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 (Makoto, Tudor House, db Bistro Moderne, Por Fin, Ortanique, Oceanaire, Area 31, Symcha’s and Morton’s for dinner and Chophouse Miami and Michael’s Genuine for lunch) and will soon have reports on others (1500 at Eden Roc, Meat Market and Scarpetta).
We are also looking for a new gym, personal trainer, cholesterol specialist and expandable waistband pants.
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.
We have also wondered why a glass of wine is not an option for the Spice menu in place of the dessert choice? A lot of diners don’t enjoy or seek dessert, and some restaurants treat dessert as an afterthought. Perhaps in 2012 Miami Spice will allow restaurants to offer one glass of wine as a substitute for dessert, and not as an upgraded price that is currently offered at some restaurants.
We are also finding some chefs are taking more risks with their appetizer creations, but going safe with the entrees. The creativity certainly starts the meal off with good energy but at times cannot be sustained throughout the three courses.
Finally, 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 2011.
Scarpetta at Fontainebleau Miami Beach, 4441 Collins Ave., Miami Beach; 305-674-4660
Date Dined: Tuesday, Aug. 23 - 7:30 p.m.
Party Size: 8
Best menu combination: Creamy Polenta / Spaghetti / Polenta Crusted Cheesecake
Notes: Arguably the best restaurant in Miami didn’t skimp when it came to Miami Spice. First off, the menu is offered Sunday through Friday (last year Friday was not an option). Secondly, the best choices from its regular menu are offered during Spice – creamy polenta, braised short ribs, Mediterranean Branzino, oven roasted chicken, and it’s famous homemade spaghetti. (The chicken is the major surprise of the entrée group – cooked to perfection and amazingly savory.) So if dining here with a group, you can get the best Scarpetta has to offer and be prepared to share because there will be plenty to go around. Service is just as impeccable as the food – clear explanations on what’s been served, timely and courteous service. There is little doubt as to why this is one of the highest rated restaurants in Miami.
db Bistro Moderne at JW Marriott Marquis, 255 Biscayne Blvd. Way, Miami; 305-421-8800
Date Dined: Monday, Aug. 22 – 7:15 p.m.
Party Size: 2
Best menu combination: Salad de Laitue / Za’Atar Spiced Snapper / Macadamia and Pistachio Brownie
Notes: There is nothing quite like a formal dining experience, and from start to finish that is what you get here, even during Miami Spice. The dining rooms (3 of them) are crisp, the wait staff is at attention, and even the diners – whether in large groups or small – are wearing their best and looking sharp. We can’t say the same for the appetizers on the Spice menu – they were a touch confusing. The salad with Boston lettuce, radish, fine herbs, pickled red onion and a lemon crème dressing was tasty but didn’t have a wow factor like some other appetizers we have had during Spice. We tasted the Pressee de Boeuf – a Terrine of braised beef cheeks and beets – and that’s about all we did with that dish. But then the entrée’s arrived and the meal took a complete 180-degree turn. The spiced snapper with couscous salad, babaganush and pickled chile was without a doubt the best fish dish on any Miami Spice menu. Perfectly cooked, full of flavor and paired perfectly with its side dishes, the portion was plenty for sharing (although it’s so good you want to keep it all for yourself). The house made fettuccine with roasted mushrooms was devine, and a great option for vegetarians. Thinking the dinner couldn’t get any better, it did with perhaps the best chocolate dessert on a Spice menu. (Sorry Symcha’s, but this was the real Death by Chocolate.) The rectangular-shaped brownie had macadamia nuts atop that were covered in a coffee and chocolate cremeux with a scoop of pistachio ice cream on the side. Other notables for the evening included three wines by the glass suggestions (a healthy pour for $7) and validated valet parking was $10. (The Spice menu changes every two weeks, so selections may differ, but they do return depending on availability.)
Tudor House, 1111 Collins Ave., Miami Beach; 305-534-8455
Date Dined: Thursday, Aug. 18 - 7:30 p.m.
Party Size: 8 (plus a small child)
Best menu combination: Butter salad / Organic buttermilk fried chicken with ginger slaw / Popcorn Milkshake
Notes: The Tudor House has received rave reviews since opening in late June, and Geoffrey Zakarian place didn’t disappoint for a Miami Spice dinner. The service was timely, polite and engaging. The food came out promptly with no lag time between courses. Suggestions for wine pairings or cocktails were on the spot. The dinner opened with a salmon amuse bouche as a pleasant surprise for our group, enough to tickle the palate, followed by pretzel bread bites that were simply fantastic. Among the appetizers were clams and scallops, but the butter salad was amazingly fresh and immaculately green – and with just the right amount of dressing. For the main course, all were pleased – the salmon was tasty, and the lamb belly was flavorful. But it was the fried chicken that stole the show – lots of texture and tanginess to just the right-sized portion of chicken (two drumsticks and one breast) for one person. Desserts were certainly not an afterthought, as the homemade Oreos with hazelnut milk made quite a splash, in taste and in presentation. But the winner was the popcorn milkshake, which came with a homemade Twix-like candy bar for dipping into the thick but not too sweet milkshake. (We had to use a spoon to finish it off.) We did notice the menu had changed since the start of August, but the Tudor House is a must-visit during Miami Spice.
Por Fin Restaurant & Lounge, 2500 Ponce de Leon Blvd., Coral Gables; 305-441-0107
Date Dined: Wednesday, Aug. 10 - 7:30 p.m.
Party Size: 5
Best menu combination: Albondigas (Lamb meatballs) / Mero a la Vizcaina (Poached black grouper) / Apple Dome Tart
Notes: One of the few Spanish cuisine restaurants in Coral Gables, Por Fin turned out to be a great mix of creativity and value for Miami Spice. While most menus offer three to four choices per course, Por Fin’s menu offered five appetizer and six dessert selections, along with four main course options. The lamb meatballs were amazingly tasty and a nice portion (5 total), but the group's other selections included a hearty carpaccio with Serrano ham and Manchego cheese and a creatively complex huevos estrellados (fried eggs, potato crisps, potato foam, Serrano ham and truffle oil) that was unique in presentation but surprisingly tasty. The portions for the main course were sizeable – no short cuts here when it came to the grilled pork chop or the organic salmon. But the winner was the poached black grouper that was perfectly cooked (not dry at all) and featured an array of steamed and stewed vegatables as a tasty compliment. Por Fin offered all of its choices from the dessert menu for Miami Spice, which was a nice change of pace. They also offer half-off select bottles of wine, which also proved cost effective. The only reason we couldn’t elevate this grade was because the service was a touch disengaged – not friendly, nor informative.
Ortanique on the Mile, 278 Miracle Mile., Coral Gables; 305-446-7710
Date Dined: Sunday, Aug. 14 - 7 p.m.
Party Size: 3
Best menu combination: Clams in Red Stripe broth / Roasted Salmon / Homemade brownie ala mode
Notes: A staple in Coral Gables dining, Ortanique’s Miami Spice menu changes from week to week. However, there are just three choices for each entrée, and on this day we were the last to order the clams as the appetizer. We can see why they were running short – served in a Red Stripe beer broth and mixed in with onions and tomatoes, this was the tasty appetizer on a Spice menu. And with a dozen clams in the order, it was a great way to start the meal. The entrees were solid but not earth-shattering. The skirt steak was tasty, but lacked in presentation. The bass was a touch dry, and served over an uninspired rice and beans. The salmon was the clear top choice, a large portion, very fresh and served with mashed potatoes. For dessert, the homemade brownie tasted more like an oversized chocolate chip cookie. Service was excellent and cheerful, which helped ease the overall Spice experience. Perhaps a different night with different menu choices will bring a more inventive culinary experience.
Area 31, 270 Biscayne Blvd. Way, 16th floor of the Epic Hotel, Miami; 305-424-5234
Date Dined: Tuesday, Aug. 16 - 7 p.m.
Party Size: 2
Best menu combination: Chilled Watermelon Tomato Soup / Braised Pork Shoulder / Carrot Cake
Notes: You cannot beat the views when dining on the terrace at Area 31 – being elevated, overlooking Brickell and the high rise buildings are unique to this restaurant. We also had lofty aspirations for this Miami Spice menu, but what we discovered was solid with some hints of spectacular. (Almost makes us wish for a grade between B and B+ ). Service was excellent (ask for J.P.), personable and informative. The option of two drinks (wine, beer or a cocktail) for an extra $15 was also a pleasant surprise. The chilled watermelon tomato soup was an interesting blend of gazpacho with small chunks of feta and a trio of smoked grapes that brought about unique flavors. When it came to entrees, the fact that there is only one fish option at a place known for its seafood was a bit disappointing. However, the Amazonian Paiche is one of Area 31’s more popular fish dishes. Served with clams, calamari and an eggplant puree, it’s a light but tasty meal. As for the most flavorful and filling selection, that went hands down to the pork shoulder, that was served with small pieces of chorizo, pickled shallots and calabaza hash. The flavors jumped off the plate, and while it did feel better suited as meal for a cold, winter day it was a dish that was hard not to share. Dessert was, well, confusing. The carrot cake was a tiny sliver served with cream cheese ice cream, and an olive oil sponge cake had a lemon taste but lacked in presentation. That second glass of wine came in handy right about now. (Also, be warned – even with restaurant validation, valet is $13. Ouch.)
Makoto, 9700 Collins Ave. (Bal Harbour Shops), Bal Harbour; 305-864-8600
Date Dined: Thursday, Aug. 4 - 7:30 p.m.
Party Size: 6
Best menu combination: Makoto House Salad / Charcoal Kobe Skirt Steak / Mochi
Notes: There may not be a better combination of Spice value with dining experience anywhere in Miami. From the service (make sure to ask for Chris) to the vibe to the food, this is the bar all other Spice menus will be measured against. The Makoto House salad was a regular sized portion and a robust start to the dinner. Others chose to start with the Fire and Ice Oysters, which despite just two oysters served were of excellent quality and taste. While we picked the flavorful Kobe skirt steak as the top choice, you can’t go wrong with any of the entrée choices. The hot pepper chicken and Ponzu salmon were perfectly cooked and juicy. The sushi sampler came with a 4-piece spicy tuna roll and 6 different sashimi pieces. Finally, the assorted selection of mochi balls – mango being our top choice – was presented in a bamboo basket and made for a fun close to the evening. Throw in some of Makoto’s signature cocktails – don’t miss out on the green tea caipirinha – and plenty of good music that audibly allows you to still have great conversation at the table, and you’ve got the perfect Miami Spice experience.
Oceanaire Seafood Room, 900 S. Miami Ave., Miami; 305-372-8862
Date Dined: Thursday, Aug. 11 - 9 p.m.
Party Size: 4
Best menu combination: Arugula salad / snapper / pineapple sorbet
Notes: To start off, Oceanaire gets major points for finding our party a table with no reservation and a full house. Their menu depends on what the fishermen bring in, so menus are printed out twice daily and - lo and behold - the Miami Spice menu is prominently featured. The favorite appetizer was a crispy salad of Arugula, candied walnuts and goat cheese coated with a lemony dressing that was perfect. The other option (only two!) was mussells in a wine broth, which sounded great, but our waiter informed was no longer available. He offered shrimp tempura, which had been on the menu the night before, but had no takers. Since it's Oceanaire we are talking about, you could probably ignore the meat entree (no one was willing to try it) because the seafood dishes won't disappoint. The generous serving of snapper in a buttery macadamia sauce was a favorite, and the Hawaiian Opah Cheeks came adorned with smooth slices of avocado and sweet corn in a respectable portion. To finish off, they offered several tropical flavors of sorbet (watermelon, peach, pineapple) and they were all light and crisp. No one left hungry. As values go, the Oceanaire spice menu is a homerun; the "Black & Bleu" Hawaiian Opah Cheeks, a menu mainstay, is normally $32.95 and most other fish entrees are normally priced upwards of $30. Just make sure you go with an open mind. It's a safe bet that the menu will be different every night.
Symcha’s, 22 Washington Ave., Miami Beach; 305-604-0000
Date Dined: Saturday, Aug. 6 – 7 p.m.
Party Size: 5
Best menu combination: Seafood ceviche / Pan Seared Florida Black Grouper / Tiramisu
Notes: Normally known for its outdoor patio seating, on this rainy night sitting inside the quaint dining room was a treat. The cozy indoor space features distressed woodwork, a vibrant and elegant bar, lots of mirrors and arguably one of the nicest bathrooms in Miami Beach’s South of Fifth neighborhood. But for as nice a space Symcha’s is on the inside, the Miami Spice experience was not as consistent. The restaurant does get bonus points for being one of the few Saturday Spice diner options and offering a complimentary glass of prosecco when ordering the Spice menu. Their suggestion to go off the menu for an additional appetizer of Himachi was exceptional – more than plenty for a group to share. The seafood ceviche is a stunning presentation, served with leaves of lettuce and atop a Himalayan Salt Block. The interactive experience is among the top appetizers for all Spice menus in Miami. But then the experience begins to fall flat. The beef skirt steak is tasty, but feels like it’s been drowned in butter. The Black Grouper, while a meaty piece and cooked extremely well, could have used something more flavorful as a compliment than a purple potato puree. And dessert – well the Death by Chocolate (a combination of chocolate brownie and Oreo fudge) felt like it came from a boxed product off the shelves. The Tiramisu was a more flavorful choice.
Morton’s The Steakhouse, 4041 Collins Ave., Miami Beach; 786-454-4022
Date Dined: Tuesday, Aug. 2 – 7:30 p.m.
Party Size: 2
Best menu combination: Morton’s Salad / Chicken Christopher / Crème Brulee
Notes: Yeah, yeah, yeah. We know this is a chain restaurant and all. But don’t let that stop you from rediscovering a gem on Miami Beach. Getting ready to celebrate its second anniversary in October at this location, you may be hard pressed to find knowledgeable service and some excellent portions on the Spice menu. Upon arriving, you will be educated on the Morton’s way of selecting and preparing their selections of steak, chicken, seafood and vegetables – complete with a live lobster. As for the Spice menu, the Morton’s salad is fresh and scrumptious. The single cut filet mignon is 8 ounces and cooked to perfection, but we chose the Chicken Christopher as the best value because the three cutlets in a garlic Beurre blanc sauce are more than enough for one person and ensure lunch for the next day. The secret here are the sides, as each person gets one choice of a veggie or potato. If you go with a group of four, you will have more than enough sides to share as the portions are more than one person can handle. (We had garlic mashed potatoes for several days after our dinner.) The dessert choices were fine – double chocolate mousse or crème brulee – but there are better choices on the regular menu (and brings us back to our proposal of a wine glass as an option to substitute for dessert). Speaking of wine, for Miami Spice months, Morton’s has drastically reduced the prices of various bottles of wine by as much as $150. We checked with our resident wine expert who confirmed that the choices of reduced wines are actually top rated selections. Combine that with an atmosphere that is conducive for small groups who want to catch-up and get into heavy conversation, and you’ll be pleasantly surprised that you chose a chain establishment.
Chophouse Miami, 300 S. Biscayne Blvd., Miami; 305-938-9000
Date Dined: Monday, Aug. 1 – 1:30 p.m.
Party Size: 2
Best menu combination: Chicken Panini / Chop-Chop salad / Red Gaspacho / Eggplant Rolls / Daily Sorbet
Notes: We decided to try this place out for a quick Miami Spice lunch, and surprisingly it did not disappoint. The restaurant already has a five-course Chop Block lunch program and for Spice they reduced the price from $25 to $22. You get a choice of sandwich, salad, soup, mezze and dessert, all served on a block of wood that functions as one of those plastic placemats where all your food fits snuggly. The chicken panini sandwich had plenty of pesto to please our tastebuds. The gazpacho was just the right amount, and the chop-chop salad with slices of chicken was surprisingly filling despite being in such a small container. We have yet to find a better lunch value that is served quickly and is as filling.
Michael’s Genuine, 130 NE 40th St., Miami; 305-573-5550
Date Dined: Wednesday, Aug. 10 – 1:30 p.m.
Party Size: 2
Best menu combination: Short Ribs or Georgia Peach Salad / Barrelfish / Panna Cotta
Notes: Already highly regarded for its food, we decided to see what Michael Schwartz had to offer for lunch during Miami Spice. Let’s just say it hardly disappointed. While the Spice lunch menu changes slightly by the week, the ambiance and energy does not. A packed house with life in the middle of the afternoon makes for a fun lunching environment. When you go, if the short ribs are a choice on the first course portion of the menu, they are a must. The meat falls off the bone with a taste that is full of texture and flavor. If not on the menu, then go for the Georgia Peach salad, which is fresh and healthy. The barrelfish on the second course was spicy but stingy in portion size, leaving us hungry for dessert – a top of the line Panna Cotta that finished off the meal just right. It’s the quality of the food and energy of the room that makes this our top Miami Spice lunch – for right now.