When Alinea announced it would be making a Miami pit stop last February, my jaw dropped. Alinea? Here? I was positive Chef Grant Achatz would change his mind and quit halfway out of frustration with South Floridians; I thought for sure guests would arrive on Cuban time, send courses back, or make absurd requests. As far as I know, Miami actually behaved! Thankfully Alinea brought in their gifted and well trained staff, and did not hire locally (although that would have been interesting to see). Of course, there is a good chance locals who initially purchased tickets simply did so as the “it” thing to do; I doubt many were geeking out over the food (like, cough, some of us). After all, the magic created by Achatz is an alien concept in South Florida (where some diners whine about a $12 appetizer, others would never spend significant money for a quality dinner, and many don’t hesitate to pay hundreds more for a VIP table at LIV). I hope the majority of those who scored the Alinea Miami pop-up reservations appreciated the experience and learned a thing or two in the process. I, for one, loved it even more than my original dinner in Chicago just a year prior to the one here.
Almost two years ago, I wrote a post- Miami Michelin Guide Selections– detailing my ongoing frustration with the lack of recognition of talented South Florida chefs, by one of the industry’s best known rating system: the Michelin Guide. At the time, I was sure our city was headed in the right direction and deserved to be considered for its own guide (even though I acknowledged that maybe our city’s apathy to just about everything was holding us back). Miami was hot. Well, hotter than usual anyway when it came to fine dining. Are we still on that path towards Michelin stardom? “I think eventually it will happen,”says Chef Benjamin Murray of the Mandarin Oriental’s Azul. “A few restaurants in Miami are Michelin standard and the influx of great restaurants opening will help put Miami on the map more than before.”
Shortly after I published my post and despite success, some of the very restaurants I raved about closed without warning and several chefs left their positions to pursue other projects. 1826 Restaurant & Lounge quietly closed and Chef Danny Grant returned to Chicago. Chef Bradley Kilgore left J & G Grill and went on to open Alter in Wynwood. Chef Michael Schwartz converted his upscale Cypress Room into a casual Cypress “Tavern,” (and also left his restaurant at The Raleigh). That move reminds me of the time a Broward chef confessed to me he had to “dumb down” his original menu because the clientele just didn’t understand it. Awesome. Daniel Boulud’s db Bistro Moderne also underwent some serious staff changes this past winter. Chef Michael Shikany left his Wynwood namesake restaurant and ultimately headed north to Washington D.C. (where coincidentally the Michelin Guide will be publishing its first guide this fall); a great loss for Miami. I won’t be surprised to see Chef Shikany lead a starred kitchen, there or here, in the years to come.
Even though some of the restaurants I originally nominated vanished, the interest in Miami fine dining steadily and significantly increased. The number of hits on that specific post continue to climb non-stop and the search criteria (posted below) is what I usually see when reviewing my website’s stats. Clearly, there continues to be a demand for a guide in our city. Are we ready to give the guide inspectors a reason to come down and be impressed? Is the guide even that important? Is fine dining a dying art or still evolving? So many questions. “It’s one of those things that I don’t think will ever die.” Says Chef Bowen of db Bistro Moderne. “You have people across the world that travel just to eat in Michelin rated restaurants. A Michelin Star is as legitimate as it gets.”
He’s right. Count me in as one who loves to travel for good food. To say it has been an ongoing adventure is to put it lightly. From my very first (then Michelin starred) experience at Le Cirque in Las Vegas, to my latest one at San Francisco’s Saison, each one has been a learning experience. This journey has taught me about passion, perseverance, and the relentless pursuit of perfection. These chefs leave it all on the line. I have the easy part; show up and reap the benefits of their blood, sweat, and tears. The road to the stars is not easy. I haven’t loved them all. In fact, there are some I’ve downright hated! The common denominator amongst all these restaurants is the highest level of service offered time and time again, even at those whose food I did not enjoy as much.
Here is a summarized description of the Michelin Guide criteria;
One star: A good place to stop on your journey, indicating a very good restaurant in its category, offering cuisine prepared to a consistently high standard.
Two stars: A restaurant worth a detour, indicating excellent cuisine and skillfully and carefully crafted dishes of outstanding quality.
Three stars: A restaurant worth a special journey, indicating exceptional cuisine where diners eat extremely well, often superbly. Distinctive dishes are precisely executed, using superlative ingredients.
Vague descriptions, if you ask me. It’s no wonder there are so many
misinterpretations of what it takes to be considered and awarded. Decor, service, and atmosphere are rated separately on the Michelin website via 1-5 crossed spoon/fork symbols ranging from “quite comfortable” to “luxury in the traditional style.” Those three categories are said to have no influence on the final star rating. Yet, all the three-starred restaurants I’ve visited have delivered a near perfect experience on those very categories. Every. Single. One. While we do have some beautiful restaurants here in South Florida, stellar and consistent service are incredibly hard to come by; it’s an ongoing struggle. Did we not just receive the title of the rudest city by Travel + Leisure? Shocker. Newsflash: that translates to the food industry as well. But hey, at least we are “pretty.”
It seems that our emerging style is different than in other cities. Are we ready to give in to a hoity-toity must wear a jacket to dinner rule? With our collective Miamitude? Elevated food by highly skilled chefs, served in a laid-back environment is the current Miami trend; Shikany’s 2014 original Wynwood restaurant offered just that. Perhaps it was too much too soon for Miami. A year later, Alter opened: tiny and industrial, shorts or pants, don’t know, don’t care. What is Chef Kilgore doing right? Intentionally or not, he’s deliciously pioneering a new Miami food town. If he’s being recognized, our city is being recognized. I’ve lost count of all his well-deserved accolades, really. Still, in surveying local crowd-sourced reviews, you get diners who list Alter as “over-rated,” “overpriced, ” or the usual ” I am starving” comments. Miami (as I mentioned before) still has an absurd fear of not receiving enough to eat or being cheated out of food. How does that saying go? You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make him drink?
“I think outsiders often assume the best restaurants are the ones that have a celebrity chef name attached to the sign, but they should also consider some of the best chefs in Miami are the ones that made a name for themselves in this city. We love seeing our ‘home grown’ chefs get the recognition they deserve,” comments Chef Murray. I, too, love seeing that. Honestly, the arrival of additional Michelin starred chefs to South Florida in the last couple of years has not been as exciting as I initially thought. I’m still waiting for Tom Colicchio’s Beachcraft to find its rhythm, but three visits in I’ve simply lost interest. Jean-Georges Vongerichten’s Matador Room, led by Chef de Cuisine (and Season 13 Top Chef winner) Jeremy Ford, has turned out to be just another see-and-be-seen South Beach spot without much substance: some good dishes, but definitively not Michelin quality yet. How long before Chef Jeremy takes his knives elsewhere and does his own thing instead?
NAOE remains as my top (and only) choice for a possible three-star rating. In a category all by himself, Chef Cory excels at providing a dinner -to just eight guests at a time- unlike any other in the area. It’s hard to find a nigiri progression prepared like his elsewhere in South Florida: slowly, methodically, and expertly with the utmost respect to the ingredients. And yet somehow, NAOE is still a secret to many. “Where is that?” is a common question I get when I mention it.
After a less than favorable visit in 2009, I stayed away from Azul for years. That all changed for me during a couple of recent visits. Every picture-perfect dish presented by Chef Ben followed through on technique and taste: seamless. From the moment I reserved until the very end of every dinner, the staff’s hospitality won me over. “I started as a sous chef here 2 ½ years ago, and took over as Chef de Cuisine 14 months ago. I feel like a totally different chef now than I did then. We completely changed the vision of the restaurant where we are now define our food as Modern American with Asian influences. We changed everything – from the bread and butter service, to constantly changing the menu, creating our own vinegars and classic sauces (think Worcestershire and ponzu), and evolving in every aspect of the restaurant. I think we have gone a couple levels up since in such a short period of time.” If they can keep this momentum going, then Azul will be that perfect candidate topping our Michelin Guide as well.
Chef Daniel Boulud’s db Bistro Moderne, another survivor from my last list, leads by example in all areas. Even through various chef changes through the years, the restaurant never skipped a beat. Solid, no matter what. Can the rest of the city please take note? Chef Bowen says they’ve always had a strong team since the start. “There have been many chefs who worked at db and have gone on to open up their own thing. It is a commitment from everyone who is here striving for the next goal. I always tell my cooks, You aren’t here to be a cook, You are here to learn how to be a chef.”
Little known contemporary French restaurant Pied à Terre has it all down to a science and could easily score a star (or two). The restaurant prides itself on delivering a near perfect experience. This tiny hidden gem has an atypical approach to their restaurant; there is no kitchen “star.” Any praise is attributed to the restaurant as a whole and not a single chef. In fact, mum’s the word on who actually runs the kitchen. Patrick Gruest, Pied a Terre’s Food & Wine Consultant in-the-know, says the restaurant brings in two or three Michelin starred chefs for eight days who work in the kitchen (for an average of four hours) training the staff. The visiting chefs also bring a dozen recipes with them. “Our staff, after 4 years, receives in this way a better education than in any other cooking school. They could compete with any renown ‘star’ chef from Miami.” I can’t say I disagree; I tend to sit in disbelief when dining there wondering if I’m really still in Miami.
Despite having other locations besides South Florida, the following restaurants are great candidates for our guide as well: The Bazaar by José Andrés, La Mar, Bourbon Steak, Caviar Russe, and Hakkasan. Additional restaurants unique to our area: Pao by Paul Qui, TwentyTwenty Grill, The Forge, and GK Bistronomie. Dare I say it, some of those don’t necessarily have a dress code, but you will feel out of place in shorts and flip-flops. Gasp! Finally, with the news that Joël Robuchon (the most starred chef in the world) will be opening L’Atelier (Miami Design District, mid-2017), all signs positively point to continued growth for South Florida. Perhaps one bright day, we can unequivocally be known as a serious food destination…with our very own Miami Michelin Guide.