The Miami dining scene has come a long way since the 1st Art Basel in 2002 where the hip places to be seen were China Grill, Blue Door at Delano, Pacific Time, Yuca, Tuscan Steak, Red Square, The Forge, Joe’s Stone Crab, and Osteria del Teatro all in Miami Beach, and some of them ( all but the last three) already defunct.
Thirteen years after, Art Basel has grown and expanded to the mainland, in areas including the now cosmopolitan Design District. In the vicinity, you’ll find the urban Midtown, the emerging Wynwood art district, Downtown Miami, and the fast-sprouting Brickell area, which bring another gastronomic dimension to the artsy scene.
The most prominent places everyone already knows, Prime 112, Michael’s Genuine Food & Drink, The Dutch at the W Hotel, Zuma, Juvia, Hakkasan, Yardbird, Scarpetta & Cipriani’s have been booked months in advance, as well as other familiar places like Barceloneta, Wolfgang’s Steak House, Modern Garden, db Bistro Moderne, Byblos Miami, Quality Meats, The Federal, and Makoto at the Ball Harbour Shops.
New places with attractive décor and specialized menus will entice out-of-towners, mostly because of their massive social media and PR outreach, like El Cielo by (the infinitely creative) chef Juan Manuel Barrios from Colombia, the Miami outpost of London’s vibrant and posh Peruvian-Inca COYA, and Mexican De-Luxe Cantina La Veinte, all in the Brickell area.
Miami is full of local culinary treasures that don’t qualify as restaurants per se, or if they are, well, not quite the “scene” though they serve locally sourced and prepared Miamian fare. One exception is Versailles, a restaurant, café, bakery, the unequivocal epicenter of Cuban political and social gossip. The original El Palacio de Los Jugos is still my go to Palacio ( there are four others), where one can indulge in the best freshly made juices and batidos, and the most decadent fresh fruit salad. Also, the best gigantic chicharrones ( basically pork belly rinds that bare lots of tender swine meat). Miami Smokers, a smokehouse with a “mission to bring timeless curing and smoking techniques to Miami consumers, one slice of bacon at a time”. Bests include Thick Cut “Vintage Bacon”, Candied Bacon–which you must try–as well as carefully crafted & cured salumeria and unusual sausages. Zac the Baker, a true artisan, serves—in his namesake bakery—sourdough and challah bread, which become a ritual by using natural leaven instead of commercial yeast. His Café sells delicious tarte au sucre, whole banana bread, rose tea cookies made with rice flour, and chocolate cookies made with rye flour.
Favorites restaurants by areas
Now, as a native, and though I have been to most of the restaurants in town, at the end of the day, when it counts, I tend to frequent the same places, and it’s a long list. You see, Miami keeps evolving, sometimes emulating the great culinary capitals of the world or creating their own gastro language.
Near where I live on Brickell, Tamarina is an example of luxury & style. Food never disappoints, especially when it comes to their ever so light house made Spinach Ravioli filled with ricotta cheese, in a pool of butter sage sauce, and their beautifully crafted Shrimp Carpaccio dressed with grilled orange vinaigrette. Entrepreneur and co-owner, Yona Puri took upon herself to make Tamarina a success, and after eight months of being opened, she has created a following and loyal fun clientele.
Azul at the Mandarin Oriental—an all time classic and favorite—has made a smashing emergence thanks to their new Japanese-American chef the cuisine, Benjamin Murray. Combining robust natural flavors, contemporary cooking techniques and artistic presentations of his cuisine, his menus include a King Crab with Umeboshi butter, Asian pear, mango, cucumber, pickled chile and sweet basil. This juxtaposition of flavors and textures yield a phenomenal effect on the palate. As ordinary as it main sound, the Salad of Roasted Beets is like none I ever tasted. Sweet and bursting with flavor, morsels of multi-colored beets are dressed with a balanced spicy Thai vinaigrette, and accented with creamy Feta cheese, peanuts and sesame. An unequivocal winner is the Grilled Black Angus Shortrib with sunchoke milk, swiss chard, black garlic, tamarind and lemon balm. In the same building, another favorite is La Mar by Gaston Acurio on Biscayne Bay overlooking the impressive Miami skyline. La Mar’s executive chef Diego Oka followed Acurio’s award winning cuisine to the “t”, but adding some of his personal touches as well. Favorites like the Chaufa Aeropuerto, a typical Peruvian fried rice with Chinese sausage, shrimp omelet, roasted pork, pickled vegetables and nikkei sauce, and the Tallarin Salteado, with Udon noodles, calamari, shrimp, catch of the day, tomatos, onions, and soy sauce, are bold and flavorful. Of course, the variety of Cebiches, Causas, Tiraditos, and Anticucho satisfy even the most discerning diner, as they are based on Acurio‘s original traditional recipes developed thru the years in Peru.
Perfecto Restaurant and Chef James Tahhan (left).
Nearby, hiding amongst a forest of construction towers and new buildings is my go-to-anytime River Oyster Bar. One of the most consistent restaurants in Miami serves comforting classic seafood dishes with a modern twist. Here, veteran chef David Bracha, one of the early advocates of using local seafood, farmers, and vendors, creates unforgettable dishes like Fried Oysters Remoulade, Coconut Steamed Mussels accented with chiles, lemongrass and lime, Sweet-Spicy Skuna Bay Salmon with fried crab rice, and the refreshing Crispy Skin Snapper Filet with tomato-avocado salad and plantain chips. A fresh market selection of seafood is offered simply prepared, enhanced by a choice of sauces, salsas, and butter.
Away from the maddening Brickell crowds, PERFECTO, recently re-addressed by Venezuelan-Armenian and Telemundo Network celebrity chef James Tahhan, is now finally showcasing this young entrepreneur’s culinary talent. His Shrimp & Shitake Mushroom Croquetas and the more traditional chicken or Iberian ham croquetas, rival the best. Pulpo Perfecto a la Gallega, is really perfect. Masterfully cooked, the octopus’ particular texture remains intact, flavorful and tender and comes o a bed of olive oil confit golden potatoes. Among the selection of rices, two stand out: the Oxtail with Iberian Pork Belly and the Black Rice with squid ink, cuttlefish, and sweet shrimp. Please don’t leave without tasting the ethereally tender suckling pig.
We’ll go to the north, Downtown, Wynwood, Midtown, Design District and Biscayne Blvd in our following installments. ■