So many of us would like to forget this past year happened. There was the mind-numbing presidential election, plus a barrage of sucker punches in the deaths of greats Alan Rickman, David Bowie, Prince, Gene Wilder, and Harper Lee.
The Miami dining scene provided a respite. The onslaught of mediocre celebrity-backed restaurants in Miami Beach eased, and instead, several local favorites threw open the doors to highly anticipated projects. It strengthened the city's culinary bona fides.
Antonio Bachour and Henry Hané launched Bachour Bakery + Bistro, bringing the former's pristine pastries and the latter's Peruvian-inflected cuisine to Brickell. Camila Ramos, one of Miami's reigning queens of caffeine, opened All Day, a stark, gorgeous shop pulling perfect espressos in a sketchy part of downtown. Former Cypress Room sous-chef Michael Beltran gave the city Ariete, a spot-on blend of his Cuban heritage and the precise execution learned under Norman Van Aken and Michael Schwartz.
Kyu in Wynwood and Giorgio Rapicavoli's Glass & Vine in Coconut Grove also proved that Miami continues progressing. The great hope is that all of the young cooks toiling in the hot kitchens of these restaurants will see the city's potential and stick around to make their own mark. Here are the ten best:
1. Plant Food + Wine (105 NE 24th St., Miami): Celebrity vegan chef and lifestyle guru Matthew Kenney's foray into Miami dining is like a quiver of arrows. It's loaded with ammunition to prove that barring animals from the kitchen doesn't mean locking out flavor. Take the cacio e pepe: Kelp noodles are lathered in a cashew cream made by pulverizing the nuts with lemon juice, nutritional yeast, and a hefty dose of black pepper. There's genius in the watercress that flutters across the plate, further cranking up the spice. The naturally occurring glutamate in dried olives is an ingenious substitute for the Pecorino's umami. Kimchee dumplings arrive as three dark-green gems folded like a middle-school paper fortune teller. Only this isn't loose-leaf. The kitchen juices spinach and coriander and then adds it to a coconut meat paste. The mixture is spread thinly and dehydrated for six hours until it's solid but still pliable. The kimchee filling is tinted a gorgeous magenta by purple cabbage. It has enough flavor to work on a Korean barbecue table, though there's no need for any galbi here.
2. Ariete (3540 Main Hwy., Coconut Grove): While working in Michael Schwartz's now-defunct Cypress Room, Michael Beltran and chef de cuisine Roel Alcudia combined pristine sourcing with impeccable technique to elevate Miami fine dining. At Beltran's Coconut Grove hit, Ariete, there are tea sandwiches, a nod to the bite-size bocaditos Beltran grew up eating at family gatherings. These fluffy bread triangles are smeared with egg salad speckled with briny trout eggs and decorated with shavings of the cured fish roe called bottarga. He serves oxtail nuggets, vaguely reminiscent of croquetas, alongside a crust of bread sporting a velvety smudge of chicken liver mousse infused with dark rum. Such Cuban preparations and ingredients have for years begged for a chef with a deft touch. Beltran answers the call.
3. Pane & Vino (1450 Washington Ave., Miami Beach): There's one bit of dining knowledge locals are sure to pass on to visitors: Whatever you do, don't go to Española Way. It's been decades since the quaint thoroughfare hosted chefs such as Kris Wessel. Lately, it's been a congested, overpriced tourist trap. Yet all of that changed when Angelo Quaglini opened this quaint Italian spot whose focal point is a pastaiolo in the front turning out knot after knot of fresh noodles. There is a spinach-stained round pasta filled out with ricotta and mascarpone covered in a delicate black truffle butter sauce. Out-of-town patrons are most enamored by the spaghetti alla ruota, and rightfully so. The pasta arrives on a trolley next to a giant wheel of hollowed-out Parmigiano-Reggiano imported from Italy. A waiter then places the noodles inside the scraped-out hunk of cheese and tosses them vigorously so they absorb the sharp Parmesan. It's fun to watch, sure, but even better to eat.
4. CY Chinese Restaurant (1242 NE 163rd St., North Miami Beach): This red and pale-yellow North Miami Beach joint is one of the city's few purveyors of the Chongqing hot pot, a bubbling cauldron spiked with a panoply of chilies and spices. At CY Chinese, the broth begins with a heroic dose of rendered beef fat. "This is the most important thing," chef and owner Yang Xian Guang says. "It's what creates the savory smell of the hot pot, which is what all Chinese look for when they judge them." Once placed on your table and set to boil, it's followed by a pink knot of soy-marinated pork, followed by fatty beef with so much ribboning it could be mistaken for a slab of bacon. If you're feeling adventuresome, the pork blood cake is the best option.
5. Glass & Vine (2820 McFarlane Rd., Coconut Grove): At Giorgio Rapicavoli's long-awaited foray into Coconut Grove, it's the celery that's most alluring. Leaves and stalks are chopped into chimichurri. The plant's bulbous root is roasted and pummeled into a velvety purée. More of it, sliced into meaty, thin points, layers the bottom of the plate. Finally, narrow shavings of the raw root are piled up, creating a bird's nest dusted with sweet, smoky onion ash. Here in the Grove's old library, he has served slices of Zak the Baker sourdough topped with shrimp dressed in a lemony yogurt flecked with brown butter. The giddy mess is sprinkled with a combination of Old Bay seasoning and adobo that Rapicavoli calls Biscayne Bay spice. Call it a lobster roll without the lobster. Follow it with a ceviche covered by yellow pebbles made of ginger, garlic, lemon juice, ají amarillo, and buttermilk frozen with liquid nitrogen. They slowly melt, covering firm cubes of sweet potato in a luscious tang. Round each bite out with a crisp disk of radish and a jab of jalapeño.