South Florida ate well in 2014. More than ever, our chefs and restaurateurs are sourcing ingredients thoughtfully, they’re cooking with integrity but taking risks and pushing boundaries, and they’re creating food that has firmly planted Miami in the national culinary conversation. Here is a look back at the 10 best things I ate here in 2014. What made your top 10?
1. Brussels Sprouts Salad: I go to Harry’s Pizzeria for the pizza and craft beer, but it’s the salads that I remember days and weeks and months later. They’re always loaded with fresh herbs, usually have a crunch from nuts or other textural elements, and, yeah, they usually sport some cheese. The best one I’ve tasted so far has all of those things: earthy brussels tossed with mint and sage and plated under creamy stracciatella, sweet pears and salty pistachios. I tried to reconstruct it at home, but chef de cuisine Daniel Ramirez’s version is way better. Harry’s: The pizzeria that serves killer salads.
2. Creole Roasted Oxtail: A tough, fatty cut that’s difficult to cook away all its gristle, oxtail can be otherworldly when done right. Kris Wessel, chef-owner of Oolite in Miami Beach, cooks it right, letting the beef’s deep, meaty flavor come through in every bite. I went back and forth between this and Oolite’s orange-tamarind rotisserie duck as the best dish here, and then I remembered how fantastic the fried green-tomato arepas are. No doubt about it: At least one of my favorite bites of the year came from Oolite.
3. Pork Belly and Clam Roll: “What should we eat tonight?” My wife and I have this conversation daily. We cook at home, mostly. We go out for review meals, occasionally. But when we just want to settle in to a comfortable, neighborhood favorite, we usually find ourselves at Pubbelly Sushi. And we always order this funky roll with spicy kimchi coleslaw and topped with cubes of slow-cooked pork belly and tiny nuggets of fried clam. It’s hot and cold, crunchy and smooth, salty and sweet.
4. Spicy Cumin Lamb Burger: I tried this stuffed-flatbread sandwich with cumin-spiced lamb, sautéed jalapeños and red onions at the Best of the Best event during the 2014 South Beach Wine & Food Festival. The dish, from chef Jason Wang of New York’s Xi’an Famous Foods, is something to which I now compare all other lamb dishes. And nothing comes close.
5. Aji Crab: This dish from chef Brad Kilgore helped J&G Grill earn the Miami Herald’s only four-star restaurant review of 2014: “Kilgore channels [Jean-Georges] Vongerichten’s melding of Thai flavors and French techniques in a blue crab appetizer that’s new to J&G’s menu. He coats a fistful of crab meat in rice flour, gives it a crispy sear, then centers it in a shallow pool of beautiful yellow curry punctuated with red chile oil and green culantro. Its beauty is overshadowed only by its flavor: delicate crab carried on fiery waves of aji amarillo and cooled by the curry’s coconut milk and herb relish.” Kilgore has since left J&G Grill and soon will be opening his own restaurant, Alter, in Wynwood.
6. Chicken Noodle Soup: “Your grandmother might make a great chicken soup,” Masaharu Morimoto says, “but mine is … a lot more interesting.” And more expensive. Expect to shell out $17 for the Iron Chef’s version at his new namesake restaurant at the Shelborne in Miami Beach. Wallet be damned, it’s worth every penny, from the shmaltzy broth that’s delicately seasoned with sake, white soy and Sichuan peppercorns, to the slippery-thin udon noodles that absorb so much of that goodness. Soup. It’s a wonderful thing.
7. Taramasalata: I have yet to have a bad dish at Mandolin in the Design District, but of all the bistro’s delightful Mediterranean small plates, this simple mezze is a standout. Fish roe whipped with olive oil, taramasalata is a brilliant pink hue (coincidentally, it goes great with a glass of rose) and bursts with sea brine and creamy comfort. Spread it on warm, fresh-baked bread or spoon it directly from the bowl — close your eyes, and be transported to the Greek islands.
8. Roasted Pear and Cheese Fiocchi: In a city with no shortage of Italian food, chef Dena Marino’s rustic-Italian cooking at MC Kitchen in the Design District may be among the most underrated of her peers. Her homemade pastas most certainly are. The one I can’t resist: little purses filled with sweet roasted pear, bathed in a smooth, four-cheese sauce scented with white truffles. It’s an unreal plate on its own, but try pairing it with Dogfish Head Noble Rot, a beer-wine hybrid that picks up on all of the dish’s sweet and savory elements.
9. Conch Salad with Coconut Ice: If you’ve eaten at Norman Van Aken’s restaurants over the years or tried your hand at his cookbooks, odds are you’ve come across his conch salad. It’s an impossibly tender dish, bursting with island flavors from Van Aken’s “Salsa of Life,” a bright slurry of roasted tomatoes, peppers and onions with loads of fresh citrus juice. During a collaboration event in January at Tongue & Cheek in Miami Beach — a Key West-themed brunch — Van Aken and Tongue & Cheek chef-owner Jamie DeRosa gave the salad a twist: a shaving of coconut ice to cool down the hot peppers and acidic marinade. A simple addition that elevated a South Florida classic.
10. Kerala Fried Chicken: I lost track of what I saw more of on restaurant menus in 2014: kale Caesar or chicken and waffles. Before I grew tired of the latter trend -- one I really hope to see cluck off in the new year -- I tasted one version of chicken and waffles that bowled me over with its punches of flavor. Atlanta chef Asha Gomez brought her Kerala Fried Chicken to the South Beach Wine & Food Festival in February, for a seminar on festival director Lee Brian Schrager’s Fried & True cookbook. Her chicken — boneless thighs marinated in herb-laden buttermilk — was crispy and juicy, perched atop cardamom-spiked waffles with a garnish of fried curry leaves.
Evan S. Benn is the Miami Herald food editor and Miami.com restaurants editor. Follow him on Twitter: @EvanBenn.