Best Of :: Food & Drink
Ever since Norman Van Aken copped our award for Best Restaurant in Coral Gables for 10 years straight, there has been an aversion to repeating winners in the same category. It's so lazy. So boring. So predictable. But when an establishment is as singularly rewarding as Sardinia, there really isn't much choice in the matter. Few restaurants re-create the ambiance and cuisine of another country as authentically, and none has chosen a more gastronomically interesting nation. Peerless antipasti platters are assembled from each diner's choice of imported meats, cheeses, roasted vegetables, and other tasty tidbits such as Castelvetrano olives tossed with wild fennel flowers. The Sardinian wines are unique, the Italian wines extensive. Whole octopus, rib eye steaks, and suckling pigs get smokily roasted in a roaring wood-fired oven, branzino crusted in sea salt, lamb and rabbit braised into stew (entrées run $26 to $38). Pastas, almost all under $20, include distinctive cuts such as paccheri and malloreddus, and hearty garnishings such as wild boar sausage and rabbit ragout. Ambiance and service, too, are a notch above the rest, and the hours are easy to remember: noon to midnight seven days a week. Could Norman's record be in jeopardy?
Remember that trip to Buenos Aires? There was supposed to be tango dancing until dawn and a smoky-eyed lover. Instead you tripped over your own feet and got fat eating alfajores. Now that you're back in Miami, the porteños are gone, but there are still alfajores. Buenos Aires Bakery offers three kinds of the cookie and dulce de leche sandwich at $2 a pop: dark chocolate, white chocolate, and maizena. The cookies are moist and the Argentine caramel perfectly gooey. Take a bite, make peace with your chubbiness, and daydream about the Paris of South America.
Argentine steaks are revered not because of how they're cooked, but because the meat is incredible. The cattle roam the fertile pastures of the pampas and are never forced to exert themselves (because exercise makes the meat tougher). They are carted around the country in train cars. This special treatment produces beef that melts when it hits your tongue and is unrivaled in tenderness and flavor.
But until just last year, the USDA — out of protectionism and semi-legitimate fears of hoof and mouth disease — banned the import of Argentine beef. Now that it can again be imported, you don't want to go to some fancy Argentine steak house and have them jack up the price on you just for cooking the meat. That's where Estancia Argentina comes in. It's a Miami-based chain owned by Buenos Aires transplants, with locations in Aventura, Coral Gables, Kendall, and Miramar. It's half restaurant, half market, and all good. The empanadas ($1.55) and sandwiches ($8) are delicious, made fresh with quality ingredients. The walls are lined with bottles of wine, so you can buy a Malbec and drink it with your meal. The meat counter is to drool over, with all sorts of Argentine beef cuts, cheeses, chorizos, and chimichurris. They also have great desserts ($1 to $5). The place is always packed with Spanish speakers enjoying a cup of vino or guarana soda with meaty skirt steak or prosciutto and mozzarella sandwiches. Join them.
There's no Brie, quail eggs, or diced jalapeños baked into the dough of the bagels at this Kendall joint. Nor is there any caviar-infused shmear or exotic fruit toppings shipped from some remote village in the heart of the Amazon. That's because The Bagel Express, a non-descript delicatessen squeezed into a small, suburban strip mall, simply makes great bagels. There's greatness in the first bite. And the second. And the thirtieth.
Made from scratch and baked fresh daily, the bagels here are classics — pumpernickel, sesame, egg, poppy seed, garlic, salt, cinnamon, plain, and everything. The price: $6.60 for six and $11.95 for a baker's dozen. For the carb-conscious, there's also whole wheat and eight-grain available with your choice of regular or low-fat cream cheese (plain, chive, vegetable, strawberry, and honey walnut) for $2.75 a pop. Speaking of pop, The Bagel Express has Dr. Brown sodas (diet and regular). Then there's fresh, hand-sliced Nova lox for $7.99 per quarter pound and delicious, buttery rugelach for $10.95 a platter.
Still not convinced? Oy vey! Then swing on in after the morning rush and try a Boar's Head deli sandwich served in a large woven basket with your choice of bagel, for $7.95. While you're there — now don't get all verklempt — ponder this: Although a bagel topped with Alba white truffle cream cheese and goji berry-infused Riesling jelly sounds superb, it'll run you $1,000 at the Westin Hotel in Times Square. But these tasty bites in Kendall will cost you a mere $1.25 each. Enjoy!
If great bread is the staff of life, all of us here in South Florida are living on borrowed time, eating mushy, pallid, tasteless loaves made from ultrarefined flour that no self-respecting Parisian or Italian would use for a doorstop. But thankfully, for those special occasions, we have La Provence, where you can get a proper baguette ($2) or crusty loaf of sourdough ($2.25) or hunk of multigrain ($4.35). But man (and woman) doesn't live by bread alone, so if you're hungry for a light, flaky croissant; luscious Danish, fruit tart, or cheesecake; even savory quiches or empanadas, La Provence has you covered there too. Just no doorstops.
For more than nine years, Aziza Yuself has made Varanda's a place where Brazilians can savor authentic cuisine. That's why the low-key eatery draws so many of the Brazilian expatriates residing in North Beach, who can watch Brazilian television and have long conversations in Portuguese while dining on exceptionally good food, especially the muqueca de peixe, fish perfectly simmered in a coconut sauce ($14.95). Meat lovers will enjoy the picadinho ao mohlo, beef strips in a delicious hot sauce, for $10.95, or the frango ao mohlo curry, curry chicken in coconut sauce for $13.95. For many folks, Varanda's is a home away from home, but even if you're not from São Paulo, you can drop by too.
As much as we love the simple Tuscan cuisine on Cioppino's menu, we never seem able to finish our risotto scampi or signature mare e fetunta. Why? Because we gorged ourselves on the restaurant's savory bread basket, which brims with ciabatta and grissini flown in from Italy. It's even harder to stop picking at the Parmesan and rosemary lavash, baked on the premises by Cioppino's pastry chef, Frédéric Monnet. The bread basket is served with extra-virgin olive oil from Tuscany, a unique blend from Villa Manodori Artigianale by chef Massimo Bottura. Cioppino is open seven days a week from 7 a.m. to 11 p.m.
No more eating at the restaurant and then drinkin' in the alley for you, oh no. Have your dinner and drink, too, at Sawaddee on Normandy Isle. The menu, which comprises a great selection of Thai food along with the apparently mandatory assortment of sushi, is reasonably priced enough to justify a visit on its own. A basic pad thai costs about $8, and most dinner dishes are less than $15 and generously portioned. But the real secret is that you can bring your own booze, and it's a-okay with the owners. Can you crack a 40-ounce at the table? We don't know, but give it a shot! If you want something classier, try running across the street to Normandy Beach Supermarket, open until 11 p.m., which always has a decent red for five bucks or less. Bon appétit!
The caesar salad at Prime One Twelve is bigger than life itself. Or maybe not. Would you believe bigger than a breadbox? How about bigger than any other caesar salad in Miami? And better, too, not because of any trendy twists such as cotton candy croutons (the ones here are born of buttery brioche) or a sprinkling of fennel dust (paper-thin shavings of Parmigiano-Reggiano do the trick). Beneath the toppings are crisp hearts of romaine lettuce with a heady garlic-lemon-anchovy emulsion clinging to the leaves like Julius Caesar clung to Rome (or like Caesar Cardini held onto his original recipe for the salad). The caesar here is great because it is classic, as befits the city's most esteemed steak house. That it can feed two or three people makes the $15 price something of a bargain. One Twelve's fat prime steaks, Kobe beef hot dogs, or white truffle French fries are a bit pricier, but they complement the caesar quite well.
When it comes to café cubano, it's all speed — getting the black life-giving nectar from can to cup to belly fast enough to fuel you through that booooring meeting. Under the Metromover, across from the Miami-Dade County Courthouse, and steps from Miami Art Museum, Caciques Corner is situated to please.
The café, which is shaded by blue awnings, has three windows ready to serve up a jolt of sugar and caffeine. During busy morning hours, cups are ready for loading and reloading. On Sundays, when much of downtown is shuttered, Caciques is open to shake off that hangover. And at 60 cents a cup, it taunts the caffeinated promises of the unnamed chain-to-go a block away.
The sweet smell of cakes a-bakin' tickles your nose way before you step into Mary Ann Bakery, and you'd have to be subhuman to resist the urge to walk into this unassuming little spot tucked away on 163rd Street. The front window is filled with birthday and bridal cakes, and although they look (and probably are) delicious, the real gems are inside. Side-by-side, draped in icing, and calling your name are the most fabulous minicakes this side of the Little Debbie factory. Whether you fancy mocha, chocolate, strawberry, orange, or almond, one of the dozens of confections in the refrigerated case of this Chinese bakery will surely hit your spot. The spongy texture of the cake plus the not-too-sweet yet oh-so-buttery icing make these treasures better than anything vacuum-sealed in a plastic bag. And none costs more than $1.25, making your decision to pass up the 7-Eleven baked goods aisle that much sweeter.
They spell it cebiche at this Japanese-Pan Latin newcomer. And the renditions served here are distinctive in other ways as well. For one thing, they're prettier than others — the seafoods steeped in flavor without being seeped in a puddle of lime juice and buried in cilantro and red onions. The garnishes and marinades are more creative than most: Lobster luxuriates with slivers of fresh mango in key lime juice; cold-water prawns get invigorated by chipotle-tangerine sauce; tuna tangles with yuzu tobiko, wasabi, scallion, and soy. Prices are $12 to $16 for a generous portion, but a $30 sample proffers any three cebiches of your choice, accompanied by a refreshing scoop of shiso-kiwi sorbet. While you're here, you'll probably want to try this stylish restaurant's sushi, tiraditos, or flashy Latin-Asian fusion dishes. But it is the cebiches that will keep you returning.