Best Of :: Food & Drink
Let's say, for hypothetical purposes, you're on a date with Madonna. She's great at the whole first kiss thing, but the Material Girl is way too picky about her dinner. She won't eat food that's been processed or genetically modified. And don't even think about ordering something that once lived inside a factory farm. So where do you take her? Fortunately, there's a laid-back — and shockingly unpretentious — natural food restaurant on Washington Avenue. Pura Vida has the vibe of a Costa Rican surf shop (you can even rent a surfboard after your meal). The bright and colorful joint has a selection of specialty smoothies and fresh-squeezed drinks that make Jamba Juice feel more impersonal than a trip to the DMV. Enjoy brown rice and chicken with lentil soup and salad for $9.95. Or try an açaí berry bowl made with a purée of frozen berries, bananas, and apple juice topped with granola for $7.95. The place is also great for take-out, which allows more time for important stuff like, oh, say, kissing.
Each season yields a fresh crop of new restaurants. Sometimes they are highly anticipated due to a big-name chef. Other times they are preceded by a sizzling sister eatery in New York or L.A. Or maybe they boast a distinctive dining concept. Sugarcane brought none of those attributes to the table yet took this town by storm in a way few dining establishments have. The draw here is a grand, breezy, and urban-chic décor; an electrically charged bar scene pouring distinctive cocktails to a comely clientele; and a diverse menu of fresh, tasty New American cuisine at unexpectedly affordable prices (just about everything is $12 or less). The fare, orchestrated by chef Timon Baloo, is triumvirated into raw bar selections (oysters, crudos, sushi); foods cooked in a robata grill (chicken yakitori, squid, Japanese eggplant); and globally influenced small plates such as pork buns, lobster rolls, crisp sweetbreads, and goat cheese croquettes with membrillo marmalade. We didn't see Sugarcane coming, but we're sure glad it arrived.
Chef Michael Psilakis has put together the lightest, brightest, most brilliant hotel menu in town. Chef de cuisine Jason Hall executes the cooking impeccably: Lobster-and-sea-urchin risotto brings a bowl of yogurt, caviar, fried herbs, and a barely poached egg, and then the lobster and risotto get mixed in. Smoked octopus is shockingly good with diced pineapple, sopressata sticks, and paper-thin ringlets of fennel. Greek "paella" is jammed with clams, mussels, Merguez sausage, and jumbo head-on prawns in a saffron-spiced sauce spiked with Espelette pepper. Restaurateur Donatella Arpaia has trained the waitstaff to be one of Miami's finest, the room is gorgeous, and the outdoor terrace of the 15th-floor restaurant affords breathtaking views. Yet Eos charges noticeably less for its superior dining experience than every other top-tier hotel in town: Most plates, including that paella, run $10 to $16, and a dessert of two tropical fruit cannoli shells made from dried pineapple and filled with papaya, mango, passion fruit foam, and baby basil sprouts on coconut-vanilla tapioca goes for $6. Then comes the complimentary plate of petite sweet treats. Psilakis has already won a James Beard Award, and Eos was a Beard semifinalist for Best New Restaurant this year. Did we mention $5 valet parking?
All comebacks are impressive by dint of courage to change and the grit to make it work. But not all are alike. Chef Allen revived his long-standing landmark restaurant in brilliant fashion last year via refurbishment and a revamped menu concept. Solea first opened its doors around that time, but the highly anticipated venue in the glittering new W Hotel South Beach was greeted with sparse business and sluggish reviews. The jump-start occurred with the hiring from Por Fin of Marc Vidal, who had been named one of the top young chefs of Spain in 2005. Vidal installed a menu of small bites ($6 to $16) such as Iberico ham and fried egg over crisp potatoes, chanterelle mushrooms, and truffle oil; rice dishes and paellas served in cast-iron pans ($24 to $28); Mediterranean seafoods ($24 to $34) such as branzino with lentils, smoked sweet paprika vinaigrette, and potato purée; and meat dishes ($21 to $34) found nowhere else — like braised veal cheeks with porcini-Idiazabal cheese toast. Critics have loved the changes, and the swank indoor/outdoor space is buzzing. Solea was a James Beard semifinalist for Best New Restaurant this year. That's what you call a comeback.
It's easy to imagine you're lounging on the French Riviera as this two-level beach-club-cum-restaurant pulsates with pretty Europeans and presents peerless panoramas of the ocean (Atlantic, not Med) — as well as of the glimmering pool scene right by Côte's open-air tables. A DJ spins world music, bartenders blend tropical fruit cocktails, palm trees sway in the balmy breeze, and good-looking waiters carry plates of pristine cuisine imbued with the ingredients and flavors of the Mediterranean. The last translates to salad Niçoise (natch) with seared tuna, purple potatoes, and pert sherry vinaigrette; custardy tomato-and-Brie quiche; raw bar selections; jumbo prawns and branzino fish fresh off a sizzling grill; homemade pastas; and a Kumomoto oyster bloody mary shooter topped with celery foam. Prices are nicer than at Nice, with most plates ranging from $15 to $30. Yet while it is easy to imagine you're on the Riviera, there really is no need to — dining at La Côte, right here on beautiful and sexy Miami Beach, is as good as it gets.
Dear Cheapskate:These are just a few reasons I am leaving you for good:1. A cubic zirconia engagement ring.2. That used copy of the Sticky Fingers LP, without the zipper, that you gave my parents as a gift for their 50th anniversary.3. Your insistence on taking buses to restaurants in order to save on parking fees. Except when we go to Morgans and you get to park free in the spacious lot outside. Come to think of it, taking me to Morgans is the only smart thing you ever did. I remember seeing your eyes light up as you scanned the menu prices. "We can have panko-crusted tofu ($9), grilled rib lamb chops ($22), and coconut cake for dessert ($6)!" you exclaimed with glee. I was excited too, not realizing you meant we would share those three dishes. I can't wait to go out with somebody who will buy me my own meal. Chef Cory Smith's food is always so fresh and homespun, and the wines, as you pointed out more than once, aren't marked up nearly as high as at most other places. In fact, it was the only restaurant where you ever purchased a bottle. God, I used to die inside every time you would ask a sommelier at some fancy establishment for a taste of a certain wine, and then a taste of another, and another, and then refuse to purchase any on the grounds "it wasn't good to mix too many grapes." Morgans' workers are so nice, and the 1930s home atmosphere and wraparound porch are so, well, comforting and even — dare I say — romantic, or at least they will be when I'm finally sitting there with somebody, anybody, but you.
You can start with gumbo of the day ($9), followed by pan-seared free-range chicken over Louisiana oyster-spinach bread pudding ($28), and complete the meal with a trio of sorbets made with fresh, local fruit ($5). That's a nice dinner conceptualized by America's most famous chef and brought to consistently fresh fruition by chef de cuisine Brandon Benack. You can enjoy it in the big, easy confines of the elegant dining room, or seated at a food bar that faces the open kitchen, or outdoors overlooking the Atlantic Ocean. But save that experience for when someone else isn't paying. With Mr. or Ms. Generosity footing the bill, why not begin with crisply fried Louisiana oysters, served with pickled vegetables and horseradish-yuzu tartar sauce ($13)? Oysters, as you know, are not especially filling, so how about a hunk of succulent Maine lobster tossed with gnocchi thermidor-style, meaning with wild mushrooms and Parmesan shavings in sherry-Creole mustard cream ($14). You'll have to hold off on the hickory-smoked beef short ribs with Louisiana crawfish coleslaw and sweet potato biscuit ($12.50) for another occasion — guests who order three appetizers are looked upon as being boorish. Yellowtail snapper with Creole tomato glaze, crab-mirleton relish, and citrus butter sauce ($38) will obliterate the perception that Emeril's is just a place for tourists, as will the red onion-smoked bacon marmalade and homemade Worcestershire sauce that elevates a juicy filet mignon ($46). Pile it on with truffled mac and cheese flecked with pancetta ($8.50), and add the pièce de resistance via banana cream pie ($10) or bread pudding three ways — a lavish dessert that involves whiskey sauce, Godiva liqueur, and dulce de leche ($9). At meal's end, you might casually mention that Emeril's also serves a damn good brunch, and hope your host picks up on the hint.
Why not experience your final round of pampering in heavenly surroundings — with a taste of the very finest on your tongue? Let your palate relish the purity of plant, fish, and flesh forged into unearthly delights such as morel soup with sweetbreads ($14); a napoleon of Dungeness crab layered with smoked salmon and brightened with lemon oil vinaigrette and Osetra caviar ($14); monkfish cheeks with smoked Pinot Noir sauce ($18); and a warm, weightless chocolate soufflé ($15). Allow yourself to linger ever so slowly over a heady dessert wine — say, a 2006 Côteaux du Layon. Chef Philippe Ruiz and sommelier Sebastien Verrier team up to consistently provide a memorable dining experience. Life is memory. Life is pleasure. Life is short. Dinner at Palme d'Or lasts a blessedly long time, another reason it makes sense in the context of a final supper — although our ultimate point is that dining at this celestial level makes sense in any context.
Note to all friends, acquaintances, co-workers, and family of Kris Wessel, chef/owner of Red Light Little River: Do not, under any circumstances, allow this newspaper to fall into his hands! If he asks whether anyone has seen the "Best of Miami" issue, tell him it was canceled. Keep him away from the computer too. Better yet, make a suggestion that he's been working too hard — which he surely has been — and offer to take him out of town for a week. Because the truth is, he's charging ridiculously low prices for the caliber of food served at his charming, topnotch restaurant. All starters, including a big-flavored Big Easy oyster stew with absinthe cream and crackers, are under $10. Entrées go for less than $20, and that includes mouthwatering mosaics of fresh, honest cuisine: oxtail with white cheddar grits and braised greens; smoked, spice-rubbed ribs with apple slaw; seared yellowtail snapper from the Keys with pea rice and squash; and his signature barbecue shrimp with dip bread. Not only is this food being orchestrated and expedited by a Beard-nominated chef, but also the man is actually behind the line cooking it. Which makes these prices crazy good. But we don't want Wessel to know how crazy they are, because then he'll feel compelled to raise them. And there would go the best deal we've got. So please, we beg of you, take whatever steps necessary to prevent him from reading this.
Why are you dining alone? If it's because you have a personality most often described as "morose," the Sports Exchange is just the place to cheer you up. OK, who are we kidding? Let's just say this is the sort of place that might make you less morose. Maybe you're dining out by yourself because you meant to have dinner at home while watching the Marlins, but your TV set is on the blink. If that's the case, there are 27 high-def plasma screens posted around the room, including what is billed as the largest screen in town (there is also a 16-foot ticker with stock updates, but we're assuming you're not that much of a geek). Maybe you're out and about because you were feeling a bit cramped in your apartment. The Exchange touts the longest bar in the Gables — 50 feet, as in plenty of room to stretch out. And yes, there are brews galore — Guinness, Yeungling, and Shock Top on tap for $4 apiece; the same price nets a bottled import. Dining alone because you're cheap? Then come here from 5 to 8 p.m. and enjoy two-for-one well drinks and half-off appetizers. There are late-night food and drink deals too. Then again, maybe you enjoy the company of countless friends and dine solo because you simply relish doing so — and doing so at the Sports Exchange for all of the aforementioned reasons. Plus there's one other reason: The fare is finer than typical pub grub, and unless you're gonna go with the baby-back ribs, just about everything is under $20 — wood-oven pizzas, burgers, sliders, Buffalo wings, and delectable mini hot dogs in brioche buns topped with chili, onions, and cheddar cheese. Of course, if you make a habit of eating those, you'll probably be dining alone for some time to come.
She: I just adore the décor here — so quaint, dainty, even girly with all the flowers and feminine touches.
She: And that bacon-wrapped pheasant terrine with the pear slices cooked in cardamom butter. Wow. Didn't you love it?
He: Boy, did I.
She: What about that lobster tail poached in brown butter?
She: The lobster, with the lobster ravioli, in the saffron-spiked broth? You should remember — you ate most of it.
He: Oh, right. Brilliant.
She: You can almost taste chef/owner Elida Villarroel's Michelin training in the fresh, simple flavors, the lightness, the way she uses herbs.
She: What about that chocolate soup dessert? I mean, my God!
She: It's such a friendly place too. And with most entrées in the $20 range, and our bottle of wine being rather affordable, tonight's dinner isn't going to cost you that much.
He: Now, really (blushes).
She: Plus it's romantic, right?
She: You're like the perfect man.
Miami has never been known for its abundance of good farmers' markets. You know, ones with real farmers, the ones who sell the food they grow, not stuff imported from somewhere else. Transplants yearn for the markets they so loved in California or New York. Well, guess what? You're in Miami now, and the Pinecrest Farmers' Market is worth visiting. Formerly called the South Florida Farmers' Market, it moved from the parking lot of Gardner's Market to Pinecrest Gardens in December. You'll find a few stands selling jewelry and accessories, but produce is extraordinarily abundant here. The Redland Organics booth alone is worth the visit if you don't mind paying a little more. We're talking carrots, bok choy, salad mixes, tomatoes, radishes, oyster mushrooms from Paradise Farms, and rare beans harvested the day before. Other items likely to make their way into your reusable, eco-friendly bag: local goose eggs, organic hummus, local honey, zucchini flowers, and artisan breads. The market runs from December through April, which begs the question: Where will we shop until the new season starts?