NIU Kitchen: Catalan Tapas Spot Shows Promise for Downtown Dining

Categories: Review, The Critic

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Co-owners Karina Iglesias and Deme Lomas.
Not long after sunset, downtown Miami is so deserted the click of a changing traffic light echoes like a gunshot. Once-bustling cafeterias and shops closed hours ago. In the inky darkness, steel shutters rattle in the wind.

But then you turn a corner and a cool-yellow glow pours onto the stained sidewalk. A subtle hum becomes boisterous chatter, clinking wine glasses, and clattering dishes. As you step in front of NIU Kitchen's plate-glass façade, you're sucked off the sidewalk and into a buzzing Barcelona-style tapas restaurant. The musical gurgle of emptying bottles of ruby-red tempranillo fills your ears. The nutty scent of toasting bread invades your senses along with the intoxicating aroma of fruity olive oil. After you settle into one of NIU's 26 seats, a warmth overtakes you, mostly thanks to co-owner Karina Iglesias, who with a devilish grin tops off your glass and then adds nothing to the check.

See also: NIU Kitchen: Playful Catalan Cuisine in Downtown Miami

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At AQ in Sunny Isles Beach, Dewey LoSasso Gets Fancy and Fanciful

Categories: Review, The Critic

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Dewey LoSasso inside AQ's kitchen.
Dewey LoSasso likes to have fun.

At AQ by Acqualina, the stylish restaurant that opened in a towering, Venetian-style Sunny Isles Beach hotel-condo this past April, the mustached chef plays with dishes such as green eggs and ham. A 20-minute wait precedes a bubbling martini glass layered with sweet mascarpone cheese tinted emerald green thanks to tiny chopped chives and an egg baked until the white is solid but still jiggly. The luxurious twin slices of fatty, salty jamón ibérico round out the Seuss-inspired starter.

See also: AQ by Acqualina: Dewey LoSasso's Whimsical Food in a Five-Star Hotel

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South Florida Brew Bus Delivers South Florida's Craft Beer Craze

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Photo by Karli Evans
Driver Edgar Revuelta (left), Brew Bus USA events coordinator Aaron Caplan, and Brew Bus South Florida attendants Kimberly Johnson and Matt Davis.
"Drive slow!" shouted several of the more than 20 passengers on a minicoach as it rolled south on I-95 past the sprawling suburbia of southern Palm Beach County. The driver looked back, smiled, and set the cruise control to 55, allowing traffic to pass unabated.

Why the leisurely pace when most people just want to get to wherever the hell they're going? Simple: free beer. As another round of cold ones from Brew Bus Brewing was tossed down the aisle, the adults smiled like kids on Christmas. At the wheel, the driver looked almost preternaturally mellow.

Welcome to the South Florida Brew Bus.

The five-month-old beer tourism operation takes craft-beer-loving citizens on journeys to five local breweries to sample 12 to 16 ounces of beer at each stop, as well as however much they can drink on the bus. The bus has its own line of five beers prepared by Cigar City Brewing in Tampa, such as the award-winning English porter Double Decker, rich with chocolate malt and roasted oat flavors. By the end, sobriety ranges from tipsy to hammered.

See also: Miami's Monthly Sud Swap Is Craft Beer Nirvana

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Tasting Menus: Miami's Gateway to the Big Leagues

Categories: Review, The Critic

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Executive Chef and proprietor Michael R. Shikany; lemon rose sorbet.
Perfectly ironed white tablecloths are topped with open glass orbs holding fresh-cut roses floating in water. The stems are twisted and tied around delicate blooms, creating bows that rise from the bowls. The rich cherry hardwood floor of Palme d'Or -- the opulent, awarded-winning French culinary temple in Coral Gables' iconic Biltmore Hotel -- is reminiscent of Versailles, Louis XIV's palace outside Paris. Wide, square mirrored columns with ornate crown moulding dot the room.

For $175 before wine pairings, patrons can slowly fill themselves with a 12-course meal that includes sea urchin, jamón ibérico, and delicately turned vegetables cooked in butter. Each bite is the creation of 33-year-old Gregory Pugin, who once traveled the world alongside famed chef Joël Robuchon and took the reins in 2011. Each grand meal lasts at least three hours. The fixed menu offers no choices besides the wine.

See also: Buns & Buns: Balance Could Lift Heavy, Rich Dishes

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Naked Taco: SoBe Joint Is Crazy Fun

Categories: Review, The Critic

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Photo by Zachary Fagenson
Mexican pizza with shrimp.
As soon as you sit down at Naked Taco in South Beach, a bubbly waiter toting a frosty shaker measures out two grapefruit-tequila shots in heavy, preplaced glasses. "You have to be a little mad to have fun with us," he says while shaking out the last drops of the precious nectar.

Maybe you're mad. But you wouldn't have to be crazy to like the Pink Tuna ($14), a tongue-in-cheek reference to the lower half of the female anatomy. After all, what could be so bad about bright-red cubes of rare tuna, avocado, mango, and a spicy soy ginger glaze?

See also: Naked Taco: Ralph Pagano's SoBe Spot Opening for SOBEWFF

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Buns & Buns: Balance Could Lift Heavy, Rich Dishes

Categories: Review, The Critic

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Buns and Buns Chef Reuven Sugarman, lamb ribs.
Buns & Buns established its affinity for the misogynistic era of the 1950s early last summer when it released a minute-long teaser video that opened with dozens of women's tanned, oiled backsides sunbathing on an unidentified beach.

"Incontestably, we all like our buns hot and steamy," it said before cutting to beach scenes set to modern surf rock.

See also: Buns & Buns: Value-Priced Fresh Bread and Grilled Meats

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La Mar: Peruvian Classics Elevated to Haute Cuisine

Categories: Review

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Cebiche sampler at La Mar.
The unmistakable snapping of rice in a superheated stone bowl hints at what's to come. The heavy gray-and-white-flecked basin typical of Japanese eateries seems misplaced at first in a Peruvian restaurant. But the nutty, charred scent of crisping grains soon dispenses any concerns about eating a Korean-Japanese mashup of sweet soy, roast pork, Chinese sausage, and pickled ginger.

A black-clad waiter bows and sets the yawning vessel in the middle of a table facing floor-to-ceiling sliding glass doors that open to views of Brickell's condo canyons. He punches through the pale-yellow egg crepe hiding the sweet-smoky combination. With two large serving spoons, he scrapes the almost burned sushi rice stuck to the bottom of the bowl, dispersing its delicious crunch into each bite. It's neither a ceviche nor a taxi-yellow plate of papas a la huancaína. But it's still distinctly Peruvian.

See also: El Atlacatl: A South Florida Institution

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El Atlacatl: A South Florida Institution

Categories: Review

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The pupusa at El Atlacatl.
At El Atlacatl, a decades-old restaurant in Little Havana, you have a better chance of being served by owner Napoleon Moreno's brown-eyed daughters than a waitress. Karla, 28 years old, and Flor, 25, have infectious smiles, hourglass figures, and long brown hair that fades to auburn around their narrow, tanned faces. Along with their twin 21-year-old brothers, Napoleon and Claudio, they push the sopa de res, an intensely flavored corn-yellow soup with big chunks of carrot and potato and rich, fatty knots of tender beef. It's ordered by nearly every table every day.

"If there's a table of four, someone will order it as an extra so everyone can get a bite," Karla says.

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1826 Restaurant & Lounge: Magnificent on Multiple Levels

Categories: Review

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Photo by billwisserphoto.com
Short ribs
You'll find all the usual suspects at the all-glass, four-story restaurant on Collins Avenue. There's the purr of Lamborghinis out front, the parade of Real Housewives in tight bandage dresses, and a short red carpet unrolled. But, like a beacon, the glowing fuchsia lights outside indicate something different at this standout standalone restaurant: The level of style matches the sophistication of cuisine.

Once inside 1826 Restaurant & Lounge, there's nowhere to go but up. You can enter the elevator and head to the third floor, where you'll find a contemporary setting with a light display, elongated windows, metal barstools, and lounge chairs made from recycled airplane skins. If you're a VIP or a member of a private party, or you order bottle service, go straight to the fourth floor.

Or you might head directly to dinner, for which you will be leisurely led up the stairs to the second floor. There, you'll find a throwback, mod style with pod chairs in a sleek and refined space. The restaurant's four numbers are engraved in the brushed concrete. Take a peek through the window into the garde manger station, and you might see chef Danny Grant meticulously placing herbs, edible flowers, and final touches on plates.

See also: 1826 Restaurant & Lounge: Gorgeous Food in a Mad Men Setting

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Taperia Raca Offers Rich, Easy-to-Enjoy Tapas in MiMo

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Calimocho and Tortilla Española at Taperia Raca.
In Miami, ordering tortilla española is like playing a game of Russian roulette. In kitchens from Kendall to South Beach, the humble dish begs comparison to versions cooked by mothers, abuelitas, the great chefs of Spain, and that country's beloved tapas bars. Some argue the slices of potato should be razor-thin, stacked three to four inches high, and served at or just below room temperature. For others, the dish is best served slightly warm, with thick slices of potato encased in egg that's cooked to the point where the scrambled yolks begin to brown and lend just a touch of crunch.

At Giorgio Rapicavoli's Taperia Raca, which opened in February in the Miami Modern district, the tortilla was inspired by a brief trip to Spain, where the tortilla at Cervecería Catalana in Barcelona is thin, warm, and slightly runny on the inside, says the Eating House chef and reality TV winner.

See also: Taperia Raca: Spanish Tapas on the Upper Eastside (Photos)

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