Sean Brasel knows a thing or two about Miami Spice. The chef has cooked his way through the two-month dining promotion every summer since the Greater Miami Convention & Visitors Bureau started Spice in 2002.
That first year, Brasel’s now-closed Touch restaurant in Miami Beach was one of 40 in Miami-Dade that participated. This year, Brasel’s Meat Market modern steakhouse at 915 Lincoln Rd. is one of 194 restaurants offering diners multicourse, prix-fixe meals for lunch ($23) and dinner ($39) Aug. 1 through Sept. 30.
“My first year with Spice was when I had Touch, and even though we were doing well, summer business still slowed down in August and September,” Brasel said. “Spice certainly helped bring in more customers. It pushed locals to visit restaurants they hadn’t tried before, and it helped restaurants in slower months connect with new customers.”
In a summer that has been especially brutal on restaurants, with more than two dozen high-profile closures in recent months, chefs and restaurateurs are more than happy to welcome diners who are looking for a deal.
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The tourism bureau created Spice as a way to jump-start the post-9/11 economy, according to William Talbert III, president and CEO of the Convention & Visitors Bureau.
“The program encouraged everyone, including our residents, to spend money locally and support the restaurant community,” Talbert said.
Spice got its start at the beginning of a growth period for South Florida’s food scene, Brasel said.
“Miami Spice came at an important point in the region’s evolution as a serious food town,” he said.
It also comes at a time in the year when restaurants struggle to generate the kind of income they see in busier, cooler months. Spice brings in a flood of first-time customers, and restaurants hope to impress them enough with a discounted meal to warrant a full-price visit soon afterward.
“Spice has helped many a restaurant make it through those tough summer months,” said Brasel, whose Spice menu this year features short-rib empanadas, wagyu carpaccio and a 6-ounce brown-butter beef filet. “Some chefs who opted out that first year definitely saw what a difference it made to us and didn’t repeat that mistake in the years that followed.”
And the dough continues to roll in. Last year’s Spice generated nearly $33 million in revenue, the bureau reported, up from about $19 million in 2010. About 5 million Spice meals were served from 2010 through 2014.
Best of Spice
I’ve scoured the menus and details, and here are my dozen picks for top Spice spots to check out this year:
There are a bunch of — 53! — Spice first-timers, mostly new restaurants that are trying to put their best foot forward in their debut.
Cena by Michy: 6927 Biscayne Blvd., Miami. Michelle Bernstein’s new flagship has melon-mint gazpacho, sweet corn gnudi and fennel-rhubarb panna cotta, among other options on its Spice menu.
Coya: 999 Brickell Ave., Miami. This see-and-be-seen Brickell spot serving high-end Peruvian fare is a Spice steal. Don’t miss the ensalada de maiz, a harmonious blend of fresh and roasted corn, chiles and herbs.
Klima: 210 23rd St., Miami Beach. Three of the restaurant’s top dishes — shaved fennel and burrata, black cod with cabbage and chickpeas, and passion fruit slush — are featured prominently on the Spice menu.
Several restaurants in town have newly appointed head chefs behind the stoves. Spice is a good opportunity to get a glimpse of what changes they’re bringing to their menus.
Azul: 500 Brickell Key Dr., Miami. Benjamin Murray is the newly appointed chef de cuisine, after the departure of William Crandall, who is now at Izzy’s in Miami Beach. Murray’s Spice menu is full of possible choices.
Essensia: 3025 Collins Ave., Miami Beach. Venoy Rogers is in, stepping into the executive chef position recently vacated by Julie Frans. His Spice menu is one of the few (possibly the only one) that’s vegan-friendly.
Piripi: 320 San Lorenzo Ave., Coral Gables. Angelina Bastidas is the new chef in charge, replacing the controversial Najat Kaanache, and her Spanish-influenced Spice menu is available daily for lunch and dinner.
I say Spice is the time to shoot for the stars. Go places where you’d otherwise be lucky to get a packet of Sweet’N Low for $39, let alone a three-course dinner.
Estiatorio Milos: 730 First St., Miami Beach. Octopus. Lamb. Real Greek Yogurt.
Hakkasan: 4441 Collins Ave., Miami Beach. High-end Chinese done right. The Sichuan fried beef will make you sweat.
Il Mulino: 840 First St., Miami Beach, and 17875 Collins Ave., Sunny Isles Beach. Lots of options, from antipasto to dessert.
Off the beaten path
South Beach, South Beach, South Beach. Three good bets from the north, south and central.
Sea Grill: 3913 NE 163rd St., North Miami Beach. Greek-influenced fish, chops and more on the Intracoastal.
Redlander: 30205 SW 217th Ave., Homestead. Chef Dewey Losasso goes hyper-local with his farm-to-farm menu.
Old Lisbon: 5837 Sunset Dr., South Miami. A true taste of Portugal; don’t miss the caldo verde soup with potato, sausage and collard greens.
Evan S. Benn, Miami Herald food editor. On Twitter: @EvanBenn.