Restaurant Reviews

Miami food scene 2011: food trucks, great chefs, and real coffee continue the culinary ascent

Less than a decade ago, Miami had arguably the worst dining scene of any famous city in America. If you wanted a great meal back then, you were better off heading to Ohio. (Seriously, Cincinnati had much better chefs.) But our restaurant fortunes soon began to rise. New Times' year-end wrapup in 2008 concluded Miami had reached "the big league of American food cities."

No sooner had the proclamation left our lips when a lull set in. Recessions will do that. But starting around mid-2009, we rebounded, with topnotch new joints opening monthly: from Red Light Little River to Sakaya Kitchen to Gigi, not to mention Shake Shack and a procession of food trucks. Miami had clearly moved up. It's difficult to say exactly which municipalities we passed on the way (Atlanta? Houston? Denver?), but by the end of 2010, there we were — perched toward the top of the nation's second-tier food cities.

This past year saw more improvement and brought news of even brighter things to come. In the future, we'll look back at 2011 as the year Miami went from being one of the nation's better second-tier food cities to grabbing hold of the bottom rung of the first class.

Sure, that transition might be a little too subtle to thrill, but the distinction is important: Being in league with the best means directly competing with them, which will only speed our ascent.

One driving force behind the rise is our expanding roster of big-name chefs from other cities. The South Beach Wine & Food Festival is our most effective bait-and-hook. The nation's top toques come for the fest and decide the Magic City would be a nice place to set up shop. The past year brought Daniel Boulud (DB Bistro Moderne), Makoto Okuwa (Makoto), Geoffrey Zakarian (a return, really, to Tudor House), and Andrew Carmellini (the Dutch). Among those on deck for 2012 are Jean-Georges Vongerichten — poised to open a Bal Harbour location of his J&G Grill — and José Andrés, who will have a kitchen in the new SLS Hotel South Beach.

This is getting serious.

The list of locally notable chefs has swelled as well. Once upon a time, it was Mark Militello, Norman Van Aken, and Allen Susser. Now the movers include an old guard (Michael Schwartz, Michelle Bernstein, Philippe Ruiz, and many others) and all those who followed, such as Timon Balloo (Sugarcane), Jaime DeRosa (Tudor House), Todd Erickson (Haven Gastro-Lounge), Michael Gilligan (Rusty Pelican), Sam Gorenstein (My Ceviche), Richard Hales (Sakaya Kitchen), Jeff McInnis (Yardbird), Jeff O'Neill (the Villa by Barton G.), and Alejandro Piñero (Sustain), to name just a few.

Haven, Erickson's splashy SoBe joint, embodies a few of 2011's biggest trends: gastropubs, smaller spaces, and the re-emergence of South Beach as a dining destination for nontourists. Other new gastropubs include Pubbelly Sushi, Barceloneta, and the Local Craft Food & Drink.

Licensing problems have hit popups around the country, but excepting the popular but now-popped Phuc Yea!, that trend never took off here. Instead, dining rooms have simply become downsized (think the Dining Room, with 24 seats) or located in unexpected places (such as Crumb on Parchment in the atrium lobby of a Design District office). The 17-seat Naoe was ahead of the curve on this one, but Kevin Cory, after a year of gaining long-deserved national recognition — including Forbes Travel Guide giving it four stars and calling it one of the "top three Japanese restaurants in North America — will move Naoe to larger quarters in 2012.

As for South Beach: It was a banner year with the aforementioned Haven, Pubbelly Sushi, and Barceloneta debuting, as well as Tudor House, the Dutch, Yardbird, and outlets of Morgans, Chow Down Grill, Rosa Mexicano, and Five Napkin Burger. SoBe exports became a hot ticket too: Jimmy'z Kitchen, Tapas y Tintos, Doraku, and La Sandwicherie opened branches in other parts of town. Plus, for the first time since elderly Jews ruled the South Beach streets, real bagels returned via the Original Brooklyn Water Bagel Co.

While upscale pizza cooled (except Michael Schwartz's Harry's Pizzeria) over the past 12 months, boutique burgers have become bigger than ever. We added, to an already bulging bunch, Five Napkin Burger, CG Burgers, Damn Good Burger, BGR the Burger Joint, Burger & Beer Joint number two, and Smashburger. Also: Rusty Pelican might finally fill the void of a worthy waterside seafood restaurant.

The biggest story of 2011 (and another signal we're on track with national trends), was the fad-like status of food truck roundups. The sheer number of vehicles multiplied exponentially, while the daily get-togethers were all local foodies could talk about. As the year wore on, roundups faced location problems, licensing hurdles, and internecine squabbling. Still, they are likely here to stay and will become as much an established part of the American dining landscape as food courts in shopping malls (though let's hope with vastly better cuisine).

Miami's coffee aficionados were taken care of at last with the debuts of Panther Coffee, Eternity Coffee Roasters, and the Alaska Coffee Roasting Company. If you want a great dessert with that aromatic brew, however, you might have to wait another year or so: Miami's restaurant pastry chefs have gotten better, but we still lack a world-class bakery.

And other surprisingly basic needs remain: fish markets, meat markets, farmers' markets comparable to those of other regions, and a great vegetarian restaurant. (Though the Cheese Course in midtown, along with our gourmet markets, proffers enough types of fromage to satisfy this particular gourmand craving.)

It's probably too much to ask that we get all of the above, and much, much more, under one enormous roof in a super-duper market like Mario Batali's Eataly in New York, or San Francisco's Ferry Building. But then again, it's ambitious, forward-thinking projects like those that separate the wheat from the chaff. Miami needs to begin generating its own creative ideas that other cities imitate and import. Just to throw one out: an arepa shop that makes an ideal version along with innovative variations.

What's strikingly different about composing a wish list now as opposed to a few years ago, though, is that there's reason to believe our wants will indeed be met in the foreseeable future. Because that's what top-tier food cities do: make citizens' gastronomic dreams come true.

It's no coincidence Chicago is looking over its shoulder.