by Victoria Pesce Elliott
Far from the glitz and glam that lend Miami its reputation as a playground for socialites and celebrities are the hidden gems -- out-of-the-way places that deliver a more exciting dining experience than the restaurants hyped in glossy magazines.
If you, like me, thrill at finding terrific food in unlikely spots, leave the Miami Spice crowds behind on Ocean Drive and try these recent discoveries.
MAIA'S CREOLE CAFÉ
My favorite find so far this year is a literal hole in the wall. Tucked behind a thicket of wooden rocking horses, hand-hewn mirrors and old milk crates in a Homestead antique mall, Maia's looks like little more than a coffee shop at first glance.
In the past few months, owner Colin Tyler has commandeered seats on a terrace behind the wrought iron grates that front Krome Avenue. His shaky cafe tables sport butter yellow vinyl tablecloths and bottles of Crystal's fiery Louisiana hot sauce.
Head inside to order outrageous Cajun specialties including simmering hot seafood gumbo stocked with blue crab and jumbo shrimp or, if you are lucky, red beans and rice made with smoky coins of real andouille sausage over buttery white rice.
You may wait a while for your order because, as Tyler explains, "I'm a one-man show here."
The chalkboard menu also offers a slim selection of po' boys -- usually one -- and deliciously fresh salads including a sweet and tender curry chicken.
Be sure to call in advance. Maia's keeps odd hours and often sells out before noon. No matter what you order, you are sure to enjoy Tyler's spicy drawl and stories of the lovely daughter for whom the cafe is named.
Alan Hughes made friends and fans when he opened a bohemian hot spot in then-neglected Buena Vista East, just north of the Design District, with live bands and a cool brunch buffet. An astronomical rent spike forced him to shut One Ninety 2½ years ago.
Now Hughes is back, in the main business district of Little Haiti, and his food has matured to a more focused and precise combination of clean flavors.
Get over the décor, which looks like a college dorm room, albeit of some talented art student, with bold murals on one wall and gray concrete block on the other.
Concentrate, instead, on the simple but enticing menu of beauties such as duck confit salad with grapefruit and pistachios, sunflower-crusted Chilean salmon with garlic-lemon bok choy and caramelized onions, and grilled sea scallops in coconut milk with Granny Smith apples and curried eggplant.
On a recent night we sampled an exquisitely light cod cake with grilled red onion, cucumber and tomato salad with a drizzle of perfect aioli emulsion that brought the whole thing together. A delightful arugula salad with shaved slivers of aged Manchego and grilled hearts of palm cloaked in a truffle vinaigrette is another reason to celebrate.
More winners: A pair of fist-sized langoustines wrapped in proscuitto, grilled and served over a lemony risotto with tiny tips of thread-thin asparagus, and a signature barbecue-marinated duck breast sliced in bite-size pieces and arranged over a rich, sweet potato flan with an oyster mushroom and cabbage mélange in a thyme-white wine sauce.
A wine list is in the works, but be sure to ask for a taste of Hughes' Shiraz "Nativo, " from his family's South African winery.
Not many people know Hughes began his career in Miami as a pastry chef at Nemo, and it shows in a classic crème brûlée that is flawless in its simplicity. Basil semifreddo with marinated strawberries is another subtle winner.
You can also stop in for a fine array of tapas or an alluring à la carte Sunday brunch beginning this week.
Miami Beach may be tourism central, but not many tourists would find their way to chef Kira Volz's kitchen. Head north on Collins Avenue from the din of Lincoln Road, make a U-turn at 28th Street onto one-way Indian Creek Drive, and there, between rundown condos, you will spot a perky yellow Russell Pancoast building with a sign no bigger than a flat-screen TV telling you there's a restaurant inside.
The dining room is tiny, but the luscious brick patio is the place to be. You share it with a friendly black cat and potted plants including the rosemary and basil Volz uses in such dishes as Tuscan tomato soup and leg of lamb with Moroccan couscous. A longtime favorite is her grilled romaine, a warm salad with a delightful dash of red onion Dijon dressing and shaved Grana Padano cheese with super-juicy baby tomatoes.
Volz uses the freshest ingredients and sources locally as much as possible, which is why her savory red curry seafood might come with jumbo prawns and tomato-mango chutney one night and striped bass, yellowtail or hog snapper and fresh mint another.
Lately Volz has been making her own pastas and ice creams in flavors like toasted coconut, zippy espresso and a vanilla she serves with a black cherry topping.
SOYA & POMODORO
This downtown hideaway has the feel of an old city rather than a modern metropolis. With its wrought-iron grates, tall wooden doors, terrazzo floors and soaring stone ceilings, the vaulted arcade space feels almost churchlike.
"The idea was to have a little fusion of ingredients, but we found downtown not ready for that, " says owner Armando Alfano, a Pompeii native. "We are now mainly Italian."
That's for sure. With such popular red-sauce dishes as eggplant Parmesan, handmade gnocchi and porcini-stuffed ravioli, the place has gained fans from near and far.
"We wanted to bring a little life here, " Alfano adds.
So far, swinging Thursday and Friday nights with live Latin jazz and menu specials have proved a nice draw for downtown office workers.
IF YOU GO
Maia's Creole Café
* 115 N Krome Ave., Homestead.
* 8 a.m.-3 p.m. Monday-Tuesday, 8 a.m.-6 p.m. Wednesday-Saturday. Dinner service pending beer and wine license.
* Entrees $4.95-$8.95 (lunch).
* 26 NE 54th St., Miami.
* 6 p.m.- midnight Wednesday-Thursday, 6 p.m.-1 a.m. Friday-Saturday. (Wine, beer and tapas until 3 a.m.) Sunday brunch 11 a.m.-3 p.m.
* Entrees $13-$29.
* 2727 Indian Creek Dr., Miami Beach (Indian Creek Hotel).
* 11 a.m.-11 p.m. Monday-Thursday, 8 a.m.-11 p.m. Friday-Sunday.
* Entrees $15-$24.
Soya & Pomodoro
* 120 NE First St., Miami.
* 10 a.m.-4 p.m. Monday-Wednesday, 10 a.m.-11:30 p.m. Thursday-Friday.
* Entrees $7-$14.
A gateway to low-key lunches and late-night dinners at Soya & Pomodoro. Photo: Vanessa Garcia