the Matter with Miami?
We just can't make anybody's A-list
By Lee Klein in Miami
Thursday, November 24, 2005
Miami is home to glitzy multimillion-dollar restaurants,
a sea of sensational sushi spots, and more than its
fair share of satisfying bistros, trattorias, and
steak houses. Central and South American immigrants,
as well as those from the neighboring islands, have
blessed our area with a plethora of exemplary and
inexpensive ethnic eateries — no other North
American city boasts the arepas, empanadas, medianoches,
churrascos, griot, or rotis found here. Added to which,
our stone crabs are peerless. What's more, South Florida
boasts a group of talented chefs who multihandedly
ushered in a vibrant new American regional cuisine
based on the area's indigenous crops. So we can't
be blamed for thinking we live in one of the nation's
most dynamic restaurant cities. Still, it might be
time to think again: According to a number of 2005
"best restaurant" and "best restaurant
cities" lists, Miami ranks with — well,
nobody. We're not ranked at all. We are, literally,
"Sunk" is how John Mariani of Esquire magazine succinctly summed up the Miami dining environment
a few years ago, and it appears not enough has changed
to sway the nation's other food writers from this
sentiment. None of our dining venues appears
in Bon Appétit's "Top 5 American
Restaurant Cities" survey, none in Gayot.com's
40 Restaurants in the United States" (though
Honolulu, Scottsdale, and Los Gatos, California, host
eateries that made the grade), and none of
our up-and-coming chefs was deemed up-and-coming enough
to make Food & Wine's "Best New
British magazine Restaurant conducted an
international poll of chefs, restaurateurs, and food
journalists for its "50 Best Restaurants in the
World," and we didn't show up in that one either.
Miami couldn't even crack Toptable.com's Top 20, although
it should be noted that Norman's, Mr. Van Aken's eponymous
Coral Gables establishment, was one of only five contestants
competing for the James Beard Foundation's prestigious
Best American Restaurant Award. As for the other 200
Beard nominations in categories such as best chef,
pastry chef, rising chef, service, and wine service
— Miami came up empty. And Van Aken recently
announced plans to sell his restaurant.
fancy-schmancy places might not match America's finest,
but a city's dining scene is not measured by haute
cuisine alone; another barometer is the number of
restaurants serving quality renditions of everyday
foods. Jane and Michael Stern, authors of the Roadfood
cookbook series, traveled the country and published
their own list of the Top 10 spots for breakfast,
burgers, barbecue, doughnuts, hot dogs, ice cream,
pizza, sandwiches, seafood, soup, et cetera —
210 entries in all. Miami was shut out, once again.
Sadly we also missed the cut on Esquire's "Best
Barbecue," the Chinese Restaurant Association's
"Best Chinese Restaurants," and Vegetarianrestaurants.com's
"Top 16 Vegetarian Cities in the USA." Groucho
Marx once said if ten out of ten people tell you you're
dead, you'd better lie down.
a decade ago our gastronomic prospects seemed so sunny.
National food magazines were cooing over the New Florida
cuisine put forth by an influx of innovative Miami-based
chefs, the most prominent of these pioneers being
Norman Van Aken, Jonathan Eismann, Robin Haas, Mark
Militello, Pascal Oudin, Doug Rodriguez, and Allen
Susser. Although each put his own name and spin on
the genre (New World, Floribbean, Nuevo Latino, Palm
Tree Cuisine, and so forth), they all used South Florida's
indigenous ingredients as a starting point, and later
would be loosely labeled "the mango gang."
Just as Alice Waters prodded Californians to take
notice of locally produced products such as gorgeous
goat cheeses and orgasmic organic foods, these mango
fellas ripened awareness of the tropical fruits and
vegetables in our own back yards, as well as the stellar
seafood abundant in our waters. Those were the halcyon
days of local dining. So what happened? I've compiled
Ten reasons why Miami, though good, hasn't matured
into a great restaurant city:
Our original innovative chefs are all still doing
their thing, but much in the way the Rolling Stones
are — they weave new dishes in with crowd-pleasing
signatures, in an undeniably proficient fashion, but
many have expanded their restaurant empires more than
their repertoire or range.
Michelle Bernstein (whose Michy's is preparing to
open its doors) and Tim Andriola (Timo) come to mind
as former mango gang sous-chefs who have since achieved
great success while thinking globally but still stressing
locally grown products. For the most part, though,
New Florida cuisine has been hijacked by amateurish
chefs and their nail-in-the-coffin concoctions such
as macadamia-crusted shrimp with mango sauce, macadamia-crusted
meat loaf with mango sauce, and macadamia-crusted
cheesecake with mango sauce — and a drizzle
of raspberry coulis, of course.
Our culinary minor-league system is in a shambles.
If you want to see and taste the grim future of Miami
dining, try dinner at Johnson & Wales's faculty-and-student-run
London Tavern in Bay Harbor.
South Florida lacks enough of a sophisticated food
culture to sustain a serious culinary environment.
One indication of this is the region's distinct lack
of small, privately owned bakeries and meat, fish,
cheese, or produce markets — partly because
it's practically impossible to sell fine quality cuisine
to a populace whose majority can barely discriminate
between freshly baked rhubarb pie and the sugar-laden
confections found at Publix.
Many of Miami's restaurants are overpriced. Blame
this on restaurateur inexperience, Miami being a tourist
destination, and, most of all, greedy landlords.
Immigrant restaurateurs provide some of Miami's finest
low- and midrange eateries, but many monied foreigners
who open upscale places in the United States have
dated concepts of what constitutes contemporary American
dining; the resultant restaurants serve food that
is often more retro-Eighties than 21st Century.
It's not just immigrants who seem to be in the dark.
The majority of American-born restaurateurs appear
equally clueless when it comes to cryovacking, molecular
gastronomy, organic foods, sustainable foods, raw
foods, slow food, Spanish deconstructionism, and all
the other exciting, innovative ideas sweeping the
nation's gastronomic consciousness. The recently opened
Afterglo shines a light on raw foods, Mosaico plays
at reconstructing Spanish deconstructions, and a few
other local menus occasionally reflect new trends,
but otherwise Miami is out of the loop. If local hair
salons operated at the same pace as our restaurants,
the Jennifer Aniston look would still be hot.
Miami's gastronomic shortcomings also extend to the
midrange eateries, both ethnic and non. In the latter
category, there are few restaurants where a working-class
couple can eat a soup or salad and a light main course
for less than $50, other than at a diner. Not that
we have many decent diners, or for that matter, much
in the way of great barbecue, Chinese, or vegetarian
restaurants. Our Mexican, Indian, Italian, and Greek
establishments consistently fail to venture into any
regional cuisine that transcends tired tacos, tandoori,
tiramisu, and taramasalata. And most cities surrounded
by water showcase any number of fine oceanfront seafood
restaurants, as well as a multitude of rickety fish
stands where a few bucks brings a paper plate or bag
of freshly fried treats. Not us.
Urban areas such as New York and San Francisco draw
top chefs from Europe and Asia, as well as young,
rising talent from the best American culinary schools.
Such chefs don't seek out Miami for the same reason
Shaq didn't join the Clippers: Nobody voluntarily
signs on with a second-tier team unless, of course,
the money is extravagant. Regrettably many Miami restaurant
owners have little grasp of the difference between
a professional chef and a cook, and pay scales glumly
reflect their ignorance. In other words, if you were
an experienced chef with a degree from a prestigious
culinary academy, would you choose a high-paying position
with a cutting-edge New York restaurant, or take part
in the moribund Miami scene for a lot less?
Very little real restaurant criticism is being exercised
by the city's so-called restaurant writers. The role
of a reviewer is that of consumer advocate, and when
the reviewer is beholden to advertisers or PR agencies,
that advocacy is compromised — to the detriment
of a community's dining standards.