Few restaurants are stone-cold stunners or total disappointments. Like life itself, even seemingly simple meals are intensely nuanced. An impeccable dish can be bogged down by an aloof server. Your fish might be overcooked while your companion's steak is a textbook case of sear and seasoning.
Today, Miami's culinary ecosystem is blossoming into one of the nation's most vibrant. The city is blessed with a constant infusion of new people, the ability to grow delicate produce in the winter, and vibrant, tropical summer crops. At the same time, its most dedicated chefs and hospitality professionals are striving to serve with the precision and timing of a symphony orchestra. It's no simple feat. There's an array of intangibles and seemingly dull business decisions that determine whether a place lives or dies. The best restaurants reviewed this year pulled off nothing short of miracles thanks to thoughtful choices on everything from location to sourcing.
1. 27 Restaurant & Bar (2727 Indian Creek Dr., Miami Beach; 305-531-2717). The cooks at this hip, boho spot attached to the even hipper Freehand Hotel and Broken Shaker call the space "the house." And it's easy to see why once you're inside. The floors are covered with eye-popping Cuban tiles. Vintage tchotchkes, cookbooks, and dusty glass bottles line the walls. Small black-and-white pictures of long-forgotten beach scenes hark back to a simpler time. The welcoming theme carries over to the kitchen, which seems to be run by grandmothers of Latin American, Caribbean, and Jewish descent. Latkes ($10), fried pork chunks called griot ($9), and arepas with ropa vieja ($29) don't seem to belong on the same table. Get them together at 27, and your mind will be changed forever.
2. Vagabond Restaurant & Bar (7301 Biscayne Blvd., Miami; 305-400-8420). No one knew what to expect when restaurateur Alvaro Perez Miranda tapped the young Alex Chang to lead the Vagabond's revamped kitchen. Now we know the menu holds true to the place's world-wandering name. And in the Vagabond's first year, Chang's unbounded creativity and experience in some of the globe's top kitchens is paying Miami some serious dividends. For a light start, peanuts are tossed with chili-roasted grasshoppers called chapulines, which are imported from the Mexican state of Oaxaca. Pan-seared beef hearts ($13) draw your mind to Peru's anticuchos. But after breaking the warmed egg yolk to sauce the plate, you're taken somewhere off-planet. At lunch, Chang taps his time in Japan with a pork tonkatsu sandwich ($12), amped up with a tart yuzu kosho sauerkraut. It's harder to peg the origin of one standout dessert: moist pistachio cake ($10) with fennel panna cotta and roasted white chocolate. Yet genesis is no concern when you're busy deciphering how such varied flavors work together so well.
3. The Seven Dials (2030 Douglas Rd., Coral Gables; 786-542-1603). The gastropub concept in Miami was foundering until this quaint little spot hidden near Miracle Mile began getting its due. Husband-and-wife owners Andy and Katie Gilbert serve the kind of unfussy fare everyone loves, without any of the gimmicks or shortcuts that have become all too common. The house-made foie gras torchon ($17) is a velvety delight that only gets better when smattered with smoked salt and slicked with a tart date purée. The kitchen conjures tomatoes into an ethereally silken soup ($10) without a touch of cream. The fish 'n' chips ($15) are exemplary and always go well with a rotating list of craft beers from breweries near and far. This place is the benchmark, and the Seven Dials does it all without any exposed brick.
4. Alter (223 NW 23rd St., Miami: 305-573-5996). Everyone knew Bradley Kilgore was an ambitious chef. It was obvious during his stint running the kitchen at J&G Grill at the St. Regis Bal Harbour. At Alter, he trades the suited maître d' and white tablecloths for concrete walls and blaring music. Yet the precision remains. For the poussin ($24), he debones a young Lake Meadow chicken and turns the thigh meat into a savory stuffing with garam masala, mushrooms, and foie gras. The bird is then packed with its own opulent filling, steamed, dried, and crisped before being artfully perched atop roasted golden beets and charred peaches. Seems like a lot of work for the humble chicken, no? That's why Kilgore is one of Miami's most assiduous cooks and why Alter is often bursting at the seams.
5. Cena by Michy (6927 Biscayne Blvd., Miami; 305-759-2001). Miami's favorite daughter, Michelle Bernstein, returned in grand fashion this year as her namesake MiMo District restaurant reopened after a months-long overhaul. It was time, she said, after admitting that the original had gone stale. And with a fresh, unfettered interior fed by chef de cuisine Mike Mayta, she proves once again why she's Miami's queen bee. A beet sorghum risotto ($18) is the most intensely beet-flavored dish you'll ever try. Its sumptuous taste is impressively achieved with nothing other than concentrated vegetable stock. A whole snapper ($39) is smartly stuffed with fennel and leeks, whose herbaceous notes offer the perfect spritz of perfume for the tender flesh. Those longing for nostalgia won't be disappointed. Bernstein's beloved sweetbreads have been revived in taco form ($14), and her legendary short rib ($39), paired with a sweet corn mousseline, remains as addictive and unctuous as ever.
7. Dragon 1 Chinese Restaurant (10162 W. Flagler St., Miami: 305-223-9741). Tianjin native Alan Zhang is the man behind this West Miami-Dade Sichuan spot favored by Chinese students attending the University of Miami and Florida International University. They order off the not-so-secret traditional menu, and you should too. There, find homemade tapioca starch noodles ($7.95) twirled in a numbing chili oil emboldened with walnuts and star anise. Though chilies feature prominently in many offerings, Zhang also highlights duck. It's a staple in his hometown and the nearby capital, Beijing. He marinates a chopped bird in beer for two days ($21.95) before braising it in more beer infused with bay leaves, scallions, and star anise. A handful of dried chilies is sprinkled atop the dish. There's almost no way to get through a meal here without setting your mouth alight. And you'll be back for more before you know it.
8. Lung Yai Thai Tapas (1731 SW Eighth St., Miami: 786-334-6262). This year, chef Bas Trisransi stepped out of his older brother Bond's shadow. You might know of Bond, the tall-haired restaurateur behind favorites such as Mr. Yum and Bonding. Bas had long been his right-hand man. And earlier this year, he took over a former coffee shop on Calle Ocho and built an L-shaped bar and a wok station that throws licks of orange flame into the air. Sure, you can find powerfully scented green and Panang curries here. But what you really want are the dishes Bas learned to cook alongside his grandfather, who once ran a small restaurant about 50 miles north of Bangkok. Though most plates here offer a five-flavor balance, the palo moo ($12) is a harmony of sticky pork fat and sweet soy. Hit it with a bit of green-tinted vinegar and a few spoonfuls of rice, and you have one of the city's best dishes.
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9. Konata's (13343 NW Seventh Ave., North Miami; 305-688-7400). Each day, men sporting mountains of dreadlocks tucked under knit caps stop by Sam Konata's Opa-
10. Quality Meats Miami Beach (1501 Collins Ave., Miami Beach; 305-340-3333). This New York City transplant courtesy of father and son Alan and Michael Stillman, who also founded the Smith & Wollensky empire, fuses the best of old- and new-world steak houses. Nearly $5 million was spent to return Collins Avenue's historic Bancroft Hotel to its former glory. The service is impressive, and a white-coated troupe scurries about, tending to every need while mixing up an addictive steak sauce. The fragrant blend of rosemary,