulous mojito. Outside on the deck, adjacent to a roaring fire pit, gaze off wistfully at the glittering downtown skyline, and toast to your health. Your birthday dessert -- decorated with a sparkler -- will emerge to the sound of a chorus of singing waiters. Choose a chocolate suicide sundae, cr?ème brûlée, coconut mousse, or -- yum -- apple walnut upside-down pie served with cinnamon ice cream, which will cost no more than $10. Bask in the moment, with the moon shining down on the water and everyone smiling and sending good wishes your way. Maybe it isn't so bad, this getting-older thing.
Heads or Tails Seafood
A fantastic fish sandwich requires just two things: fresh bread and fresh fish. As you enter Heads or Tails, you can watch fishmongers filleting your lunch in the retail portion of the restaurant. That's fresh. Grab a stool at one of the long counters that line each side of the room and make your decisions: tilapia, grouper, dolphin, or salmon; cleanly fried or griddled with gusto. Lettuce and ripe tomatoes get fluffed into the soft bun, and on the counter are squeeze bottles of condiment sauces that encompass every major color group but blue. Squirt away and create your own edible Jackson Pollock. This is not only a richly rewarding sandwich but also -- at $4.99 -- a great deal.
Wat? Wat dat? It's a thick stew served atop injera. Injera is a spongy sourdough pancake made from fermented teff. Teff is a teeny grain that tastes like millet. You probably know what millet is. The injera is customarily placed over the surface of the mossob. The mossob is a colorful dining table woven like a basket. Diners seated around the mossob scoop the wat with the injera, using their hands. There is fiery assa wat, made with South African haddock and Ethiopian spices. And atakilt wat, a mix of string beans, carrots, potatoes, and cabbage. And gomen wat with collard greens, and mesir wat with lentils. And don't forget doro wat, which is Ethiopia's national dish, a gingery, spicy stew of chicken legs and thighs. Yes, you're right, that is a lot of wat. But Sheba, a stunning, cosmopolitan Ethiopian eatery adorned in earth tones, dark woods, and African handicrafts, also offers tibs (morsels of chicken, shrimp, or filet mignon sautéed with onions, tomatoes, and green peppers), zilzil (shrimp in honey wine sauce), kitfo (African steak tartare), and other specialties from the owners' native land. All is dee-lish, and not unreasonably priced: Wats, dibs, et cetera, range from $20 to $25, and vegetarian entrées from $13 to $18. Sheba likewise welcomes via its extremely friendly staff and lively, full-service bar. Dat wat make it such a great place to eat.
When this extraordinary seafood market was evicted from its long-time Watson Island location, Miami lost not only a small piece of its past but also an equally microcosmic yet very pleasant few moments of its multicultural present. Gone are the hordes that used to gather in the scruffy but spacious field that was Casablanca's parking lot, washing down the market's zesty conch salad with juices sold at nearby stands. At its new location next to Joe's and Garcia's, there are a few parking spaces but no room for hanging out. And the freshly paved road out front and new condo building across the street minimalize any old Miami feel. What fortunately has not been lost: wooden boxes piled high with the most floppin'-fresh fish in the county, at prices that are low to near-miraculous. There is still extraordinary variety -- the selection a veritable primer of local seafood. Patrons continue to grab their own mangrove snappers, jacks, bluefish, drums, groupers, yellowtails, et cetera, whole, to be custom-filleted by the veteran counter staff. And if you wipe the frost off the counter's glass, you will see that the conch salad, though harder to find, is still the same too.

Best Of Miami®

Best Of Miami®