Miami's Summer Dining Scene Enters Shoulder-to-Shoulder Season
A few days after a notorious YouTuber turned boxer scored a knockout win in Atlanta, he scored a late-night table at Carbone in South Beach. His entourage snaked their way through a maze of double-parked cars on Collins Avenue, past the doorway congregation of those who want in and those who can't bring themselves to leave, finally filling out a back room banquette facing a wall-sized painting originally commissioned for the Barilla pasta company.
The fighter's bodyguard commandeered a vacant two-top one table over, but a veteran captain, who moved south to continue working for the restaurant group, coaxed him to his feet and out of the dining room, quickly replacing him with paying customers too timid to make eye contact with the fighter. Carbone's red velvet and vodka rigatoni hustle was nothing new to a loyal staff who skipped town when COVID-19 impacted the New York dining scene.
"We found so many of our employees wanted to move down here," co-owner Jeff Zalaznick told me a few days later, during the red carpet opening of ZZ's Sushi Bar, his two-story members-only seafood and cigars joint in the Design District's finer dining quarters, also home to dueling outposts of L'Atelier de Joel Robuchon and Alain Verzioli's vegetable-forward Le Jardinier. "We told all our employees there'd be jobs for them, and 100 people, from busboys to our COO, moved down here from New York and Vegas."
A week after Memorial Day, Miami should be entering shoulder season, but there's no end in sight to the shoulder-to-shoulder occupation of a new crop of restaurants that has weathered the COVID-19 economy aim to satisfy diners' appetites at all hours, up and down the coast, from the breakfast tables at Rosie's, a daytime courtyard café at the Copper Door B+B in Overtown, to the open-air opulence of Strawberry Moon, the latest Miami Beach offering from local nightlife pioneer David Grutman and the musician Pharrell Williams.
At Rosie's, owners Akino West and Jamila Ross have spun off the spontaneous communal breakfasts that they once only offered to unsuspecting overnight guests. Now, refrigerator-raiding one-offs like shakshuka baked with Danish feta have given way to a growing menu of what Ross describes as "Akino's passion for soul food with southern Italian nuances," like biscuits with sausage gravy spiced up with guanciale.
At the start of the pandemic, West and Ross called on the Copper Door's housekeepers to help keep up with growing demand from locals hovering around a takeout-only window. "Then we received a $25,000 award through Discover card meant to help Black-owned restaurants," Ross recalls. "Along with that grant, and our personal savings, we invested in a food trailer to expand the kitchen and upgraded to more professional equipment."
The couple has also since hired two additional cooks, recent graduates from Johnson and Wales University, who allow West to test more ambitious dishes, like a wedge of fried green tomato scattered with stracciatella, torn herbs, and Calabrian chili.
Further south, in Coral Gables, Food & Wine Best New Chef 2020 Niven Patel has kept open the doors of his latest restaurant, Mamey, for nearly a year, thanks to a personal menu fueled by homegrown tropical produce. Mamey is named for a creamy Latin American fruit, its flesh the color of a setting sun, and the restaurant's refreshing menu bursts with color, from ghee roasted plantains to a local wahoo ceviche brightened by sweet Cachucha peppers.
After dark, Turkish food is on the menu at two Miami Beach hotspots, Layla at the Kayak hotel, and Strawberry Moon at the Goodtime Hotel, where diners are welcomed by iPad-wielding hostesses who control the flow of traffic toward the busy hotel lobby. As lobby elevators open to the poolfront dining room, guests finally drink in a scene of diners who treat every dish like it's meant to be shared. For those that prefer their meals, like their cocktail garnishes, served at the end of a toothpick, there's a single kebab of swordfish shawarma. More focused on the hotness in the kitchen? A charred 24 oz. short rib could easily feed two to twelve beautiful people.
North Miami Beach has long been a restaurant desert, but it's where private chef Isaac Perlman planted roots last December, opening Perl by Chef IP, a minimalist industrial dining room and rooftop along a barren stretch of NE Miami Gardens Drive. "I grew up around here and everyone always complained there was nowhere to eat," Perlman recalls. "I figured it would be a good place to start my career as a restaurateur and find local community support."
The surrounding residential area includes some of the region's priciest homes, but no matter how big their houses are, they want out of the house and swarm Perlman's dining room for elegant and accessible French-Japanese fusion, including a lunchtime chicken katsu kissed with cornichon remoulade, and a cauliflower steak dressed in a shiso salsa verde. Proper steaks, like a 32 oz. bone-in ribeye for two, can also be prepared kosher-the chef's way of supporting the community in return.
Just a few blocks to the north, Broward has become cool by association with the Miami scene, and Fort Lauderdale is suddenly benefiting from those living below the county line and craving unfamiliar flavors up Route 1.
That would explain the backup at the valet stand outside chef Taka Lee's Takato, at the Conrad Fort Lauderdale, where the former Zuma Miami executive sushi chef is reinventing the tropes of Japanese party spots like Nobu, Sexy Fish, and Novikov.
Chef Taka encourages customers to look beyond the dining room's 26-foot sushi bar, having developed a menu that moves geographically down the page from duck bao buns brushed with a maple teriyaki glaze to a short rib jabache tossed with sweet potato noodles. And for those who heed their server when they approach with a hotpot of kimchi fried rice, thickened with braised beef and nori, they'll be rewarded with a crisp umami experience that rivals the signature dish at Kyu in Wynwood.
If a reservation is recommended at Takato, it's required at Room 901, at the Hyatt Centric Las Olas. Unlike the hotels that dot the coastline, there's rarely something remarkable about an inland business hotel, which makes a speakeasy hiding behind a guest room door almost as illicit a thrill as buying a frozen rum Miami Vice from a stranger's cooler on the beach over Venmo.
At Room 901, however, they make it easy to trust who's behind the bar. Because competition is tight for hospitality staff right now, the hotel looked beyond borders, recruiting bartenders from the country's best cocktail bars, from 67 Orange in Harlem to Midnight Cowboy in Austin and Adults Only in Los Angeles. Each team has the opportunity to make the menu and space their own, while the hotel's executive chef Greg McGowan demonstrates his potential to execute beyond lobby bar basics like chicken wings and turkey sandwiches, serving a tender four-bite wagyu katsu unavailable behind any other door.
The only change since the Hyatt initiated the project back in March is how many patrons can be seated at once, with more tables added to the room as capacity restrictions subside. The only rule that won't change: Only seated guests are welcome. So if he's not drinking, it's best to leave your bodyguard outside.