Taco Madness: Taquiza, Coyo, and Bodega Step Up

Categories: Review, The Critic

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Photo by billwisserphoto.com
Steve Santana preparing tortillas at South Beach's Taquiza.
The taco-making begins with a whir and a screech. Late one weekday morning, Steve Santana, the bespectacled chef of Miami Beach's Taquiza, uses a power tool to deepen the narrow channels in two thick rock discs, which wear down every week while crushing corn into masa, the dough that becomes tortillas in this walk-up Collins Avenue taqueria.

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Macchialina and Seagrape Nail Spaghetti Alle Vongole

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Courtesy of Macchialina
Macchialina's spaghetti alle vongole has everything you'd want from this classic Italian dish.
We often take for granted simple foods, like a traditional Margherita pizza or a warm grilled-cheese sandwich. That is, until we taste a bad version; then we gain a new-found appreciation for them. It's also then that we begin to realize that our beloved Margherita pizza and grilled-cheese sandwich aren't quite as simple as we thought.

A perfect example is spaghetti alle vongole (spaghetti with clams), a relatively straightforward dish that hails from Venice, where bivalves are available by the boatload. Sometimes tomatoes are added to the mix, but the recipe usually includes clams, parsley, white wine, garlic, chilies, and extra-virgin olive oil.

Ubiquitous at restaurants both in Italy and abroad, this pasta dish frequently disappoints despite its simplicity. According to Macchialina Taverna Rustica's chef and co-owner, Michael Pirolo, "spaghetti alle vongole is one of the easiest dishes to mess up."

See also: Fabio Vivani Brunch at Siena Tavern

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Michelle Bernstein Reappears With Panache at Seagrape

Categories: Review, The Critic

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Photo by billwisserphoto.com
Seagrape's organic lacinato kale salad is a vibrant and vegan starter.
Inside Seagrape's dimly lit dining room at the Thompson Miami Beach, a meticulously plated starter dish is revealed courtesy of our waiter's iPhone flashlight. Veiled in foam are locally grown squash blossoms infused with mousse derived from Florida shrimp. Underneath is a sauce prepared from the shellfish's heads plus plenty of Tabasco. It's a pristine appetizer that the harsh light makes only more alluring.

The restaurant's executive chef is Miami's culinary darling, Michelle Bernstein, who -- like the shrimp dish -- has been briefly lost from view. Michy's, her acclaimed eatery in the MiMo District, is closed for an extensive face-lift, and her Design District tapas spot, Sra. Martinez, is a thing of the past. Seagrape marks the James Beard Award-winning toque's return to the spotlight.

See also: Ten best tacos in Miami

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Miami's Ten Best Restaurants Reviewed in 2014

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billwisserphoto.com
Oolite's fried green tomato arepa.
For Miami dining, 2014 was the year of simplicity. There was, as has long been the case, the onslaught of celebrity chefs planting their flags on our shores. But beyond these big names, homegrown culinary talent continued to boil down cuisine into its simplest, most delicious form.

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Cleo Offers Classy, Affordable Mediterranean Fare in SoBe

Categories: Review, The Critic

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billwisserphoto.com
Chef Danny Elmaleh's lebaneh yogurt with feta and za'atar is a must-have at Cleo
At Cleo, the Redbury Hotel's new eatery, Danny Elmaleh proffers a dip called lebaneh. To make it, the soft-spoken chef-partner lets kefir cheese drain for 48 hours and then adds olive oil, lemon juice, and za'atar (his version is a blend of thyme, sesame seeds, and sumac). Finally, he tosses morsels of creamy feta into the mixture.

Then he hands over a paper bag filled with warm laffa, a type of Middle Eastern flatbread.

Combine the two and you get something tangy, intense, and, frankly, exquisite.

The versatile dip sneaks its way into several dishes at Cleo. Take, for example, the spicy cigars, a traditional Moroccan appetizer featuring ground beef rolled in feuilles de brick, a pastry of Tunisian origin. These piquant, delicately fried sticks would get gobbled up even if they weren't resting atop a bowl of lebaneh, but they're even better with it.

See also: Dewey LoSasso on Schnebly's New Dining Concept

Arriving at Cleo, you might be deterred by the hotel's $25 valet parking fee. Pay it. Or park nearby. You will quickly cozy up to Cleo. Stellar cocktails and mezzes certainly help, while the affordable menu (nothing exceeds $16) and reasonably priced wine list are impressive for South Beach.

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At Moyé, Sardinia's Team Serves Chow From the Heel of Italy's Boot

Categories: Review, The Critic

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Valeria Nekhim
The comforting zucchini parmesan hits the spot
Restaurateur Tony Gallo and chef Pietro Vardeu have drawn crowds to Sardinia Enoteca in Sunset Harbour since 2006. Now the pair offers cuisine from another part of Italy. Apulia is a region in the southeast, the heel of the boot. It's somewhat poorer and flatter than much of the country, but it's jam-packed with history and a love of food. In fact, it's the nation's top producer of olive oil and the birthplace of burrata.

"There is no Apulian cuisine in Miami," Gallo says. "And we like to specialize in regional cuisine."

See also: Pinocchio Italian Deli & Caffe is Authentically Italian

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Boisterous Brunchers Can't Bog Down Miami Chefs

Categories: Review, The Critic

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Photo by billwisserphoto.com
Brunch at Blue Collar.
A 50-pound pig is pumped full of brine for four days and then -- around midnight on a Saturday -- placed in a large wooden box just behind the Four Seasons Hotel in Brickell. The box is closed, covered in hot charcoal, and left for hours beneath a tent that's shrouded by foliage. Around dawn, two cooks return and slide back the cover. Steam spills out and the sweet smell of roast pork fills the air as they flip the animal and roast it for another five hours.

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Moroccan Hideaway Fez Is a Reason to Reconsider Española Way

Categories: Review, The Critic

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billwisserphoto.com
Fez chef and owner Faycal Bettioui, chickpea fries.
The beige bulb of crackly pastry dough sprinkled with white powder could be hiding anything. You punch a fork into the flaky shell and a wisp of steam fills the air, which is already thick with incense and the blare of R.E.M.'s "Losing My Religion" set to a Middle Eastern rhythm.

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Seven Seas Restaurant & Fish Market: Little Haiti's Hidden Gem

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Photo by Valeria Nekhim
Pan roasted tilapia at Seven Seas Restaurant
Don't let its proximity to the Design District fool you -- Seven Seas Restaurant & Fish Market is all about the food. More specific, this blink-and-you'll-miss-it gem in Little Haiti features inexpensive and expertly prepared Dominican and American dishes.

Owner Nicholas Paulino and his wife, Ana, are originally from San Francisco de Macorís in the Dominican Republic but moved to New York more than 25 years ago to be near family. With no formal training (unless you count a culinary video course and his mother's teachings), Paulino landed a chef's job at Joe Allen on West 46th Street. He then transferred to its Miami Beach location, where he worked for 16 years until it shuttered in 2011.

See also: Doral Japanese-Peruvian Gem Tira.D.Toss. Hides in Plain Sight

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Loba in MiMo Draws a Pack of Admirers

Categories: Review, The Critic

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Photo by billwisserphoto.com
Loba owner Jessica Sanchez and the restaurant's popular goat cheese balls
Bathroom talk is usually off-limits during meals, but at Loba, a 3-month-old restaurant in MiMo, the lavatory is a conversation piece. That's because apart from the complimentary dental floss (greatly appreciated), the wallpaper is composed of pages torn from the classic children's book Where the Wild Things Are. It's no coincidence that the protagonist, Max, dresses up in a wolf costume and that Loba translates to "she-wolf."

Literary accents can be seen (and read) all over the place at Loba because of owner Jessica Sanchez's love of reading and her limited decorating budget. The 28-year-old former financial analyst also wanted to liven up the mood and create a playful atmosphere at this small place across the street from the newly remodeled Vagabond Hotel. For instance, a vegetarian entrée featuring farro piccolo, succotash, radishes, squash blossoms, eggs, and zucchini is cleverly called "Orwell's Dystopia." And checks are delivered inside novels. (On several occasions customers have coincidentally received their bills in their favorite books, says Sanchez, adding a Loba library is in the pipeline.)

See also: Photos from Loba in MiMo

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