With so many restaurants participating in Miami Spice through the end of September, we embarked on visiting as many as we could and dishing out grades based on their Spice menu, value and service. So far we have dined at 11 restaurants (The Forge, Charlotte Bistro, D. Rodriguez Cuba, Chef Allen's, EOS, BLT, Gibraltar, Michy’s, Hakkasan, Zuma and Sugarcane) and will soon have reports on others (Por Fin, Solea and Mr. Chow).
We are also looking for a new gym, personal trainer, cholesterol specialist and expandable waistbands.
One thing we cannot stress enough – always ask for the Miami Spice menu when you arrive. It’s not a given that restaurants will offer it as soon as you sit down. Also, make sure to check what day a restaurant offers a Spice dinner – many do not offer the Spice menu on Friday or Saturday nights.(You can check at ilovemiamispice.com) And if you have to valet park, always inquire about parking validation when paying your bill.
Enough chatter. Let’s get to the report card for Miami Spice 2010.
The Forge Restaurant and Wine Bar, 432 41st St., Miami Beach; 305-538-8533
Date Dined: Thursday, Sept. 2 - 7:30 p.m.
Party Size: 11
Best menu combination: Red and Yellow Gazpacho / Snapper in a Bag / Sorbets
Notes: There may not be a better combination of Spice value with dining experience anywhere in Miami than at the decadent Forge. Before we even discuss the food, consider what you get at the Spice price – unmatched service from the bar staff to Executive Sommelier Gino Santangelo (we think it should be renamed Gino’s Wine Cellar at The Forge) and his wine experts at the enomatic machines to the wait staff (our server, Preston, couldn’t have been more gracious). Then there is the feeling that you are dining somewhere special, perhaps in some rich billionaire’s house with so many themed rooms in what feels like a wonderful maze full of surprises. So if you arrive early, take a peek at the different spaces as you enjoy a glass of wine – peek into the wine cellar or inspect some books in the library. This alone (and the $5 valet) makes it worth a Spice visit. Now on to the food. The most impressive feature of Spice at The Forge is that Chef Dewey LoSasso and his team creates a new Spice menu every week. Not every 14 days. Not one for August and one for September. Every seven days. We do not believe there is another restaurant on the Miami Spice gauntlet that comes close to this. The number of items you could choose from the Spice menu was hefty – you had at least three choices of appetizer and four entrees, including the addition of the Snapper in a Bag on the night we dined to make it five. So while our red and yellow gazpacho may have been the best we’ve ever had, and the snapper was full of flavor, and the burgers were uber juicy, and the Caesar salad was the best in Miami, you won’t be able to recommend any of those items at the Spice price to friends on your or their next visit. So all this means is you’ll have to go again next week to re-discover The Forge.
Charlotte Bistro, 264 Miracle Mile, Coral Gables; 305-443-3003
Date Dined: Monday, Aug. 30 – 7:30 p.m.
Party Size: 2
Best menu combination: Crab Risotto / Rack of Lamb / Chocolate Soup
Notes: An intimate modern boutique setting with sweet service highlights this small space on Miracle Mile. From the unique, mismatched artwork that mixes modern with vintage, to a nice background soundtrack that gets the atmosphere just right, to the small number of tables available, this is the perfect spot for a first date, married couple’s date night, or a dinner with a small group of close friends. The Spice menu is impressive and flavorful, and it’s a nice surprise when they bring out a small tray with Pico de Gallo, potato croquette and goat cheese as part of your meal. Just as impressive were the portions – not too much but just enough to take home for a decent next-day lunch. The salmon entrée had great flavor and wasn’t “gamey” or “fishy”. The lamb was cooked to perfection, and dessert was tasty but not overly sweet. Even the chef came by and visited all the tables (there were four other groups at that time), which was a nice touch.
D. Rodriguez Cuba at Hotel Astor, 956 Washington Ave., Miami Beach; 305-673-3763
Date Dined: Sunday, Aug. 29 – 1 p.m.
Party Size: 3
Best menu combination: Ham croquetas / Tortilla Espanola / Flan / Unlimited Sangria
Notes: We stumbled into a Miami Spice surprise when we decided to try out the Sunday brunch that features unlimited sangria. Regularly priced at $29, the brunch is now $22 during Spice months. The ham croquetas (you get between 5 and 6) were served in a sleek presentation (as were all the dishes) and the flavors were fantastic. The tortilla Espanola came with chorizo on the side and was more than satisfying and not overly greasy. The service was friendly and fun, and they don’t rush you out if you want to stick around on a lazy Sunday. The biggest problem was with the sangria (yes, the unlimited sangria). There was plenty to choose from – two blends of red and two blends of white. But they were super, duper sweet, as if Willy Wonka was back in the kitchen making batches of the stuff. Yes there was plenty of fruit in the sangria, and one was berry based, and another even had sake. But the blends made you cringe and your teeth ache on the sip – not a good feeling that early in the day. Time for a new sangria recipe.
Chef Allen's, 19088 NE 29th Ave., Aventura; 305-935-2900
Date Dined: Saturday, Aug. 28 - 8 p.m.
Party Size: 4
Best menu combination: Mixed Baby Lettuces / Wood Grilled Black Angus Hanger Steak / Lavender Vouvray Crème Bruleè
Notes: Chef Allen's offers incredibly attentive service from the minute you walk in. But you know things are going poorly when the purpose of the dinner was to try the Miami Spice menu and two of the four diners bail out on it. The Corvina from the Spice Menu was a miserly serving that couldn't have been more than three ounces and was overcooked to the point of flaky dryness. The steak was cooked on an open flame grill and, though ordered medium rare, was charred badly on the outside. The only thing that saved it was the delicious sauce. The French fries were incredible, though and both desserts were worth the indulgence. The truth of the matter is that the prices at Chef Allen's aren't so high that the Miami Spice menu becomes necessary. If you skip dessert, or don't order an appetizer then you can easily keep dinner under $35. You will probably walk out much happier.
EOS at the Viceroy Hotel, 465 Brickell Ave., Miami; 305-503-4400
Date Dined: Thursday, Aug. 26 – 8 p.m.
Party Size: 4 (plus a small child)
Best menu combination: Heirloom Tomato salad, feta, spicy basil / Braised Short Rib Ragout, tagliatelle, black truffle butter / Chocolate Halvah Bar
Notes: This could be the most impressive set of flavors we have seen on a Miami Spice menu yet. And while the service was excellent (ask for Carlos), we had to strike some points for décor and lighting (too bright for dinner and the décor was too distracting – felt like I was eating at the home of Armand and Albert from the movie The Birdcage) and for reservation issues (called at 6 p.m. to see if we could push the reservation from 8 p.m. to 8:30 p.m.. Was told that was not an option, but they could do 9 p.m. When we walked in at 8 p.m. more than half of the restaurant was empty. Must have been a lot of cancellations between 6-8 p.m., huh?) However, the food wiped out the awkward start to our night with an impressive array of tastes for our palate. The heirloom tomato salad was just the right size, and also a good choice (and healthy portion) is the petite lettuce salad. The snapper paella was a hit, but it was the short rib pasta that stole the show, with a portion that is sure to leave you full but not stuffed and a combination of flavors that keeps you looking forward to the next bite. A great option for your table is to order off the Chef’s Signature Dish portion of the menu. We chose the smoked octopus (not too chewy, not over grilled, incredible texture and flavor) and for the extra $10 price it was plenty for four people. Then it was time for dessert, and by far EOS is the leader in Miami Spice menu desserts. They didn’t treat it as an afterthought, and again created a combination of sweets that tickle the taste buds.
BLT Steak at the Betsy Hotel, 1440 Ocean Dr., Miami Beach
Date Dined: Monday, Aug. 23 – 8:30 p.m.
Party Size: 6
Best menu combination: Avocado salad / Flat Iron steak / Jalapeno Mashed Potatoes / Strawberry Tart
Notes: The service at BLT was excellent (make sure to ask for Carlos) but at times it seemed like we needed to jump start the process. The Miami Spice menu was solid, with a steak tartar and octopus among the appetizers. The snapper was also good, but you go to a steak place to try the beef, so the flat iron steak becomes a popular choice. The sides are where BLT stands apart, and each diner gets one choice of side, so make sure you vary your order for the table. Other side choices included corn cooked with bacon and charred Shishito peppers.
Gibraltar at Grove Isle, 4 Grove Isle Drive, Coconut Grove
Date Dined: Monday, Aug. 16 – 6:30 p.m.
Party Size: 2
Best menu combination: Steamed clams cooked with prosciutto /petite filet with fingerling potatoes / ricotta cheese cake
Notes: Just the views alone from the dining space to the water surrounding the Isle are worth taking a trip to this restaurant. Hard to find many restaurants in Miami with these water views, much less in an indoor, air conditioned space. The grounds are equally impressive, and worth walking around after you have stuffed yourself with a dinner full of large portions for a Spice menu. My order of clams totaled 11 in the bowl. The filet was a good 8 oz. And the cheesecake was just the right size and had a great crust. Nothing too fancy or too risky/creative here, but just a solid dinner option. Make sure to ask for valet parking validation.
Michy’s, 6927 Biscayne Blvd., Miami
Date Dined: Friday, Aug. 13 – 8 p.m.
Party Size: 4
Best menu combination: Watermelon and feta salad /ricotta gnocchi with chicken / plum cake
Notes: Michy’s Spice menu has received some criticism for being pretty plain, but that is hardly what we found on our trip there. The selection of appetizers alone could have been our best menu combination (seared diver scallop, chilled corn and crab soup with corn-crab beignets, the above salad, and a pork belly that, alas, is no longer on the menu). Equally as good as an entree were the flat iron steak and salmon poached in lemony olive oil. They may sound kind of normal, but your taste buds won’t fool you. Also a nice touch were wine bottle specials at $30 each, perfect for a group of 4 or more. With that said, we lowered the grade for slower than average service and screwing up our reservation that was made 9 days prior to dinner. We never got a confirmation call on the day of dinner, and when I called to change our party from 6 to 4, they didn’t have us in the book. But they did see in their log where I had called and made a reservation, but for some reason it was marked canceled. This forced us to sit outside in their patio area – and despite a large fan, the Miami heat nearly made us want to pack our knives and leave. Make sure to double-check your reservations.
Hakkasan at Fontainebleau Miami Beach, 4441 Collins Ave., Miami Beach
Date Dined: Thursday, Aug. 12 – 8 p.m.
Party Size: 4 (plus a small child)
Best menu combination: Grilled chicken dumpling / Sweetcorn soup / scallop and pumpkin in black bean / wild mushroom hand pulled noodle / lemon sorbet
Notes: The setting is unique among Asian restaurants in Miami, and the service was excellent, as was the taste of the food (hand pulled noodles a must). The unique cocktails (make sure to order The Hakka) are a nice way to start your experience. However, we were surprised that only one entree can be ordered for every two people. Some will argue that you get a rice/noodle choice and a soup choice and an appetizer per person, but at that moment we felt like we had been duped a little. Our group ordered the crispy duck salad (not on the Spice menu) and if it wasn’t for that we may have left dinner still feeling hungry. Portions are on the small side, especially when forced to share. Make sure to ask for valet parking validation to receive a discount.
Zuma at Epic Hotel, 270 Biscayne Blvd., Miami
Date Dined: Monday, Aug. 9 – 8 p.m.
Party Size: 6 (plus a small child)
Best menu combination: Gyoza (pot stickers) / skirt steak / banana cake
Notes: Open for less than 3 months, Zuma is quickly becoming one of the top restaurants in Miami, if not the best. The space itself is impressive in design and energy. Being able to see the chefs cook at the various stations adds to the experience. The Spice menu choices were the best we have found, with plenty of options for meat lovers, fish lovers and vegetarians. We ordered some appetizers off the regular menu, due to the size of our party, but in the end we didn’t need to. The skirt steak was the tastiest and best we have had and a must order. The banana cake was also impressive. Cocktails are $12 and we endorse the Rubabu (menu says it’s “rhubarb infused sake shaken with 42 Below vodka and fresh passion fruit”... our table ordered 5 of them). The only thing lacking was the service – not that they didn’t wait on you responsibly, but we had a nearly 20 minute gap between our entree’s and desert because there was only ONE pastry chef working on a Monday and the restaurant was packed. Obviously understaffed, but should our waiter have admitted to the table that was the reason for the delay? The next day we went back for lunch, found another excellent menu (includes salad, soup, rice and entree), but then we were told they had run out of chicken and we were stuck ordering the salmon. (Someone forget to make a trip to Costco?) Make sure to ask for valet parking validation before you go.
Sugarcane, 3250 NE 1st Ave, Miami
Date Dined: Sunday, Aug. 8 – 7:30 p.m.
Party size: 2
Best menu combination: Sepia with olives and cured lemon / Florida snapper with greens / homemade chocolate chip ice cream sandwich
Notes: The Spice menu here was skimpy (only two choices per course) and you’re better off just ordering off the regular menu. There were no sushi choices nor beef choices on the Miami Spice menu, so we ordered one Spice dinner and for less than the $35 Spice price we ordered goat cheese, skirt steak and assorted mushrooms ($25). Sangria was nicely priced at $6 a glass, and the ice cream sandwich is among the top Spice desserts across Miami. Service was fine, but not outstanding, and the ambiance is unique. But with a lacking Spice menu, and a low price point for their regular menu, it made me wonder if I got fooled by all the Spice hype.