Best Of :: Food & Drink
"God is liberal of color; so should man be." We have it on good authority that when Herman Melville offered these words on interior decorating, he was not referring to Azul, the acclaimed restaurant in the Mandarin Oriental Hotel. For one thing, Melville was long dead when Azul opened. Also, Azul isn't that colorful. Just gorgeous. A big, bright, slightly elevated open kitchen is clad in white marble and stainless steel, as is the ravishingly sexy raw bar. White linens grace the tables, champagne-color cloth upholsters the chairs, floors are of beautiful buffed rosewood, and a lovely lattice of metal screens the dining area from the bar. Azul is surrounded on three sides by bay, the unparalleled spectrum of which floods into the room via floor-to-ceiling windows. Blue and white do not a rainbow make, but Melville's advice has certainly been picked up by chef Clay Conley, who spins the whole color wheel onto his elegantly plated (and delectable) cuisine. Azul is a classic: the Moby Dick of Miami restaurant décor.
Carb-cravers, head to Little Havana. Thats where youll find Bon-Bon Bakery, which has been cranking out the baked stuff in Miami for 40 years. Here they sell hot Cuban bread straight from the oven. They also sell a variety of other breads with quirky names only Cubans could have come up with. In most cases, the names refer to their shape -- patines, for example, which translates to roller skates, and bonetico, which means little bonnet. For bread devotees with a sweet tooth, heres a real treat: pan de gloria (glory bread). They got it right when they named this one: sweet bread made with eggs, milk, and sugar. Another sweet bread for sale is the kind used to make medianoches. Heres something else thats sweet: The bread here is dirt-cheap. Dig through your pocket for loose change and youll be able to walk out with the goodies, which cost between 25 cents and $1 each.
The five or so authentic Chinese places in town have been done to death. Just Google "Chinese" and "Miami" and the names come up again and again. Lung Gong is authentic. Kon Chau's got dim sum on lock. But which restaurant is most Miami? Jamaica Kitchen no doubt. Enter its nook of the Sunset West Shopping Center and find yourself in a whirl of homemade soups (made daily), patties, and a curry goat that will make you do a backflip. But something odd about the menu draws you to a totally different place: the pork and hamchoy (a preserved mustard green), the suey mein (a noodle soup featuring a crazy egg roll stuffed with pork and shrimp $10 per quart). Or perhaps you are drawn to the simple delights of the "Chinese roast chicken." Prices vary from lunch to dinner, fluctuating between about $6 to $9. Sidle up to the long counter; enjoy the friendly banter of the mom and pop owners and the fine island beats playing in the background. Or don't. They've been around for more than 24 years, don't advertise, and have no interest in being reviewed or winning this award. Jah bless them they know they're the bomb.
Burgers stuffed with foie gras; burgers made from ground Kobe beef (destroying the whole point of this already butter-tender meat); burgers made from, and topped with, all manner of horrifyingly healthy stuff; burgers like the $99 double-truffle creation at DB's Bistro in Manhattan.... The chichi burger thing is one of today's hottest food trends. And we're so, so over it. For a taste that'll take you back to simpler, greasier times, hit this burger joint for a six-pack of old-fashioned sliders. Royal Castle's burgers are two-bite burgers like the Northeast's White Castles, or the Deep South's Krystals, but homegrown. In 1965 there were 287 shops in the chain, founded by Miami's "Hamburger King" William Singer; they were found throughout Florida, Georgia, Lousiana, and Tennessee. The chain no longer exists, but there is still this one independently run survivor in town that serves up classic thin patties sandwiched in comforting cottony-soft buns. The burgers' protein component is, admittedly, minimal. The beef patties are mostly just little edible coasters to hold the fried onions, full of good griddle grease, that are the main flavor component of all sliders. And an honest all-American junk food flavor it is. The price: 80 cents (90 cents for a cheeseburger), a bargain even when you eat a half-dozen.
A great number of great restaurants debuted this past year, but we're talking about flippin' David Bouley here, one of the three or four most talented chefs working in America today. Evolution, his first foray outside of New York, instantly magnifies South Florida's blip on the national culinary radar. It's also a great place to have dinner (it's not open for lunch), starting with raisin-and-apple rolls, salt-sprinkled brioche, and other Old World breads baked on premises. An herb broth brimming with pristine shellfish; Long Island duckling breast laced with honey, butter, and fresh lavender flowers; and scallop-crusted black sea bass in an intensely flavored bouillabaisse foam constitute another three mouth-watering reasons why Evolution is more evolved than its high-priced haute competition. (How expensiveç If you have to ask, you probably can't afford to eat here.) Then there are the cheeses by Terrance Brennan Artisanal Connoisseurs, the nearly infinite wine list, smoothly professional service, and a stylish Art Deco decor. Need further convincingç A complimentary intermezzo of electrically fresh strawberry soup with fromage blanc sorbet is so brilliant it will make you cry.
Your average Yucatecan wouldn't know a taco from a meatball parmigiana sandwich, but don't tell that to the owners of this neat and petite 40-seat restaurant, which specializes in cuisine from the Mayan peninsula. After all, if they want to sneak some fetching Mexican and Tex-Mex items onto their menu, it would be wrong of us to spoil things with regional quibbling especially when among the non-Yucatecan delights are the most kickass tacos al pastor in town.The trio of corn tortillas come sumptuously plumped with nothing but pork, the smoky nubs of meat softly grilled and subtly sweetened with pineapples and onions. Refried beans, salsa verde, and guacamole are served on the side, which is downright generous for a plate costing just $8.49. Plus it leaves plenty of pesos for glasses of Dos XX on tap.
It seems appropriate to defer to an expert here. There is little disparity between wings the best aren't all that much better than the worst. And we happen to prefer Hooters' plump cuts, which are dusted with flour and deep-fried, soaked with a sharp sauce, nothing more. Yes, keep it simple, stupid. Problem is, to enjoy those pieces you have to go to Hooters. Our expert: actor John Travolta, whose puffy gut suggests he knows how to handle a knife and fork. Or, in this case, his fingers. The Scientologist/pilot/dancer always pops into Tom's when he visits Miami. He doesn't do so for the many high-def TV sets, or the noisy ambiance, or the bar-food menu. He does so for the chicken wings, which come by the dozen ($7.95), "special grilled" or with a traditional but zingy sauce in hot, medium, or mild. Turns out ol' John is a pretty nice guy, down to earth and something of an aviation groupie. He hangs out with members of the airline trade, and he packs away the tasty wings at this airport-adjacent institution. These tidbits meet all the qualifications of winning wings meaty pieces, perfectly dusted, nice and juicy and ascend on the strength of that homemade sauce, which sends Mr. Travolta, and everyone else, right to the cooling celery and bleu cheese dressing. As well as a couple of ice-cold brews unless you're scheduled to fly.
Most tandoori chickens look and taste the same: bright red and charred. Tikka, too, teases the taste buds similarly just about wherever it is served. Korma, biryani, vegetable samosas we know them well. Tipu Rahman and his wife, Bithi Begum, both from Bangladesh, put out respectable renditions of all of the above for lunch and dinner at their handsome 45-seater (with just as many seats on an outdoor patio), but the less conventional dishes are what distinguish this North Miami Beach spot from other vindaloo venues. You won't, for instance, find the Bangladeshi appetizer of fried grouper fritters (mas bhora) on every menu, nor karahi specialties in which meat, poultry, or fish gets quick-cooked in a woklike skillet heated by coals. Heelsha's lamb karahi is one fired-up stir-fry: succulent pieces of meat melded with tomato, onion, green pepper, and garlic, then kicked up with cumin, coriander, and cardamom. It is worth a trip here just for the restaurant's namesake fish, a sweet, freshwater, silver-skin shad flown in frozen from India, and roasted with all manner of aromatic spices. Prices, however, are more typical of other Indian restaurants meaning entrées are under $15 to $25.
Famous not only for his cooking but also his gigantic handlebar mustache, owner Gil Capa walks in and out of the kitchen, greeting his customers with jokes in Italian. You can almost hear the Godfather theme as you enter this small Italian bistro tucked away in a tiny strip mall. Patrons receive warm greetings as they are seated. "It is like a big family here; most of our customers are the children of our customers," says Gil's wife, Carmen. The only employees here are Gil, Carmen, and Carmen's two older sisters, Olga and Teresa. They've all been with the restaurant since it opened in a previous location in 1976.They serve food in the traditional Italian way. "We bring the pasta out first," says Carmen, smiling, as she sets down a small bowl of thin linguine with delicious homemade tomato sauce. For the main course, try the chicken marsala ($14), which is sautéed with (also homemade) wine sauce and fresh mushrooms over a tender filet of chicken. And don't even think about leaving without trying the tiramisu ($5). "I have to go to confession every time I eat one. It is sinful," says Gil. "Pure gluttony."
This Design District spot is so tiny you can easily miss it. That would be a shame, because for $2.65 you can get a more-than-adequate breakfast complete with three eggs any style, toast, grits or potatoes, and coffee. In other words, a refreshingly simple and filling meal for the price of a cup of joe at Starbucks. Sit under an umbrella at one of the two rickety tables outside and revel in your frugality.
The Oxford English Dictionary traces "French-fried potatoes" back to 1894, and suggests that the usage is American in origin. "French-frieds" were first mentioned in print in 1915. The term "French fries" dates to the Thirties. "French 75" is a cocktail made from gin, Cointreau, champagne, and lemon juice, and has nothing whatsoever to do with potatoes. French fries cut thinly, fried crisply, entwined in a nest of fried fresh herbs, and piled high upon a platter are informally known as "patate frite alla Toscana." You can get them only at Il Migliore, the ultimate neighborhood Tuscan-style trattoria that is also known for perfectly cooked pastas; scrumptious meat, poultry, and seafood dishes; reasonable prices; and a can't-be-beat 28-wines-for-$28 program. The French fries at Il Migliore were first mentioned in print as the best in town in 2007 by Miami New Times, which traces the origin of the recipe to chef/owner Neal Cooper, credits the fries' fulsome flavor to Mr. Cooper's relentless quest for quality, and notes that the price for a table-sharing platter's worth is $6.95.
Everyone in this neighborhood knows the Jamaican-born Cliff, who has been cooking up a storm in his ramshackle roadside restaurant since 1986. It's difficult to find anybody around here, in fact, who hasn't sat down at one of the stools lined along a counter and dug into curried shrimp, stew peas, pork chops, cow feet, or other West Indian specialties that Cliff's crew does just right. Lunch specials include any of the aforementioned, with pigeon rice, steamed cabbage, fried plantains, and fruit punch or lemonade for a downright neighborly sum of $5.50. The same price brings a breakfast of yam, banana dumpling, and callaloo, but we haven't even mentioned the really lip-smacking stuff found at Cliff's: curried goat with a devilish ginger-masala kick, and barbecued and/or jerked chicken and pork ribs that get slow-cooked in a black barbecue smoker outside. Ask for the hotter barbecue sauce, which is perked with piquant Scotch bonnet chilies, and request a Red Stripe Beer to chug along. You are set. Cliff's roots, rocks, and reggaes on weekend nights, when giant speakers gush island music until 3:00 a.m