Restaurant News & Reviews

How Miami Spice became culinary Pokémon Go

Housemade bucatini with rabbit bolognese and porcini fondue as well as wood-roasted Florida shrimp (background) are among Michael’s Genuine Fine Dining Miami Spice options.
Housemade bucatini with rabbit bolognese and porcini fondue as well as wood-roasted Florida shrimp (background) are among Michael’s Genuine Fine Dining Miami Spice options. The Genuine Hospitality Group

Behold the power of Miami Spice.

For years, chef Michael Schwartz resisted including his flagship restaurant, Michael’s Genuine Food & Drink, among those featured in the summer promotion. The last time it participated was in 2011. His rationale was this: Why create a separate tasting menu — a fixed-price $23 for lunch, $39 for dinner — to attract diners when his restaurant was getting plenty of local and national attention?

Fast forward to 2016, when the list of restaurants offering these Miami Spice menus from Aug. 1 through Sept. 30 is up to 243 — and includes, along with 62 first-timers, Schwartz’s signature Design District spot.

“You can’t ignore it,” said Schwartz, whose Cypress Tavern has participated since it opened in 2013. “It dominates the scene when business is hard to come by.”

For diners, it’s a game of culinary Pokémon Go: Gotta eat ’em all.

Some of the best restaurants in the county will have spectacular deals, including the only two restaurants to receive Miami Herald four-star reviews this year: vegan Valhalla Plant Food & Wine and the meat-eaters’ delight Los Fuegos by Francis Mallman. Seven of the Herald’s 10 best-reviewed restaurants of the year are on the list.

RELATED: Miami Herald’s 10 best reviewed restaurants of 2016

Where Spice was conceived to boost restaurants during their two slowest months, many now rely on this summer business.

“You almost need to be part of Spice if you want to have a great August and September,” said Rolando Aedo, chief marketing officer for Greater Miami Convention and Visitors Bureau, which organizes Spice.

It’s a chance for many diners to eat at restaurants that are outside their budget for more than a special occasion.

Take Los Fuegos at the Faena Hotel, where Schwartz admitted to spending “a small fortune” the last two weekends on memorable meals. Their regularly priced dinner entrees alone begin at $23. The $39, three-course Spice dinner menu includes options for a parrillada skirt steak, wood-fired in an oven Mallmann created especially for this restaurant to show off his world-renowned grilling techniques.

“Those are the kinds of places from the customer standpoint that you’re licking your chops at trying,” Schwartz said.

Brian Nasajon’s Beaker & Gray, which opened in December, will be participating in the program for the first time.

As a chef/owner, Nasajon said, the restaurant’s challenge is to present a dish that represents the best of what the restaurant does without cutting too deeply into its finances.

“You don’t want to come off as cheap or with low quality food or tiny portions,” Nasajon said.

And this is where restaurants sometimes fail diners during Spice. Some restaurants either offer meager portions of their regular menu to encourage up-selling or settle for whatever they can offer at a discount. (Don’t be surprised to see endless chicken dishes.)

“Ultimately, the ones that offer the best value benefit most from Miami Spice,” Aedo said.

At Beaker & Gray, where sharing is encouraged, they have decided to let diners pick two of four items served family style. Among them are dishes that speak to what the restaurant does best: a pork rib rice noodle dish using the lip-smacking huancaina sauce from their featured cauliflower.

RELATED: Three top Miami chefs share best recipes for trendy veggies

“You’ve got to stay true to what your spirit is,” Nasajon said.

Restaurants participating for the first time have a unique challenge: create dishes that represent your restaurant but that aren’t too far outside the box for new visitors.

“Exciting but not weird,” Nasajon joked. “I get excited about Miami Spice because I feel it’s an opportunity to showcase what we’re doing.”

Diners have a much more enjoyable challenge: mapping their summer eating tour of Miami-Dade County.

Get the List

See the full list of participating Miami Spice restaurants: