Best Places for Cheap Downtown Lunches 2009 | Matahari Cafe and Thai Churros | Best Restaurants, Bars, Clubs, Music and Stores in Miami | Miami New Times

Miami's downtown dining environment has leaped forward in just the past few years — during the daytime, that is. And while it isn't difficult to find a fine lunch for less than a ten-spot, it would be quite a challenge to cop better plates of food for that sum than the ones encountered at these two recently installed hole-in-the-wall restaurants. Pakorn "Peter" Phansuwana's 16-seat Thai Churros serves zesty, home-cooked staples such as spicy seafood salad, tom yum soup, pad thai, beef in basil sauce — all $6.95 or less for lunch, and $9.95 or less at dinner (open daily 11 a.m. to 9 p.m.). Dibyo Kasiyadi, a former cruise worker from Jakarta, caters to his former industry mates and those lucky downtowners who have discovered his Matahari Café. They cram into the petite eatery each day (except Tuesdays, when it's closed) until 4 p.m. for the $5.99 lunch special (cash only), which brings a choice of Indonesian specialties such as grilled skewers of chicken or pork saté with peanut sauce, or chili-and-coconut-steeped beef rendang — each accompanied by a mound of steamy rice. Why take a Subway when for the same price you can catch a flight to Thailand or Indonesia?

Not that Allen Susser's namesake restaurant ever fell very far, but like any establishment that earns institutional status, it adopted the common complacency of success. But after last year's interior refurbishment, the room feels more relevant, and so does the revamped cuisine. Now tabbed a "modern seafood bistro," the place puts emphasis on local, sustainable fish and produce plated in smaller portions and at lower prices than before (most main courses are just $24 to $28 and come with vegetable or starch). Amen. The Susser touch is still magical, as evidenced by Manchego-accented shrimp and grits "brûlée" or seared swordfish fillet ingeniously matched with smoked almonds, chanterelles, and Pinot Noir pan sauce. In fact, the food seems more alive than ever. For a seasoned veteran such as Susser to have staged so sensational a turnaround... well, all we can say is, check the man for steroids!

According to ol' Bill Shakespeare: "Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow creeps in this petty pace from day to day" and then you die. But before you leave this mortal coil, make sure to eat at Andú Restaurant and Lounge. It brings the fine flavors, spices, meats, and cheeses of the Mediterranean, North Africa, Spain, and Italy to the ground floor of Brickell's Neo Vertika building. Who cares? You do, sucka. Imagine this is your last meal; put it on plastic and tell Capital One to kiss your bass, 'cause you're going out in style. Andú is a sexy joint with a casual vibe where you can get tipsy on signature cocktails infused with chef-prepared herbs or fruit purées. Sample the many exotic flavors of the fine cuisine, knock back a few desserts, and holler at one of the many young business professionals doing the same. Each meal opens with complimentary hors d'oeuvres as well as warm, sliced pita coated with herbs and olive oil and ready to dip in house-made hummus. Dishes put a new spin on old favorites. Think that light and incredibly tender calamari appetizer is made from tired old squid? It's actually delicious cuttlefish, served with Meyer lemon brown butter ($15). Had cedar plank salmon? Try it with cherry mustard glaze ($24). Want a thick, juicy steak? These aren't dry-aged; they're marinated in the cow's own blood ($32). Rumor has it that the interior designer behind the dining room's beautiful and inviting hand-blown glass art concept died of a heart attack on the restaurant floor. He had a smile on his face. His last meal on Earth. Andú, of course.

The space is cool, clear, and clean, surrounded by floor-to-ceiling windows — like Heaven's waiting room furnished by Driade (whose showroom is adjacent to Lyon). If the gods are truly benevolent, there will be a purgatorial buffet amply supplied with antipasti and wines from — where else? — Italy. But assuming this is not the case, Fratelli Lyon represents your best last chance to indulge in air-dried beef from Uruguay (bresaola); wisps of fennel-flecked salumi (finocchiona), Ventian Asiago and Gorgonzola from Lombardi; a sweet caponata of eggplant, raisins and pine nuts; a salad of fresh fava beans, haricot verts, shaved Pecorino Romano and small white Umbrian purgatoria beans (how fitting!). Depending on what and how many items are chosen, the antipasti should cost $16 to $30. Crusty bread baked on premise and an ultimate glass of, say, a Giuseppe Quintarelli wine should put a smile on anyone's lips. Fratelli Lyon also serves hearty homemade pastas and regional cuisine from Fruili and Piedmont in the north to Sicily, Sardinia and Campania in the south; dazzling desserts, too. But start with the antipasti — just in case, as so often happens, you have overestimated your time on Earth.

You don't need a celebrated, groundbreaking chef like Alfred Portale to produce a great steak; any seasoned grill cook is capable of such a feat. But it helps that the person behind one of New York City's most iconic restaurants has experience in selecting cuts of quality meats, such as a 20-ounce Brandt Farms rib eye ($52), eight-ounce American Wagyu filet mignon ($50), and Sher Ranch Australian Wagyu strip ($75). And it also helps that he has been around long enough to surmise that not every customer wants to pay $75 for an entrée; Gotham offers a $28 skirt steak that tastes terrific with a Southwestern chili rub. Portale knows how to coax the meat's natural flavor by cooking over hardwood charcoal and finishing on a 1,200-degree broiler. And a chef trained only in steak houses probably couldn't come up with seafood dishes such as the ethereally tasty Florida grouper with quinoa and tomato vinaigrette. Portale also showed sage judgment in choosing Dru Schiedell as chef de cuisine. He's the one responsible for producing all of this lip-smacking food. Gotham succeeds in non-culinary ways as well. The two-level dining room is gorgeous, service is solid, and the 500-bottle wine selection overflows with boutique vintners and rare vintages. No, you don't need a chef like Alfred Portale to create a peerless steak house. But it doesn't hurt.

Culinary legend Daniel Boulud plans to bring a second branch of his DB Bistro Moderne from Times Square to downtown Miami's Met 2 Tower later this year. Think casual Parisian cafe with a market-driven menu. Think, more specifically, of a plat du jour of pork belly, lentils, and shavings of black truffle; of an amazingly aromatic bouillabaisse; and of the famous (and infamous) DB Burger: ground prime rib with a center of foie gras, black truffle, and short ribs braised in red wine — plumped into a Parmesan bun with tomato compote, frisée, and homemade mayonnaise, and sided by a silver cup of puffy pommes soufflés. The burger costs $32 at the NYC venue, which is another way of saying food this great doesn't come cheap. Start saving your pennies now.

Best Non-Vegetarian Restaurant for Vegetarians

Canyon Ranch Grill

In meat-friendly Miami-Dade, only a few places can assemble a plate of savory scrambled tofu or add clever toppings to a tempeh burger. But for vegetarian fare that highlights distinctive, farm-fresh, nutritionally balanced ingredients melded into real, delicious meals, you need to find an establishment that understands not only gardening and Zen, but also cooking — a place like Canyon Ranch Grill. The restaurant serves up light, sophisticated dishes such as a salad of seared watermelon and heirloom tomatoes (from local Paradise Farms) dappled with red wine vinegar syrup and basil seed; spinach-and-Napa cabbage rolls with garbanzos and fennel pollen in smoked paprika broth; and ribbons of vegetables tossed with minted mushroom "Bolognese" sauce. Vegetarian entrées run $9 to $13 (meat mains range from $22 to $30) and can be accompanied by a bottle of organic/bio-dynamic wine. Only thing is, sitting tableside by the ocean and indulging in this heavenly vegetarian cuisine might get you feeling a little sorry for carnivores.

Screw the world. I mean, what a mess. Every single rotten human being on the planet is irredeemably greedy and corrupt — except me and you, that is. Which is why we dine alone. Who wants to break bread with these bastards anyway? And more to the point, fewer and fewer of them want to dine with us. That's all right. Pull up a plush leather chair at the Grill at the Setai's marble dining bar and sit your disgruntled bottom down; there is no restaurant in the city more soothingly decorated than this one. Start with a half-dozen Pickle Point oysters ($18), jamón Ibérico de bellota ($35), or three of the juiciest jumbo wild shrimp you have ever seen ($24). Take a second or two to look down the bar while exuding an air of superiority at your savvy selection. Then dig into your second course — perhaps caramelized onion tart with seared tuna belly and smoked shallot cream ($12)? Loudly order one of the dozen or so haute steaks. As in: "I'd like a certified Hereford rib eye" ($48) or "The Japanese A5 New York strip sounds good" ($30 per ounce). Of course, you can always go with one of chef Jonathan Wright's signature seafood entrées, such as Alaskan halibut or miso-roasted black cod (each $48), but it just doesn't have the same ring. Oh, and by the way: If you see someone at the other end of the bar wolfing down duck-fat fries with truffle salt and glaring back at you, it's probably me.

Jonathan Eismann's two biggest fans — daughters Landon, age 3, and Morgan, age 8 — were inspiration for the kids' tasting menu now offered at Pacific Time (Morgan created the menu's art design). Forget mac and cheese or PB&J sandwiches. We're talking tuna tartare with Idaho chips, braised short rib with white beans, butter-grilled salmon, and grilled lamb chop. Those come from the four-course menu geared toward children over the age of 7 ($30 each); a three-course meal for those ages 4 to 8 includes Thai-style popcorn shrimp, heirloom tomato salad with mozzarella and basil, and organic chicken satay with soy ginger dipping sauce ($20 apiece). This cuisine is obviously for the adventuresome, sophisticated young palate — even if it is served on polka-dot plates. Dessert is the "Big Cookie," which the kiddies may decorate with chocolate chips and sprinkles at the beginning of their meal and then receive in baked form just in time for their coffee — um, hot cocoa. And by the way: Pacific Time's menu for adults has received a fair amount of critical praise as well.

It seems as though every restaurant and its sister café has a wood-burning oven. Most places use them to produce blistery thin-crust pizzas, but Sardinia's chefs employ their ovens the way folks in, um, Sardinia do. This translates to whole chickens, quail, rabbits, suckling pigs, fish, octopi, steaks — the theory evidently being anything that once walked or swam will taste good smoked. And it does. Then again, so do the beets and other vegetables tossed into the oven. If you want to get technical, everything at Sardinia ends up tasting fine, from antipasti to pastas, breads, wines, and desserts (entrées range from $26 to $36). This gem of a restaurant — open noon to midnight seven days — makes the hearth proud.

Best Of Miami®

Best Of Miami®