In a year filled with travesty and tragedy, there was refuge in food. Stress eating, binge eating, comfort eating, I did it all.
The news seems to always get worse, but fortunately South Florida’s food scene keeps getting better. Diners have more options at more price points than ever. and keep sprouting. and keep arriving. I had to wade through much on the job, but many delicious and exciting things are happening in local kitchens. Here are my 18 favorite dishes from South Florida restaurants in 2018:
1. Kagoshima pork-belly ramen, Shimuja, . Is a bowl of soup worth $20? In the case of , and its special ramen the answer is a resounding yes. Named for the home city of stockbroker-turned-soup-chef Keiichi Maemura, the ramen is wondrous. The broth is rich and deep, a golden-brownish hue striated with milky ripples of marrow released from pork bones that simmer for 18 hours. A whole pig — head and all — is reduced to this soulful essence, which is then layered with yellow egg noodles, slices of braised pork belly, scallions, cabbage, sprouts, seaweed, fish cake, boiled egg and a generous pile of crisp, fried kikurage (wood ear mushroom) shards. That such an authentic slice of Japan wound up in a strip mall near a Waffle House and I-75 is a marvel of the modern world. Slurp and enjoy. Shimuja, ., Davie, , or
2. Pastrami-style short rib, Ariete, Coconut Grove. Talented homegrown chef Michael Beltran, who worked for local luminaries Norman Van Aken and Michael Schwartz, is having a great year. He got engaged on Christmas and , where he dazzles with plates that combine haute technique, bold flavors and his Cuban heritage. His pastrami-style short rib ($37) spoke to my Brooklyn, Jewish heritage, a sultry piece of spiced and smoked meat cooled with a creamy Caesar slaw. Beltran says it takes nine days to prepare the short rib. It is brined, smoked and pampered for longer than a Kardashian at a spa, and tastes like it. Beltran says he has recently introduced new menu items, and I can’t wait to get back to try them all. Ariete, Coconut Grove, or
3. Ravioli with wild boar, butter and thyme, Pasta And … , . Italian food is ubiquitous, but chef Luigi Marenco takes it to a where he makes pasta fresh daily. Marenco, a former musician, owned a pasta shop in the Piedmont region of Italy. A decade ago his family moved to South Florida, bought Pasta And … and the rest is delicious history. One cannot go wrong with any of the pastas, but Marenco excels with the ingredients of his native northern Italy, including a delicate and earthy ravioli with wild boar in butter and thyme. Pasta And …, , or
4. Lavash with chicken-liver butter, Stubborn Seed, . Chef Jeremy Ford is more than just a pretty face who won a reality TV cooking competition (“Top Chef”). The dude can cook — with artfulness, flavor and finesse. Ford has worked for Jean-George Vongerichten and Dean James Max (3030 Ocean). At , Ford’s formidable talent is on full display (literally, a picture window in the dining room frames the working kitchen) and the show begins with a $6 dish of stunning beauty. A thin, lavash flatbread with chicken-liver butter arrives on a white ceramic sculpture that resembles a tree trunk. The cracker practically levitates over the table, coated with a creamy schmear of beige butter, dotted with orange and red dollops of smoked chili jam and oh-so-preciously arranged herbs, microgreens and edible flower petals. It is crisp and crunchy, light and airy, rich and fatty, and sweet, salty and spicy at the same time. It had us salivating in anticipation for the rest of the exceptional meal. Stubborn Seed, , Miami Beach, or
5. Tuna burger, MIA Kitchen, . , and talented chef Jason Binder makes it work. The tuna burger ($21) is an example of his flavor wizardry, ruby-red ahi that is ground to remove the stringiness and seared ever-so-slightly. Served on a soft brioche bun, it is accompanied by garlicky, sweet housemade pickles and creamy, spiky sriracha slaw. Who needs red meat? MIA Kitchen & Bar, , west of Delray Beach,, or
6. Spicy oxtail soup, Eathai, Delray Beach. — along with ice-cream rollups topped with sugary American breakfast cereals — to this raucous, modern eatery that will please traditionalists and millennials. The spicy oxtail soup ($18) is marvelous, a family-sized vat filled with aromatics, cherry tomatoes, white onions, cilantro, star anise and hunks of braised meat. Eathai, , Delray Beach, or
7. Sea urchin with angel hair, Marumi Sushi, . This Valentine’s Day forget a cozy, candlelight dinner. For pure romance (and lust), nothing beats the simple uni with angel hair ($16) at . A platter of store-bought pasta is plopped with a dollop of creamy, funky sea urchin and a small pile of red ikura (salmon roe). Mix, twirl and prepare to fall in love. Marumi Sushi, , Plantation, or
8. Cote de boeuf, Ditmas Kitchen, . The 2-year-old . Among them is that kosher kitchens are commanded to cook meat to shoe leather. It turns out there is nothing in Jewish dietary law, known as kashrut, banning medium-rare bone-in rib steak. The mammoth, $85 seared cote de boeuf with a delectable crust and tender, pink interior took a little while, as the menu warned, but it was the best restaurant steak I had all year. A great, juicy steak at a kosher restaurant? Who knew? Ditmas Kitchen Boca, , Boca Raton, or
9. Coq au vin, Escargot Bistro, Oakland Park. The phrase “charming French bistro” is hackneyed but , a nine-table, 26-seat restaurant that almost makes you pine for the days when you could pull out a pack of Gitanes cigarettes and take long drags between courses and sips of Beaujolais.The French comfort food isn’t fussy, and the plate that lingered with me was a soulful plate of coq au vin ($29.50), stewed for days in red wine and served with al dente fettucine. Escargot Bistro, , Oakland Park, , or
10. Scallop carpaccio, La Petite Maison, . Its name means small house but this features large prices ($165 rack of lamb, anyone?) and grand food. Much of it is prepared simply and features quality ingredients, such as a scallop carpaccio appetizer ($25) with thin, pristine slices of North Atlantic scallops drizzled with olive oil and topped with golden raisins, dried cranberries and sliced Marcona almonds. I don’t usually like fruit with seafood, but the tart sweetness worked beautifully with the scallops’ brininess. It must be nice being in the 1 percent. La Petite Maison, 1300 Brickell Bay Drive, Miami, or
11. Ancient grains bowl, True Food Kitchen, Boca Raton. Healthy food doesn’t have to leave you hungry or unhappy, I discovered during launched by Arizona-based physician and lifestyle guru Andrew Weil. This vegetarian bowl was satisfying and almost felt decadent, with a rich mix of farro, quinoa, brown rice, miso-glazed sweet potato, charred onions and avocado. It was good enough to make me not mind eating in a mall. True Food Kitchen, 6000 Glades Road, Unit 1015A, Boca Raton (in Town Center Mall),, or
12. Yuca cheese puffs, Amara at Paraiso, Miami. James Beard Award-winning chef Michael Schwartz calls Amara his “love letter to Miami,” and it’s hard not to be seduced by the bay-front setting. Even better is a round of cocktails with yuca cheese puffs ($8). They are light and airy, but require heavy labor, Schwartz says, with the batter of yuca flour (from cassava) and Parmesan cheese mixed, frozen, fried, baked and then fried again before serving. Bet you can’t eat just one (order). Amara at Paraiso, Miami, or
13. Dinner roll with Vermont Creamery butter, the Surf Club Restaurant, Surfside. What does it say that the most memorable part of my was a complimentary dinner roll with butter pressed into the shape of palm fronds? and it is astounding, with a hard exterior that shatters like glass giving way to a warm center of almost all air. Sometimes the best things in life are free. But this one didn’t come cheap. The Surf Club Restaurant, 9011 Collins Ave., Surfside (in Four Seasons Hotel at the Surf Club) or
14. Organic beets, Ki’Na, Fort Lauderdale. Why include a dish from after only 10 months? Because it’s important to remember that even can produce moments of greatness, and talented chefs (Vince Tien) and restaurateurs (Christina Huynh of ) should not be deterred after setbacks. Tien’s organic-beet appetizer ($14) may have been , a finely chopped mound of lustrous purple served with a raw egg yolk, pickled shimeji mushrooms and a streak of smoked black lime salt. It was like eating vegetarian steak tartare or caviar. The space, at 420 N. Federal Highway, remains vacant.
15. Key lime pie, Beach House Pompano, . It’s always nice when a restaurant exceeds expectations, particularly one on the water. with food that did not disappoint. The Key lime pie at Beach House, made with juice and zest from fresh Key limes and a crust of graham cracker and pecans, is as good as the superb one found at Joe’s Stone Crab. Try it and let me know if you disagree. Beach House Pompano, 270 N. Pompano Beach Blvd., Pompano Beach, or
16. Flan, Amara at Paraiso, Miami. got the recipe for the flan at Amara from Proper, a Buenos Aires restaurant. It has a rich dulce de leche flavor and a light, creamy texture. Schwartz calls it the best flan he has ever tasted. I have to agree. Amara at Paraiso,, Miami, or
17. Corn pavlova with buttered popcorn gelato, Stubborn Seed, Miami Beach. Chef Jeremy Ford gets top billing, but pastry chef Dallas Wynne has been generating plenty of buzz for her work at Stubborn Seed, including an outstanding bread course and desserts that range from comforting (snickerdoodle cookies that ooze chocolate) to sophisticated. Her signature corn pavlova with pickled berries, meringue and buttered popcorn gelato shows why she is a rising star. Stubborn Seed, , Miami Beach, or
18. Ethiopian coffee, Awash, . I end 2018 not with a bite, but with a sip. You will not find a better cup of coffee — or a more soothing and calming one — than at mix with cultural traditions like coffee service and weekend coffee ceremonies. Whole Ethiopian beans are roasted, then served with a side of burning incense. The coffee is so smooth, fragrant and buoyant it needs nothing, but owner Fouad Wassel showed me the Ethiopian way — a pinch of salt to enhance the flavor. We all may need to be wide awake, if not woke, for a 2019 that could be crazier and scarier than the year that preceded it. Bottoms up. Awash Ethiopian Restaurant, 19934 NW Second Ave., Miami Gardens.