Casa Larios

At the table next to yours, the men are talking about the perfect salsa dance partner. Your friend knows Cuban slang, so he translates: "She's cool without being cold; firm with just a little bit of —" and he searches for the word before coming up with "jiggle." The men dance alone to their cars without getting dessert; if they had, they might have found what they were looking for in the flan. Casa Larios makes five types of it: flan de leche, flan de queso, flan de mamey, flan de coco, and flan de calabaza ($4.25 each, and the last two are made only at the South Miami location). All are drizzled with a house-made caramel sauce that pools on the flan's flat top and about its round base, just enough for a kick of sweetness. She's not saucy, the flan, because she doesn't need to be. The queso version has a savory earthiness that contrasts well with the caramel, and the mamey variety shifts on the tongue along with the complexities of the fruit. But the standard-bearing flan de leche deserves special mention for its mellow, yolky color and pliancy against the edge of a spoon without the shiny wobble that dooms many renditions. The flan at Casa Larios isn't much for dancing, but it's about as good a time as possible while sitting.

Michy's

Michelle Bernstein's original baby in MiMo has established the chef as one of Florida's finest and most famous. Her "luxurious comfort food" appeals to hungry locals and Food Network fans alike with amazing savories such as sweetbreads, short ribs, and those Serrano ham and blue cheese croquetas with fig marmalade that have become almost as well-known as Bernstein. Although pastry chefs have come and gone at the restaurant, the sweetest surprise is that the desserts are always consistent and incredible — worth the calories no matter who is wearing the toque. For years we've been having a love affair with the fluffy bread pudding and baked Alaska, which have reached iconic status. The bread pudding is soaked in cognac and loaded with raisins and chunks of chocolate. A little orange rind cuts through the richness, and vanilla ice cream becomes a slowly melting puddle on top. Chocolate croquetas with a spicy pot de crème for dipping are long, thin, crisp cylinders, more refined than their counterpart churros at Bernstein's Sra. Martinez. Whether it's deep-fried fruit pie or coconut hibiscus panna cotta with citrus salad and shaved coconut, Michy's desserts ($9 apiece) are a sweet success. The pièce de résistance is the baked Alaska, a layered symphony of flavors beneath a fluffy canopy of lightly browned meringue. This treat's dense pistachio cake is not unlike banana bread, and dollops of tart passionfruit and mango salsa in the corners of the plate add color and tang. Dulce de leche ice cream surpasses any Neapolitan or vanilla filler we've come across, so expect a happy ending every time (the dessert-fairy-tale kind, not the other kind).

The Bar
A drinking establishment is the last place you would expect to find delicious key lime pie, but the Bar in Coral Gables has just that. For $6.50 (tax included) per slice, or $25 for a whole pie, the chef in back will whip up one with fresh ingredients. The result is a tangy, sweet, delicious, and fluffy confection that pairs well with an array of tasty appetizers, sandwiches, salads, burgers, and chicken wings. In true dive-bar fashion, shove a whole wedge in your mouth and wash it down with a beer from the Bar's good craft brew selection.
The Frieze Ice Cream Factory

It's a small shop just off Lincoln Road. In fact, it's very easy to miss the Frieze. But that would be a real shame, because it makes the best ice cream in town. Everything is homemade using 16 percent buttercream. The Frieze produces it all without any artificial colors or preservatives, so there's no misleading sugar mischief; the sorbets are made with real fruit and purified water. What makes this "ice cream factory" our winner is the creative range of its inventions. Consider the Nuttiest Buddy (peanut butter ice cream loaded with chocolate chips, fudge, and nuts) or the Banana Wafer (a banana base with vanilla wafer cookies, inspired by Elvis's preferred snack). They also offer the basics such as vanilla, strawberry, and pistachio, but we usually go for more interesting options like green tea, key lime pie, and Jamaican Blue Mountain chip, a heady coffee ice cream. If you can resist the smell of fresh waffle cones, let one of the friendly employees make you a sundae topped with hot fudge, caramel, butterscotch, or cherry syrup. The Frieze also churns out fantastic malts, floats, and milkshakes. And if it's your birthday, there are specially designed ice-cream cakes to go.

House of India

It may be cruel to say, but we didn't lose as many nostalgic favorites during the past year as usual. Chef Allen's Seafood Grill and Joe Allen called it quits before the last "Best of Miami" issue came out, so they don't count. Naoe's closure would normally have left us inconsolable, but Kevin Cory is reopening his omakase oasis on Brickell Key. The loss of Charlotte Bistro would hurt more too if we didn't know that Elida Villarroel was coming back with a new name in the same space. China Grill is also rising again in another location. Corporate-driven hotel restaurants such as Ago, Soleà, Emeril's, and Norman's 180 went down for the count, but, quite frankly, nobody was counting. Nor did the subtraction of Eden, Mai Tardi, and the Water Club from our restaurant roster have much impact. But we sure miss House of India. It debuted in Coral Gables in 1975 — that's seven years before the movie Gandhi was released. But this past March, owner Darshan Singh, faced with rising rent, threw in the towel. The restaurant's large band of loyal fans will lament the loss of the fresh, authentic Indian and Pakistani cuisine — and we'll really miss the $12 lunch buffet, one of the best deals around. Singh lives in Fort Lauderdale and is said to be exploring the possibility of opening a House of India there. If so, we'll surely make the drive, but it won't fill the gastronomic gap left in the Gables.

LouLou Le Petit Bistro

Things were looking up for Jacques Ardisson and his daughter Carla Lou. They had decided to close their longtime downtown restaurant Indochine and replace it with LouLou, a French bistro. But the head chef of the new venture left shortly after the conversion, and things went downhill from there. Rather than sit around wringing their hands, they brought in Victor Passalacqua, who trained with guys named Paul Bocuse and Alain Ducasse, and who played a key role in some of Miami's best restaurants (Le Festival, La Dorada, etc.). The menu was rewritten to include alluring lunchtime specials (sandwich with soup or salad, $9.50; soup, salad, or appetizer with entrée and dessert, $15). The turnaround in cuisine is dramatic. Take the eight-ounce filet mignon with homemade foie gras and haricots verts ($32). It and other dishes — such as mussels in white wine with creamed shallots and herbs, served with house-made pommes frites ($16) — prove LouLou is a whole newnew bistro.

The Bazaar by José Andrés

The SLS Miami Beach has been slow to rise from the ashes of endless construction, which leaves us sad. The hotel's restaurant is the Bazaar by José Andrés. Who's Andrés? He made Time's 2012 list of the 100 most influential people in the world (for running his culinary empire combined with altruistic efforts; he feeds the homeless as well as rich people in D.C., Vegas, and the 90210). The menu remained unconfirmed as of press time, but the existing restaurant at the SLS Hotel in Beverly Hills has us dreaming of what wonders will arrive in Miami. Proteins such as sea urchin (with Andalusian vegetables, $14) and king crab in raspberry vinegar ($20) are canned in-house daily. "Bar selections" venture beyond the usual bites: "Ottoman carrot fritters" with apricot and pistachio sauce ($9); Japanese tacos stuffed with eel, shiso leaf, cucumber, wasabi, and chicharrones ($10); and oxtail steamed buns — the only things required are an open mind and a table of adventuresome eaters. Andrés does traditional tapas as well, and it's thrilling to be able to describe a chef as traditional and avant-garde all in the same sentence. Mainstays such as codfish fritters ($10) and chicken wings with Spanish green-olive purée ($10) display an obvious nod to tapas lovers' expectations, yet dishes such as Norwegian lobster with seaweed salad, and a seared veal loin prepared as a tribute to French chef Jacques Maximin ($18) showcase more of a global influence. Designer Philippe Starck is handling the restaurant's environment, envisioned as a "modern-day, European-inspired, indoor piazza." We eagerly await the Bazaar's arrival on South Beach.

Wagons West Restaurant
Zachary Fagenson

The two wooden signs behind glass beckon you with "ice cold beer" and "home cooking." It's a pair of messages that brings a warm smile to any weary traveler searching for a hearty meal and a cold one on South Dixie Highway. From the oak booths and tables to the sassy waitstaff, Wagons West has all the charm of a roadside diner on the Blue Ridge Parkway in the Appalachians. Of course, it's tucked inside a strip mall in ritzy Pinecrest. Brothers Walter and Steve Muench have been serving up all kinds of comfort food since 1981. "We're like the bar Cheers, where everybody knows your name," Walter says. "We truly appreciate our customers who've made this place such a huge success." At Wagons West, you can order hotcakes and sausage, farmer's omelets, or any breakfast plate any time of day. You can't go wrong with the French toast and crabcakes Benedict, that's for sure. Among lunch and dinner meals, pick anything from the barbecued spare ribs to the homemade meatloaf to the club sandwich with a side of sweet potato fries. The prices are reasonable; no entrée costs more than $10. Wagons West opens at 6:30 in the morning seven days a week. But on Sundays, the joint closes at 4 in the afternoon. Monday through Saturday, Walter keeps the lights on till 9 p.m.

Mercadito Midtown

Sung to the tune of "Margaritaville":

A shrimp enchilada

Some carne asada

The food at this Mex place is really divine

But along with my meal, uh

I need some tequila

A margarita would really taste fine.

Chorus:

Wastin' away again in Mercaditoville

Sippin' margarita tradicional

Some people claim the michelada's good too

But I know, side-by-side it would pale.

Êl Jimador Blanco

Grand Marnier, fresh lime juice

Plus agave nectar make up the drink

It'll cost you ten-fifty

Add fruit for one-fifty

Add smoke for three bucks and don't even blink.

Chorus:

Wastin' away again in Mercaditoville

Tippling Bros. cocktails are really deelish

Some people say they are the best in town

Bravo! to the mixologish.

Wastin' away again in Mercaditoville

Pop art on the walls is startin' to blur

The waitress says that I should head on home

Maybe I best listen to her.

Barceloneta Miami
billwisserphoto.com

The bloody mary at Barceloneta ($12) is as unique as many of the small plates of Catalan cuisine served at this Spanish bistro. What makes it so is the blending of this cocktail's traditional ingredients — vodka, tomato juice, and sundry seasonings — with gazpacho, the famed chilled tomato-cucumber soup from Andalusia. The coupling of these refreshing liquids is as explosively spicy as Russell Brand and Katy Perry. Scratch that. The pairing of gazpacho and bloody mary is as inspired as that of Susan Sarandon and Tim Robbins. No, wait — it's as unexpected and sprightly as Demi Moore and Ashton Kutcher. Uh, the pastel color and smoothie-like texture of the cocktail are as delightful as Heidi Klum and Seal. Gaah! Barceloneta is a cool neighborhood spot in South Beach where locals sit over all sorts of creative food and drink; there are six variations of gin and tonic alone. But we're unerringly faithful to the distinctive and delicious bloody mary.

Best Of Miami®

Best Of Miami®