Dining from A to Zagat

You're 61 years old, a big-and-tall kind of guy, gray hair parted on the side, wearing a conservative navy suit and a tie emblazoned with the tourist traps of New York City. Your personal assistant is twentysomething, petite and pretty, and she's the one who answers your cell phone that never stops chiming -- even when it's your wife calling. Your entourage comprises five slim women, all a good twenty years younger than you, ranging in profession from magazine editor to television producer, in hair color from brunette to platinum blond. Your suite at the Mandarin Oriental has an unparalleled view, a cameraman follows you wherever you go, and every time you walk into a restaurant, someone hurries forth to shake your hand and escort you to the best seat in the house. Who are you?

Tim Zagat, of course.

The founder and publisher of Zagat Surveys, a 45-market field guide to restaurants that needs little introduction (unless you don't get out much), recently stopped in South Florida to announce the Miami-Dade winners in the food, décor, service, and popularity categories. (Winners are picked by actual diners who cast votes.) He did this during a media lunch at Azul, organized by one of the 2002 Miami/So. Florida Restaurant Survey editors, Victoria Pesce Elliott, who put together the snappy Miami-Dade County blurbs for the fourth year in a row. (Jan Norris of the Palm Beach Post edited the Broward and Palm Beach sections.) Other guests included reps of major publications and radio programs throughout South Florida, such as Elizabeth Smith (associate publisher of The Wine News) and Linda Gassenheimer (Herald columnist and host of WLRN's Food News & Views); along with industry folk like Ian Falcone, who accepted the award for Top Food on behalf of Chef Allen's; and Steve Sawitz, proprietor of Joe's Stone Crab, which displaced Norman's in the Popularity category.

While not quite a formal affair, the luncheon was a bit stilted. As a naturally verbose Zagat consumed chef Michelle Bernstein's timbale of stone crab, avocado, and osetra caviar, he held forth on subjects mostly political in nature, railing against the press ("handmaidens of the terrorists") and the Pentagon's monthly warnings about possible targets ("Our leadership should take the view that we should only be reasonably fearful of the things that are likely to happen to us").

Before he presented the awards, Zagat (pronounced like "the cat") addressed the gathering with remarks about the tourism industry and the uncertain state of affairs: "The president is doing a great job internationally but needs to get involved locally. The Afghan war is costing one billion dollars per week while national tourism, one of the biggest industries in the country, is losing three billion dollars per week -- and that's a conservative estimate." He got the Republicans at the table going when he queried: "Do you think the election was stolen?" And he riled me when he commented on the terror attacks, noting that "every woman in New York who knew how to make a meat loaf did so and took it to a fire station." Hey, don't men make meat loaf?

In Zagat's world the answer to that, naturally, is both yes and no. The women of his generation are indeed the more traditional homemaker types who stayed in and cooked. But as the head, along with his wife, Nina, of arguably the most popular restaurant-guide publishing house in the world, he doesn't just dine out every night, he covers multiple restaurants in a single bound. So let's face it, he's accustomed to men cooking him dinner. And he was eager to gawk at Michelle Bernstein's nude-but-for-a-blender photograph in the most recent issue of Food Arts, a pose she undertook for Vitamix-brand blenders (page three for those who need a charge). "I knew the guys were doing this, but I was getting tired of seeing [male] chefs with Cuisinarts between their legs," he chortled. But he also dispensed some frank advice about women in the culinary arts: "Female chefs need to band together and dispel these kinds of sexy images."

A nod to sexual parity in the industry aside, however, Zagat was happy as a great white shadowing a surfer when he saw the all-female party that would accompany him on his rounds of six of the Survey's most highly regarded restaurants that evening: Elliott; Suzy Buckley, an editor at Ocean Drive magazine; two producers/on-air talent from Deco Drive who traded shifts in the middle of the evening; his assistant, GiGi Gordon, who not only tells Zagat where he's going and who he's meeting but holds his wallet for him; and yours truly, wearing a denim skirt so artfully faded that Zagat concluded, "It gives the illusion of being see-through."

Back at Azul we crammed into a town car because, the somewhat pained Gordon (already 75 minutes behind her carefully orchestrated schedule) confided, "Tim doesn't like limos." Perhaps it's because he has a better view from the front seat. As we traveled he said aloud the name of every restaurant we passed, asking Elliott if she'd covered it. "Mykonos," he'd note. "Is that in the book? Thai Orchid. Do we have that one?"

Before we arrived at Pascal's on Ponce, which won the award for Best Newcomer, beating out by only one point Azul and Liaison (which tied for second place), Zagat laid out the game plan. "We're just visiting. Forty-five minutes tops," he told us. "Besides, if we eat at the first place, we'll never make it to the last," which was scheduled to be Rumi, where we would enjoy a full meal at 10:15 p.m.

Famous last words. Wonderfully executed dishes of foie gras, scallops, and tuna tartare later, we finally departed Pascal's after 90 minutes or so of celebrating with chef-proprietor Pascal Oudin and his wife, Ann-Louise. Our next restaurant, top-rated Cuban Las Culebrinas, wasn't too far away on Flagler, but it was worlds and cultures apart, and Zagat was utterly enchanted. The staff wasn't quite so thrilled. Although Gordon had called ahead to every restaurant we planned on popping into, the Culebrinas people had either misunderstood or chosen to ignore her, so they were a bit confused about why their dining room was suddenly populated by Zagat and his chattering harem.

But it didn't make a difference to Zagat whether he was recognized, expected, or welcome. Vanity has little to do with appetite. While Gordon and Elliott attempted to communicate with the management, and the Deco Drive people interviewed the one customer in the joint who spoke English, Zagat had already seated himself and ordered churrasco and pork loin stuffed with mashed plantains. Before long we were all feasting on tamales, croquetas, tortilla Español, and a host of other representative dishes Zagat tucked into with gusto, saying, "Now this is what I came to Miami to find. I can have French food anywhere. But where else am I going to get the best Cuban food in the country?"

Where else indeed. Certainly not at Romeo's Café -- the next stop on our journey -- which is Italian. Chef-proprietor Romeo Majano is so hospitable, preparing six-course prix-fixe meals (there's no set menu) that are tailored individually to diners' tastes, his tiny seven-table eatery won this year's award for Top Service. And he was so excited to have Zagat as a guest that he kept the restaurant open for our party, despite the fact that we were running so late we didn't arrive until 11:00 p.m. -- on a Tuesday night no less. He also insisted on seating us, pouring wine, and feeding us, despite our protestations of "Please, no more food!" By that point we really meant it.

While Zagat can't seem to keep to a schedule or turn down eats, and while his palate might be somewhat jaded (like the rest of us in this business), one thing he doesn't do is skip out on a check. Naturally everyone wants to pamper him, flatter him, and impress him, three things Zagat is willing to take in stride. But he insists on paying -- or having Gordon pay with his credit card -- for the privilege, along with what he and his guests eat and drink.

Still, no matter how generous the evening's entertainment, I bowed out at midnight. The party would continue without me at Rumi and later still at KISS. Zagat, who also is a Harvard-and-Yale-educated lawyer and chairman of NYC & Company (formerly the New York Convention and Visitors Bureau), may have almost 30 years on me, but he has the stamina of a club kid, while I have -- well, young kids, along with pretty visible circles under my eyes.

When it comes to terrorism and the rebuilding of our tourism industry, Zagat may well be right in his paraphrasing of Franklin Delano Roosevelt: "The greatest thing we have to fear is fear itself." But when it comes to dining, it's pretty clear he takes into serious account the words of Virginia Woolf: "One cannot think well, love well, sleep well, if one has not dined well."

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Jen Karetnick is an award-winning dining critic, food-travel writer, and author of the books Ice Cube Tray Recipes, Mango, and The 500 Hidden Secrets of Miami.
Contact: Jen Karetnick

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