Another steamy summer, another Miami Spice. The Greater Miami Convention & Visitors Bureau is back with the oft-beloved, sometimes maligned dining deals that help fill restaurants during the slow summer months and give less well-to-do diners a way to eat in the city's most lavish spots at a fraction of the price.
Things are bit different this year. Gone is the dual-tiered system that didn't insult any restaurant, but slotted some into a less costly "fine dining" group and others into a higher priced "luxury dining" category. This year lunch is a flat $23 and dinner $39. One chef says this will help cover restaurants' food costs a bit, which hopefully will translate into better menus.
Also different are the total number of restaurants, 174 at last count, down from more than 200 the previous year. Boozy options are also limited and the most memorable choice from years past, Mercadito with its comp margarita alongside an onslaught of punchy Mexican dishes, is no more after the Midtown spot closed in March.
The good news is after a few years of this delicately orchestrated dance, both restaurants and diners appear to be getting it. The dreaded skirt steak-
farmed Atlantic salmon-pasta lineup seems to be increasingly rare as time goes by, and many restaurants are taking to the challenge with gusto and making weekly, if not monthly menu changes.
So lets start with the Good, the restaurants that you ought to check out, recommend to an out-of-town friend, or stop by on an impulse and an empty stomach.
Consider that the octopus appetizer at this South Beach Mediterranean seafood shrine with sky high prices is $27 on the regular menu. With a $39 Spice menu, that leaves less than the cost of one cocktail to cover entrée and dessert. Somehow they manage to squeeze in the choice of a whole Mediterranean sea bass or lamb chops. Portions are likely to be smaller than what you'll get the rest of the year, but these enticing options make it a can't miss. Available for lunch and dinner daily.
The smart sushi money the rest of the year is likely to end up at Zuma, Yakko-San or NAOE chef Kevin Cory's pockets. However this hip sushi restaurant adjacent to SLS Hotel's constantly thumping pool parties is plating up five appetizer choices, six entrées and a chef's choice dessert. As always you'll want to hit the menu where you'll get the biggest bang for your buck. That means the ubiquitous spicy tuna mixture atop a block of crisped sushi rice during the appetizer. Next move for the Szechuan-style striped bass (never mind that Sichuan is a province in China) or the filet robata with seared foie gras. No upcharge! Available for dinner Sunday through Thursday.
At this longstanding, meticulous Miracle Mile French restaurant reserve yourself a slot at dinner and head straight for the seafood bouillabaisse. Keep with the ocean theme and follow up with a whole Mediterranean bass smartly paired with a licorice fennel compote. Or go classic French with crispy confit of duck, mushroom fricassee, and potatoes roasted in duck fat. Available for lunch Monday to Friday; dinner Monday through Saturday.
A hotel restaurant that serves breakfast, lunch, dinner and might even do room service is surely a Miami Spice dark horse. However Preston's at the Loews, often overshadowed by the buzzy Lure Fishbar, is offering whole grilled fish at both lunch and dinner seven days a week. The dinner option of grilled Ivory Coast prawns is $37 on the regular menu. The lunch menu appears bright, with a blue crab and watermelon salad, scallop ceviche and an always crowd pleasing short rib grilled cheese. Available for lunch and dinner daily.
Obsessed with bacon and small plates? Cut that out and turn your obsessive compulsive tendencies toward amuse bouche and terrines. At Danny Grant's 1826 Collins you'll get both, the latter with rabbit, cherries, pistachio and tangy yogurt. Start with one of four "snacks" that include leek croquettes with black truffle and hen egg custard with black garlic and cured pork cheek, called guanciale. Go for more truffle in the next course, this time sprinkled into garganelli pasta with sweet corn. You'll also want to be thinking about that sweet bite at the end, prepared by the talented Soraya Kilgore who used to run pastry at Mandarin Oriental's Azul alongside husband (and J&G Grill chef de cuisine) Bradley. Available for dinner Tuesday through Saturday.
Chef Dena Marino's flawless execution of comforting homestyle Italian dishes is a can't miss, and for Spice she's going off menu. Lunch can start with slices of pan seared Yellow Fin Tuna with summer vegetables. Nice and light so you can get back to work right? Knock out a bowl of gnocchi carbonara are prepare to siesta. Speaking of sleeping, the forever braised ossobucco with polenta and salsa verde gremolata sounds like something that proceeds a blissful, food-induced daze. Available for lunch Monday through Friday; dinner Sunday through Thursday.
Michael Mina's Aventura temple of meat is staying summery to start with squash blossoms and sweet corn and lobster chowder. Despite offering chicken, Bourbon has the good sense to match it with truffle and pastry in a pot pie. An eye of ribeye -- the center, less fatty part of a ribeye steak -- comes with faro and English pea "risotto." There are upgrades here, but the $10 Alaskan King Crab béarnaise sauce and the $25 hunk of seared foie gras aren't essential. Available for dinner daily.
You are coming during lunch for the Chirashi Don. Pay no mind to the other choices and other courses. You have two months to eat as much of Zuma's cocaine-priced sashimi, resting atop a bed of sushi rice with avocado and salmon, get busy. Available for lunch Monday through Friday; dinner Monday and Tuesday.
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The man behind the much beloved Red Light Little River is back after a short stint atop Florida Cookery inside the James Royal Palm Hotel and he's got barbecue shrimp. For Miami Spice Kris Wessel will offer a shifting menu firmly rooted in Florida's southern, Latin and Caribbean culinary traditions with a healthy twist. The coconut-conch is a creamy Caribbean version of chili that's spicy and sweet. A half duck slowly rotates on a spit for hours and glazed in orange reduction before being served with a side of crushed Brazil nuts. It's a must-see. Available for lunch and dinner Monday through Thursday and Sunday.