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By Bill Kearney
Photographs by Greg Clark | October 1, 2010 | Food & Drink
I’ll admit a certain prejudice against downtown Miami; daytime parking’s about as much fun as arguing with a drunk, and despite the condo boom, the streets are still a hodgepodge of fabric shops, watch stores and electronics vendors that seem hellbent on that “sooty ’70s look.” It’s easy to ignore as you drive to Brickell or Midtown. But do so at your peril, because a little cluster of awesomeness has sprung up, particularly in a small section of downtown just north of Brickell and south of Northeast Second Street. While it has been given the corporate-sounding and dull name Central Business District (CBD), let’s call it NoBri (North of Brickell) instead. Fed by the condo boom around it, NoBri has enjoyed a spike that, until very recently, has remained camouflaged in the downtown you think you know.
CLOCKWISE FROM LEFT: The downtown Cuban staple Las Palmas Cafeteria; Soya & Pomodoro’s dining room; Area 31’s ceviche with yellowfin tuna, sour orange, red-pepper juice, hearts of palm, chili and coconut; Wok Town co-owner Shai Ben-Ami; the restaurant’s terrace at the Epic Hotel; The basketball court at the JW Marriott Marquis
Downtown has always needed food, and there are landmark coffee and cheap-eats spots, such as Las Palmas Cafeteria (209 SE First St., 305-373-1333), with its hard-earned bluecollar charm, and 40-year-old Manolo y Rene Cafeteria (281 NE First St., 305-358-4488), with its steady flow of loyalists shooting the breeze. But about six years ago, things changed. If you hear a trumpet echoing down noirish streets, follow it and you’ll find Soya & Pomodoro (120 NE First St., 305-381-9511). After working on the Beach, Italian buddies Cristian D’Oria (from Puglia) and Armando Alfano (Pompeii) decided they were done with the transience and looked to the mainland as a place to put down roots. “People told us, ‘You guys are crazy to open downtown,’” says D’Oria. They took over a Neoclassical alcove, walled it off with bookcases, Latin Colonial antiques and candlelight, and created an Italian spot that’s like a little aphrodisiac hidden on an otherwise barren street. “We started with lunches and Latin jazz on Thursday nights, and it’s taken off from there,” says D’Oria. Bring a date who’s never been, and you’ve suddenly doubled your charm factor.
The next newcomer actually had its genesis in Cuba. La Epoca was Havana’s third-largest department store until the 1960 Castro confiscation. They operated out of NoBri’s Alfred I. DuPont Building until late 2005, when Randall Alonso (PICTURED RIGHT) and his family moved the store into the Deco Walgreens building on Flagler (200 E. Flagler St., 305-374-7731; shop.laepocamiami.com), where it occupies three floors and nearly 24,000 square feet. Since then, business has flourished, and Alonso’s taken over a floor above the store and turned it into a sprawling loft/living space that would fit right into SoHo circa 1980.
The Italians have really been pioneers in NoBri. Fratelli Milano (213 SE First St., 305-373-2300) is tiny, with a kitchen so small there’s no storage, so everything’s made fresh daily. That said, the cramped quarters can make you feel like family, with the love coming from twin brothers Roberto and Emanuele Bearzi in the kitchen, and Roberto’s wife, Fiorella, running the front of the house. They began doing breakfasts and lunches three and a half years ago for the office crowd, but dinners have made the family grow, with customers (some walking over from the north end of Brickell) so loyal that, as restaurants close in other neighborhoods, this one recently doubled its size by taking over an optical shop next door. And since Fiorella isn’t going to let you leave without filling you up, try the pappardelle Milano with sliced filet mignon, truffle oil and goat cheese.
FROM LEFT: Emanuele Bearzi (left) with his wife, Fiorella, and brother Roberto at Fratelli Milano; below, the restaurant’s pearand Taleggio-stuffed pasta
Two more Italian spots, Puntino Downtown and Tre Italian Bistro, also popped up last year. Puntino (353 SE Second St., 305-371-9661; puntinodowntown.com) serves the owner’s Naples-style cuisine and looks plucked out of Midtown Manhattan, with pop-art-meets-Roman Empire portraits on the walls, while Tre (270 E. Flagler St., 305- 373-3303; tremiami.com) takes a fusion route, with innovative dishes such as moqueca, a bouillabaisse-like stew from northern Brazil of white fish, shrimp, mussels and clams with coconut-milk broth, toasted coconut and rice.
Over on Southeast First Avenue, there’s a courtyard that gives you no reason to walk into it, but if you do you’ll find Thai Angel (152 SE First Ave., 305-371-9748; thaiangelmiami.com). It feels almost quaint (in a suburban Bangkok kind of way) and is owned by Yui Amporn, who worked for seven years at her brother’s Thai House on South Beach before opening downtown. She demanded that I try the pad Thai (the dish by which I measure all Thai restaurants), which her aunt makes with the extra-thin noodles Amporn prefers. As I was leaving, pro kickboxer Remy Bonnel, who trained in Thailand, walked in. “Ah, you found my place,” he said.
Across the street from Thai Angel is Wok Town (119 SE First Ave., 305-371-9993; woktown.com), from Miss Yip and Domo Japones vet Shai Ben-Ami, who’s a co-owner. It’s more of a counter-service place, with a bright-orange and white design and long communal tables made from recycled compressed plywood. They’ve put together a Pan-Asian menu with standouts such as oversize bowls of spicy Singapore-style curry with thin rice noodles tossed with beef, shrimp or salty strips of barbecued pork.
FROM LEFT: CVI.CHE 105 chef Juan Chipoco and the restaurant’s conchitas a la Parmesana
A bit north on Third Avenue is a banal, almost institutional building, but inside is a pocket of sleek white, purple and glossed concrete that’s home to CVI.CHE 105 (105 NE Third Ave., 305-577-3454; ceviche105.com). Probably the most modern-looking spot in NoBri, it was opened last year by chef Juan Chipoco, who accents his traditional Peruvian cuisine with a modernity that matches the setting. The place has been such a hit that this past February they broke through the back wall and expanded to three times the original size.
So there’s plenty of international fare, but what about Americana? Head to Sparky’s Roadside Barbecue (204 NE First St., 305- 377-2877; sparkysroadsidebarbecue.com), a roomy Southern luncheonette (sea-foam-green tables, bull skulls on the walls) featuring “low and slow” St. Louis-style barbecue, using a hickory and applewood rotisserie smoker. I know people get serious about their barbecue here, but this is some of the best in the county. And a couple of blocks west, First & First Southern Baking Company (109 NE First Ave., 305-577-6446), run by two brothers from West Virginia, pulls people in off the street with the scent of confections and the sight of mandarinorange-, mojito- and Jack Daniel’s-flavored pound cakes.
These smaller operations are easy to miss, as they’ve taken over mid-block storefronts you’re sadly conditioned to ignore, but in the last few years, there’s been some development with a little more backing. Chophouse Miami (300 S. Biscayne Blvd., 305-938-9000; chophousemiami.com) has a river-view veranda with an unpretentious late-day drinking ambience; the leisurely pace of passing boat traffic is as much a palliative as the booze. Meanwhile, Il Gabbiano (335 S. Biscayne Blvd., 305-373-0063; ilgabbianomiami.com), in the One Miami building, offers as formal a dining experience as you’re likely to find in Miami, with servers in white jackets and a back patio that arcs around the bottom corner of downtown, giving you 180-degree views of Biscayne Bay all the way across to Virginia Key.
Chef John Critchley opened Area 31 (Epic Hotel, 270 Biscayne Blvd. Way, 305-424-5234; area31restaurant.com) in December of 2008 and earned accolades as one of Esquire’s Best New Restaurants of 2009. The sustainability concept for which the place is named will make you feel better about your gluttony, but the Blade Runner-esque views of Icon, Brickell Avenue and the Miami River are perhaps a more honest reason to hit this place.
While NoBri had “arrived” before Zuma (PICTURED RIGHT) anointed the area, there was something major about the internationally famous restaurant opening its doors. Though it’s based on an informal Japanese dining style called izakaya, which German chef Rainer Becker grew fond of during his stint in Japan, this place takes itself very seriously. Don’t look for the personal warmth of Fratelli Milano, but do expect meticulously prepared food from a three-pronged attack of kitchen, sushi bar and rustic robata grill. You can pull up in your boat before an audience on the riverside patio.
And now is when NoBri is really going crazy. Just across from the Epic Hotel is the brand-new, 41-story, 313-room JW Marriott Marquis Miami (345 Avenue of the Americas; jwmarriottmarquismiami.com). This place has three on-site restaurants, including db Bistro Moderne by three-time James Beard winner Daniel Boulud, which is famous in New York for its $32 burger of braised-short-rib- and truffle-filled sirloin. But perhaps the most opulently confident sign that NoBri is here to stay is the 50,000-square-foot entertainment/lifestyle complex on the 19th and 20th floors. There’s a Jim McLean Golf School (with virtual golf simulators, two putting greens and a pro shop), billiard room, virtual bowling alley, full-service RikRak Salon, Boutique and Bar, and 10,000-square-foot athletic arena that transforms from tennis court to carpeted event space to NBA-approved basketball court. You might not be able to reach the rim, but you’ll be towering above Miami.
WHAT ABOUT ICON BRICKELL?
Though not technically part of NoBri, the Icon and Viceroy Miami are closer to—and seem to have more in common with—NoBri than Brickell proper. You can easily walk over the bridge to NoBri’s offerings, and Viceroy Miami contributes to the food movement with two concepts from Michelin-starred chef Michael Psilakis. Eos serves modern interpretations of Greek cuisine, while Bistro e puts out surprisingly affordable breakfasts and lunches that meld foreign inspiration with American style. And on the 50th floor there’s Club 50 (PICTURED ABOVE), a nightclub featuring Kelly Wearstler’s Asian-dynasty-meets-Palm Beach playfulness and some of the best views of the 305 around. Here and at right, Club 50 at the Viceroy Miami
PHOTOGRAPH BY HAMID KOOTVAL (PASTA)