Miami Herald critics reviewed 49 Miami-Dade restaurants in 2014. The average rating was 2.61 stars out of four (scale: 1 Poor, 1.5 Subpar, 2 OK, 2.5 Good, 3 Very Good, 3.5 Excellent, 4 Exceptional).
These are the 10 restaurants (and one extra) that impressed us the most this year and appear poised to please customers in 2015 and beyond.
1. Oolite (Restaurant of the Year): “Oolite’s commitment to gluten-free ingredients cooked with regional flavors does not limit its ability to impress. [Chef-owner Kris] Wessel paints from a subtropical-seeped palette, squeezing acid from Key limes and sour oranges; sussing sweetness from guava, guanabana and late-season mangoes; and sourcing proteins from Florida farms and local waters.” Look for Oolite to delve deeper into health-conscious waters in the new year, adding vegan and vegetarian dishes to its menu. Reviewed in August; 3.5 stars. Evan S. Benn.
2. Michael Mina 74: “Everything we tasted was exceptional, but my favorites came from the sea. ... We chose a tableside preparation of scotch-bonnet-flecked tuna tartare and pine nuts as well as a duo of ceviches with diced octopus in a coconut foam and pompano in bracing Key lime marinade. The real stunner came by way of a red curry broth that supported a rice cake with baby shrimp cake, a plump scallop and a large fillet of red snapper with nicely crisped skin. ... [Chef-owner Michael] Mina and his talented chef de cuisine, Thomas Griese, pull off a spectacular dining experience.” Reviewed in January; 3.5 stars. Victoria Pesce Elliott.
3. Traymore: “Located inside the Metropolitan by COMO, the Traymore presents food that is appealing and approachable without gobs of pork belly, foie gras or caviar to make it so. ... Squid ink carnaroli risotto from Piedmont is subtle perfection with its cubes of squid, bacon, tomato and chervil microgreens, while a fennel-laced seafood stew with meaty prawns, tomato and softshell crab is a delight. ... Service is crisp and competent. Portions are thankfully petite and prices are correspondingly reasonable.” Reviewed in May; 3.5 stars. VPE.
4. The Forge: “With 46 years of dining history, a $2.7 million wine cellar and a notorious past filled with New York wiseguys and tabloid-worthy pop stars, The Forge is like a classic movie you relish revisiting, even though you know the ending. Its new chef, James Beard Award winner Christopher Lee, doesn’t disappoint traditionalists, but he courts new fans with modern, homespun adaptations that counterbalance the opulence of the legendary spot.” Reviewed in July; 3.5 stars. Jodi Mailander Farrell.
5. L’echon Brasserie: “Pork deliciously lurks around every corner of L’echon Brasserie in the new Hilton Cabana Miami Beach. And while pig works well at Pubbelly’s original gastropub and even its sushi bar (see: pork belly and fried clam roll), the other white meat rises to new levels in this French-inspired kitchen. The preferred protein comes three ways in [executive chef Josh] Elliott’s take on stuffed dates, which are filled with tender, roasted pork, wrapped in bacon and drizzled in pork jus under a light herbs-nuts-and-parm salad.” Reviewed in August; 3.5 stars. ESB.
6. Josh’s Deli: “Josh’s Deli revives old-school Jewish fare like matzo ball soup and potato latkes by putting a decidedly modern twist on things. Much of it is downright unorthodox — shellfish, swine and other treif ingredients are a big part of Josh’s repertoire — but nearly all of it works. ... Nothing about Josh’s screams that it’s taking itself too seriously, a common affliction among Miami restaurants. Guests get fist-bump greetings from the chef, young children are welcomed by name, and the lone rotating dessert on the menu is usually baked by a regular customer.” Reviewed in June; 3.5 stars. ESB.
7. Basil Park: “Basil Park is more than your average juice bar. Its food flexes muscles like the ones on the tattooed, ballcapped cooks in the open kitchen. The menu, like Miami, is bustling and a bit all over the place, with flavor influences from the Mediterranean, Asia and Latin America. ... Gorgeous salads are reason enough to come here. One, with butter lettuce and slivers of fresh-peeled grapefruit and hunks of ripe avocado, is dressed so well it shimmers. Bright bits of pomegranate seeds, basil and lemon offer pops of color and flavor. That and a protein-packed salad of red quinoa, sunflower seeds and sweet dried cherries have crunch and cool for days.” Reviewed in July; 3 stars. VPE.
8. NIU Kitchen: “If the all-glass entryway of NIU Kitchen allows a peek into the future of downtown Miami, then we’re in for an inventive time filled with superb flavors and a modern Spanish accent. ... There isn’t a trendy brussels sprout or shred of kale in sight. Instead, Barcelona-born chef/co-owner Deme Lomas (Barceloneta) creates traditional Catalan food with an updated twist. Yes, there are potatoes and eggs and chorizo, but these combinations challenge old assumptions with Dalí-like eccentricity.” Reviewed in August; 3 stars. JMF.
9. Blackbrick: “In the spirit of Chinese voraciousness, [chef-owner] Richard Hales has gotten creative without going fusion on his menu at the new Blackbrick, also known as Midtown Chinese. With the help of chefs from Hong Kong and Hunan province, Hales is putting out treats like lamb tongue flatbread, General Tso’s alligator, fried duck head, whole rabbit and jellyfish salad. His casual, fast-paced spot is at once hip and welcoming. It helps that prices are reasonable and the staff super-friendly. Most days find Hales in the open kitchen, where an occasional chile bomb fills the air with pungent spice that makes your eyes water.” Reviewed in February; 3 stars. VPE.
10. Mignonette: “This Miami/New Orleans-inspired oyster bar caters to seafood fans who like their fin fare both plain and fancy. ... Raw oysters are sourced from both U.S. coasts and are worth a visit alone. Of the cooked varieties, try the oysters Rockefeller — a buttery, crunchy, breadcrumb-topped classic. An exemplary red fish is seared until crispy-skinned and juicy in its piquillo pepper- and brandy-spiked sauce, served alongside snappy haricots verts.” Reviewed in September; 3 stars. VPE.
11. J&G Grill: Chef de cuisine Brad Kilgore was cooking the best food in town this year at J&G Grill in the St. Regis Bal Harbour — straight-up transcendental food presented in thoughtful progressions that belied his youthful age. A re-review in October bumped J&G from 3.5 stars to 4. And then weird things happened. Kilgore quit to open his own place. Sommelier Luis Mejia fled for Scott Conant’s Corsair at the Turnberry. Rumors abound that the St. Regis is shopping J&G to other operators. It’s still functioning at a high level, but after losing two of its brightest talents, it’s difficult to say whether the restaurant can be as great as it was with Kilgore and Mejia. ESB.
Evan S. Benn is the Miami Herald food editor and Miami.com restaurants editor. Follow him on Twitter: @EvanBenn.