Best of Miami

Zach Fagenson's Best Miami Restaurant Dishes of 2015

Aside from a handful of dearly departed restaurants (think Kris Wessel’s Oolite), 2015 was a banner year for dining in Miami-Dade. Blood began pumping through the burgeoning MiMo District as the Vagabond opened its doors and Cake Thai Kitchen became a fast favorite. The Beach continued to flood with celebrity chefs. But it was the city’s local chefs, those here for more than an opening and the South Beach Wine & Food Festival, who fashioned the most memorable bites.

There was no overarching trend that made the best dishes work. Instead, it was about balance and thought. The best plates were those featuring a spectrum of familiar flavors with a shot of the unexpected — the scallop in Brad Kilgore’s soft-cooked egg, for example. Then there was the care many unassuming cooks put into their food. Think the Seven Dials’ Andrew Gilbert's use of corvina for his fish and (hand-cut) chips when he could’ve gotten away with far less. In Palmetto Bay, Angel Torres made his own Cuban loaves for an otherworldly pan con lechón. So did Little Bread’s Alberto Cabrera, who brought nearly every facet of the Cuban-sandwich diaspora in house. Let's hope 2016 brings more of the same.

11. Fish and chips at the Seven Dials
Restaurants often know we can’t resist the temptation of fried food. They take advantage of our gluttony by hiding cheap proteins and vegetables inside greasy costumes. But not at Coral Gables’ The Seven Dials. British chef and owner Andrew Gilbert says his English customers would hang him if he used a cheap fish like tilapia or swai. He entombs succulent corvina fillets ($15) inside a sturdy beer batter that bronzes up beautifully in scalding oil. The fries are hand cut. And don’t skip the rough quenelle of mushy peas. They’re mashed up with a bit of lemon juice and yogurt for a bright, light palate cleanser that makes eating a heavy dish, even on a steamy Miami night, a cinch.

10. Herring schmaltz toast at Zak the Baker
Few things go better on Zak Stern’s bread than a slick of rich house made horseradish aioli, a dangerously oily herring fillet, and few strands of pickled red onion ($8). It may not be for the faint of heart, but it’s also a vast improvement over the ubiquitous avocado toast. Here are a precious few bites replete with salt, fat, and sweet. What else could you want, other than a mint?

9. Cuban sandwich at Little Bread
The Cuban sandwich ($12) at Alberto Cabrera’s Little Bread was long overdue. For decades Miamians of all stripes have subsisted on this humble, addictive meal. Yet it’s industrial ingredients were begging to be improved. Cabrera’s version is built on a combination of Cuban and Pullman bread baked daily. He cures pork-belly slabs overnight before poaching them for hours in their own fat. The meat is then cooled, pulled, and blended with more fat to create a Cuban version of France's rillette. Sliced ham from New Hampshire's North Country Smokehouse is topped with Swiss cheese, sweet bread-and-butter pickles, and a fruity homemade red-wine mustard. It’s good enough to warrant forgiveness for breaking Miami tradition: He adds a few slices of Molinari salami before pressing the sandwich and popping it into the shop's big red smoker.

8. Bucatini with sea urchin and peekytoe crab at Beachcraft
Like so many of this year’s best dishes, the obscure sounding bucatini ($27) at Tom Colicchio’s Beachcraft goes beyond setting just one of your pleasure centers alight. First comes the spice. The kitchen cooks down a punchy sofrito of tomato, garlic, scallions, and jalapeños. Then the decadence begins with a splash of shellfish stock and a daub of butter. Toothsome hollow noodles are added to the mix with a bit of their cooking water along with golden lobes of sea urchin and shreds of Peekytoe crab meat. Once it’s thickened, the steaming plate is showered with lemon breadcrumbs striking one final, perfect chord.

7. Eggplant kobra kai at Bazi
Michael Pirolo’s eggplant ($15) at his recently opened Collins Avenue Asian spot takes its queue from the beloved ma po tofu. Kurobuta pork is used as a seasoning and sautéed with ginger, garlic, shallots, a pair of fermented bean pastes and chilies. To that, spears of sautéed Japanese eggplant with a meaty, supple texture are piled up along with fried disks of eggplant. It’s the contrasting textures, laced with a hit umami that makes this dish a standout.

6. Boqueró at Niu Kitchen
The gorgeous, anchovy-centered boqueró ($14) at Niu Kitchen is the perfect way to enjoy the salty little pops. Chef Deme Lomas curls them up and perches them atop a disk of velvety mashed potatoes that do double duty by giving the plate some substance and cutting through the powerfully flavored fish. It’s all perfectly complemented by olives, the omnipresent Spanish nuts and herb paste called picada, and a dusting of smoky pimentón de la vera. So go ahead, try to convince people you don’t like anchovies with an option like this.

5. Chicken rice at Lung Yai Thai Tapas
Bas Trisransi’s khao man gai ($12) isn’t much to look at. A few strips of pale chicken rest atop a mound of white rice alongside a small dish of fermented soybean sauce emboldened with Thai chilies. Yet it’s what happens before this all hits the plate that matters. Whole chickens are gently blanched in a bath perfumed with cilantro, galangal, and salt. Once the bird is cooked, it's lifted away. The resulting stock is spiked with garlic and shallots and used to infuse every grain of rice with an intense umami. It’s simple and perfect.

4. Pan con lechón at the Butcher Shop
The key to this deceivingly simple ($2.99/$5.99) sandwich is the bread. At the Butcher Shop (14235 S. Dixie Hwy., 305-253-9525) in Palmetto Bay, Angel Torres keeps football-sized Cuban loaves in a proofer in his cramped kitchen. Each day, they’re filled with about 200 pounds of mojo-braised pig studded with onions and crisp skin daily. But the key is the unassuming bread. They create a sandwich that, when pressed, crisps into an impossibly thin crust, akin in texture to the Indian lentil crackers called papadum. The interior holds its juice, propped up by a shot of doctored mojo sauce he calls mojito. Don’t overdo it. Without its crisp crust, this sandwich would crumble into another one of the mediocre version available across Miami.

3. String beans at Dragon 1 Chinese Restaurant
Alan Zhang’s stir-fried green beans ($12.95) will change the way you think about vegetables. He starts the pods with a pickle in a mostly rice vinegar brew. They emerge with a bit of their crunch and a waxy, almost jerky-like texture. A toss in a wok with minced beef intestine, garlic, and chilies adds a savory, slick layer of fat and a hit of spice. The forest green heap demands a spoon. With chopsticks, you just can’t eat it fast enough.

2. Soft-cooked egg at Alter
Alter’s egg dish ($14) was born years ago when the Dutch’s former chef de cuisine Conor Hanlon visited Bradley Kilgore for dinner at his old stomping grounds at JG Grill in Bal Harbour. It went through seven evolutions before Kilgore was happy with it. Now, a soft-cooked egg rests at the bottom of conical bowl crowned with a Gruyère cheese crisp. Above it, truffle pearls float in a cloud of rich scallop espuma flavored with salty wisps of the sea. A quick flaming speckles on smoky charred dots adding a bit of crunch and sharpness to temper each rich bite.

1. Sweetbread a la milanesa at the Vagabond Restaurant & Bar
Alex Chang’s sweetbreads ($23) are an ode to Miami. The luscious glands are breaded and pan-fried a la milanesa. Then things begin to look like a medianoche as he adds country ham vinaigrette, inky onion mustard, and rich Swiss cheese foam. It’s been on the menu since the chic MiMo spot opened in January. It’s a perfect introduction to offal for the skittish, and it does it with Miami's favorite familiar flavors.

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Zachary Fagenson became the New Times Broward-Palm Beach restaurant critic in 2012 before taking up the post for Miami in 2014. He also works as a correspondent for Reuters.
Contact: Zachary Fagenson