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.
6. Kyu (251 NW 25th St., Miami): At Wynwood's temple of grilled meat, chef and co-owner Michael Lewis' menu is flavored by his nine years with Jean-Georges Vongerichten, as well as his travels throughout Asia and six years spent in front of a robata grill at Zuma. That said, the Baltimore native's barbecue methods also incorporate his American upbringing. The strongest example of Lewis' style is the Wagyu beef brisket listed in the menu's wood-fired section. In Texas, smoked brisket is the cornerstone of any barbecue establishment. And though Wagyu is served at most Asian eateries, typical cuts include rib eye and tenderloin, not brisket. At Kyu, the meat is simply prepared with Japanese sea salt and black shichimi pepper, then smoked for 12 to 14 hours. Yet Lewis is adamant about reinforcing the notion that Kyu is more than a barbecue restaurant. The bearded chef is equally passionate about vegetables. It shows in his roasted cauliflower. He places beautifully browned florets atop a canvas of goat cheese and a zesty shishito-herb vinaigrette. It's a handsome plate that tastes even better than it looks.
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7. Los Fuegos (3201 Collins Ave., Miami Beach): You smell Francis Mallmann's temple of meat and offal before you ever find your way into Los Fuegos' crimson and cheetah-print dining room. Here, inside the grotesquely opulent Faena Hotel Miami Beach, surrounded by billion-dollar accoutrements, Mallmann serves the best of Argentina's flame-scorched simplicity. The mostly hidden kitchen debones and splits birds from Murray's Chicken. Then they're rested face-up on a cast-iron platter to show off crisp, fire-kissed skin. Dashes of sour grape and vinegar are a punchy counterbalance for the birds' rich juices. The menu's crown jewel is a 48-ounce tomahawk rib eye that sells for $195. It's a popular choice. And after the ruby-red slices of meat are gone, many patrons strike a pose for an Instagram photo with a Flintstones-size rib clenched between their teeth. Yet the 16-ounce Black Angus rib eye is a far more reasonable $42. It arrives with a hard char emanating that stirring smell of smoke.
8. Chayhana Oasis (250 Sunny Isles Blvd., Sunny Isles Beach): This Uzbek spot is an almost literal retracing of the Silk Road. Thus, you begin with Turkish-style grape leaves and proceed to Chinese-inspired fried egg noodles flecked with chewy bits of beef and bell peppers topped with an impossibly thin shredded egg crepe. Later comes another Western-Chinese-style dish — chopped cucumbers and minced meat tossed with soy and garlic, then sprinkled with a flurry of sesame seeds. And in spite of the opulent decor — heavy wooden doors intricately carved in the style of an Orthodox church; ornate, sparkling archways lining the walls; and glittering mosaic landscapes of medieval life — the food is supremely comforting. Most meals start with a poppy-seed-studded round of bread called non. There are empanada-like chebureki with a thin veil of pastry dough wrapped around a heap of ground lamb meat fortified with slow-roasted onions and perfumed with cumin. That same fragrant mixture can be found throughout the menu. It's slid onto flat metal spears, grilled over charcoal, and served with translucent red onion curls. It's also tucked into the pleated dumplings called manti. This is hearty fare meant for the windswept plains of Eurasia, yet right at home here in Sunny Isles Beach.
9. Sapore di Mare (3111 Grand Ave., Coconut Grove): Before opening this Coconut Grove Italian seafood spot beloved by locals, brother and sister Veronica and Matteo Paderni delighted the Upper Eastside with Ni.Do. Caffé. Sapore di Mare bears the same welcoming atmosphere. Yet this place concentrates on seafood-centric dishes from Campania, a region in southwestern Italy that includes Naples and the Amalfi Coast. All of the fish is sourced exclusively from the Mediterranean, and the restaurant is best known for its crudo selection. Don't miss the branzino carpaccio, which comes arranged atop slivers of crunchy green apple.
10. Basilic Vietnamese Grill (14734 Biscayne Blvd., North Miami Beach): Before diving into Basilic's fragrant pho, be sure to whet your appetite with a plate of green mussels. A dozen of them are buried under a mountain of lemongrass and ginger woven with shreds of Thai basil. These are quite different from the Prince Edward Island mussels — they're not orange-yellow or as briny. Instead, they're far meatier, with just a hint of sea salt. Afterward, it's time for soup. The rich Earl Grey-hued broth is slick from roasted beef bones whose charred taste lingers in each spoonful. More smoke comes from roasted onions that also lend a touch of sweetness. Ginger and star anise give the brew a spicy, intoxicating aroma. There's no hesitation about lifting the bowl to your lips for a sip. Try the pho with red slices of top round and brisket poached in the fragrant broth. It also comes with oxtail; springy, salty meatballs; or braised beef tendons that melt like saltwater taffy. If you don't like red meat, go for the chicken pho, which offers tender white meat, cardamom, coriander, and cinnamon.