They’re a new addition to the menu at Michael’s Genuine Food & Drink, which started serving brunch — and thus the Pop-Tarts — in late October. And they’re not, of course, the supermarket variety. They’re a proper pastry chef’s riff on those childhood favorites, miniaturized and so adorably dimpled on the edges that I wasn’t sure whether to eat or cuddle with them. I opted for eating, trying both the gooey blackberry and the sunny yuzu. Sometimes, but not that day, Michael’s serves Nutella-flavored ones, too. I’m checking airfares as I type.
During most of my past trips to this sun-kissed American playground, I’d been disappointed by its restaurant scene, crammed as it was with too many steakhouses and too much vacuous glitz.
If I looked for low-cost Latin fare, especially Cuban cooking, I had luck. But it was harder to find impressive meals by principled chefs whose work spanned diverse ethnic traditions and participated fully in the culinary conversation of the moment.
Thanks in part to the momentum created by the 2007 opening of Michael’s in the Miami Design District, that’s changed, and the city’s restaurant scene has experienced a remarkable growth spurt: the sexy new tapas restaurant Sra. Martinez, also in the Design District; the first American outpost of Hakkasan, London’s fabled Chinese restaurant, in Miami Beach’s lavishly renovated Fontainebleau hotel; Red Light, a sort of upscale diner where the Caribbean and the American South meet.
When thousands of food lovers descend on this city next month for the South Beach Wine & Food Festival, they’ll be able to range across an impressive restaurant landscape. And when other travelers flock here through the winter for a balmy break, they’ll discover that they don’t have to trade great meals for good weather.
If they’re smart they’ll hit Sra. Martinez, which nabbed nationwide attention pretty much the minute it opened in December 2008.
The chef Michelle Bernstein’s work at the restaurant Michy’s in Miami had established her as one of Miami’s culinary stars (well enough known to merit an appearance as a guest judge on “Top Chef”); at Sra. Martinez she has turned in a glossier and more ethnically specific direction, joining a sort of gastronomic revolution in the Design District.
Like Michael’s and other restaurants in the district, Sra. Martinez meets the street with a spacious outdoor patio and a canopy of palms: Miami restaurateurs tend not to let the local weather or flora go to waste. (As for its name, Sra. means señora, and Ms. Bernstein owns the restaurant with her husband, David Martinez.)
The interior of Sra. Martinez is even more attractive, with its two-story-high ceiling, its enormous windows and, in the back, up a staircase, a second-story dining alcove that overlooks the main first-story room.
The menu presents a carefully considered mix of relatively traditional tapas (ham croquetas, patatas bravas) and innovative ones that reflect the cooking not just of Spain but also of its former colonies: grilled prawns, for instance, are sprinkled with popcorn and corn nuts, both of which Ms. Bernstein said are used in Peru as an accouterment for ceviche.
Other creations spring from Ms. Bernstein’s fertile imagination. One such dish is the “egg yolk carpaccio,” a pool of whipped egg yolks, olive oil and coarse salt that’s baked until it takes on a carpaccio-esque texture, then studded with tiny shrimp and topped with shoestring potatoes.
Servers provide bread for scooping up the yolk mixture, and the overall experience was one of a deliciously unceremonious breakfast nudging up against a more refined dinner. It was a heady confluence, made headier still by the restaurant’s bounty of Spanish wines, scores of them, seizing the foreground from France and Italy, which too often dominate it.
Elsewhere in the Design District, a few fashionable, landlocked blocks of galleries and showrooms, Fratelli Lyon offers Italian food in contemporary trappings, and the chef Jonathan Eismann has established a modern pizzeria, Pizza Volante. It’s just one prong of his huge investment in the neighborhood, where he will soon open Fin, serving local seafood, and Q American Barbeque.
But Mr. Eismann’s real showpiece in the Design District is Pacific Time, which serves pan-Asian food. After more than a decade in South Beach, this Miami favorite moved to a handsome yet utterly relaxed new setting away from the surf.
A front patio leads to a dining room that’s visually dominated by a long bar, where bottles sit in precise positions on backlighted shelves, and by a partially open kitchen. There’s a sense of controlled bustle, and there’s dark wood and a warm, honeyed glow throughout.
Reading Pacific Time’s menu — or, for that matter, merely focusing on its name — provokes some cognitive dissonance, in that the restaurant looks to countries on the big ocean that Miami is nowhere near.
It takes in Thailand, Japan, China and India, and thus assembles a larder including house-made hoisin sauce (for duck confit), tamarind (for the salmon yaki), red curry and coconut water (for the local black grouper cheeks) and sake and edamame (for the black cod).
To further the confusion, Pacific Time throws in some dishes — sheep’s milk ricotta gnudi, for example — with Mediterranean bearings.
But who needs ethnic logic and clarity when there are outsize delights like Pacific Time’s soft-shell crab, dressed in a fermented black bean vinaigrette? It was exceptional, and yet paled beside the restaurant’s signature hot-and-sour popcorn shrimp, with their gossamer casings around a succulent core.
Michael’s Genuine Food & Drink
The shining star of the district and, arguably, the entire city is Michael’s, a New American bistro with an emphasis on the fruits of Florida’s soil and seas and an insistence on making just about everything — the pastrami, the pickles, the jams, the sodas — in house.
Named for its chef-owner, Michael Schwartz, the restaurant simply radiates joy, in its sum and in its parts: the red and purple color scheme inside; the glass walls between interior and exterior dining areas; the jazz soundtrack; the loquacious servers; the open kitchen, with its prominently displayed wood-burning stove.
I first ate here in early 2008, when I came for dinner. Michael’s served lunch then, too, but the restaurant’s outstanding brunch didn’t come along until the fall of 2009.
All three menus — dinner, lunch and brunch — have clearly been written with one question in mind: will customers yearn to eat everything on them?
They will, and the sillier something on the menu sounds, the better it tends to be. The restaurant’s masterpiece, in fact, isn’t any of the fine Florida seafood that’s roasted in that wood-burning oven, or even the gorgeous, bountiful salads, bejeweled with macadamia nuts, pickled pearl onions and papaya. It’s the house-made, thick-cut potato chips with pan-fried onion dip.
They get stiff competition, though, from anything and everything the pastry chef, Hedy Goldsmith, whips up. She’s all slyness and nostalgia, with her “Mounds bar” tart and her red velvet cupcakes and those Pop-Tarts, oh those warm, crisp, tender Pop-Tarts.
And she answers each of the savory hits on Mr. Schwartz’s side of the brunch menu — like an omelet that pays homage to a Reuben sandwich and a chicken-salad sandwich better than any I’d ever had — with a home run of her own. Get the fudgy peanut butter brownie with malted chocolate sauce. Just don’t plan to eat again for five years.
The spirit of playfulness that defines Michael’s is also present at Red Light, a modest restaurant of immodest pleasures.
Located in another overlooked Miami neighborhood that’s being spruced up, the MiMo district, Red Light is situated alongside a canal in which manatees — and the occasional alligator — swim. It sprawls up and down stairs and in and out of doors in a deliberately ramshackle fashion, and it’s decorated with strings of little lights.
The menu that has been put together by Kris Wessel, the chef and owner, nods to the Caribbean, Mexico, the American South and even New Orleans. In the unpretentious manner of the moment, it traffics heavily in fatty and starchy fare — with the bacon abundant, the ribs present and accounted for, the sides making room for both macaroni and cheese and Gorgonzola grits.
There are three kinds of grilled cheese sandwiches, and that struck me as possible overkill until I tried the one with Fontina and (of course) bacon and instantly regretted not getting the other two as well. Scandalously thick and rich, it was more sandwich than anyone can reasonably handle, and I bet no one leaves so much as a crumb or rivulet.
Red Light also serves fish whose freshness is beyond dispute. We had a plump, perfectly cooked fillet of sautéed lane snapper, glistening with butter on a king-size bed of rice. If you’re looking for spa cuisine, don’t look to Red Light.
I found seafood done with a lighter touch (for the most part) at Area 31, a sleek, almost minimalist restaurant perched on the 16th floor of the Epic Hotel downtown, with stunning views of the glittering skyscrapers around it.
After I ate there in early December, Area 31 was closed, along with the rest of the Epic hotel, for two weeks because Legionnaires’ disease was diagnosed in three people who had visited the hotel. One died; the others recovered.
After many tests and adjustments to the hotel’s water system, public health officials cleared the restaurant to reopen last weekend.
I hope Area 31 doesn’t suffer for that long, pregnant pause, because I admire its emphasis on sustainable seafood from the Atlantic fishing zone comprising Florida, Central America and northern South America. (The restaurant takes its name from that zone.)
About half of the appetizers are crudo compositions, and the “ocean to table” category of entrees presents a changing roster of half a dozen kinds of fresh fish.
We ordered a five-course tasting menu, very reasonably priced at $50 a person, and though it was uneven, the fried clams were outstanding.
Downtown Miami and Miami Beach have both grown considerably flashier in recent years, on account of the pre-recession real-estate boom. The newly renovated Fontainebleau hotel, now awash in colored lights and gleaming with new marble, provides the perfect example. It’s home to several particularly prominent new restaurants, including Gotham Steak from Alfred Portale, and a second Scarpetta from the chef Scott Conant, whose first one is in Manhattan’s meatpacking district. But the biggest news at the Fontainebleau is Hakkasan, an exotic labyrinth of carved teak walls and turquoise upholstery. (The original Hakkasan, in London, is precisely the sort of haute Chinese exemplar that New York craves but lacks.)
Almost all of the dozen or so dishes I sampled at the Miami branch were superbly cooked. The meat on the tea-smoked ribs didn’t so much fall as ooze off the bone. The dumplings in a seafood dim sum platter were textbook — bouncy on the outside, juicy within.
None of this came cheap. Just three courses can easily cost $60, and in that context the occurrence of a soup as wan as the red snapper with watercress proved frustrating.
But the service was impeccable, and Chinese cuisine of this ambition, with an ambience this opulent, is rare. It doesn’t exist in bigger cities better known for their restaurant scenes. That Miami has it is a revelation — and a reason to go.
THE BOTTOM LINE
Area 31, Epic Hotel, 270 Biscayne Boulevard Way, Miami; (305) 424-5234; area31restaurant.com. Dinner appetizers, $8 to $14; entrees, $16 to $38.
Hakkasan, Fontainebleau Miami Beach, 4441 Collins Avenue, Miami Beach; (877) 326-7412; www.fontainebleau.com. Dinner appetizers, $8 to $24; entrees, $18 to $48.
Michael’s Genuine Food & Drink, 130 N.E. 40th Street; (305) 573-5550; michaelsgenuine.com. Dinner, small plates, $8 to $16; medium plates, $11 to $21; large, $19 to $36. Brunch dishes, $4 to $21.
Pacific Time, 35 N.E. 40th Street, Miami; (305) 722-7369; www.pacifictimerestaurant.com. Dinner, small plates and salads, $6 to $15; entrees $18 to $26.
Red Light, 7700 Biscayne Boulevard, Miami; (305) 757-7773; www.redlightmiami.com. Dinner appetizers are $6 to $14, and entrees, $9 to $30.
Sra. Martinez, 4000 N.E. 2nd Avenue, Miami; (305) 573-5474; www.sramartinez.com. Tapas, $7 to $18; large plates, $24 to $38.