If you've been waiting to try Juan Manuel Barrientos' fare at El Cielo, Miami Spice is the time.
If you've been waiting to try Juan Manuel Barrientos' fare at El Cielo, Miami Spice is the time.

The Good Miami Spice 2015 Menus, Part 1

With more than 180 restaurants participating, Miami Spice can be a daunting endeavor. For those who scour the summer creations of Miami’s most prominent restaurants, it can be difficult to determine which ones are steals and which ones are stealing from you.

Sample menus are replete with "market fish," "chef’s choice," and a whole host of other opaque descriptions that leave you wondering if you're really getting a bang for your buck. On the other hand, there are the places that seize the opportunity to get you through the door and present creative, generous offerings to persuade you to return.

When it comes to what makes a place worthy, follow a few simple rules. You’re looking for choices at places like the Pubbelly Boys’ properties and the Bazaar by José Andrés. Both favor small plates, and rather than offer just an appetizer, entrée, and dessert, they provide a range of dishes in different categories. Go with a few friends. It’s a good way to eat through the menu.

The key here, however, is value. This year, it seems the added cocktail option that some restaurants offered in the past is gone. So too is the skirt steak in the dreaded chicken-beef-pasta arrangement, now often replaced by short rib. The restaurants doing it right proffer something a bit better, a reasonably sized rib eye or a piece of corvina, snapper, or something that isn’t salmon.

Here are some restaurants whose menus are looking good as the beginning of the two-month Miami Spice program nears.

El Cielo
Miami Spice is the perfect time to sample Colombian wunderkind Juan Manuel Barrientos’ cooking without committing to his dramatic, $100-plus tasting menu. Of course, the Spice dinner menu offered Monday through Saturday (avoid the lunch, with fewer courses and only chicken or salmon entrées) isn’t the 12-course bonanza. It does, however, feature a brief progression with fluffy potato bread perched atop a copper wire "tree." Then opt for the hamachi crudo with passionfruit vinaigrette, pineapple emulsion, roasted quinoa, and tapioca tuile. Follow it with a strip steak and duck-fat fries before heading into dessert with Barrientos’ roses "spa" and prosecco ice cream.

At the Miami branch of Scott Conant’s most prominent restaurant brand, the short-rib agnolotti de plin is offered on the regular menu for $30. That’s just $9 short of the entire Spice menu (offered nightly excluding Friday and Saturday). There's also a choice of seared tuna, mozzarella with stewed baby tomatoes, or polenta with truffled mushrooms ($17 on the regular menu). Sure, his famously rich spaghetti with tomatoes isn't an option, but what is available is a steal.

Here, always start with the daily crudo/bisque/gumbo, which could range from duck gumbo to Manhattan clam chowder. You could follow the theme of what has quickly become one of Miami’s most popular seafood spots and order the Idaho trout with an andouille okra moque chou, but don’t underestimate chef Danny Serfer’s love for prime rib. For starters, it’s $37 on the regular menu, just $2 short of everything that Spice (available for dinner daily) offers. Just consider that it’s a succulent, thick slab of rare meat served alongside scalloped potatoes in a rich jus. A final touch of bread pudding topped with his signature spicy whipped cream will have even the snarkiest Spice critics rethinking things.

It's all about options at Barceloneta, Altamare, and The Bazaar.
It's all about options at Barceloneta, Altamare, and The Bazaar.

The guys behind the Pubbelly collection of restaurants have always put their own spin on Miami Spice. At their Spanish spot in Sunset Harbour, the special menu (offered for lunch Monday through Friday and dinner daily) isn’t like others. Instead, you cobble together a shared meal from the various sections of their expansive menu. That could include a classic tortilla and spicy chorizo in cider, or choose oxtails braised in tempranillo or escargots with rabbit sausage, parsley, and garlic butter. Also, feel free to delve into the salad section with a tomato-watermelon salad, and later try some paella-style rice. Good luck saving room for the dessert options.

The Rusty Pelican

Miami’s seaside location is its greatest boon and plight. Sure, there’s the beach and the throngs of tourist who flood it with dollars throughout the year. There’s also the warming climate, pushing sea levels to inundate the Magic City sometime in the next century. Still, there are so few places in Miami to eat and get a glimpse of that shoreline. The Rusty Pelican during Miami Spice (with lunch Monday through Friday and dinner daily excluding Saturday) is just the place to do it. Though the entrées are lifted from its regular menu, they don’t skimp on value. The Barolo-braised lamb shank and the grilled branzino regularly ring in for more than $30 each. Besides providing the view, the Pelican gets credit for calling Chilean sea bass by its real name: the far less enticing Patagonian toothfish.

The Bazaar by José Andrés
It’s easy to lose control here the rest of the year and run up a $300 tab filled with caviar, modernist Cuban sandwiches, and Singaporean street food. During Miami Spice (dinner only, excluding Friday and Saturday), start with a huge variety of snacks, spanning a bagels-and-lox cone filled with salmon roe and dill cream cheese, the Chinese-Latin-inspired bao con lechón, and kueh pai ti with shrimp, peanuts, and chili sauce. Next, you’re invited to choose three "entrées" from the restaurant’s tapas offerings, including serrano ham and Catalan bread, clams in leche de tigre with Fresno chilies, and spicy sausages known as chistorra, served with a sweet quince aioli.

Market at Edition
What’s not to like to about celebrated chef Jean-Georges Vongerichten’s casual, boqueria-style spot inside the posh Edition Hotel? First, it offers Spice menus every day of the week for both lunch and dinner, a rare find for such chic digs. Next, the dinner menu can be a real star if you know how to pick it. Beeline for the charcuterie. The menu allows you to choose three. Two slices of meat, such as the pata negra and spicy coppa, are a good place to start, along with some wedges of nutty manchego cheese. If you’re looking for value, go for the Florida snapper with bok choy, which already puts you a few bucks up on the restaurant. Of course, the rigatoni and meatballs would also work well on a Sunday. Follow it all with a few bites of carrot cake.

Pascal’s on Ponce
Pascal Oudin’s longstanding French hideaway in the heart of Coral Gables has always been a top choice for carefully crafted entrées that approach the $40 mark. During Miami Spice (lunch Monday through Friday and dinner Monday through Saturday), he has squeezed the best of his cuisine into a three-course meal for the same price. Start with a lobster bisque; then follow it with either a braised lamb shoulder with cassoulet beans or crisp duck confit with fricasseed mushrooms and duck-fat-fried potatoes.

Lincoln Road’s longstanding Altamare presents one of the most varied and lengthy menus of this year's Spice. It’s also plying one of its most unusual up-charges: An extra $6 will allow you to cobble together your own Spice menu (offered nightly throughout the week) from its regular choices. Otherwise, you may start with a salmon gravlax salad, wahoo crudo with the preserved citrus Buddha’s hand, or a grouper cake. Two homemade pastas — black shrimp ravioli in lobster sauce and ravioli filled with pear and ravioli in a mascarpone cream sauce — are available alongside snapper roasted with capers and olives, and steak-frites with house-cut fries. Dessert options of mango cheesecake or chocolate mousse are far less exciting, but you can always head to Shake Shack across the street to sate your sweet tooth.

SushiSamba Dromo
If you’ve been longing to try this pricey melding of Japanese, Peruvian, and Brazilian cuisine, Miami Spice is the best time to do it. Lunch is available daily except Saturday and Sunday, while dinner blacks out Friday and Saturday. Appetizers seem to be an assault on the senses. There’s cured pork belly with compressed dragon fruit and a butterscotch glaze, or lobster meat tucked into house-made Chinese buns tinted black with squid ink. A chef’s sushi plate will help you get your value out of the meal, but the black cod in dashi broth with ramen noodles and braised trumpet mushrooms seems like another good option. The people-watching is free.

Miami Spice runs from August 1 through September 30 and offers diners prix-fixe lunches for $23 and dinners for $39 at 181 participating restaurants around town. Check out the full list here, and purchase tickets to New Times' Iron Fork, the official Miami Spice kickoff event, taking place this Thursday, right here

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