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

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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