During our stay in Miami a few weeks ago, we rediscovered the pleasure of gourmet lunches. Not only did it fit our new “with baby” travel schedule better than did going out at night, but also it allowed us to treat ourselves with fantastic food at a much lower cost. The lunch menu at gourmet restaurants is just as lavish and creative as the dinner menu is, and tables are often much easier to snatch. In fact, we simply walked into each restaurant without a reservation before rush hour, at around 11:45 a.m., and we were seated immediately every time. Although I usually like to handpick each and every restaurant (and book tables early) when we’re traveling, we did things differently this time, and I really enjoyed this spur of the moment attitude. One shouldn’t be surprised that a lunch at one of Daniel Boulud’s or José Andrés’s restaurants exceeds expectations, but we also made delicious and unexpected discoveries.
Here are my picks for gourmet lunches in Miami:
1 / db Bistro Moderne
We stumbled on this one while looking for a place for lunch on Easter Sunday. I had never eaten in any of Boulud’s restaurants before, so the opportunity was too good to pass up. After being seated in a corner of the elegant dining room filled with chic families celebrating together, we discovered that a three-course brunch menu was being served. Five to nine choices were offered per course, and everything looked so appealing that it took us a while to decide. I finally opted for the heirloom tomato salad (pictured) for the appetizer, ricotta gnudi for the main course, and rhubarb tart for dessert. Each dish was wonderfully intricate in textures, flavors, and presentation, without feeling overdone. I loved that they all showcased an unexpected accent that highlighted the star flavors: The tomato salad featured blistered padron peppers, which added an intriguing smoky and slightly spicy dimension to the dish; the gnudi sat on a fresh and silky nettle pesto to form a dreamy texture combination; and in the dessert, the zesty rhubarb flavor was complemented by yuzu in the form of a creamy curd that was dotted on the plate. It was an outstanding culinary experience, and for $49 per person, it was also by far the best value of the restaurants we tried in Miami. I will remember my meal at db Bistro Moderne as one of the best I’ve ever had.
The heirloom tomato salad at db Bistro Moderne
Dining room photo © db Bistro Moderne.
2 / The Bazaar by José Andrés
I had long wanted to eat at one of Andrés’s restaurants, so before we arrived in Miami, The Bazaar was the only place I knew I wanted to try. The restaurant is located inside the very cool SLS South Beach hotel, and the cuisine is described as “Andrés’ Spanish heritage, tradition and ingenuity with influences from South Beach’s local Latin flavors.” I fell in love with the main dining room’s décor: The wallpaper shows a library of vintage faux books, the room is crowned by a gigantic chandelier with textured arms like those of an octopus, and there are bunches of mismatched candleholders overflowing with melted wax. But we wanted to enjoy Miami’s perfect weather, so we sat on the terrace, which reminded me of a chic Italian palazzo. We loved that the terrace was separated from the pool (and the beach) by floor-to-ceiling sunshades that blocked burning rays but didn’t block the view (the shades are pulled when the sun is down.)
The menu featured appealing small plates, so we settled for a very colorful selection. The Shrimp & Crab Cocktail sounded quite traditional, but the avocado, spicy sauce, and malanga chips made it anything but. The “Cuba meets Paris” sliders (mini-croissants filled with roasted pork belly, Serrano ham, Swiss cheese, and pickles) sounded like an odd combination of ingredients that were in fact in perfect balance, and the Patatas Bravas were beautiful slender shoestring fries served with aioli. But the revelation was the Watermelon and Tomato salad, sprinkled with cana de cabra (a firm, salty cheese that reminded me of feta) and crushed pistachio nuts and drizzled with precious Pedro Ximénez sweet wine. The apparent simplicity of this salad contrasted with the complexity of flavors that blended perfectly. It was the ideal hot weather salad, and I’ll certainly make it at home this summer.
All in all, our meal at The Bazaar was a succession of flawlessly executed dishes, served in a relaxed atmosphere. We loved it, and we now dream of the day we’ll get to try the evening menu.
Dining room photo © The Bazaar by José Andrés.
3 / Zuma Miami
Zuma was conveniently located right by our hotel, and we knew we had to try it the moment we read its description: “modern dishes inspired by the informal Japanese dining style called izakaya.” The decor is modern and Japanese-inspired with blond wood and clean lines prevailing, but it also features on-trend architectural details, such as an impressive floor-to-ceiling glass wine cellar and a spectacular open kitchen with a sprawling colorful display of fresh ingredients on the front stainless steel counter.
The menu features small dishes, and we were told we should order two to three dishes per person to share with the entire table (hence the izakaya reference). The enticing selection includes raw fish, grilled meats, tempura, sushi, and sashimi. Everything tastes extremely fresh and bright, and plating is clean and straightforward—qualities that are all decidedly Japanese. The restaurant’s price point is higher than the average izakaya is though, so an à la carte selection like the one we had makes for a luxurious lunch. There is also a more affordable, quickly served set lunch option—a good choice for business people, which seems to be the restaurant’s primary clientele. We gave the restaurant bonus points for greeting a family with an infant the same courtesy as that shown to the suit-clad guests.
Zuma’s terrace, by the Miami River
4 / Joe’s Stone Crabs
Amid all the nouvelle cuisine restaurants in Miami Beach sits an institution that has been in business for over a hundred years. Joe’s Stone Crabs is a fourth-generation-owned seafood restaurant that specializes—you guessed it—in serving stone crab but also all types of seafood and fish. A hundred years ago, the restaurant was just a lunch counter on Miami Beach; now, it runs a whole block, with a dining room that is said to seat 500 people at a time. Joe’s has a old-time but elegant charm: The maître d’ greets you in a suit and bow tie, servers wear tuxedos, tables are dressed with crisp white linen and folded napkins, and the interior is decorated with mementos from the restaurant’s history. There’s also a small, charming terrace shaded by umbrellas and cooled by fans.
We arrived right at the restaurant’s opening at 11:30 a.m., so we were seated on the terrace immediately (I hear there can be up to a two-hour wait during peak hours.) Stone crab was of course a must, and the server helped us choose among the different serving sizes. We opted for the large portion (five large claws—more expensive but more meat for the effort), along with blue crab cakes, served with a green tomato and caper remoulade, and sautéed Brussels sprouts as a side. The stone crab’s meat was slightly sweet, and I found the flavor to be more delicate than that of snow crab. The crab cakes were generous and delicious (no fillings in there, just lots of dressed and seasoned crab meat), and the Brussels sprouts were nothing short of the best I’ve ever had, a nice and addictive surprise.
Joe’s Stone Crabs caters to a diverse crowd, from families and tourists to business people and elderly women who know the servers by name, and that’s because the food is excellent. It’s the ideal place to taste the best seafood Florida has to offer. And if the restaurant’s full or you want to enjoy a nice meal at nearby South Pointe Park or on the beach, you can also order at the takeout counter.
Notes: Crab season is from October 15 to May 15. Outside this period, the restaurant run on “summer hours” (closed for lunch, open for dinner Wed-Sun) and stone crab may not be served.
The restaurant does not take reservations; seating is on a first come, first serve basis.
Photo of the Joe’s Stone Crabs sign © Andonic.
5 / The Front Porch Café
Almost all our lunches went perfectly with baby J. But one day, we had been walking for longer than usual, which made him reach his breaking point: he was hot, hungry, and crying his heart out. We had to look for a suitable place to rest, cool down, and grab something to eat, fast. I often use Foursquare for quick recommendations in such situations, and this time, we were pointed to The Front Porch Café on a street just off the beach. The restaurant has a roomy covered porch (of course), but we chose to sit inside where it was quieter. Admittedly, this recommendation stops a little short of the gourmet category and the restaurant’s menu is nothing out of the ordinary (salads, grilled fish, etc.), but dishes are well executed and flavorful. The fish tacos we had, for example, were incredibly fresh and generous with fish and zesty condiments—exactly what we were craving. The food is reasonably priced (for Miami Beach), and breakfasts are reported to be especially generous and tasty—a reliable and casual option right in the center of town.
Trio of tacos at The Front Porch Café: grilled fish, fried fish, and blackened shrimp
These restaurants gave us a glimpse into Miami’s rich food scene. If you’ve been to Miami, please share your recommendations so I can draw up a list for our next visit!