Miami’s rising culinary scene is hotter than ever

By Amelia Rayno for Star Tribune

 

The restaurant scene in this city known for sunning by day and clubbing by night is finally as hot as its sandy beaches.

 

The morning haze was breaking, and the delirium of another Friday night in Miami Beach had finally been put to bed. The rows of clubs lining the infamous Collins Avenue, notorious for buzzing well into the morning, had gone quiet; the nightclubbers had stumbled home. And I noticed that a different vibe was settling in with the heat.

At the Freehand — a hipster-chic hostel that landed on Miami Beach in 2012 — I watched as other young travelers, clad in strappy tank tops and ripped jean shorts, joined me in line for espressos and cappuccinos at the lobby stand just as that morning’s yoga class headed to the beach. Afterward, several blocks south at Á La Folie, I indulged in savory crepes as the charming French cafe churned to life.

Later in the day, I would encounter restaurants on the beachy island and on the mainland that paraded dishes as culturally diverse as duck kibbeh and Spanish octopus, Bao buns and sea urchin nigiri, and tiny plates of beet tartare topped with tweezer-placed herbs and a horseradish foam.

I was surprised — stymied, almost — by the abundance of diverse, enticing options.

Wait a minute, I thought. When did Miami get so cool?

A decade ago, when I was traveling the country as an early 20-something, Florida’s southeastern corner owned the reputation of a food desert where patches of authentic Cuban and Latino cuisine were the only reprieves from lifeless hotel and casino fare. I visited a couple of times — and didn’t stay for long.

But things have changed, in a hurry.

Boosted by an expanded core of homegrown chefs, a surge of national restaurateurs and an invigorated interest in all things dining, it’s obvious Miami is in the midst of an awakening, transforming from culinary minefield to gastronomic mecca.

These days, the city is as likely to be known for its booming restaurants as it is for its beaches, as revered for its critically acclaimed chefs as it is for its swanky clubs. And on a warm December weekend, as I hopped around town from Miami Beach to Wynwood to Coconut Grove, I was introduced in a major way to Miami’s old-meets-new flavor and an epicurean style that is all its own.

 

From dancing to dining

Bodega was packed and full of the rowdy and the scantily dressed. A newly made friend and I lasted at the club only as long as it took to slurp our gin and tonics through straws. In the dark, we saw just flashes of each other’s faces. The bass-hijacked beats were vibrating up through our heels. Half-amused, half-revolted at the grinding dance floor antics, we barreled out of the hidden warehouselike entrance and into its cover storefront: a taco shop.

Yep, I thought, the “magic city’s” party-hearty reputation is doing just fine.

But a second musing quickly replaced the first.

Hey, these tacos are pretty good.

From dusk till dawn, neon lights, house music, short skirts and ankle-breaking heels rule the ’hood. But as I discovered, the vodka-filled venues are no longer the only draw.

From 1994 to 2004, Miami was nearly iced out of the James Beard Awards, those annual medals bestowed on chefs and restaurants for excellence in food and design. But from 2007 to the present, the city has become a regular participant in what is commonly referred to as the Oscars of the dining industry. In that time frame, there have been 46 such nominations, semifinalists and winners.

One such nominee — a small, prix-fixe restaurant named Alter — was the national semifinalist in the Best New Restaurant category last year, and a “must hit” on my list.

The menu was a series of multicourse meals filled with impressive-sounding ingredients and the kind of obvious culinary technique that one might associate with a white-tablecloth affair. Inside Alter, though, the pipes were exposed and paint was peeling off the neon-lit concrete walls. I took my seat near the kitchen, and almost immediately the show began. Tiny, immaculate dishes were rolled out with professional exactitude. Shaved cobia, the seafood delicately placed in a half-moon around the plate’s rim, was accompanied by mustard oil and olive “snow.” A heart of palm “trunk,” along with mushrooms and vegetable purées, were manipulated to look like a fallen tree. Each course had a wine pairing, with a story behind it. It was the precision of Paris, seamlessly blended with the hip aura of Los Angeles.

Such newfound culinary obsession is evident all over the city, where much of the emerging talent came of age. Jose Mendin, one of the city’s more recognizable chefs, graduated from culinary school in Miami and after a few years abroad, returned to start a restaurant called Pubbelly. Now, his empire includes not just the Asian-Latino fusion original in Miami Beach, but also a sushi shop, a steakhouse, bistro, taqueria and Pubbelly Station, a seafood palace downtown where plates of raw oysters meld with ocean breezes on the rooftop.

 

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