Top 21 Miami Restaurants of 2021: Palette Awards

I reserved, ordered, photographed, and ate at all of these restaurants. No one asked nor paid me to do so. Supporting our local restaurants brings me joy, and I am passionate about Miami’s food scene. A lot of careful thought went into the naming and placement of each honoree. 

Last year, I placed the awards on hiatus. It was the first time since 2013 that I skipped a year. I simply could not publish any rankings after restaurants spent the year swimming upstream just trying to stay afloat. Instead, I bumped my usual Top 30 Bites post to a Top 100 Bites: Miami to highlight the ones I most enjoyed. This 2021 list, in a way, is a combination of both 2020 and 2021. Every year I praise our city for its growth and against-all-odds scrappy nature. But, honestly, the last couple of years have taken the cake (even as waves of outsider restaurateurs, and investors flood and infiltrate our city).

About this list

The restaurants receiving The Whet Palette Awards offer the total package. Many of the places I have named are also on my Miami-Dade County Favorites list (and one I update throughout the year), but not all on that list are here. The criteria is different for both.

These are the ones you visit to sit for dinner. Read that again. SIT. FOR. DINNER. Not “grab a bite,” “order a few things,” “stop in,” or just “enjoy some cocktails.” You can enjoy food nirvana at any of the Top 21. Arrive early for a cocktail, choose a bottle of wine or appropriate pairing, start with some appetizers, order your entree, dessert, after-dinner drink, and maybe also a cafecito. Perhaps enjoy a tasting menu instead. Enjoy the ambiance, celebrate something, or interact with friends and staff. Receive the kind of service you don’t have to think about because it just is. Get the picture? Dinner as a leisurely experience and not an afterthought or just a selfie op.

A couple of restaurants have shifted within the list compared to other years. I don’t add any that opened during the last quarter of the year and why it might take longer for some to appear on my list (it happened with Ghee, Surf Club, Boia De, and Stubborn Seed upon their arrival, to name a few). Most of these establishments are currently unmatched in Miami-Dade, and definitively in Broward. The few I chose that have some similarities with other concepts (think omakase and Italian menus, for example) delivered a near-seamless experience.

CRITERIA

EXCEPTIONAL FOOD First and foremost, obviously, the food. Are these dishes that moved me or stayed with me long after leaving the restaurant? Is the menu different than anything else found in South Florida? Is the menu enticing and cohesive? How much care went into composing a dish? Is it thrown together or skillfully plated? Are the ingredients used of excellent quality? Ultimately, is it fuck*n’ good?

SIPS A notable beverage program can be found at most of these.

AND MORE I admire the pandemic hustle so many of the list OGs took on last year. Even with a staff shortage still in place locally, the majority of these restaurants found a way to go out of their way to offer stellar service and pay attention to the details. They honored reservations, gave a warm and welcoming reception, topped glasses, replaced napkins, and always found quick resolutions to any arising issues. In addition, I noticed (and appreciated) their overall vibe, killer decor, and details like perhaps a thoughtful playlist that embraced diners by setting the mood upon arrival. From the tiniest mom ‘n’ pop restaurant listed to the poshest one, these spots all exude character and evoke a “feeling” once in the space: priceless.

What you will NOT find

“It’s a dive, but it has the best ______”
“The best service, although the food isn’t the greatest.”
“Such a beautiful view, but the food is just OK!”
“I don’t love it, but the owners are sooooo nice.”
“Never been, but I saw it on so and so’s list, so I will add it to mine too.”
“I know someone who knows someone who knows someone, and I ‘got in’. Oh, there’s food?”
“Order at the counter, wait for your pager to vibrate.”
“Got the press release, have to add them, or I won’t get that next repeat dinner invite.”

Have no fear; those lists do exist elsewhere.

Ready? Set? Dale!

Use this list as a reference when making your next reservation, and as a springboard to keep the conversation about Miami restaurants going.

21. Ghee

Consistency is basically synonymous with GHEE. Bite after bite, year after year, infused with love, spice, and everything nice.

20. Red Rooster

New York newcomer restaurant by chef Marcus Samuelson making all the right moves (even during peak pandemic last year). Warm, and vibey with to-die-for dishes. Dine indoors or out, and enjoy live music: the whole package!

19. Zitz Sum

Mind blown. It has been wonderful to experience Zitz Sum’s journey thus far. How are they firing on all cylinders in such a short period of time? The depth of flavor on every dish served, layered textures course after course, and delicate finishing touches know no end. The result? A whole lot of awe and mmms…the eyes closed type. Brownie points if you can find the restaurant easily on your first try. Name. No name. Dim sum. Zitz Sum. What a great Miami addition!

18. Como Como

Sexy, coastal Mexican food, y muy Miami. The interiors are drop-dead-gorgeous. Pero, “pretty” can only take you so far. Thankfully, Como Como offers plenty of substance too. Solid dishes by chef Scott Linquist, great service, and even a hidden Mezcal bar make this list newcomer an exciting arrival to South Florida, and my list.

17. Itamae

Gone are the days of the Nisei pop-up and when Nikkei-inspired Itamae occupied a small spot at St. Roch Market. The new version is still tiny inside, but the outside spread at the Palm Court in the Miami Design District is big on heart and flavor. The menu has evolved greatly, and every dish demands attention. Well, you got it!

16. Uchi

The Uchi experience can be done as an omakase or a la carte. The concept is fast-paced, hip, loud, and casual. Good luck choosing what to eat, in a good way, of course. The menu —a sprawling list giving CVS receipts everywhere some competition— is divided into seemingly neverending sections. Oh, the possibilities: hot and cold tastings, vegetables, tempura, sushi and sashimi, Toyosu selections, bluefin selection, house specials, and dessert. I can’t get enough.

15. Boia De

Hidden within an unassuming strip mall in Little Haiti, the restaurant is small, but grand on character and style. There’s a reason Boia De topped my takeout list during quarantine. Plated onsite or delivered in a to-go container, the high-quality eats did not skip a beat then nor now. The toughest part? Deciding what to order when everything is a must-try. Thinking back to my initial visit, one bite is all it took to get hooked. Despite its casual nature, service and wine are equally important as the food here. Also, bathroom vodka monkeys. Check them out. You’re welcome.

14. Phuc Yea

Pronounced: fuhk-ya. But also, Viet-Cajun, f*ck yeah! Everything about this place screams COOL: graffiti, neon, and vintage pieces galore. There’s a cohesive message that clearly shines through…Phuc Yea‘s got soul. Miami royalty, if you ask me! Remember that 2011 pop-up that started it all? I do. This one also topped my quarantine takeout list. The hustle was (and is) real! And so is my love for them all these years. I crave this menu often. The Crispy Imperial Rolls, P.Y. Noodles, and Smoked Short Rib NEVER leave my order; just name it The Whet Palette special.

13. La Fresa Francesa

A Hialeah meets Paris fairytale. Charming owners Benoit and Sandy are the heart of this dreamy operation, and it shows. Filled with antiques and curiosities throughout the restaurant space, you can’t help but be transported to yesteryear. Tropical Miami touches on the menu remind you this isn’t your typical French cafe. You can find a Truffled Egg En Cocotte, a Croque Madame, or a Roasted Quail, on any given day. Pero aquí tambien hay guayaba and papaya sprinkled on some dishes. Fun tip, there’s even a clever use of a pastelito on a dish. IYKYK. More importantly, they serve the best damn crepes in all of Miami. I said what I said.

12. Osaka Cocina Nikkei

One of the very few restaurants on this list with several other locations of their concept worldwide. I don’t know about Lima, Buenos Aires, Santiago, São Paulo, Quito, Bogotá, or London. But in Miami, this Nikkei gem impresses with plenty of stunning dishes off their menu, unlike any others. The Tuna Foie (seared foie gras, Nikkei teriyaki, Maldon salt), Hotate Truffle (Hokkaido scallop, truffle butter, lime), Niku Tartar (Prime beef, miso cured foie, panca-yakiniku sauce, nori crackers), and the Pato Mochero (Crispy Moulard duck leg, wok rice, shiitake, smoked pork, curuba honey) caught my attention years ago. Consistent quality and attentive service with every visit keep me coming back and raving about Osaka.

11. La Mar

Led by the very gifted and skilled Diego Oka, La Mar by Gastón Acurio serves outstanding upscale Asian-Peruvian food. The unparalleled Miami views win you over before you even take a bite, but it’s not about the location. Service is always on point, and the delicious seafood-heavy menu keeps diners returning. Don’t despair if fish isn’t your favorite. The menu also carries a fabuloso Lomo Saltado (oh, how I adore that accompanying choclo rice) and a hotter than hot take on the Chaufa Aeropuerto. I remain hopeful 2022 will see the return of their spectacular Sunday brunch. Fire!

10. COTE

Yes, it’s worth the hype. This New York restaurant (I know, I know, eye roll) happens to be a welcomed and an excellent addition to the Miami dining scene. Truly. FWIW, this opening was already in the works pre-covid (unlike those “others”). A Korean steakhouse offering steak omakase? Que? Si. The vibe, sexy, electric, and contagious, somehow still feels intimate throughout the 5,892 square-foot restaurant. Telepathic service too. The left hand here does know what the right is doing. Impressive to witness. Not skipping a beat, the staff at COTE enthusiastically parades through the space with intent and purpose; it’s clear, this is a team effort. COTE takes great pride in the domestic Prime grade (dry-aging select cuts in-house), all-natural American wagyu hybrid, and imported Japanese wagyu (only sourcing A5, the highest grade, with marbling scores of 8 – 12) served. Great care and detail also went into the development of the beverage program. Fun fact: the wines by the glass are poured out of magnums bottled just for COTE, directly from the wineries. 

9. Lido Restaurant

Miami doesn’t have a shortage of gorgeous venues and restaurants, but this one is truly breathtaking. Chef Antonio Mermolia led the way from its Le Sirenuse start four years ago, to its transformation as Lido Restaurant late last year. This gem, located inside Surfside’s The Surf Club, has always been the go-to spot for that ultimate Italian fine dining experience, and the reason it’s listed here today. What an outstanding year! That said, a few weeks ago, chef Michael White (of NYC’s Michelin-starred Marea, and Ai Fiori fame) took over as the restaurant now enters a new phase at his skilled hands. I have no doubt Lido Restaurant will continue its path as one of Miami’s best.

8. Bourbon Steak

Have they really been around for 14 years? Gasp! Executive chef Gabriel Fenton victoriously leads the Bourbon Steak kitchen. When he’s not executing Michael Mina’s staple dishes, he’s meticulously and proudly adding new dishes, using as many fresh and seasonal ingredients as possible. The extensive wine list and equally spectacular handmade cocktails & spirits list have something for everyone. Besides the obvious commitment to the food served, the overall experience for the guest must be as close to perfect as humanly possible, and it’s something the team takes very seriously. In a city so preoccupied with the latest trends, looks, and never enough attention to customer service, it’s nice to know a magical place such as Bourbon Steak exists: an exceptional modern steakhouse with classic roots, skills, and great panache. And also, the trio of duck-fat french fries. #yesIwentthere

7. Nossa Omakase

This is Miami’s most exciting 2021 restaurant opening. The two-hour experience begins with cocktails and follows with a beautiful 16-18 course progression. Do not let the occasional smoke and flashy performance aspects of dinner fool you into thinking this is just another pretty and shallow South Beach spot. While not fully traditional, Nossa is the real deal with top quality ingredients flown in from Japan, Italy, and Brazil. They also deliver seasonal included perks such as white and black truffle, caviar, and Hokkaido uni. Service is warm, welcoming, and stellar. Disclosure: the restaurant experienced a chef shake up a couple of weeks ago, and Nossa now enters a new chapter. I plan on visiting the 2.0 version soon and wish the team the best of luck!

6. NAOE

One of South Florida’s most respected restaurants. With only one assistant in the kitchen and an enviable intense focus, chef Kevin Cory works diligently to execute each course using flawless precision. Despite the mounting awards and mentions NAOE receives, his grace, humbleness, and contagious serenity come across loud and clear. Don’t be surprised if you are greeted by name upon arrival. The impressive attention to detail continues throughout dinner with prompt water refills, drink orders, napkin replacement, and extensive course-by-course descriptions. Minimalistic modern interior design and classical music provide an immaculate and harmonious backdrop to the royal menu. Complementing dinner, you can expect an endless selection of organic vegetables, rice, freshly-grated wasabi root, and even shoyu and sake from chef Kevin Cory’s family brewery, which dates back to the 1800s. An adventure. An education. A challenge. Nothing else compares.

The Top Five

5. Stubborn Seed

Passion, grit, and a playful flair make chef Jeremy Ford’s Stubborn Seed a strong keeper every year. The exposed concrete, quaint retro furnishings, and graffiti artwork establish a casual fine dining vibe. The upscale dishes solidify its powerhouse status. Top Chef fans take note; there’s always a crudo on the menu. Foie gras lovers, you must know Ford makes South Florida’s sexiest! Ordering a la carte is available but, honestly, the seasonal tasting menu is always the way to go. And what a ride it is to go through it! Rock on!

4. Ariete

I mean it when I name it one of my “tried and true” spots. Master of the pivot game (and not just during the pandemic), chef-owner Michael Beltran navigated and overcame adversity through the years to get to where he is today. Now, Coconut Grove’s Ariete, sits pretty, solid, and stable, offering diners an array of spectacular experiences: chef’s tasting menu, a la carte menu, and Miami’s sole duck press. Every dish is obsessively conceptualized and executed, often showcasing Cuban-inspired courses unlike anywhere else in Miami. I am blessed to have experienced Ariete’s evolution from the beginning, and greatly admire this restaurant’s journey. So good, they simply can’t be ignored. Pay attention, Miami.

3. L’Atelier de Jöel Robuchon

L’Atelier usually offers a couple of specialty and seasonal tasting menus, plus the ability to order a la carte. Every dish is executed to mind-blowing perfection: top-notch from beginning to end. Curious fact: this restaurant has been through many kitchen changes, but you would never know it, given their delivery has never been rocked. Unusual, and admirable. South Florida is known to have impressively designed restaurants, and this one is no exception. This modern French cuisine concept is about the pursuit of perfection, attention to detail, and care about the diner having the ultimate adventure. Miamians might be surprised to learn that the overall service is neither stuffy nor intimidating.

2. Fiola

Forget their D.C. Michelin star. Forget the star-studded dining room. The food and service at FIOLA Miami are worthy of our praise and the real stars that matter. Said to be inspired by regional Italian classic dishes, and family traditions, Fiola’s menu offers something for everyone, and the dizzying options can overwhelm. How does one even choose when everything is excellent? Dinner is always coursed perfectly, and tableside presentations and explanations flow easily. Each highly-curated plate, tray, bowl, and platter showcase the food at its best: stunning to look at and even better to taste. The wine program is one of my personal favorites too. You can trust the dedicated and knowledgeable somms will guide you towards the most suitable option for your palate.

1. The Surf Club

Consistent since day one, I can assure you that the unmistakable chef Keller finesse and signature style comes off loud and clear at The Surf Club. The goal is “Continental cuisine interpreted for today’s contemporary guests.” This is fine dining: white tablecloths, and high-quality ingredients with the absolute best hospitality in all of South Florida. The staff makes it all seem effortless and friendly without an ounce of pretentiousness, like a well-choreographed and executed performance. The best. Without a doubt. Local talented chef de cuisine, Manuel Echeverri, expertly leads this kitchen (sadly, at least until the end of January 2022. No word yet on his replacement). The number one spot of my Top 30 Bites: Miami post went to one of his specials. The Surf Club is a solid choice whenever a guest wants to be spoiled and experience the perfect night. Plus, there’s a kickass chocolate cake.

Congratulations to the 2021 Palette Awards recipients! We are so lucky to have you.

Missed the introduction to this post because you were too impatient to read it? It’s all good. Go back and read it now.

Thank you for visiting my website, reading, and sharing. Get out there and make your reservations, Miami! They ALL deserve your attention and support.

PAST AWARDS

2020 Hiatus
2019 

2018
2017 
2016
2015 
2014
2013

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