Monday, July 16, 2012

State of the Union (of Miami Dining)

I'd been a bit despondent of late over the closing of a couple of my more favorite Miami restaurants. It is, of course, a known fact that the restaurant business is a brutally difficult one. Restaurants - even successful ones - don't live forever, and relatively few have the staying power to last more than a few years.[1] But that still doesn't keep me from becoming attached, especially to places that do things right.

Sustain, in Midtown Miami, was one of those places for me. It wasn't the best restaurant in Miami; it wasn't even the best of the farm-to-table, sustainable-sourcing themed restaurants in Miami (Michael's Genuine remains the category-killer of that genre).[2] But it was a good restaurant. The menu balanced the accessible (fried chicken, burger, pizza, all done quite well) with the exotic (roasted marrow bones with pineapple jam, turnip "carpaccio"). The execution was solid and improved with just about every visit. The staff was friendly and knowledgeable, the cocktails were outstanding, the wine list assembled by Daniel Toral offered some of the best sub-$50 selections in town, the music was great. The Sunday brunch they rolled out shortly before closing was becoming a regular ritual for us. It was the kind of place I could go to the bar and grab a snack, or bring a group of family and friends, and everyone would leave happy. And yet Sustain was - well, unsustainable.[3]

Michelle Bernstein's Sra. Martinez in the Design District was another place that kind of broke my heart a little when I heard it was closing. We were at Sra. Martinez the night after it opened in December 2008 for Mrs. F's birthday, and we were there again the night before it closed earlier this month. Both were outstanding meals, and we had many more in between. There is a long list of dishes from Sra. M that I will pine for if they don't resurface somewhere else: the crispy artichokes with lemon aioli, the eggplant drizzled with honey, the duck and foie gras butifarra sausage with gigante beans, the marrow bones with eel and apples, the egg yolk "carpaccio." But Chef Bernstein has always understood the magpie-like nature of the Miami dining market, the constant attraction to the latest shiny object, and I don't see the Sra. M closing - after a 3 1/2 year run - as a failure so much as a step towards yet another reinvention. Still, I will miss it.

Since I started writing this blog 3 1/2 years ago, I've been feeling increasingly positive about Miami's dining "scene." Though still prone to either chasing the latest trend (food trucks, Momofukian Asian mash-ups) or sticking with the tried and true (steakhouse, generic Italian), the restaurant population these days overall is much more diverse, much more open to creativity, than when I started keeping track.[4] Yet I was still led to wonder: were these closures just the usual market forces at work, or the sign of something bigger? So my co-conspirators in the Cobaya underground dining group, Chowfather, Steve BM, and I gassed up the Cobaya Bus and took it out for a spin to assess the state of Miami dining.[5]

(continued ...)

The itinerary included José Andrés' new dining extravaganza, The Bazaar; Andrew Carmellini's The Dutch; the latest from Miami's culinary godfather, Norman Van Aken, Tuyo, in the Miami Culinary Institute; a dim sum Ho Down at Chef Philip Ho; a visit to Michael's Genuine for a friend's birthday; and side trips for me to Juvia and a trek up north to Café Boulud in Palm Beach (both sans CF and BM).[6]

A week of indulgent eating left my waistline expanded but my mind at ease. I've written about a couple of these places already, and will be writing about several others soon, but will say this now: for me, this is the most interesting time to dine in Miami of perhaps the past five years. I would have to go back to 2006-07, when Michelle Bernstein and Michael Schwartz first really began to truly express themselves at Michy's and Michael's Genuine (both restaurants, appropriately, eponymously named) to think of a time when there have been more restaurants that I'm genuinely excited to dine at.

I will confess that, being the homer I am, it pains me to some degree to admit that some of the most notable contributions come from out-of-towners like Andrés and Carmellini (the tag for such chefs on this blog is "invasive exotic species," after all). But - unlike many of their predecessors who either decided that Miami couldn't handle anything more sophisticated than a steakhouse, or just threw their name on the door and then disappeared - the latest batch of colonists seem to have made a real effort to contribute to the local food culture.[7]

But the locals are contributing their share too. Tuyo in particular is possibly the most under-appreciated gem in the city right now, where you can sample classics from Norman Van Aken's repertoire (every bit as good as you remember them) or new dishes from his extremely talented Chef de Cuisine Jeffrey Brana, all with an unparalleled eighth-story view of downtown Miami. Giorgio Rapicavoli's Eating House pop-up (winding to an end this month) has shown that genuinely creative, adventurous food in a no-frills setting can find an audience in Miami. The PubBelly boys have taken over the block of 20th Street in Miami Beach with PubBelly Sushi and Barceloneta, and now have turned their genre-tweaking machine onto Italian food with Macchialina. Chef Micah Edelstein does exactly what she wants at neMesis Urban Bistro and just celebrated  the restaurant's one year anniversary.

Smaller-scale places like Red Light, The Federal, Whisk, The LocalBlue Collar and Route 9 make it possible to eat good, sometimes even great, food at reasonable prices. There's a bit of an Italian renaissance of sorts going on, with places like Salumeria 104 and Ni.Do Caffe eschewing the "something to please everyone" approach for focused, pared-down menus with high quality ingredients. Joshua Marcus of Chow Down Grill has even brought the old-fashioned Jewish deli back from the dead with Josh's Delicatessen and Appetizing, making house-cured fish, pastrami and corned beef, as well as new-fangled twists like the "Jewban" sandwich with pastrami and roast pork on pressed Cuban bread; he also occasionally opens the place up at night for short-term pop-ups with visiting chefs (there's one coming up this week with Ben Murray, sous chef at Area 31, that runs July 17-19). Meanwhile, Michael Schwartz has been bringing the rest of the country to our doorstep with the visiting chef dinners at Harry's Pizzeria, with the upcoming list including Paul Grieco, Chris Hastings, Hugh Acheson, Andrew Carmellini, and Mindy Segal.

These are good times for Miami diners. Take advantage of them.

[1] There are infinite variations on the "X% of restaurants close within their first Y years" statistic, almost none of which appear to be backed up by evidence or research. A 2007 Bloomberg article, which references a study that actually did use some (limited) empirical data, suggests the failure rate (either closing or changing ownership) is actually one in four during the first year, and 60% over three years. Here's a link to the study itself. Another study in Dallas similarly found a 23% failure rate during the first year of operation.

[2] Michael's Genuine, with its five-years-and-counting run staying around the top of the Miami dining market, would seem the exception to the rule. But Chef Michael Schwartz has had his share of flops too - we easily forget that his last venture before MGF&D was the ill-fated and short-lived "beauty cuisine" of Afterglo on South Beach.

[3] Figuring out why some restaurants survive and others don't is sometimes obvious - some are just terrible - and sometimes it's like reading tea leaves. I was always puzzled as to why Sustain wasn't busier. It got good reviews - three stars from the Miami Herald, and a generally positive write-up in Miami New Times, though the citizens of Yelpistan seemed to be harder to please. It could have just been a matter of positioning, both genre and geography: Michael's Genuine, only a few blocks away, was already doing the same kind of food at a very high level, and Sugarcane, right down the street, was already the "popular girl" of Midtown.

[4] There are still, of course, massive holes. I struggle to think of a really good French bistro, any number of other cuisines are poorly represented - Mexican, any variety of Chinese other than dim sum, Vietnamese, Thai to name just a few off the top of my head - and it is frustratingly difficult to find a good bakery, butcher or fishmonger. But I'm still a glass half full kind of guy, I guess.

[5] A bit of poetic license here. Truth is, the ChowPrincess and Mrs. F were out of town, so ChowFather and I both had a week-long hall pass, which we took full advantage of.

[6] Except for Juvia, I'd been to each of these places before (though my visit to Café Boulud was before Chef Jim Leiken took over the kitchen), but with the exceptions of Michael's and Philip Ho, not frequently enough to form a complete judgment. Having now paid multiple visits to several of the places on the itinerary, expect several more writeups to be coming over the next couple weeks.

[7] Of course, certain places that might fit that description still put out truly excellent food; Michael Mina's Bourbon Steak in Aventura makes my list of one of the top restaurants in South Florida.


  1. I also never understood people's fascination with Sugarcane and lack thereof for Sustain. I agree with your comments regarding Sustain and never found Sugarcane worth the hour+ waits when such a great restaurant was down the street.

    As for fishmongers...I've generally had success with Casablanca Fish Market (currently next to Garcia's and originally on Watson Island across from Parrot Jungle Island), though there may be chances of language barriers there. They've become more civilized recently (you no longer poke, prod and pick your own fish) but I have not had any trouble with quality.

  2. This comment has been removed by the author.

  3. "But I'm still a glass half full kind of guy, I guess" That's good because I think I know where the half empty part of your glass is and I have it, especially when it comes to the bakeries, butcher, etc that you mention (I'd add cheese shop to that category). But you're right, there's a lot we should be happy/thankful about (seriously, where the hell were we eating before Michael's/Michy's came around?). And, for me personally, I'd take your statement about this being the most interesting time to dine in Miami a bit further and say that it's not just now, that the last 5 or 6 years have been a continuing evolution and improvement in the scene and that at any given point in time during that span, you could think of one, if not several,restaurant(s) that were making waves and worth a visit. Good times indeed to get out there.

  4. "Where the hell were we eating before Michael's/Michy's came around?"

    I was hoping someone would give me just the slightest excuse to reminisce about restaurants of yore.

    Well, Schwartz put in some good years at Nemo, which was at that time a favorite of ours, back when nobody other than Myles Chefetz knew who Michael Schwartz was. I remember Michelle cooking at the Strand, too, before she moved on to Azul.

    Talula opened in 2003, and nearly two years after it closed in 2010, it's still the Miami restaurant I miss most.

    Norman's in the Gables was the cream of the crop, though I miss it less now that he's back doing his thing at Tuyo. Of course, I still remember when he first came to Miami at A Mano on South Beach (in the Betsy Ross Hotel).

    Going back even further in the time machine, I've got an odd assortment of very distinct dining memories: the tempura fried whole yellowtail with hot and sour sauce at the original Pacific Time on Lincoln Road; the rib-meat hoagie and the smoked shrimp potato salad at Johnny V's Kitchen on Alton Road; Kerry Simon's Blue Star (great meatloaf) and Starfish (in the Barton G spot that was, once upon a time, Gatti's); the absolutely pitch-perfect Brasserie Le Coze in Coconut Grove (yes, that was Maguy Le Coze of Le Bernardin); chiles en nogada at Las Puertas, a wonderful upscale Mexican place in Coral Gables (currently the Miss Saigon spot?) that nobody else seems to remember; the crispy spinach and the dumplings with peanut sauce at Chrysanthemum on the Beach; stuffed cho-chos and jerk chicken at Shabeen, a funky little spot downstairs in the Marlin Hotel on South Beach.

    Don't get me started.

    1. Yes, I remember Las Puertas on Giralda and let's go back even further: Le Festival, splendid French on Salzedo for many years. You referred to Michael Schwartz and afterglo and its unfortunately named "beautritional" cuisine -- but gimmickry aside, I remember every bite of that meal (including raw foods) as filled with unexpected flavor.

  5. I'd be interested in your opinion of what role, if any, food blogging has had in this resurgence. Have the blogs and the dining experiments raised the bar at all or resulted in chefs being a bit more inventive?


  6. Rick - it's a good question and I don't really know the answer, but I do think the fluidity of information these days - not just blogs, but Twitter, Facebook, email blasts like UrbanDaddy and Thrillist - makes it easier to connect with "niche" markets.

    Even 5 years ago, there was no real effective way to get word out other than a traditional advertising & marketing campaign. Now if you undertake just a modicum of effort at virtually no cost, it's almost impossible to remain "undiscovered" for long. Then, provided you have an audience and you satisfy its needs, you don't have to just appeal to the "lowest common denominator."

    Though I'm not sure the tendency of some towards indiscriminate cheerleading for every new opening contributes much, I do think the blogs can help foster an informed and, when appropriate, enthusiastic dining community. I also think our dining experiments have let chefs know that there's at least a small audience for more adventurous cooking here in Miami.

    But based on the list of places I've liked that have closed, I harbor no illusions that a good word from me matters a lick in the grand scheme of things.

  7. Brief Correction, the Executive Chef at Cafe Boulud Palm Beach is Jim Leiken, not James Strine.

  8. I am passionate about cooking, eating and food in general, but I don't really treat food as sport, much in the way you do, Frod.

    I found Sustain to be at too high a price point for the food that came out of the kitchen. I didn't eat there very often, though I never had a bad meal. There was just something about what I was getting, at the price it was sold, that just pushed me to other places. Rest assured, however, that it wasn't Sugarcane...

  9. Zach - While I disagree with your "food as sport" comment, I hear you on price point. The "simple, sustainable" thing can be a tricky box to put yourself in: your food cost is going to be higher, and yet the style of the cooking is often going to lack a "wow" factor. Their price points were probably comparable to MGFD's (though MGFD had a longer menu with more inexpensive options), but that's tough competition to put yourself up against.

  10. You and Team Cobaya are burning down The Bazaar like a down syndrome, mead-addled Nero setting Rome aflame. That's all I have to say about that...

    I think many of the educated palates in this town liked what Jon, Alejandro and the team at Sustain were doing. They crushed their Cobaya. I don't usually feel bad about missing them, because I'm broke and it's a crap shoot, but that goat head was epic.

    I think that passionate eaters who want to see the Miami food scene grow and thrive were willing and able to throw their(financial) support behind Sustain. It wasn't charity. Those guys worked their tails off.

    At the end of the day, for me, it just didn't shoot up to the top my list when I was considering dropping some hard earned, scarce coin on a great meal, and honestly I don't even have a reason why.

  11. I never visited Sustain. I was actually set to go the Sunday after it closed, but alas, there was an email from MRPR stating it had bit the dust. I'm not sure if Sugarcane had anything to do with it succeeding or not, but I thoroughly enjoy Sugarcane. As a matter of fact, the reason Sustain was on my radar was because I saw it on the way to Sugarcane and I put it on my 'to do' list.

    As far as Sra., I think it was too expensive for the amount of food. I have a relatively small appetite, so 2-3 tapas will work for me if I don't share, but that can still run me close to $50. The food was good/great and was worth it, but it wasn't in the rotation cause of the $$.

    One last thing. Thanks for your writing, I follow you and all the gang from Chowhound. I'm glad there's some write-ups on the way. I live vicariously through some of the Cobaya postings, but I've been hoping to see your take on some local spots.

  12. Thanks. There has been a dearth of postings on local restaurants lately, but not intentionally. I've had a backlog of places I'd been to 1 or 2 times but didn't feel ready to write about yet. The past couple of weeks, that logjam has been broken, now need to write them.