Special Feature: Products Sally Recommends

Best Restaurants in Miami, FL

by Pamela Robin Brandt

500 Brickell Key Drive [Mandarin Oriental Hotel]
Food Network darling Michele Bernstein originally made this lux waterview restaurant famous (and vice versa), but most local foodies feel current chef Joel Huff at least equals his charming predecessor re. both cuisine and cuteness. A large open kitchen enables diners to judge the latter for themselves, if they can tear their eyes from the extensive raw bar fronting the counter. The former’s demonstrated in Asian and Mediterranean-influenced fare like miso-marinated hamachi with shrimp dumplings and sake beurre blanc, or a Morrocan Lamb trio (grilled chop, harissa-spiced loin, and bold shank-stuffed bastilla).   


The Biltmore Hotel (Sunday Champagne Brunch)
1200 Anastasia Avenue
Coral Gables
It’d be worth a drive just for the sightseeing at this outrageous Spanish/Moorish landmark resort (including a tower modeled after the Giralda, in Seville). But Sunday’s buffet brunch in the festive outdoor Fountain Court—a lavish multi-station affair featuring deli smoked fish, salads, pastas, roasts, sushi, desserts, and even breakfast food, plus unlimited champagne and elegantly restrained live music—is the ultimate in dining decadence. It’s perennially popular, too, so reserve early.


115 NW 41st Street
The name means “spark”, and the food’s hot Nuevo Latino: a savory risotto of shrimp and lechon asado (mojo-marinated roast pork) with sofrito sauce; beef tenderloin croquetas with garlicky chimichurri; bacalaitos (bite-size deepfried salt cod mousse balls, crispy-outside, creamy-inside) with sour orange aioli. The original Gables Chispa is trendier; the Doral branch, opened in late 2006, is in a more suburban West Dade Latin residential enclave, but menus are near identical. 


Garcia’s Seafood Grille & Fish Market
398 NW North River Drive
For the freshest Florida fish, in a setting where you can see where the seafood comes from, locals favor this ramshackle Miami River lunch-only joint, run by a family of second-generation fisherfolk. On your way to the outdoor deck (much more fun than inside), check out catches in the market downstairs. But simple preparations are the way to go, especially grilled or fried fish sandwiches (just-caught grouper, mahi mahi, or yellowtail), and, during winter’s stone crab season, claws as good as at Joe’s Stone Crab for a fraction of the price.  


Hiro’s Yakko-San
3881 Northeast 163rd Street
North Miami Beach
Open till around 3:30 a.m., this is considered a worth-a-special-drive dive by local Asian chefs, who come here after their own restaurants close. The fare is not sushi but tapas-sized plates of Japanese home cooking: young garlic shoots sautéed with beef, grilled local grouper with tangy-sweet chile sauce, maguro nuta (raw tuna and scallions with honey-miso sauce), and dozens more dishes. 


Ideas Restaurant
2833 Bird Avenue
Coconut Grove
Not the usual generic Spanish restaurant, this  charmer specializes in the regional cuisine of Castilla y Leon; most ingredients are even imported from there, as is chef Alvaro Beade. Like the décor of the space (a rustic casa with sleek open kitchen), is an appealing mix of contemporary and traditional: bacalao-stuffed piquillo peppers, drizzled with cognac/pepper sauce; elegant Serrano ham consommé; savory roast suckling pig. Whatever, it’s all authentic.


6927 Biscayne Boulevard
Celebrity chef/Miami homegirl Michelle Bernstein does have one of those fancy absentee “chef” (really menu designer) gigs for China Grill Management’s Social restolounges, but she’s most often actually in the kitchen here at her own eatery, in her own neighborhood. No professional designer or p.r. firm, and none needed; the homegrown spot’s red hot, packed with people eager to eat dishes—available in full or half-sized portions—that the chef describes as the kind of unpretentious food she personally prefers. As always when creative people take chances, there are occasional misses. But Greatest Hits like impossibly light Spanish ham/bleu cheese croquetas with fig marmalade, velvety smooth white almond gazpacho, and custardy truffled polenta with a poached quail egg and pancetta-- are always hits.


Michael’s Genuine Food and Drink
130 NE 40th Street
In mainland Miami’s still-developing Design District this neighborhood restaurant helmed by chef/owner Michael Schwartz (formerly from South Beach’s Nemo and Afterglo) is a bay length away from Sobe’s hoity-toity ‘tude and prices—and has been packed since opening in March, 2007. Food, much of it cooked in an open wood-fired oven, ranges from cutting edge (beef cheeks with whipped celeriac and a chocolate reduction) to simple but perfect comfort food such as a whole wood-roasted organic poulet rouge chicken. Prices and portion sizes also range widely, from four bucks for bar snacks (deviled eggs; homemade  potato chips’n’dip; absolutely addictive lime and chile-spiced crispy hominy) to $24-$39 for extra-large plates.  

El Palacio de los Jugos
#1: 5721 West Flagler Street, Miami 33144; 305-262-0070.
#2: 10140 SW 56th Avenue, Miami 33165; 305-275-0030.
#3: 14300 SW 8th Street, Miami 33184; 305-226-3141
A trip to any “juice palace” is trippy in more ways than one, but the Flagler location, closest to the tourist track, is most universally popular. It’s really a collection of booths; diners walk from one to the other collecting a customized Cuban meal, and cart it to one of the outdoor picnic tables. Required eating: the savory lechon asado (roast pork) sandwiches drenched with sour orange mojo, and melt-in-your-mouth chicharrones, unparalleled anywhere on earth or heaven. A fresh-squeezed tropical fruit juice doubtless counters the cholesterol.


The Pit
16400 SW 8th Street
Most Everglades visitors use the obvious south-of-Miami main entrance. But there are two reasons why the Calle Ocho/Tamiami Trail route’s superior. One is that one daytrip reaches two distinctly different environments: freshwater marsh (alligators!), and saltwater mangrove islands (roseate spoonbills, dolphins!). The second is the fuel at your pit stop: The Pit’s coleslaw-garnished triple-decker BBQ pork sandwich. But don’t neglect this downhome indoor/outdoor cabin’s biscuits (actually fry bread, the native Miccsosukee tribe’s version of zeppole), pit-barbecued ribs, crunchy onion rings, import beers, or hip multicultural jukebox.


The River Oyster Bar
650 South Miami Avenue
A loungelike casually upscale feel rules here, as do the namesake oysters—a selection of about 6-8 daily, available raw with the classic garnishes or cooked (fried, with chile rocoto aioli and salsa fresca, or fire-roasted with chorizo, manchego, and sofrito butter). But there’s other fresh seafood in the iced display case, too. Sampling from the artisan beer/wine list is a must, plus there’s a churrasco and a few other landlubber options for those who must. 


Oishi Thai
14841 Biscayne Boulevard
North Miami Beach
At this Thai/sushi spot, the young Thai chef/owner is a Nobu alumnus who obviously paid close attention in class. The regular Thai and sushi menus here are good, but the way to go are chef’s specials like sweet miso and sake-marinated black cod, “new style sashimi” (slightly cooked with drizzles of hot sesame and olive oils), or rock shrimp tempura with creamy spicy sauce—Nobu-like creations at far more reasonable prices.


3555 SW 8th Street
Havana Harry’s, Sergio’s, Islas Canarias, La Palma, El Crucero… Ask ten Miamians where’s the best Cuban food and you’ll get 20 answers. But Versailles is the institution. At lunchtime, the gaudy dining room (ornately mirrored, like a parody of the original French palace), as well as the newer casual bakery annex, are packed with the town’s Cuban-American business/political movers and shakers. Admittedly, food can be inconsistent. Still, late hours-- varying, but often till 3:00 a.m.-- make it a popular post-clubbing stop, too, for a medianoche (“midnight’) sandwich and an eye-opening cafecito. 


Pamela Robin Brandt is a Miami-based freelance writer who specializes in Deep Fluff (mainly restaurant reviewing, travel writing, and profiles of extraordinary people).

Note: This information was accurate when it was published. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the businesses in question before making your plans.

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