The restaurant losses of 2016 might have been some of the most staggering of any recent year.
Sure, we lament the good food we can no longer enjoy at these establishments, but even worse is the city lost the work of many chefs pushing the local culinary scene forward.
The shuttering of Michelle Berstein's Cena not only represented a flame fluttering out for one of Miami's two James Beard Award winners, but also hamstrung her chef de cuisine, Mike Mayta, who was largely responsible for executing Bernstein's day-to-day vision. The pair collaborated well on dishes, such as Cena's short-lived fettuccine carbonara. The senior chef initially envisioned it built on the Japanese seaweed and bonito broth called dashi, which offered a briny, umami-laced twist. When that didn't pan out, Mayta proposed a ham hock concoction that's a perfect foil for the creamy Saint-André cheese that binds the firm noodles.
Similarly, Alberto Cabrera, who brought long-awaited upgrades to Miami's already impressive stable of Cuban sandwiches, and Alex Chang, whose creative, ground-up cuisine was homemade right down to the vinegars, will also be missed.
1. Little Bread
Alberto Cabrera's Little Bread was the place of Cuban-sandwich dreams. Inside the brick-covered Little Havana storefront, the ginger-bearded chef used a syrupy Malta concoction to glaze turkey breasts destined for his Elena Ruz. The bread for most of his sandwiches, a cross between Cuban and Pullman (a kind of white) bread, was baked daily. He made his own mustard, a grainy, nostril-burning affair that helped tamp the richness of pork-belly slabs, cured overnight then cooled, pulled, and blended with more fat to create a Cuban version of France's rillettes. Unfortunately, all dreams come to end, and the chef left for the glitter and neon of Las Vegas.
2. The Vagabond Restaurant & Bar
Miami wasn't quite ready for Alex Chang. Nevertheless, the excitement was palpable when the revamped Vagabond Hotel announced the 20-something wunderkind would helm the property's midcentury-modern restaurant. From its kitchen came chapulines — sun-roasted crickets tossed with peanuts, cilantro, and lime — and a reimagined Cuban sandwich. It was a plate of silky sweetbreads circled by a Swiss-cheese foam bound with cream and potato that's shocked into submission by a country ham vinaigrette and an inky slick of burnt-onion mustard. Chang was a divisive character. One moment, he was a young, bombastic, talented cook from Los Angeles who wanted to tell the city how things should be done; the next, he would show concern for Miami's dining community and its farmers, and even talk about starting his own farmers' market. Maybe one day he'll return from L.A. and make good on that promise.
3. Cena by Michy
Despite Michelle Bernstein's spiritual return to MiMo District home in grand fashion earlier this year, her eponymous restaurant crumbled after disputes between the partners and their landlord. Still, it was nice to have her back, if only for a moment. Sweetbreads — a nod to her Argentine heritage — were creamy nuggets repurposed into tacos with a funky huitlacoche cream and pickled cabbage. Her iconic short ribs were still culled from a center-cut 18-ounce portion braised in a hearty stock of calves' feet and lamb bones. Perhaps the most missed, however, will be the summer home of her crackly fried chicken, among Miami's most sought-after bird. That's saying a lot.
4. Basil Park
This healthful Sunny Isles Beach spot was Tim Andriola's long-awaited followup to his quasi-namesake neighboring spot, Timo. Yet it was also a logical life progression for the chef, who before the opening was able to dump the dozens of pounds he piled on after years of working in kitchens. Basil Park served fat slabs of grass-fed Uruguayan beef salted, seared, and topped with sprigs of microbasil. Inside a beaming rotisserie, you could often find nearly a dozen crisp-skinned chickens from Joyce Farms perform a slow, perpetual barrel roll behind a thick beech counter that fronts the open kitchen. Andriola partnered with Tamer Harpke of Harpke Family Farms for fresno chilies, arugula, mustard greens, and lacinato kale. A half-century of processed food has skewed diners' perceptions and palates, and Andriola sought to unravel that fact by making pristine flavors and techniques a priority. But luring diners from Miami's central and southern reaches to Sunny Isles Beach proved to be too difficult.
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There are plenty of Middle Eastern places tucked into South Beach side streets, but for some reason this fast-casual falafel joint helmed by a Boca Raton couple offered the only balls in town that could rival those found at the Israeli kosher spot Pita Loca. The highlight, in addition to the parsley-stuffed chickpea fritters, was the panoply of salads you could load into your pita or falafel bowl with nearly reckless abandon (once the stuff started overflowing out of your container and onto the floor, the staff would step in). There was red cabbage, carrots, tabbouleh, roasted broccoli and cauliflower, avocado, hummus, feta cheese, and other toppings alongside a variety of sauces made with yogurt, tahini, garlic, cilantro, or tomato and onion. Alas, another business crushed under the suffocating weight of South Beach rents. At least the island city's "Middleterranean" moment ensures the flavors aren't too far out of reach.