Azul Restaurant
"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.
That restaurants die is a given. Just the same, the number of fatalities this past year seemed especially high, and cut across every ethnicity imaginable. The French bistro L'Entrecôte de Paris. The Italian Parioli Café. The Spanish Mosaico and, months later, its sister tapas bar, Salero. Madiba, the South African shebeen in South Beach. SouthWest NY, the Southwestern spot in the Dolphin Mall. The kosher Restaurant Juliette in Surfside. Even reliable restaurateurs like Dennis Max and Tom Billante experienced failure (Café Max in the Gables, Suga in SoBe). OLA South Beach closed and reopened a few blocks away (where Suga used to be). But nothing disappointed us more than the shuttering of Restaurant Brana after just six months in business. Chef Jeffrey Brana (formerly of Norman's) and his wife Anna Elena put their heart and soul into this elegant Coral Gables establishment, which boasted indigenous ingredients such as Indian River honey and Loxahatchee frogs' legs, and fresh produce hauled in from Homestead and nearby organic farms. Everything was homemade, from the whole grain bread to delectably dense Jamaican mint ice cream. Service was exceptional, as were the selections of artisanal cheeses and boutique wines. Gone, gone, gone. But there is a potentially happy ending to this story: The Branas are reputedly shopping around for a new location.
Saddam Hussein's last meal consisted of boiled chicken and rice. Adolf Eichmann simply swilled half a bottle of Carmel — an Israeli wine. John Wayne Gacy chowed down on fried chicken, fried shrimp, French fries, and strawberries (always healthy to finish with fresh fruit). Fried chicken, in case you were dying to know, is among the most popular last meal requests of the condemned. The most frightening final snack was Timothy McVeigh asking for two pints of Ben & Jerry's mint chocolate-chip ice cream — scary because it's so sane! Everyone exhibits their own uniquely personal style when it comes to a last supper choice, and you needn't be a convicted mass murderer to dwell upon what yours would ideally be. Ours: Well, pretty similar to that of mass murderer McVeigh's — after all, what could be more immediately refreshing and mind-numbingly satisfying than ice cream to have lingering on your lips as life slips awayç Rocky's Italian Ices, that's what. The closet-size takeout shop on Ocean Drive, with photos of Rocky Marciano and Rocky Balboa on its red, white, and green-tile walls, boasts the finest Italian ices south of Mulberry Street. Lemon, watermelon, banana, canteloupe, and a half-dozen or so other scintillating flavors are made from fresh fruit, and run $2.75 for a six-ounce cup, up to $7.95 for the sixteen-ounce size. We'd ask for one of those little plastic spoonfuls of every flavor to taste, and then request one pint of each.
If a cup of lobster bisque with an apple, piece of multigrain baguette, and little ball of Lindt chocolate doesn't seem like the best deal in town at $8.95 for a cup ($10.95 for a bowl), it's only because you haven't tasted the lobster bisque. The velvety, coral-color soup is chockablock with 22 percent shellfish by content — which adds up to what seems like a full, lush lobster in every cup (the cup is supposed to hold eight ounces, but you get more than that). The creator of this classic bisque is Al Yeganeh, immortalized as the "Soup Nazi" in a Seinfeld episode and now franchising his startling talent for making delicious soups nationwide. This Aventura branch is Florida's first, and, as we say, it is home of the best meal for under ten bucks. Of course some might consider one of the other dozen or so daily soups for this honor, all of which cost less than the bisque. A cup of peerless chicken barley, for instance, with fruit, chocolate, and half a sandwich, can be had for the same price of $8.95. So can New England clam chowder, sausage gumbo, chicken noodle, vichyssoise ... but the very very best deal is — and we don't want to have to say this again — the lobster bisque.
Burger Bob's
Burger Beast
A homey café in the clubhouse of the public Granada Golf Course, Burger Bob's isn't known for decor: green formica chairs, white plastic tables. But where in Coral Gables — or anywhere for that matter — can you get a $4 cheeseburger and an amazing view of the beautiful first fairwayç Homemade soups and "Granada Melts" (such as roast beef with onions and melted cheese for $6.25) are par for the course.

Best Restaurant to Take Out-of-Towners

Sushisamba Dromo

Dear Chowdog: Friends are coming to visit. Picky people. Very discerning about their food. From Los Angeles. Always quoting Zagat this, Zagat that. Snobby bastards. They love Asian cuisine, natch, but they insist as much upon scene as sashimi. I mean, God forbid they just sit down and enjoy a meal with a little conversation, but no, these sybarites have to be simultaneously stimulated visually, audibly, orally, and gastronomically. Where can I take them for dinnerç Signed, Anxious in AventuraDear Anxious: Sushisamba Dromo is the only place guaranteed to please pampered voluptuaries such as these. After all, the dynamic fusion of Japanese, Brazilian, and Peruvian cuisine is unique even to the most jaded of Los Angelenos. Let them try to find lobster ceviche with mango and lime, or torched salmon tiraditos, or yellowtail carpaccio with black truffle oil back where they come from. Or a churrasco platter with hangar steak, chorizo, rib eye, pork, linguia, and malagueta pepper oil. Or as scintillating a sake selection, or as colorful a Cosplayer club scene, or as boisterous a party as the one that takes place here nightly. Best part: When you travel west and return the visit, you can comment on how the L.A. dining landscape seems ... a little on the dull side.

Best Restaurant When Someone Else is Paying

Table 8 South Beach

Z Ocean Hotel South Beach
From the exterior, the new Regent Hotel looks like a luxury cruise ship. Knowing that Govind Armstrong is helming the restaurant within makes you want to get onboard. Badly. But ... can you swing a $26 appetizer, even if you know the seared foie gras on brioche French toast, with glazed apples and persimmon reduction, will make you woozy with delightç There isn't much question whether a main course of Kobe beef is gonna be tasty, especially when richly matched with creamed chard, oven-crisped potatoes, and mushroom ragout — but that's another $37, my friend. You can't have cuisine of this level without washing it down with a decent wine, but even a modest selection such as a 2004 Hess Estate Cabernet will tack an additional $65 onto the bill. Desserts start at $9. Oh, sure, you probably can afford to eat here at least once. And it is definitely worthwhile to do so. But why rush out and put a strain on your budget, when you can just be patient and wait for the next time that deep-pocketed friend or relative comes a-callingç Do you know of a good place for dinnerç Why yes, you know the perfect spot!
El Pollo Inka
When you tell your guest that they simply must try the house specialty, rotisserie chicken, there is no need to mention that a quarter bird, con papas y ensalada, is just $5.99. With skin so crisp and meat this juicy, they won't believe you anyway. In fact be a sport and encourage them to go for the half-chicken, also with potatoes and salad, for $7.99. "The papa rellena is without peer," you'll crow, knowing that the potato stuffed with a seasoned sauté of beef, onions, tomatoes, and raisins, although only $6.99, will taste like a million bucks. But don't stop there. This extensive menu warrants an open mind and adventurous spirit, stocked as it is with all manner of meat, fish, chicken, and vegetarian dishes prepared with Peruvian flair. And with prices under $10 for just about anything, you can act like a big shot. Order one of the ceviches, the lime-infused fish freshly dressed with yam and corn on the cob. Insist on some aji de gallina, moist morsels of chicken in what can only be described as a walnut-garlic gravy. Get some lomo saltado, too — it's another specialty of the house that reeks of authenticity. A round of pisco soursç Believe us, it won't break the bank. When you graciously pick up the check at evening's end, your dinnermates will no doubt have a newfound respect for both your generosity and savvy in selecting special dining spots. That you are a cheapskate at heart won't even enter their minds.
Barton G. the Restaurant
Max Shapovalov
Barton G's cuisine has always been about pushing the envelope, and now, thanks to cutting-edge molecular mixology, the cocktails at this crazy popular South Beach restaurant are over the top, too. The Below Zero Nitro Bar utilizes liquid nitrogen to manipulate the temperatures, textures, and tastes of mixed drinks. Our favorites are the Classic Nitro-tini Ciroc Vodka, garnished by a frozen vodka swizzle stick and frozen pearls of olive juice and blue cheese; and the Pink Elephant Nitro-tini, with an Absolut Red Vodka popsicle for swirling through ruby red grapefruit juice and fresh grapefruit segments. All nitro-cocktails have a high potency score, given that frozen alcohol is used for the ice cubes (not frozen water, which dilutes a drink). The future is now, and only available at Barton G.
The Ritz-Carlton Key Biscayne, Miami
Tiberio Lobo-Navia is, in fact, the only tequilier in this neck of the woods, and in every other neck of America, too. A tequilier, as some of the more astute among you may have guessed, is just like a sommelier, but recommends tequila instead of wine. That might seem an unexpectedly upscale amenity for an eatery housed in a thatched-roof palapa and illuminated by tiki torches, but this is, after all, the Ritz-Carlton. Tiberio, who trained in the Tequila region of Mexico, will enthusiastically share his expertise and assist you in pairing one of more than 80 premium, 100 percent agave spirits with any of Cantina Beach's cool, coastal-inspired, Baja menu items — from fish tacos with chipotle peppers to guajillo-infused octopus ceviche. Of course some might want to stop by for Tequila Thursdays or Agave Sundays and just knock down some shots, or any time at all to sip margaritas while soaking in stunning sunsets over the ocean — not a bad idea at all. But if you want to unlock the secrets of this seductive Mexican spirit, Tiberio holds the key.

Best Of Miami®

Best Of Miami®