South Florida’s Multicultural Dining Scene

Posted by Maryanne Salvat On March - 8 - 2016


By: Dr. Mary Jo Almeida-Shore

South Florida’s culinary scene is as multicultural as its residents and visitors. Over the past several years, the ethnic food that forms part of daily life in Miami—the Cuban ventanita, Chinese takeout, the rare but occa­sional Jewish deli, neighborhood Italian joint—has risen to a new and exciting level. Every day, restaurateurs and chefs are making new strides with remarkable entries into the market. While this proliferation reflects the evolution of South Florida’s multicultural population, it is also the result of experimental diners who are seeking an elevated dining experience, beyond a traditional, authen­tic cultural meal.

“There has never been a better time to be a food lover in South Florida,” Larry Carrino, president of Brustman Carrino Public Relations, proudly avers. “For food enthusiasts, it’s a great time to be here—we have everything at our fingertips.” Carrino explains that twenty years ago, before culture and media (which are inextri­cably linked) influenced the food scene in Miami, his former busi­ness partner, Susan Brustman, would joke about having to go home to New York to get a good meal. The food culture that started in the 80s has grown leaps and bounds. Restaurants of note have become interesting, beyond just putting out good food. In the 80s, options were basic. In the recent past, chefs and their food have become precise, delivering an elevated dining experience. 

“I’ve been fortunate to have eaten at a lot of wonderful places around the world as part of my work. For mebyblos personally, I’m always impressed by the chefs who are using the freshest ingre­dients and have honed exceptional technique,” says Lee Schrager, a pioneer on the South Florida dining scene who holds more than one significant title, including that of founder and director, Food Network & Cooking Channel South Beach Wine & Food Festival and Vice President, Corporate Communications & National Events, Southern Wine & Spirits of America, Inc. “They will always stand out in my mind, regardless of the type of cuisine by which they are influenced.”

Belkys Nerey, main anchor at WSVN Channel 7 News, blogger and host of Bite with Belkys, explains, “Miami is a ‘see and be seen’ kind of town. Everyone always wants to be at the hip, new place. In the past those hip, new places could only stay open for a minute because the quality of the food couldn’t sustain the hype. Nowadays it seems everyone hits up the hip, new place when it opens to check it out, but the great food keeps them coming back.”

The growing public interest in the elevated food experience acknowledges what has been going on in the food and beverage world, as evidenced by the South Beach Wine and Food Festival’s expansion into Broward this year, says Carrino. “It used to be Miami Beach or nothing. But more and more emerging neighbor­hoods and pockets such as Wynwood, Downtown Miami and Coral Gables are delivering interesting and unique restaurant offerings.” Schrager, who recently moved to Coral Gables, admits that it’s impossible for him to single out a favorite restaurant experience, yet points out that he’s recently enjoyed 33 Kitchen and Spring Chicken in his new neighborhood.

dumplingsThe Florida dining market has evolved from the days of the “Mango Gang” (Alan Susser, Mark Militello, Jonathan Eismann) in the 80s, when tropical and subtropical cuisine rose to the forefront. Other ethnicities have taken root. It is more an evolution than a change, a result of the public’s willingness to try varied cuisines. “Diners are more curious, engaged, interested and daring than they’ve ever been. People are not just going out to eat, they are seek­ing an experience and want to be engaged. Restaurants are offering multicultural elements within their menus. It’s not straight up one thing,” says Carrino. “In one restaurant you will find influences from Malaysia, the Philippines, Japan, France and the Middle East, all on one plate. Sometimes it’s in the variety of the dishes or sometimes all at play one dish.” Schrager concurs. “In my mind the Miami dining scene has always been inherently multicultural due to the strong Latin American influences here. In recent years, I think there’s been an influx of successful Asian- and Mediterranean-themed concepts that have helped round out diners’ options in locations throughout South Florida. It shows how versatile both locals and tourists’ taste buds can be.”


Seasoned chef and lifestyle brand architect Amaris Jones gained firsthand experience testing Miami residents’ willingness to experi­ment with new and varied cuisines. “When I opened South Street a few years ago, I was pleasantly surprised to see people from all over the world enjoying southern/soul cuisine. Since then I’ve seen great concepts pop up that are tantalizing the senses. The masses have actually been longing for South Florida to expand the food cul­ture, and we still have a long way to go. I am happy to see concepts such as Coyo Taco, Blue Collar, Mandolin, MC Kitchen and Harry’s Pizza satisfying the bellies of many. I also love the fact that Miamians are loyal to old-school favorites such as The Forge and Prime 112.”


There are so many different cultures in South Florida, with just about every style of restaurant imaginable, that the sheer volume is astounding, explains Carrino. Yet beyond the Latin influences and those of the more recent immigrants, such as the Russians and Brazilians, there is an influx of different types of Asian influences, as evidenced by restaurants such as the Setai, Talde, Zuma, Bazi, Pao, NaiYaRa…to name a few. The dishes offered at these restaurants have expanded the horizons of diners. Carrino describes a recent experience that “blew him away.” “Beaker & Gray in Wynwood is a crystalizing example of multiple multicultural influences at play in faenaSouth Florida right now, where two or three ethnicities are rep­resented in one dish. It’s interesting without trying so hard, fueled by authenticity and whimsy, to keep guests engaged and interested in what’s happening on the plate and in the glass.” Beaker & Gray delivers an amazing experience because in addition to the flavors, which are lick-the-bowl good, you feel satiated after dining there. “Beyond the flavors and textures of the food, you are satisfied from beginning to end.”

Pao at Faena is another restaurant where James Beard award-winning chef Paul Qui uses wizardry to create the most exquisite food, presented in a manner that can only be described as magical. The uni-corn, which is the edible representation of the $6 mil­lion gold Damien Hirst sculpture that serves as the opulent dining room’s focal point, would top the death-row-meal wish list of even the staunchest food critic. The dish, a creamy grilled sweet corn pudding enriched with sake aioli and kalamansi and arbol chile and including buttery and salty pieces of uni, is served inside the spiky shell of a giant sea urchin. But that’s only the tip of the iceberg on a menu of dishes that masterfully combine the artistry and pre­cision of the chef to delight every part of the palate.

Nerey recommends a few of her favorite ethnic restaurants. “I love the vibe at Byblos. The type of Mediterranean food they serve is very unique. The tea service is to die for. I still think Mandolin is one of Miami’s best. You don’t see that level of consistency at too many places. Sometimes restaurants are hit-or-miss kind of places, and at Mandolin it’s always a hit. NaiYaRa is a great middle-of- the-week-no-special-occasion-needed kind of place. Not only is the food tasty, but Chef Bee is so gracious he makes everyone feel like they’re eating at his home. I think Komodo is going to be the next ‘it’ place, and their food lives up to the hype.”

dish1Olee Fowler, editor of Eater Miami, also raves about Byblos. “The restaurant boasts a Mediterranean menu, but it really is so much more than that. It features flavors from all over the Middle East and North Africa that I’ve had a hard time experiencing anywhere else. You won’t find the standard grape leaves and hummus at this restaurant, which is a good thing. Plus, the place is gorgeous.”

When asked about a particularly exceptional restaurant experi­ence, both Nerey and Jones praise Alter in Wynwood. “Hands down, Chef Brad Kilgore blew me away!” exclaims Nerey. “The soft egg with the scallop espuma and truffle pearl and the grouper cheeks with that black rice…wow. He’s so young and so talented and the restaurant has an easy vibe. It’s not stuffy. We are lucky to have him.” Jones adds, “Brad Kilgore has brought the hipster element to fine dining. I always enjoy my experience at Alter.”

For authentic Thai, worth the wait, Jones recommends Lung Yai Thai in Little Havana. Lung Thai Tapas and Cake is a must, according to Fowler.

Fowler perfectly sums up Miami’s multicultural culinary evolution. “Miami’s food scene has grown up. Miamians are more educated about food than ever before. We crave flavor and variety and will happily support a delicious Thai or Mediterranean restau­rant. Our melting pot of cultures has translated well into our local cuisine. Chefs are incorporating this ‘newfound’ open-mindedness to add foreign dishes and techniques into their menus. Even your go-to restaurant down the street is experimenting with flavors from around the world.”

** This article originally appeared in the March 2016 issue of Aventura magazine.


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