Forbes Travel Guide recently issued its list of the top restaurants, hotels, and spas in the world, and Miami scored big this year with the addition of the Mandarin Oriental Hotel and Spa and its Azul restaurant to the list. This makes the Miami hotel a triple threat in the hospitality industry, with top accolades in all three of Forbes's categories.
Also on the list is Kevin Cory's Naoe, the teeny omakase restaurant that's, coincidentally, a few steps from the luxury hotel that also made the grade, making Brickell Key the nation's new hot spot for exquisite dining and service.
Forbes Travel Guide is pretty much designed to let the two-percenters know where they'll get the best treatment. Formerly the Mobil Travel Guide, it seeks the best restaurants and hotels by sending anonymous inspectors to report back on more than 500 categories.That's attention to detail.
The ratings are all about luxury, and the Forbes inspectors are as concerned about the décor, service, and perks as the food. About 500 establishments are reviewed annually, with few attaining five-star status (Forbes also has four-star and "recommended" categories).
For the 2013 guide, only 35 spas, 28 restaurants, and 76 hotels received the five-star rating in the United States.
Of those 28 five-star restaurants, Azul and Naoe represent not only Miami but also the entire state of Florida, keeping company with the likes of Daniel and Le Bernardin in New York, Plume in D.C., and the French Laundry in California.
According to Forbes, Naoe is "a jewel box of a Japanese restaurant tucked away on the city's Brickell Key."
The guide also brags about chef Kevin Cory's meals, which are "an impeccable experience in flavor, presentation, and gracious service."
Forbes was impressed with Azul's "serene, contemporary dining room," which is "crisp and white, all the better to let the blue water that be can be seen from the floor-to-ceiling windows be the star." As for the food: "Surprising combinations and the best-quality ingredients make everything from a tuna tartare amuse-bouche to the Australian Kobe beef cheeks an absolute treat for the taste buds."
Mandarin Oriental Miami's food and beverage director, Simon Fricker, told Short Order that although Azul was previously a four-star restaurant, the staff at Azul worked hard to achieve five-star status. "We specifically focused our efforts to get the five stars in 2012. We were striving for it."
Fricker confirmed the restaurant has no prior knowledge of when Forbes inspectors are dining. "It's a complete mystery shop. To my knowledge, they come twice. We know what they're testing, but we have no idea when they're here. We receive a report after the fact."
The F&B director explained that everything is scrutinized. "There's an extremely detailed set of standards that starts at the reservation process and ends at the 'goodbye.' It starts with how many times the phone rings when you call us. Do we hit the guest names when they arrive? It's focused on how a guest feels from A to Z. The timeliness of service and the food quality are analyzed."
And the difference between a four-star and a five-star rating? "What's integral in achieving a five-star rating is the thought process behind the cooking, how much the chef is involved, and how the guest is informed on what they are eating. It's really focusing on the personal recognition of the diner."
Fricker said the Forbes guide differs slightly from the other highly coveted restaurant rating system, the Michelin Guide, in that Michelin is highly focused on food, while Forbes is about the diner's complete experience. "Forbes looks at everything, from the quality of the glassware to the smile of the bartender. Dining is a concert -- everything has to play together in harmony. If you have a fantastic meal and the dessert takes too long to come, we haven't done our job correctly."
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Asked what this honor means for Azul, Fricker, who compared the five-star rating to an Academy Award, said, "It's bringing us to another level. It means personal satisfaction to all of us, but now expectations are raised and we have to obviously deliver. People will now ask, 'Is my bread five-star? Is this napkin five-star?' It has to keep us on our toes. It's not easy; it's almost bittersweet. But that's what we strive for. It's gorgeous to be in that situation."