Tasting Across South Florida
This is our third time heading to Florida to pick Rising Stars; as we geared up for the tastings — gathering chef nominations, and researching the scene — it was evident that unlike in 2003 and 2004, we couldn’t just stick to Miami. Instead of covering one culinary destination, we visited seven, tasting with the bright culinary lights spreading from Palm Beach to Boca Raton and down to the Keys.
South Florida’s seasonal character has earned it a reputation in the industry as a fickle, unstable restaurant scene. Diners and cooks come and go with the weather, and the beach, not the food, is often the main attraction. But we found places working to change that reputation — chefs with serious experience under their belts, strong personal styles, and palpable ambition.
In Miami, the ultra-lounge feel of Touch belies the serious culinary ambition behind it. Sean Brasel is a self-starter who launched a successful, high-profile catering business that threw a pre-Super Bowl party for 4000 NFL associates — read about how he pulled it off in our 2008 Super Bowl feature.
At The Standard, Chef Mark Zeitouni’s distinctive cuisine is fresh and healthy with a premium placed on how his diners feel after they eat. He utilizes veggie juices in clever ways (rich, savory onion juice instead of stock), and his vegan fritto misto with vegannaise managed to feel both decadent and healthy.
Alan Hughes is a charming and engaging chef cooking in a cool, offbeat locale in Little Haiti. His cuisine is personal and exciting, and One Ninety has a funky, eclectic feel — like Alan has collected items from his travels and put them in his restaurant. It was a real treat.
At Nobu, Thomas Buckley is a formidable chef with cuisine that fits perfectly with Nobu’s style — boundary-less food with creative presentations. Bernardo Espinel’s dishes, at the romantic Americana at the Ritz in Miami Beach, are reflections of his time spent with Chef Anthony Bombaci — elegant with delicious and clean flavors. Grapefruit Glazed Duck pairs unusual tartness with juicy, flavorful duck, and his hamachi dish is an artistic re-imagining of classic (and over-played) tuna tartare. In Palm Beach, Pastry Chef Jennifer Reed of Café Boulud does Daniel justice with sophisticated plating and desserts that reflect her refined palate.
Chris Otten of nine one five in Key West deftly executes dishes that reflect a range of culinary backgrounds; his Tuna Dome is a playful dish that presents crab salad (with white miso and apples, enveloped in thin slices of tuna) in the guise of a tomato. At Baleen, Jesse Souza’s kobe dish makes for an interactive dining experience, in which diners cook and eat their kobe on a beautiful, marbled slab of Himalayan sea salt.
The young John Suley has already opened two outposts of his successful restaurant serving Mediterranean-style comfort food — Café Joley in Miami Beach and Boca Raton. One preparation of kataifi wrapped shrimp with collard greens and sweet potato paired Southern flavors with Florida seafood; almond-crusted lamb came with merguez sausage in another delicious dish. At Alta Cocina, Chef Juan Mario Maza and his wife Vani Maharaj, from Guatemala and Trinidad respectively, are cooking their grandmothers’ cuisines — delicious and tasty. They are incredibly young and relatively un-tried — we applaud their efforts in the kitchen, and look forward to watching this pair grow and mature in the future.
On Little Palm Island, Chef Luis Pous’ cuisine is based on his Cuban heritage, updated with beautiful plating and sophisticated execution. Pous is a serious chef who pursued his dream despite his parents' opposition. And his current location couldn’t be dreamier — the gorgeous property with an open-air dining room on the beach accessible only by boat.
We visited two stalwarts of the area who are keeping things fresh — Norman Van Aken and Michael Schwartz. Norman’s fusion cuisine at Tavern N Town in Key West is as exciting and playful as ever — a Spanish Tortilla Paisana with crème fraiche, caviar, and smoked salmon is a riff on caviar service, and yuca-stuffed crispy shrimp with mojo and a citrus sabayon is luscious and rich — we could have kept eating and eating. At Michael’s Genuine Food & Drink, Michael Schwartz consistently creates earthy, rustic dishes with creative textures and flavor profiles. We loved the Crispy Black Grouper Cheek and Sweet and Spicy Pork Belly — and loved the art gallery feel of the space, with interesting paintings on the walls and an installation of red boxes hanging from the ceiling.
Chefs weren’t the only stars of the trip — a number of young Sommeliers wowed us as well. They have their hands full pairing eclectic cuisine that draws from such varied backgrounds and ingredients — read about some of the standout pairings in our South Florida Top Pairs.
And last, but certainly not least, we are thrilled to announce the culmination of our Florida journeys — our 2008 South Florida Rising Stars. We tasted and interviewed a group of over 60 finalists — chefs, pastry chefs, mixologists, and sommeliers — throughout the region, and we are proud to announce the winners: the brightest and the best, the future of South Florida dining, and of American cuisine. Next month we’ll be introducing each of these chefs and their cuisine (via their recipes, bios and interviews) — so stay tuned!