For a long time, the Sunshine State was all about down-at-heel diners or style-over-substance restaurants but that’s all changed. Where people once went soley for sun and sea, now they go for the food. There’s everything from hot hotel dining from star chefs, to farm-to-fork eateries and Cuban grandmothers’ kitchens.
It all began with four pioneering local chefs dubbed the Mango Gang: Norman Van Aken, Mark Militello, Allen Susser and Douglas Rodriguez. In the 1990s, they took South Florida’s indigenous ingredients – tropical fruits such as guavas and mangos, fish and seafood – and mixed them up with the colours and spices of Caribbean cooking, creating Floribbean cuisine.
Their legacy of ingredient-focussed dishes has continued with chefs like Michael Schwartz, a Philadelphia native who’s passion for local seasonal produce at Michael's Genuine Food & Drink in the Design District, put that mindset on the Miami map.
Miami's hottest tables used to be at outposts of imported New York restaurants, now its the homegrown restaurants that people flock to. Many of them are in Miami Beach, that glamorous island playground where the pastel-hued Art Deco buildings of South Beach, or SoBe, now house hip new and reinvented hotels and restaurants.
Florida Cookery at The James Royal Palm was the brainchild of award-winning Miami chef Kris Wessel. He crafted his dishes from all things local – from spiny lobster to alligator, Indian River County grapefruit and kumquats – and the restaurant has continued his theme. Start with the trio of empanadas – curry chicken, ropa vieja (shreadded beef) and alligator – served with a chipotle salsa, or the corvina tiradito with passion fruit, and don’t miss the Miami paella, bursting with cedar key clams, gulf shrimp and octopus, as well as homemade chorizo.
With the opening of Yardbird Southern Table & Bar, Jeff McInnis brought Southern home cooking to the Sunshine State. Tender, crispy fried chicken is served with cheddar waffles, hot sauce-spiked Tupelo honey and chunks of chilled, spiced watermelon. And it’s not just chicken on the menu: Florida shrimp is paired with Virginia ham and South Carolina grits. You can wash it down with a big ol’ cocktail, such as the Pork Chop, a combination of bourbon, cider, citrus juice, fresh thyme and a dash of Dijon mustard.
The panoramic view stretching from Biscayne Bay to the Atlantic from Juvia, set in a chic indoor-outdoor penthouse atop a Herzog & de Meuron-designed garage, almost overshadows the food. Almost. The eclectic dishes coming out of the open kitchen are an inventive marriage of French, Japanese and Peruvian cooking styles, such as pan-seared duck magret, shiitake and a mandarin reduction, or aji panca Colorado lamb chops.
Two Michelin-star chef Danny Grant heads up the newly opened, glass-walled 1826 Restaurant and Lounge. He’s kept the contemporary American menu – divided into the Harvest, the Hook and the Hunt – as locavore as possible, with dishes such as Florida avocado and grapefruit salad with hearts of palm, and Everglades’ frogs legs crisped with garlic and capers. Afterwards, you can indulge in a creative cocktail in the chic top-floor lounge bar.
But Miami’s not all about fine dining and sophisticated eateries. There are hundreds of hole-in-the-wall joints beloved by locals, and a good way to uncover the best bites and get a real taste of Miami culture is to go on a foodie walkabout with Miami Culinary Tours.
Along the streets of SoBe, I tasted Colombian empanadas, Peruvian ceviche and a doorstep-sized medianoche, or Cuban sandwich, of slow-roasted pork, and rounded off with a creamy Italian gelato.
As diverse as its inhabitants, Miami’s cuisine doesn’t have a defining dish. It has dozens.
The author flew to Miami with American Airlines and stayed at The James Royal Palm in South Beach. For foodie tours of South Beach, Little Havana, Wynwood Arts District and more, contact Miami Culinary Tours. Miami Spice is a restaurant promotion running from 1 August to 30 September. The annual South Beach Wine & Food Festival (SBWFF) is held in February. For more information on Miami visit miamiandbeaches.com.