Miami Spice 2015: Grading the top restaurants

Coq au Vin at db Bistro Moderne in Miami.

Our writers are fanning out across the county to find the best (and worst) of the nearly 200 participating Miami Spice restaurants. Here are our first seven Spice Scorecards; look for new installments throughout the two-month promotion that ends Sept. 30. Our grading scale:

A: What a meal! What a deal!

B: I’d go back.

C: Mostly “meh.”

D: Try again next year.

F: Stinks at Spice.

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Sea Grill Miami

3913 NE 163rd St., North Miami Beach; 305-945-7555, seagrillmiami.com.

Grade: B.

Meal: Dinner.

Can’t-miss dish: Lamb chops.

Mini-review: Sea Grill’s succinct Miami Spice menu reflects the restaurant’s Hellenic heritage. Its Greek salad starter is appropriately fresh and crisp, with a nice wedge of feta cheese along with the requisite lettuce, tomatoes and cucumber. Kefetedes, a lamb and beef meatball, here appears in the form of a surprisingly light and flavorful patty flavored with garlic, mint and parsley. A third appetizer is avgolemono, the traditional Greek egg-lemon-chicken soup.

Entrees include grouper ladoregano, pan-seared with lemon, olive oil and oregano. The thick and flaky hunk of grouper is quite fresh though surprisingly bland. A charcoal-grilled organic chicken ladoregano is also featured on the Miami Spice menu. Lamb chops, char-broiled with the same spicing, are actually riblets from a rack. The five meaty “chops” were ordered medium, but most were served past pinkness, though still quite flavorful and tender. Branzino is another Spice entrée. Dessert choices include Greek yogurt; a sweet, sticky and delicious chunk of baklava; and galaktoboureko, a creamy custard pastry.

Sea Grill’s service is inconsistent and a bit slack. Though we were warmly greeted and seated, our water glasses went unfilled, and it took a bit of doing to get the check and settle our tab. The beautifully appointed Greek-themed eatery offers outside dining on the Intracoastal, but it can be a bit muggy and buggy this time of year.

RICHARD PACHTER

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db Bistro Moderne

255 Biscayne Boulevard Way (JW Marriott Marquis), Miami; 305-421-8800, dbbistro.com/miami.

Grade: A+.

Meal: Dinner.

Can’t-miss dish: Short rib ravioli with a spank of horseradish and a pop of fresh peas.

Mini-review: DB Bistro Moderne takes Miami Spice to heart, offering a something-for-everyone menu daily at lunch and dinner. Staid-sounding options have elegant, exciting execution.

Salad means soft butter lettuce, thinly shaved radish and crunchy cashews with a kick from vadouvan, a mild curry dressing. Soup du jour, a roasted tomato soup with quinoa and shiso, is silky, intensely flavored, beautifully presented and entirely vegan. Bistro classic coq au vin is winey, rich and fall-apart tender. Fontina no doubt gives the corn and fennel risotto a luscious finish, but we give the kitchen extra credit and many thanks for a knockout vegan version, with each grain of arborio rice distinct but yielding beautifully with each bite.

Service is polished yet warm (yes, in Miami). Our waiter, Johann, greeted us as though we’d been in last week (last January is more like it). When we were struggling with dessert options — chocolate bar or strawberry shortcake? — the waiter brought both. A wine note of worth: On Monday and Tuesday nights in August and September, the restaurant knocks 50 percent off all bottles priced from $200 to $500. It also changes its Spice menu every two weeks, tempting many happy returns.

ELLEN KANNER

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Semilla Eatery and Bar

1330 Alton Rd., Miami Beach; 305-674-6522, semillamiami.com.

Grade: B.

Meal: Dinner.

Can’t-miss dish: Black cherry clafoutis.

Mini-review: The Miami Spice menu at Semilla Eatery and Bar along busy Alton Road in South Beach is offered daily for lunch and dinner. First-course selections are fresh and made from local ingredients like burrata served on heirloom tomatoes with a light sauce and sprinkled with basil. We would have liked to see full basil leaves with the appetizer and a more traditional cut of the heirlooms, which were served in large, quartered chunks.

Wine isn’t figured in to the Spice menu, but we ordered a white blend that went well with a main dish of lobster risotto with asparagus. The small portion of asparagus was disheartening, just two small stalks, and the tough lobster atop the dish didn’t impress. But the pieces mixed throughout the soft and creamy risotto, which did come in a more generous portion, somewhat made up for the shortfalls.

Three dessert choices make it difficult to choose just one, though the black cherry bites served in ceramic — the cherries baked into a moist white cake — were light enough and not too sweet. An agreeable and satisfying end to the Miami Spice experience.

JENNY LUNA

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Angelique Euro Café

117 Miracle Mile, Coral Gables; 305-529-9922, angeliqueeurocafe.com.

Grade: B.

Meal: Dinner.

Can’t-miss dish: Bread pudding.

Mini-review: Located in the heart of Coral Gables, the charming Angelique Euro Café is a casual neighborhood spot serving food from Spain, France, Italy and Belgium. While it’s a good value for lunch or during its popular weekend brunch, dinner tends to be on the pricier side, making Spice a welcome option.

The Spice dinner menu aptly represents the restaurant’s various cultural influences, including a superb starter of escargot and mushrooms with sautéed shallots in a garlic sauce. We also tried the pera mixta salad, which was tarty and sweet with wine poached pear, manchego cheese and candied walnuts. Entrées play it safe. Grilled young chicken served with roasted potatoes and green beans was well-seasoned.

We very much enjoyed the flavors in the lobster gnocchi, but the portion was small, and there were only about five small pieces of lobster (mostly claw meat). Both desserts we tried were winners, including a white chocolate and raspberry bread pudding (so popular they ran out) and an almond mousse infused with mascarpone. The service was good, and there’s live music Friday and Saturday, which is a nice touch.

SUE ARROWSMITH

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Macchialina

820 Alton Rd., Miami Beach; 305-534-2124, macchialina.com.

Grade: B.

Meal: Dinner.

Can’t-miss dish: Local burrata with confit tomato and arugula.

Mini-review: Family-style ordering at Macchialina means it’s best to go with friends who won’t mind sharing rustic Italian fare. Diners are asked to pick six dishes to create a four-course meal: two antipasti, two pastas, one meat or fish entree and a dessert.

The highlights were in the opening courses: Local burrata oozed salty, creamy flavor over a bed of confit tomatoes and a thick slice of crusty Italian bread. Tender octopus paired well with tangy pickled onions and red peppers. The only real disappointment — bland, oily cacio e pepe that needed more kick and, well, pep — was outshone by cavatelli with meatballs and porchetta and the main course, an aged sirloin on juice-soaked but perfectly crisp fingerling potatoes.

We didn’t try the sugar-snap pea salad, creamy polenta, beet-filled mezzaluna, yellowtail snapper or veal marsala also listed on the menu. Dessert options are tiramisu, panna cotta and chocolate and hazelnut zeppoli.

Upcharges not listed online posed an unwelco
me surprise: $3 a person for octopus, $4 each for the steak, etc. But the blow was softened slightly by a delicate cauliflower soup served at no charge before the meal. Macchialina is worth a trip for Spice, but a better deal may be the $10 pastas offered all night on Thursdays.

NICHOLAS NEHAMAS

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The Forge

432 W. 41st St., Miami Beach; 305-538-8533, theforge.com.

Grade: A.

Meal: Dinner.

Can’t-miss dish: Chocolate lava cake.

Mini-review: The venerable mid-Beach steakhouse with the legendary wine list is an enthusiastic participant in Miami Spice, offering chef Christopher Lee’s creative Asian touches on a Spice menu that changes weekly.

There is always a mini-filet mignon; they simply rotate sauces to change things up and encourage repeat visits (this night’s was a sweet and spicy hoisin glaze, served with a julienne stir fry). A generous filet of salmon crusted with white and black sesame seeds and seared had an intriguing sauce flecked with pickled spicy pomegranate seeds, adding an appealing crunchy texture to baby bok choy and puckery kaffir lime dashi broth.

Starters include a lush tuna tartare with daikon radish and shiso and scallion pancakes for dipping, and a big old-school iceberg wedge salad with blue cheese, black olives and bacon. Lemon pound cake with berry coulis and coconut sorbet is interesting and complex, but chocolate lava cake with dots of hazelnut cream is one of the best diet-busters in all of Miami Spice.

KENDALL HAMERSLY

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Palme d’Or

1200 Anastasia Ave. (The Biltmore), Coral Gables. 855-969-3084, biltmorehotel.com.

Grade: A.

Meal: Dinner.

Can’t-miss dish: Le Baba Au Rhum Aux Fruits Rouges.

Mini-review: Chef Gregory Pugin’s Miami Spice menu at the elegant Palme d’Or is offered for dinner Tuesday through Saturday.

We chose the Tarte a la Ricotta, a light starter with a colorful mixture of red and orange baby heirloom tomatoes and Iberico ham atop a slightly sweet ricotta tart.

With the main course — Loup de Mer (Chilean sea bass with fennel purée, green vegetable gnocchi and ginger sauce, flavorful yet mild enough for someone who rarely chooses fish) and La Canette de Barbarie a la Nectarine (a savory seared duck breast with nectarine, confit leg and sweet potato) — comes the ritual that helps make the Palme d’Or Miami Spice experience special, as a team of attentive servers delivers the entrées, whisking off the silver plate covers simultaneously.

For dessert, try the rum-soaked Le Baba Au Rhum Aux Fruits Rouges with a crown of whipped cream and berries, or the Éclair au Chocolat et Grand Marnier, a lovely éclair topped by waves of chocolate icing underneath colorful flecks of fruit and chocolate.

The sommelier will suggest wines by the glass at $12 or a bottle at $45, which is relatively modest by Palme d’Or standards. As is the $39 for dinner at a place that features a six-course tasting menu for $115 or an eight-course one for $160.

CHRISTINE DOLEN

Critics dine anonymously at the Miami Herald’s expense.

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