In 2020, a worldwide pandemic threatened businesses everywhere. In Miami, the hospitality industry was dealt a twofold blow, with bars and restaurant dining rooms closed for months and the city's tourism industry decimated for longer.
Though many restaurateurs suffered hardships, most persevered. Some even opened up new establishments in the midst of this viral storm.
Pablo Zitzmann and Natalia Restrepo opened Coral Gables' Zitz Sum (396 Alhambra Cir.) in 2020, after months of offering their dumplings on a to-go basis with customers ordering the food via Instagram.
Just a few miles away, Niven Patel and his partner Mohamed "Mo" Alkassar opened Mamey (1350 S. Dixie Hwy.) in August 2020, offering a menu of tropically-inspired dishes at the Thesis Hotel in Coral Gables.
The past two years were filled with highs and lows. Although Florida restaurants were allowed to open their dining rooms far earlier than many other major cities, supply chain issues, employee shortages, and the ever-present threat of COVID still threatened theirs — and any — business.
Mamey and Zitz Sum continued to succeed through the turmoil.
In February 2022, Niven Patel was named a James Beard award semifinalist in the "Best Chef South" category. Zitz Sum was recognized as a semifinalist in the "Best New Restaurant" category. A few months later, Zitz Sum received a Michelin Bib Gourmand designation. Though Mamey wasn't listed in the guide, Patel's Ghee Indian Kitchen received a Bib Gourmand, while his restaurant Orno (also located in the Thesis Hotel) was included in the guide. (Zitz Sum and Patel's other restaurants, Orno and Ghee, are also listed in New Times' "Required Eating: 100 Restaurants We Can't Live Without").
Two days ago, both Patel and Zitzmann were stunned to find out that they had been named in the New York Times' list of the 50 Best Restaurants in America.
Patel tells New Times he received word from a regular at the restaurant. "They texted me. They read the article before I did. It was surprising. I love that Mamey got the limelight."
Zitzmann was surprised, but not quite as shocked. "Someone reached out to me from the New York Times on Instagram and said that they had a photographer in the area that would like to take pictures." The Zitz Sum chef/partner first thought that his restaurant might be included in a list or travel piece on Miami until the writer called. "When he started asking a lot of questions, I thought maybe this was more than a little story," he confides. Zitzmann says that he still didn't really know why the "Gray Lady" came calling until he read the article.
Zitzmann, who says that the bulk of his business comes from locals, confides that the recent slew of accolades is quite welcome for one main reason. "The staff is getting the recognition they always deserved. We have a solid team and we've been working together for years," he says of the staff at Zitz Sum — many of whom worked with him at his prior restaurant, No Name Chinese.
Zitzmann says that the New York Times story also came at a time when it was needed the most: Miami's slow season. "It gave us a bit of a boost, making it a little easier to work around." Zitzmann says that these accolades do serve to put Zitz Sum on the map — not an easy feat for a restaurant that is next to impossible to discover on your own. "I tell the staff every day that we are a restaurant that's completely hidden. We're next to a bank inside the lobby of a building on the last block of Coral Gables."
Mamey's Patel agrees that the New York Times story brings with it the potential for new people to discover the restaurant scene outside of Miami Beach and Brickell. "We're supported greatly by our community, but I think it will bring a little more of Miami into Coral Gables. We are a little landlocked and U.S. 1 is a nightmare. But people will travel for good food."
Still, says Patel, this is no time to rest on his laurels and bathe in the glow of a few good reviews. "Miami has really elevated itself and mediocrity isn't going to fly anymore. I preach to the team that people are coming to see us and eat our food and we have to provide a great experience. This could be their one restaurant meal for the month. We have to put our best foot forward."
Patel says that at the end of the day what drives him is his customers. "Maybe this article will put us in the spotlight, but I don't design restaurants for that. We just focus on great ingredients and great experiences. It's what I love to do."
Zitz Sum's Zitzmann agrees. "We opened about a year and a half ago and what blows my mind is that we were able to get the recognition that every restaurant owner dreams about. But no one is letting that get to their head. We are conscious of our shortcomings. We're trying to be the restaurant we always wanted to be."