SOUTH BEACH (SOBE) - Florida, United StatesI hadn't been to South Beach in about 3 or 4 years, and my last visit was during an August heat spell where the egg fried before it hit the sidewalk, so my memories weren't all that pleasant.
This visit was a little different. It was the third week of February, and the high temp was a delicious 67. Precisely 67 degrees warmer than New York's LaGuardia , which I left just 2 hours and 22 minutes ago.
Where were the tacky pastels and the tourists in the Hawaiian shirts? The people I saw getting off the cruise ships to stroll along The Drive were turned out in Armani and Manolos and headed straight to Versace-- not to the postcard and shot-glass store.
I kept having to remind myself that this wasn't the Promenade Des Anglais in Nice.....it was Ocean Drive in Miami Beach! Instead of looking up and seeing the hotel Negresco, it was The Riviera and The Bentley nesting just feet from the ocean walk, the dunes and the aquamarine Atlantic. (Granted, it's not always that way, but there are days like today when it's Antigua-blue and truly takes your breath away).
The only vestige of "Old Miami" here are some 5-foot pink flamingos that were commissioned to be painted by various local artists dotting the entrances to some of the stores, like a nod to the town's kitschy past.
We pop into a clothing boutique for a look around. Techno music is blaring overhead and there are photos of Paris Hilton wearing one of the tiny bejewled corsets (I mean-- bustier tops) that are on sale here for a mere $589.00 before tax.
This is what (many) Ocean Drive women wear in Miami in winter: little slippy skirts with uneven hemlines, miniscule embroidered tops, colorful sarongs and ginormous sunglasses festooned with all kinds of hardware and jewels. It most certainly is still the rhinestone capital of the free world. (But they're upscale, Anna-Wintour-approved rhinestones these days.)
Regardless of garb, these women and their 'handlers' have an embarrassment of venues in which to shop and then plop, and nearly all of them have been renovated to the nines since I've been here.
Take The Betsy Ross Hotel, which used to be one of the dreariest places to lay one's head in all of America. Not so now. Instead of the dusty navy blue palate of yore, there's now an almost African feel to the bar and lobby area, with nicely appointed fixtures and a happy atmosphere within. Looks like there's still some sprucing up to be done at the reception desk, but all in all, a remarkable facelift since my last trip here. As we left, giant terra cotta Grecian urns were getting a fresh coat of blinding white paint. Good move. And directly opposite is the foot path to the beach. Go, Betsy! There's life in the old gal yet.
The News Café on Ocean Drive still fills every single one of its marble tables under the spreading seagrape trees by 10am...and the Tropical Cafe' pumps up the club jams from the second the hostess opens the restaurant doors onto the avenue. (It is 56 degrees this morning, and she is working only a bikini top and leopard-skin leggings.)
My friend's husband attended Alton Brown's cooking demonstration last year. Although he enjoyed Alton's cuisine, they got into a rather heated debate concerning the atomic number of carbon. Both men, naturally, thought they'd won the debate. (If you're dying to know, it's either 6, 7 or 8).
Now we're strolling past The Tides hotel. This is a sight you don't see every day.....young ladies and men in short-shorts strewn full-length across huge white sofas in the mid-morning February sun reading magazines and drinking martinis. They're totally comfortable with you watching them as they flip and sip; unconscious of the world beyond their "British Vogue" and "Ocean Drive" glossies, as if they're in their own bedrooms. Steve and Eydie records have been replaced by silky chillout music from Ibiza, and nary a bagel's in sight. (Although, if the sunbathers get a tad peckish, they can always munch on an olive, darling).
Now we're gliding by an authentic Italian restaurant where no English is heard whatsoever. Four handsome waiters surround us with charming smiles and thick menus, but sadly, we've just had tasty Eggs Florentine at the Sea Cafe' so will have to pass. Ciao.
We keep stepping into different countries as we decide to make our way to Collins Avenue. Here's a saxman playing something smooth in front of "Oriente at Cardozo, where Cuba meets the Far East." And now a French bistro, and a Brazilian boutique. There's no dearth of ethnic food on The Drive these days.
Collins Avenue is just one block inland from Ocean Drive, in case this is your first trip here, so you can just keep walking and take in all the action as long as your feet hold out. Doggy bags are available to the public in nice-looking containers, so feel free to bring Phideaux along if you're so inclined.
So much has been written about the haunts and jaunts along Collins Avenue, I think I'll leave it be and ask you to venture elsewhere with me. Just realize that lots of people think South Beach is just Ocean Drive and Collins Avenue, but in fact, it's 30 to 40 contiguous blocks of shopping, restaurants, theatres, churches and pedestrian malls, and down every side street you'll find something new to discover and tempt the senses.
Where else shall we roam in Shaq's town? (Shaquille O'Neal is a certified policeman in Dade County, and you do NOT want to be breaking a law while he's on the beat...trust me!)
Have you tried an authentic Cuban coffee in Little Havana? Worth the trip. I'm sure there's a way to get to Little Havana by public transportation, but since my friend LeeAnn has a car, we'll take it. Directly to Café Versailles, where they serve it "cortadito", with hot chocolate poured in, if you like.
As a matter of fact, they sweeten the coffee here, but they will also sweeten the hot milk that goes in your coffee as well. (Or add steaming hot chocolate.) Now dunk a freshly-made cinnamon churro stick into your drink, and you, my friend have met your sugar requirement for the next week and a half. The coffee waitress will also hook you up with a fine cigar upon request. Or, you can just have a plain old Joe, black and straight up.
Café Versailles is where Miami's Cuban population goes to discuss world politics and the news of the day. Bear in mind that the average Cuban American pays more taxes per capita than the average middle-income non-Cuban American. Just ask Jeff Bezos of Amazon.com; he'll tell you. Most people here believe that Fidel Castro is deceased, and has been for awhile.
We sip our coffee and attempt to speak Spanish to the mature ladies next to us who are eager to give us the proper pronunciation of all things Cuban. "Guarapo" is the juice from the sugar cane (which tastes a little like that polio vaccine we used to drink in grade school) and they'll make it straight from the cane for you in an instant.
Now, as we take our melting teeth back outside, we witness a timeless musician sitting on a chair, using two overturned pots as foot-drums, shaking a maraca with one hand and holding an invisible microphone with the other.
We steer towards the outskirts of town, past Hibiscus Island, Star Island and many others, where enormous mansions sit on the water's edge, lit like twinkling pumpkins. This weekend it's the 44th Annual Coconut Grove Art Festival-- a large and juried art fair that features 336 artists over the three-day President's Day weekend.
Juried means that the artists must submit their work and their booth to a panel of jurists who determines the selection of artists who'll be able to participate in the show each year. One female artist had submitted 33 times previous to 2007, and this year, at the ripe age of 70, she was finally accepted. Never say die!
The art fair draws thousands of enthusiasts every year and the works are not inexpensive. For an alternative, right on the same property and on the same days as this major art fair, is a smaller one run by The Saint Stephens Church.
This smaller fair offers art at far lower price points and features many of the painters and sculptors who didn't make the cut for the juried fair this time around. Since the judging is always subjective when it comes to art, you can score some nice works here, and at least some of the proceeds go toward local charities, so you can feel really good about your purchases.
Hunger gnaws after so much culture. LeeAnn and her husband Andy suggest "Imlee" in tony Pinecrest, and I'm still thanking them. Though set in a small strip mall, you forget about that as soon as you step inside. (12663 South Dixie Highway).
This is a fine two-or-three kitchen Indian restaurant, but dressing up isn't required or even expected. The food is ....beyond. The reason for the multiple kitchens is so that various and distinct spices and aromas don't intermingle during the cooking process; each retains its pure form until mingled on the plate.
Enjoy your table under the tented ceilings of Imlee, surrounded by salmon-colored walls, and orchid-topped tables bearing many kinds of spicy sauces. The nan breads are tandori-oven baked and simply delicious--we especially enjoyed the garlic nan.
The clientele is as authentic as the cuisine, which registers on my palate at about a 7 out of 10 on the spicy scale. You can always order it spicier if you so desire. Just bring along your own tiny fire extinguisher, as these are not provided. Everything that arrived on our large white plates with scalloped edges was simply tantalizing. Worth the drive, if you're so inclined, and are more interested in having a great meal instead of being "seen".
The following night we'd made reservations at Mark's in South Beach, but when we arrived our table wasn't ready, and then when we were seated, Andy was so scrunched that he literally could not move his elbows and couldn't hear us because a woman seated 2 inches behind him was speaking loudly almost directly into his ear.
We gently extricated ourselves and hit the pavement, deciding to let Fate lend a hand. Since it was Saturday night on the weekend of the huge International Yacht & Brokerage Show PLUS the weekend of the Coconut Grove Art Show, our hopes of getting a good table at a fab. restaurant were rather low.
As it so happened, Fate smiled kindly upon us, directing our feet to a restaurant called "Afterglo". (1200 Washington Avenue). To our amazement, we could have our choice of tables in this tangerine dream of a room with a bed in the middle...or just a table or booth as is customary in this country.
Afterglo's menu is indeed organic, and pays attention to things like a vegetable's vibration. Don't let this put you off, carnivores! You're not in one of those places where the food tastes like finely-chopped fiberboard.
I delve into the three course tasting menu, beginning with one of the best salads I've had in a long time: The Afterglo. Lots of fresh greens, perfect blueberries, shaved carrots, crunchy sweet nuts and a tangy dressing feel as tasty on my tongue as it is healthy for my heart. If this is vibrating food, bring it on! We're diggin' this vibe.
We share bites of my friend Andy's venison carpaccio--oooohhhh, yes, this is definitely going to work for us! Evening: SALVAGED.
And yet, the restaurant is still not overflowing with happy clientele on a Saturday night during the big Boat Show weekend and we just can't ascertain why. The manager, Jonny Bravo, sporting perfectly hip glasses and sideburns, stops by the table and asks how we're liking our starters.
We tell him we're happy as clams in heat, but wonder why there's no line snaking out the door here like there is at their sister restaurant, Tantra. He warmly replies: "We prefer to just let the cuisine speak for itself." In other words, they're counting on word of mouth to get their message out; snaking lines be damned.
If you find yourself waiting just a few extra minutes between courses, no doubt someone in the kitchen is taking extra care with the preparation and presentation of your plate, and it will be worth it. (That said, I would encourage the waitstaff to bring the winelist to the table a tad sooner to help ease the timelag between seating and sipping.)
Next up: entrees. A buttery, flaky sesame seabass for my friend LeeAnn which actually makes her eyes flutter with happiness. Andy has the lamb--crispy outside and beautifully rare on the inside, presented on a bed of quinoa. My chicken breast stuffed with organic mushrooms is superb, and was served with various delish veggies straight from the farm. Loved that they weren't chintzy with the asparagus--which so many other restaurants now serve in tiny garni portions, right?
Jonny B. returns to our table, beaming. "See?" he crows happily. "I know we've got something special here, and that the word WILL get around. Now you MUST try the chocolate lava cake shot through with bleu cheese." Both my friends light up like jack-o-lanterns, so I leave that particular conquest to their side of the table.
Not being big on bleu cheese, I go for something called "The Honey Pot" and am richly rewarded. It's basically two sesame honey cookies filled with a sweet center and dotted with delicious honey sauce. Different and delightful... we mop it up in seconds.
The infamous bleu cheese chocolate lava cake has arrived and has so transported my friends that a hushed silence has fallen over our table for some time. The eyes that had earlier fluttered are now softly closed with ecstacy.
Knowing that bleu cheese does not pass these lips, they nonetheless insist that if EVER there was a prayer for my palate to cross over to the stinky side, by golly this is it.
I bravely fork down into the center of the lava pit. The first four seconds of the bite are total heaven. Then the inevitable socko blast of the cheese kicks in and has me diving for my water glass. "Houston! Problem!" Sorry, kids, it's just not for me. But loved the cake otherwise and applaud the creativity of the talented pastry chef. Let's just hope it doesn't become a trend.
If you're looking for a taste treat in South Beach with a pleasant scene, lots of elbowroom and terrific, healthy cuisine-- by all means, just "Afterglo!"
Our host at The Murano had just one final suggeston for our stay. We just had to dip into The Big Pink for breakfast; just a couple of blocks from the apartment (T1224) on foot. (The Big Pink: 157 Collins Avenue).
We knew we were in the right spot when we saw the fleet of Pepto Bismol- colored VW Beetles out front ready to make delivery runs.
The Big Pink is great fun, with its long communal tables and boistrous spirit. It's noisy, but not cacophanous--and you definitely get your dollar's worth.
My friend's fluffy french toast filled her platter and I noticed my fork kept drifting in that direction of its own volition. Coffee and teas come in big cozy cups for sipping, and the waitrons work hard to please.
At least someone at your table should order The Big Pink Hollywood Breakfast, 'cuz it's terrific. On a platform of polenta fries balances thick rashers of bacon, fresh spinach, topped with two eggs as you like 'em, and smothered with a mild cheese sauce--nothing bleu about it. It hit the spot, and kept on hitting. A very fine concoction. The Big Pink: two cheesy, cheery thumbs up!
There's much, much more to do in Miami and South Beach, but this is all I'll relate to you for this quick winter weekend trip. I'm sure you'll find your own fun when you choose to stay in the luscious digs at The Murano at Portofino!
'Til next time, happy travels!
Deborah Rath Howell
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