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Newcomers and Some Oldies Shine at Iron Fork 2009: Critchley Victorious, Whisk and Others Raise the Bar

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The Presidente flowed as Chef John Critchley laid the culinary smackdown on Giancarla Bodoni for the 2009 Iron Fork title. Critchley is on a winning streak, with his seafood-celebrating Area 31 having been recently named one of Esquire magazine's best new restaurants this year.

Our focus, however, was the side show -- edible offerings of 40 South Florida restaurants through which crowds mowed.  Here are some highlights:

- Whisk's fall-off-the-bone pork with golden honey cider barbecue sauce on a bed of slaw with cornbread cube was a balanced bite. Rumor has it brother-sister owners, Brendan and Kristin Connor, are scouting for bigger digs, still in Coral Gables. We approve, as long as they find a way to maintain the restaurant's intimate charm.

- Urbanite Bistro's bite of deer was upstaged by its tuna, masago, and

seaweed salad on crisp, asymmetrical wonton shards, both in presentation and flavor. This seconds-worthy bite was enough to encourage us to plan a visit to its Wynwood home.

- It was a pleasure to catch up with chef Sean Brasel, who manned his Meat Market booth with class and panache, serving up tender slices of perfectly cooked skirt steak on a bed of frisée. Brasel will joing chefs Clay Conley, Michael Bloise, and Michael Schwartz at the January 10 Dinner in Paradise at Paradise Farms in Homestead.

- Managing the sweetness of tropical fruit-based sauces is no easy feat, so we were impressed by MiMo's Le Café and its nuggets of a halibut-style fish lightly dressed in mango.

- Gimme some more goat! South Beach Haitian mainstay Tap Tap might have scored our favorite dish of the night with its spicy goat, served with a smile by general manager Gary Sanon-Jules. Its finger-licking bone-on bites left lips tingling from a habanero-laced vinegar sauce.

- Gordon Biersch showed up on its best behavior, labeling its Kobe burgers "American."  What a difference some newsprint makes.


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