By Anya von Bremzen
December 23, 2014

It's past 9 p.m. in Miami—the fashionably late latin dinner hour.

A Lamborghini shimmers its way through Philippe Starck’s Easter Island–esque columns at the sleek condo complex Icon Brickell. Behind the Lambo trails a tomato red Porsche, then a Jaguar the color of enameled kale. My boyfriend, Barry, ogles the parade of conveyances. I fix my gaze on the stilettos that descend from the cars: Louboutins and metallic Jimmy Choos, steeper than anything spotted even in Moscow. The killer heels, and the men with fat wallets who love them, head inside past the soaring black-onyx bar, into the dining room of a new Mexican restaurant called Cantina La Veinte.

The impossibly tall space is all Art Deco allusions, with an ethnographic museum’s worth of artifacts arranged on lacquered black shelves. “Godzilla meets Gatsby” is how our friend Elias—a Greek-Argentine wine importer and longtime local who thinks nothing of flying to London or San Sebastián for a meal—describes it. Out the vast windows, skyscrapers glitter across the palm-fringed Miami River. This might be the country’s most stunning new restaurant. The concept, haute Mexican, is apparently daring in a city where Cubans, with their love of lechón and plantains, still dictate taste. An ace young Mexican chef, Santiago Gómez, runs the kitchen; a brigade of tortilleras shape corn discs in customers’ view. We’d meant this as a quick margarita stop, but the guacamole, unadulterated by promiscuous seasoning, prompts more tastings from the regional menu. Fragrant Yucatecan masa pillows known as panuchos bulge with black beans beneath shreds of achiote-marinated pulled pork. Mexico City–style tacos gobernador cradle sweet shrimp. The last time I was in Brickell, the area just south of downtown Miami, was around the 2008 market crash. The condos stood empty and dark, eerie ghosts from a derailed future. Now Brickell is bustling, construction has skyrocketed, and the restaurant epicenter is shifting here from South Beach.

For the three decades I’ve been visiting, Miami has been a city where the DJ mattered more than the chef. With the exception of Cuban cuisine—like picadillo, a soupy, zesty, minced beef dish I had once at the iconic Versailles restaurant after crashing a Celia Cruz concert—305 was the area code for awful hotel food. Things began to improve in the mid-aughts with the fresh, personal cooking of Michelle Bernstein (during my visit she was getting ready to open Seagrape at the new Thompson Miami Beach Hotel) and Michael Schwartz (Michael’s Genuine, the Cypress Room). As these indie stars were winning James Beard Awards—and as Miami was evolving into a luxury shopping hub and safe-deposit box for wealthy South Americans, Russians, and others—a hotel boom started attracting high-voltage chefs: Scott Conant and Daniel Boulud, Michael Mina and José Andrés. It’s this combination of homegrown talent and global all-stars, plus that cash-fueled social scene, that has sparked the food renaissance I’ve come here to report on. Suddenly, Miami has become one of America’s most dynamic restaurant cities.

After our brief Mexico spell at Cantina La Veinte, we follow the crowd to nearby La Mar by Gastón Acurio, a ceviche-centric place at the Mandarin Oriental. Acurio, the Peruvian gastro-god, is pulling back from the food world (to run for president, whisper my sources). We claim seats on the terrace. Tropical breezes ripple Biscayne Bay. Over pisco sours and a clean-tasting fluke ceviche, Ana Quincoces, the witty, leggy alumna of The Real Housewives of Miami, decodes the Miami Woman for us. Artificial tan. Hair extensions. Pilates. Nine-inch heels. “Otherwise we feel pale and short—and flabby and bald,” says Quincoces, who approached her Housewives gig with the relish of a pop anthropologist. The arrival of a stone bowl of rice, topped with a layer of shrimp omelette, interrupts her. The waiter tosses the eggs into the sizzling rice dotted with Chinese sausages, roast pork, and pickled ginger. It’s fried rice meets Korean bibimbap—devised by Japanese-Peruvian chef Diego Oka as an homage to a chifa (Chinese-Peruvian) classic. “Crazy delicious,” I say. “Chinese-Peruvian fusion, whoa,” Barry exclaims. Ana shrugs. “So? My mom is Chinese-Cuban-American.”

“For the longest time, Miami was a town young chefs abandoned for New York or Chicago,” Andreas Schreiner is telling me while I sip a malty Tripel from the local Holy Mackerel brewery at his restaurant, Pubbelly. The thirtysomething Schreiner is Colombian-Austrian, raised in Puerto Rico. After directing food and beverage at fancy Miami hotels, he escaped to Chicago, falling in love with cool spots like Avec. Why, he wondered, couldn’t Miami have a neighborhood gastropub? And so, in late 2010, with partners Sergio Navarro and José Mendín, he opened Pubbelly in the emerging Sunset Harbour section of Miami Beach. Its instant success has spawned a mini-empire of hipster deliciousness: Pubbelly Sushi (irreverent rolls), Barceloneta (tapas), L’Echon (a brasserie). A porky mash-up of Latin and Asian flavors and progressive European techniques, the original Pubbelly ($$$) is a place where octopus is cooked sous vide in duck fat, where short-rib tartare is jolted by Japanese bean paste and served with toast slathered with goat butter. Consider its ur–Puerto Rican mofongo—normally a leaden dud of green plantains. Here the plátano gets soaked, fried, refried, studded with pork-belly bits, then served in an umami-rich puddle of shoyu broth. “They should enshrine this nuevo mofongo in San Juan,” Barry says. “Puertorriqueños do eat it—and practically weep,” Schreiner agrees.

Since Cuban exiles began transforming the city back in the 1960s, Miami has also been a magnet for Nicaraguans and Salvadorans, Colombians and Peruvians. The city’s population is now 70 percent Latin. The day after our late dinner at La Mar, Elias takes me on a pan-Latin snackathon around Little Havana. First stop: La Camaronera ($), the iconic fried-fish joint known for its pan con minuta, a fried-snapper sandwich on a squishy white Cuban roll with a suggestive schmear of a mystery red sauce. Next we’re at Viva Mexico ($), a lime green taco shack festooned with piñatas and sombreros. Its owner hails from Michoacán, the western Mexican state known for drug cartels and the lard-simmered pork called carnitas. Hence the obsessively authentic roster of pig parts—stomach, leg, ears, tongue—loosely packed into thin corn tortillas, to be consumed with fiery splashes of salsa. Our bill is a fraction of what the swells pay for valet parking at Cantina La Veinte ($$$).

Come noon we’re perched at the Formica counter of the Calle Ocho branch of El Rey de las Fritas ($). We’re here to sample the frita cubana, a salty, cumin-y patty of beef and chorizo tucked into a pale bun under a blizzard of shoestring potatoes. A telenovela blares on TV. Customers gaze up from their sopas de res (beef soups) and gasp as a sultry beauty slugs her boyfriend right in the chops. But wait, why is everyone having steamy soup loaded with yuca when the main attraction is fritas? Muy cold out, mamita, the waitress explains. True, the temperature has dropped—to an icy 84 degrees.

The latest arrivals from the Spanish-speaking world are economic refugees escaping unemployment in Spain. You’ll find homesick Iberians sipping Riojas and cavas at the slightly madcap Niu Kitchen ($$$), which opened last summer. Clad in reclaimed wooden planks, the scruffy-chic space feels like a sliver of Barcelona’s Raval district shoehorned into downtown Miami. Barry and I bond with new amigos Jaime and Pep—Catalan TV types with nice Telemundo jobs—over perfect poached eggs in a cloud of foamy potatoes. Then we move to xato, a Catalan salad of frisée and ventresca (tuna belly) in a dusky romesco sauce. “Estupendo,” cries Jaime over the rice, which is not a paella but a caldoso (soupy) variety laced with botifarra sausage and squid. “Ah, mar i muntanya, sea and mountains,” he sighs, and I see a nostalgic yearning in his eyes.

In this city of hyphenated cuisines and identities, one forgets that Florida is located in America’s South—or in America, period. It took a Georgia native, John Kunkel, of the 50 Eggs restaurant group, to ignite Miami’s Southern food craze. His newish Swine, in Coral Gables, serves mean barbecue and craft bourbons. Better still is a fried chicken brunch—biscuits or cheddar waffles?—at Kunkel’s Yardbird ($$$), in South Beach. Pity the sweaty joggers out on the beach while you’re in this corner space with sunlight filling the huge windows, Otis Redding and Johnny Cash on the sound system, a third mint julep in front of you. The fried-green-tomato BLT is wicked. But it’s that chicken—brined for 27 hours, dredged in spiced flour, and fried in shortening to a deep Southern tan—that will linger in memory. That and the wisdom displayed on a sign above the kitchen: “There are two kinds of people: those who love fried chicken and communists.”

Some welcome the invasion of out-of-town restaurant brands—La Mar ($$$), Scarpetta, Hakkasan—while some shrug off these could-be-anywhere carbon copies. But even the latter folk admit that Zuma ($$$), at the Epic Hotel downtown, is their favorite restaurant. Ah, that worldly crowd, the sakes, the sushi! The epic robata-grilled king crab! I’m a Zuma groupie myself, ever since the London Knightsbridge original hooked me back in 2002. But I like the Miami branch the best. It’s the warm, tactile design of stone, concrete, rice paper, and wood. It’s the decorative clientele, like the table of Frida Kahlo look-alikes next to a table of Slavic oligarchettes pouting into their sake-marinated black cod. The long sushi-tempura-robata menu can be daunting, so here’s a plan: Follow the slender yellowtail maki with greaseless fried soft-shell crab served on peppery mizuna. From the robata, choose the smoky chicken wings, plus the candy-sweet corn. Then sit back and sprinkle shiso-lime salt on the chewy slices of rare skirt steak. When the waitress recommends the green tea and banana cake, trust her.

South Beach may no longer be the restaurant epicenter, but good luck picking from the steady stream of new spots—many of them arrivals from other cities. Lure Fishbar ($$$), at the Loews Miami Beach Hotel, an offshoot of the adorable New York original, serves killer cocktails and briny seafood plateaux. The otoro (fatty tuna) at the Shelborne Wyndham Grand South Beach hotel’s new Morimoto ($$$$) is Tokyo-worthy. A fan of the Spanish avant-gardist José Andrés, I book at his Bazaar ($$$), inside the sexy SLS South Beach. Before dinner, we meet our art-world friends Teresa and Luis at the retro-chic Regent Cocktail Club. Julio Cabrera, its cult Cuban mixologist, talks Hemingway and the Floridita as he stirs and shakes impeccable mojitos and daiquiris. Finally, we settle under an octopoid chandelier inlaid with seashells at the Bazaar. A liquid-nitrogenized caipirinha materializes as we browse the menu dense with references. There are Philippe Starck’s trompe l’oeil bookshelves on the wall, and on our plates the chef’s trompe l’oeil olives (green spherifications bursting with olive oil). A puff composed mostly of air molecules, Swiss cheese foam, and a curl of jamón is dubbed a “Cubano in Honor of Café Versailles.”

The crowd is stunning tonight, and the kitchen’s on fire. Adrià-inspired dazzlers (oysters under a cloche filled with applewood smoke) alternate with sharply executed Iberian classics. Croquetas arrive in an glass sneaker. A tuna ceviche rises, Venus-like, from dragon fruit under pink hibiscus lather. “Why don’t we have such sexy places in Brooklyn?” Teresa laments. Luis flashes back to mid-eighties Miami Vice–era South Beach. Cocaine gangs, Marielitos, feral underground nightclubs, decaying Art Deco. As if on cue, Michael Mann, the show’s executive producer, walks by. Dying to ask what he thinks of Miami’s restaurant renaissance, I follow him onto the terrace bar. But he seems to have vanished into the poolside party’s hazy perspective. In vain I search for him among the forest of killer stilettos— then return to my deconstructed Key lime pie.

Restaurant Pricing Key
$ Less than $25
$$ $25 to $75
$$$ $75 to $150
$$$$ More than $150

Anya von Bremzen is a T+L contributing editor.