[an error occurred while processing this directive]
|Email story||Comment||Letter to the editor|
A restaurant renaissance thrives just west of South Beach.
By Laura Reiley, Times Food Critic
Published January 27, 2008
[Daniel Wallace | Times]
MIAMI - America's top restaurant city is New York, hands down. It's got excellence at every price, a density of savvy foodies, the richest array of food-as-high-art outposts. For a while in the early 1990s, San Francisco was nipping at its heels, ripe with renegade talent and the heady newness of California cuisine. New Orleans is its own gastronomic universe, hard to evaluate and bouncing back nicely from Katrina's ravages. Chicago? Very fine, very forward thinking, despite what bicoastal snobs may believe. Las Vegas is home to more money than good sense, with absentee celebrity chefs cashing in on our willingness to pay for an appetizer of glamor and pageantry.
And then there's Miami. It has its own indigenous food, like New Orleans, and all the see-and-be-seen drama and glorious excess of Las Vegas. It's got the makings of a great food city multiethnic and affluent population, glut of cutting-edge culinary talent, gorgeous architecture and an obsession with design. But is it? We spent a few days of intensive dining there earlier this month, listening for the beating heart of Miami's food scene.
Our first night was a generous serving of red herring. We managed to nab the city's hottest reservation: Bourbon Steak in the Fairmont Turnberry Isle Resort and Club, celebrity chef Michael Mina's new steakhouse for the 21st century, which opened in December.
Not as russet as usual, but yes, that is bronzed George Hamilton seated at the next table enjoying caviar service. Peering around the room at the other patrons, everybody looks like Somebody. Look at that blond, the one trying not to eat the fries cooked in duck fat and served with truffle aioli, onion ketchup and barbecue dipping sauces. Didn't she used to be on that show, the one with the funny short guy? Or the elderly couple leaning into each other in the corner of the suave Tony Chi-designed dining room, trying to be heard over reverberating Jethro Tull. Didn't he run for office?
Mina is known for serving luxurious spins on American comfort foods, often plated in a trio of presentations. Tasty, all of it, from his signature Maine lobster pot pie to the truffled mac and cheese. But at its core, the menu reflects a how-deep-are-your-pockets machismo. Top-grade Japanese Kobe filet mignon is $190, maybe toss in an order of roasted marrow bones ($15) to gild the lily. Dinner for two quickly hovers near $400.
Later, in South Beach, we watch as a cluster of young women flits from DJ to bartender in the lobby of the Sagamore. Flitting is not easy in such steep shoes, but they have the easy grace of mountain ibex, gleaming manes of hair tossed as ritual or tic. Their clothes are arresting, not so much for what they reveal as what they say about their wearers. They are art installations of fabrics, zippers and buttons, sly texts hinting at the arcana of high fashion.
- - -
That's one Miami. The 18-square-block Design District north of downtown is another entirely. For the past 10 years optimistic local boosters have heralded the arrival of the Design District as Miami's Next Big Thing.
Its time has arrived, and Michael's Genuine Food & Drink, which opened in March, may have been the tipping point. Suave, smart, affordable, it mirrors what the neighborhood is all about.
"But before very recently, the Design District turned into a ghost town at night, except during Art Basel Miami Beach week and on gallery nights," says Miami food writer Pamela Robin Brandt. "Otherwise, there were mostly zero people on those nice streets at night, which was creepy. Michael's has pretty much been the catalyst for the district's current cool reputation among restaurant people. Other chefs/restaurateurs of his stature suddenly got intrigued by the Design District."
Finesse, not frenzy, this is what we find at Michael's one day: a shallow white bowl deep enough to cradle the high-octane juice that sweats off leaves of kimchee. On top of the fermented cabbage, slow-braised pork belly, crisp skin facing skyward, a sprinkle of peanuts barnacling its surface.
Chili-sparked and deadly serious, the bowl's contents confirm what the restaurant boasts about itself quietly at menu's bottom. It's sincere (and all for $9). Glance across the casual, intimate dining room past the precarious wall of heirloom tomatoes, misshapen and burnished in hues of magenta and persimmon. The man working the wood-burning oven, chef Michael Schwartz - his goatee especially goaty - could be sized up that way, too.
Since the debut of Michael's Genuine, other restaurants, residential projects and retail businesses have blossomed in this area bounded by NE Second Avenue, NE Fifth Avenue E and West, and NW 36th Street to the south.
The Design District's 50 showrooms, 40 architecture and design firms, and 20 or so galleries, owe their existence to a different local hero.
- - -
Ten years ago, Craig Robins, president of Dacra Development, saw the cluster of down-in-the-heels 1920s and '30s deco buildings and derelict factories for the jewels they were. Masterminding an urban renewal plan, he persuaded designers and architects to relocate.
As a result, we spent a luscious afternoon of window-shopping, ogling the handsome home and office furnishings of Holly Hunt (3833 NE Second Ave., (305) 571-2012); George Smith sofas and European fabrics at Monica James (140 NE 40th St., (305) 576-6222);sleek Italian furniture at Poltrona Frau, where singer Janet Jackson just purchased some pieces (10 NE 39th St., (305) 576-3636); upholstered furniture from Mitchell Gold at Now (51 NE 40th St., (305) 573-9988); and dozens of others.
But that's not exactly what drew Michael Schwartz here. Chef/owner of South Beach's beloved Nemo and then chef at Afterglo, he just got plain tired of South Beach rents. He dreamed of opening someplace sophisticated but comfortable, cutting-edge but affordable, someplace locals would settle in as regulars. And so his eyes turned to the mainland and its Design District. Other eyes followed.
So, after investigating the juicy pan-roasted "poulet rouge" chicken and an order of quickly fried hominy doused with chili powder and a splash of lime at Michael's Genuine, we headed down the street to the historic landmark Buena Vista Post Office, now the new Domo Japones. A project of the owners of Bond Street (in South Beach and also New York), sleek and modern Domo showcases the Florida-meets-Japan stylings of chef Timon Balloo (Key West shrimp gyoza in oxtail broth, signature sushi rolls like shrimp and prosciutto).
- - -
Good restaurants beget other good restaurants. Miami has long been proof positive of this. Here in the Design District, this means Jonathan Eismann, chef-owner of the celebrated Pacific Time, is poised to open a restaurant near Michael's in April. It means stylish Mediterranean fusion Brosia has just flung open the doors. Brosia's mosaic tile courtyard of moody blues and greens are glorious on a nice day, and its chef Arthur Artiles is a protege of legendary Miami chef Norman Van Aken. It also means the tangy Breton-style buckwheat crepes at the more established Marilu's French Box Cafe, a glass of the latest Super Tuscan at the just-opened Fratelli Lyon Italian wine bar, and the eclectic live music and funky couches at Amendment XXI Lounge (you know, as in the repeal of Prohibition).
Word is, Iron Chef Masaharu Morimoto is looking for restaurant space in the Design District, with a number of other celebrity chefs purportedly sniffing around as well. Still, the district has yet to attract hotels or the kind of glittery nightlife so synonymous with South Beach.
- - -
For a giddy taste of the swanky, celebrity-studded high life, and to feel instantly dissatisfied with our fashion sense, we headed east over the MacArthur Causeway toward Collins Avenue. (On the way we pass Rosie O'Donnell's Star Island mansion and another that belongs to singer Gloria Estefan.) The length of Collins, and of Ocean Drive to its east, is cheek to jowl with gorgeously updated deco hotels.
Built in 1937 and a favorite of Carole Lombard, Clark Gable and Rita Hayworth, the Park Central is decorated with vintage Gleason Romer photos of Miami in the '20s and '30s. We peered out our window and strolled the rooftop lounge (they screen classic Hollywood films up there) to check out how the beach has changed along Ocean.
- - -
A few blocks north on Collins, the Hotel is a favorite boutique hipster, with whimsical Todd Oldham design touches in the 53 rooms and trendy Wish restaurant (lovely patio dining). If you prefer to bed down away from the South Beach hubbub, the Angler's Boutique Resort is a newcomer in 2007, nestled on quieter Washington Avenue, with private terraces and gardens and spare, modern rooms designed by J. Wallace Tutt.
For a quick gawk at the beautiful people, we opted for one-stop shopping: a visit to the Delano Hotel (1685 Collins), the Sagamore Hotel (1671 Collins) and the Raleigh Hotel (1775 Collins). No cover charges, so the drinks are exorbitant ($12 and up). Still, we had no trouble strolling the indoor-outdoor lobby at the Delano and nursing a suave mojito. Done up in chic white, it's an Ian Schrager hotel designed by French megastar Philippe Starck.
All drama (note the single wrought iron cafe table with ornate candelabra set shimmering, center pool), the Delano lacks just a tad of the see-and-be-seen frenzy of the Sagamore on a weekend night. With the Sagamore's walls festooned with large-format pictures of nudes (photographer Spencer Tunick shot folks at the Sagamore, unveiling his creations at last year's Art Basel Miami), eye candy is everywhere. We sat for a moment in a screening room to watch a film loop of stuff blowing up, then pulled up a chair at the art video bar.
To infuse a bit of calm into the proceedings, we walked farther north to the Raleigh and settled into an arm chair in the vast outdoor lounge, all of it illuminated with flickering candles under a canopy of sea grapes and palms.
Despite its relative serenity, it's still a perch from which to spy on all the posturing high spirits and high fashion that has made South Beach world famous as a playground for the rich - a markedly different personality from the young Design District to the west, which, for now, concerns itself equally with substance and style.
- - -
Sampling the Design District
Directions from I-95: Take exit for I-195 East (Exit 7); continue east; exit at Biscayne Boulevard (U.S. 1); continue straight onto 36th Street; cross over Biscayne Boulevard; turn right on NE Second Avenue.
Monthly art and design hop: The second Saturday of each month a Art & Design Night is held from 7 to 10. Galleries and design showrooms open their doors to the public for music and refreshments.
Where to eat
Michael's Genuine Food & Drink
130 NE 40th St., Miami
(305) 573-5550; www.michaelsgenuine.com
4000 NE Second Ave., Miami
(305) 573-5474; www.domojapones.com
163 NE 39th St., Miami
(305) 572-1400; www.brosiamiami.com
Marilu's French Box Cafe
3622 NE Second Ave., Miami
Amendment XXI Lounge
190 NE 46th St., Miami
(305) 571-7200; www.a21lounge.com
Where to stay in South Beach
The Park Central
640 Ocean Drive, Miami Beach
(305) 538-1611; www.theparkcentral.com
Rates: $225 to $460
801 Collins Ave., Miami Beach
(305) 531-2222; www.thehotelofsouthbeach.com
Rates: $335 to $445
The Angler's Boutique Resort
660 Washington Ave., Miami Beach
(305) 534-9600; www.theanglersresort.com
Rates: $325 to $450
[Last modified January 24, 2008, 15:13:05]