The food scene in Miami is skyrocketing as globally famed chefs line up to launch eateries here. But that wasn’t always the case. OD explores the backstory that brought us to this point, and sits down with the big names who will be coming to dinner this year.

Masaharu Morimoto

Chef: Masaharu Morimoto
Restaurant: Morimoto South Beach

Known simply as Morimoto, this Iron Chef has been at the forefront of Asian-fusion cuisine ever since he burst onto the culinary scene in 1994 as the original executive chef at Nobu. His restaurants, which include Morimoto outposts in Philadelphia, New York, Napa, Honolulu, and Mexico City, have garnered critical acclaim and accolades from the James Beard Foundation. Morimoto South Beach, set inside the revamped Shelborne Hotel, proffers an ingenious mix of Western and Japanese ingredients coupled with a playful use of colors, aromas, and textures.

What is the most challenging dish you’ve ever made?
The one I made for Ferran Adrià when he came to my restaurant in New York City. I knew he wouldn’t be impressed with any fancy food. I came up with an idea: It was a fall season, so I ran to a nearby park, picked gingko nuts, roasted them in a small pan, and served them with a little salt. I explained to him that I picked those gingko nuts in a park for him. He smiled and ate the dish happily. I realized that the greatest ingredient was a sense of hospitality.

What other culinary scenes excite you?
I am really interested in Vietnamese food and culture. A typical Vietnamese meal is a bit similar to Japanese: rice, a soup, and a main dish. The Vietnamese also use soy sauce, miso paste, and tofu.

What is the ingredient used most often in your kitchen?
Rice. Rice is the core ingredient for all Japanese dishes. In my restaurants, we buy two different kinds of brown rice and polish them with a rice-milling machine on-site. This way we can retain moisture and serve tasty rice. For sushi in particular, it is extremely important—bad rice ruins sushi.

 


 

If you ask Susan Brustman, Miami’s dominant culinary publicist, what her favorite Miami restaurant was when she first moved here in 1978, she’ll laugh and say, “I used to fly back to New York to eat.” Eight years later, as Brustman tells it, “A friend of mine said, ‘Susan, South Beach is the hippest place Miami has ever had. All it takes is one hip restaurateur to turn it around.’ I said, ‘Send him to me,’ and he sent me Gary Farmer.”

Farmer, now cultural affairs program manager of the City of Miami Beach, debuted The Strand restaurant in 1987 on a forlorn stretch of Washington Avenue. The likes of Mickey Rourke, Lauren Hutton, and Julian Schnabel showed up, and national publications such as Vogue t ook notice. “The opening w as hosted by Interview magazine,” recalls Brustman. “Edward Albee was there, and celebrities were coming every weekend. It created a buzz that accelerated everything.”

And so began a series of dramatic leaps that have brought us to the brink of being a world-class food city. Like a soufflé, our rise has been slow and exquisite. Today, global culinary deities migrate here, and homegrown talents redefine where and what to eat. But there were certainly some twists and turns along the way.

Back in the ’80s, tourists flocked to signature institutions such as The Forge and Joe’s Stone Crab, but something else was afoot, as South Florida’s abundant seafood and fruits began to inform a new generation of chefs. Allen Susser at Chef Allen’s, Dewey LoSasso at The Foundlings Club, Mark Militello at Mark’s Place, Norman Van Aken at a Mano, and Douglas Rodriguez at groundbreaking Yuca in Coral Gables were all making names for themselves. Brustman swears that “the ceviches and some of the seafood crudos that Doug [Rodriguez] was doing were ahead of Nobu.” Each of these young toques put his own spin on South Florida cuisine—New World, Floribbean, Nuevo Latino, and so forth. And with their penchant for tropical fruits, they were dubbed “the mango gang.”

American media latched on, and by 1991, a Food Arts magazine cover story tagged South Beach as “the country’s hottest restaurant row.” In reality, South Beach’s social scene was spicier than its cuisine, complete with giant frozen margaritas with a dozen straws. A roster of New York eateries briefly opened, then folded. “They thought you could open a restaurant with the same name as New York and people would just come,” says China Grill’s Jeffrey Chodorow. “They didn’t realize you had to deliver on the product.”

Tony Mantuano

Chef: Tony Mantuano
Restaurant: Lorenzo

James Beard Award winner and Bravo’s Top Chef Masters season-two champion chef Tony Mantuano has Michelin-starred training, is a Food & Wine Best New Chef, and partner of Spiaggia, the only four-star Italian restaurant in Chicago. Now he mixes a dash of casual with a pinch of elegance on Collins Avenue with Lorenzo, the new Italian hot spot inside The Redbury South Beach.

Does this particular menu put a Miami twist on your signature cuisine? If so, how?
We get to have a lot of fun with the ingredients and products available to us in Florida. Our gnocchi with wild boar ragu is one of our most popular dishes at Cafe Spiaggia (in Chicago), and here we’ve been able to use Florida wild boar. The fresh fish, like whole roasted pompano, swordfish, etc., is really exciting stuff. We also find little touches to speak to the area, such as in our cannoli filling—we’re using dried papaya—or in our gelatos and sorbet with some more fun tropical fruits.

What is your favorite Miami restaurant/hot spot and why?
Right before we opened Lorenzo, we dined at The Cypress Room, and that was awesome. The cooking was solid; the service was great. Everything about it, I liked.

Did you have any particular mentors or inspirations when first starting out? Are there any local chefs whom you admire?
When I first started Spiaggia, I went to Italy to train at some fantastic Michelin-starred kitchens. One was Dal Pescatore under the three-Michelin-starred Nadia Santini. I’ve learned a lot from her and try to send all of my chefs to stage with her.

 


 

Local chefs fared better and began to lay the groundwork for the scene today. Kerry Simon dazzled at Blue Star Café in the remodeled Raleigh Hotel, then Max’s South Beach in tandem with trending restaurateur Dennis Max. Jonathan Eismann’s Pacific Time on then-sleepy Lincoln Road was attracting attention for Pacific Rim dishes such as steamed halibut with coriander and lemongrass. David Tornek and chef Sean Brasel advanced the restaurant/lounge scene with Touch, then Kiss (they would eventually find their groove years later at Meat Market). And a couple of unknowns, Myles Chefetz and Michael Schwartz, became trailblazers in the funky South of Fifth neighborhood with their urbane and urban Nemo.

1995 was a watershed year: Johnny Vinczencz, “the Caribbean Cowboy,” inspired diners at the oh-so-trendy Hotel Astor, and Norman Van Aken’s eponymous restaurant in Coral Gables wowed with decadent dishes such as “Down Island” French toast with foie gras. But perhaps more pivotal was the arrival of two venues that created scenes: Jeffrey Chodorow’s China Grill and Ian Schrager’s Delano Hotel.

Chodorow knew the lay of the land: The Miami Beach native had his bar mitzvah at The Famous. His grand vision for China Grill translated to a massive space serving massive plates to opulent parties of South Beach insiders. Audaciously presented comestibles like crispy calamari salad with miso-lime dressing spiked with chili oil might as well have come from the moon. Everyone noticed, and talked. “When you bring something big and bold to a city and it works, it’s much easier to draw other restaurants,” Chodorow reflects. “Everything builds upon everything else.”

Gaston Acurio

Chef: Gastón Acurio
Restaurant: La Mar

Often referred to as the face of the Peruvian food revolution, blending the authentic flavors of his country in gorgeously inventive ways, Gastón Acurio has the ability to turn Peru’s cultural diversity into edible artwork. His roster of 35 restaurants in 12 countries includes Astrid&Gastón in Lima, which in 2013 was ranked number 14 on The World’s 50 Best Restaurants list. La Mar by Gastón Acurio opens this winter at the chic Mandarin Oriental Miami, where his vibrant ceviches and tapas will be set against the backdrop of Biscayne Bay.

Why Miami?
La Mar in Miami is located on the water, and with [this city’s] huge Latin community it’s going to be like a cevicheria in Lima. We love to celebrate, and for us it is a party of freshness. We really hope that our La Mar restaurant will be part of this spirit of sharing our Peruvian food culture.

Does this particular menu put a Miami twist on your signature cuisine?
We are working very hard to introduce all the local fish we can. We have to support local fishermen and the sustainability of the ocean. The magical thing is that when we succeed, we have the freshest and most delicious ingredients and dishes. Local fishermen and farmers will be honored at La Mar.

What is your favorite Miami restaurant/hot spot and why?
I like very much all the small Peruvian restaurants in Miami. Hundreds of them have opened in the last 10 years. Behind them, there are the Peruvian families working very hard to give happiness to people with our culture.

What is the most challenging dish you’ve ever made?
Every dish is the most challenging one, but I am still looking for the perfect fried eggs.

 


 

Schrager’s sublimely refurbished Delano was equally daring and eclipsed all that had come before it. Geoffrey Zakarian orchestrated its Blue Door restaurant, with Madonna as an investor. Two years later, China Grill Management took over the hotel’s food and beverage operations. Esquire named the establishment “Best New Restaurant of the Year.”

But apparently there were limits to how cutting edge one could go. As Blue Door soared, Tony Goldman decided to do an upscale meatless menu at his Wish restaurant in The Hotel. “He thought it would turn heads,” recollects Brustman. “The menu was great for the models, but it didn’t attract locals the way it needed to.” More Miami’s speed was Nobu Matsuhisa bringing his beloved Tribeca hot spot to the Shore Club in 2001. The next year was paramount: Lee Brian Schrager, then director of special events and media relations at Southern Wine & Spirits, took the reins of a minor one-day food fest, rebranding it as the South Beach Wine & Food Festival. Even before The Food Network placed its clout and stars behind it, the SBWFF had stamped South Florida on America’s culinary consciousness like no event before or since.

In the early 2000s, there was lots of flash, and lots of big dinner parties, too, but Miami wasn’t necessarily a mecca for sophisticated American gastronomy. Early in 2003, La Broche, an avantgarde two-star Michelin restaurant in Madrid, debuted a Miami branch with renowned chef Angel Palacios at the molecular helm. It failed. So did Afterglo, which proffered the sort of farm-to-table fare that was enthralling diners across the country.

Local chefs were migrating off the Beach and scaling down with more personal restaurants of their own. The trend took root in 2000, when Pascal Oudin left Grand Bay Café to open Pascal’s on Ponce. By 2004, he had been joined by Tim Andriola (Timo), Jeffrey Brana (River Seafood & Oyster Bar), and Dewey LoSasso (North One 10).

Francis Mallmann

Chef: Francis Mallmann
Restaurant: Faena

This cookbook author (he wrote Seven Fires: Grilling the Argentine Way, among others) and father has hosted his own television show for the last 30 years and is ready to set Miami’s dining scene on fire with his distinguished talent. Although trained in haute cuisine under three-star Michelin chefs in France, celebrated Argentine chef Francis Mallmann uses a more primal approach, focusing on wood fire and cast iron at his four existing South American restaurants. His “seven fires” grilling techniques will be used here in Miami as well, at the much anticipated Faena Miami Beach when it opens this spring.

Describe the aesthetic and design influences of your restaurant. How do you want guests to feel during their dining experience?
The most important detail is that you have the beach in front of your eyes; you can feel the warm breeze married with the beautiful presence of our fires and cooking techniques. The fantasy is completed with the inherent elegance of using the best materials and design while respecting the historic heritage of the building.

What is your favorite Miami restaurant/hot spot and why?
I really like Casa Tua for what it means to the gourmet scene of Miami after many years of operation. Mandolin Aegean Bistro, the Greek restaurant in the Design District, serves impeccable, simple food, too.

Did you have any particular mentors or inspirations when first starting out? Are there any local chefs whom you admire?
My cooking is rooted in many of the teachings of the great chefs of France and Italy of the late ’70s and ’80s. They truly inspired me when I started developing my own particular style. In Miami, I believe Michelle Bernstein is the one to watch.

What is the most challenging dish you’ve ever made?
Every night I’m faced with the odd challenge when I cook at home of convincing my toddler that I really am a chef.

What other cities’ culinary scenes excite you?
New York, Sao Paolo, San Francisco, London, Paris, and Piemonte.

Any words of advice for aspiring chefs/restaurateurs?
Learn the basics before you go modern and out of bounds.

What are the ingredients used most often in your kitchen?
Olive oil and sea salt.

Describe the one meal you had that you will never forget.
A roasted fish beach picnic we made under the olive trees on the island of Rhodes in Greece.

 


 

This movement blossomed, somewhat by accident, in 2005. Michelle Bernstein had secured a big waterfront location just east of Biscayne. When problems ensued with the site, the partners scaled down and decided to open, as Bernstein now puts it, “a temporary restaurant in an existing space that was small, simple, and very approachable.” On a forgotten block of Biscayne Boulevard, the restaurant was Michy’s, and with “no publicist and no marketing,” it was quickly dubbed one of the best by Gourmet and Food & Wine.

“Still, I don’t think we had as much of an impact as Michael had in the Design District,” says Bernstein.

That would be Michael Schwartz, who was likewise lionized when the 2007 inception of Michael’s Genuine Food & Drink finally kickstarted the hitherto perennially “up-and-coming” Design District.

As Schwartz led the way in the Design District, his former partner Myles Chefetz did the same south of Fifth Street in 2004 with swank steakhouse/ celeb magnet Prime 112, teeing up the neighborhood for Estiatorio Milos and La Gloutonnerie.

Big properties continued to draw big names: The Fontainebleau reopened in 2009 with Alfred Portale’s Gotham Steak, Scott Conant’s Scarpetta, and Alan Yau’s Hakkasan, and the W boasts Andrew Carmellini’s The Dutch Miami. Yet, if you had to name the biggest upsurge in the Miami food scene, it might be the little guys, the homegrown talent, many of whom ventured into sketchy neighborhoods that today are the belles of the ball. Kris Wessel entered MiMo with Red Light, followed by Daniel Serfer’s Blue Collar. Jessica Goldman Srebnic and partner/father Tony Goldman pioneered the idea of Wynwood as a viable restaurant market via Joey’s. Buena Vista gained Buena Vista Bistro and Mandolin Aegean Bistro. And don’t forget the Pubbelly boys in Sunset Harbour.

So here we are. Rainer Becker (Zuma) and Daniel Boulud (db Bistro Moderne) have moved in, as have Jean-Georges Vongerichten (J & G Grill), José Andrés (The Bazaar), and Tony Mantuano (Lorenzo). Also on deck: Francis Mallmann (Faena), Masaharu Morimoto (Shelborne), and Gastón Acurio (Mandarin Oriental). We no longer need to fly anywhere to eat. The world’s chefs are coming to us.

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