It was about a three and a half hour drive from Orlando to our next destination – Miami Beach. More specifically, we were heading to the luxurious St. Regis Bal Harbour Resort. This segment of the trip would be all too brief. It had two main objectives. First was to relax for a couple days of relaxation and sumptuous luxury (for my wife and son) and the second (for me) to get a quick taste of Miami, a city that I had not spent any significant time in since the 1960’s when I was there as a child with my family.
The St. Regis at Bal Harbour was no accident, either. While there are a number of chefs in Miami who’s food I would very much like to try, the chef who intrigued me the most was Antonio Bachour, the pastry chef of the St. Regis Bal Harbour. I had seen his work via facebook for some time. It was beautiful and his combinations sounded delicious, but would they be as delicious as they appeared? We would soon find out as he invited us to lunch at the hotel’s signature restaurant – the J-G Grill, an outpost of the Jean-George Vongerichten empire.
In addition to all the pastry and baking needs of the rest of the hotel, Chef Bachour is responsible for the desserts at this restaurant. When I’m traveling I don’t typically like to visit outpost restaurants, generally preferring to visit flagships. J-G Grill is not a restaurant that I would typically have visited on a trip like this preferring more locally oriented and unique restaurants than what outposts usually represent. Like with the Todd English restaurant, the Blue Zoo at Disney, not dining at J-G Grill would have been a mistake. Of course, on this trip given Chef Bachour’s role in the restaurant, this was one of the very reasons of my trip – to finally get to taste some of the desserts that I had been admiring from afar for so long.
I expected the savory courses to be good. After all, it is a Jean-George restaurant in a very high end property, but I expected it to be conservative and a direct reflection of Chef Vongerichten’s cuisine. It turned out that Chef Richard Gras’ cooking was a wow in and of itself. Serving us only two dishes directly from the J-G canon, a truffle pizza and the spring pea soup with Parmesan foam, both of which were extremely well executed, Chef Gras showed us that he can be true to the spirit of Jean Georges, while also being an individual and creative in his own right. We received course after course of exquisitely constructed and marvelously delicious savory dishes that really made me sit up and take notice. From a sensational beet salad to a classically inclined asparagus and morels to exquisite John Dory to one of the finest foie gras preparations in memory, the meal would have been worth it even with more ordinary desserts.
I had high expectations for Chef Bachour’s desserts, but somehow even those lofty expectations were exceeded. He sent us dessert after dessert, each one nuanced, light, beautiful and extraordinarily well balanced. Above all, his flavors were pure and delicious. His style is playful, modern and based largely on the tropical flavors of the region. In particular his use of coconut, passionfruit and mango were brilliant and his chocolate impeccable, all mixed with a variety of techniques used expertly and appropriately for their particular applications. Specifically, he used liquid nitrogen subtly to achieve outstanding effects without bludgeoning us with heavy-handedness. The effects of his work were even more miraculous given how full we were heading into them, but as the best desserts can do, our appetites immediately re-warmed to them. Watch for more from this outstanding meal coming up.
That lunch kept us satisfied for the rest of the day, which was utilized walking about a third of the way to South Beach before realizing how truly far away it was. Nevertheless, the walk was rejuvenating and lovely with the sea grasses and the beach to our left and the setting sun and high rises to our right. After about three miles we conceded and took a taxi the rest of the way, where we walked a bit more before returning to our hotel to settle in for a very nice night’s sleep.
We awoke the following morning to a magnificent ocean sunrise and got the day going with an outstanding breakfast at the hotel. My huevos rancheros were done well, albeit a bit light on the piccante. That was easily remedied with a touch of hot sauce. The highlight, though was Bachour’s vienoisserie. The croissants and pain au chocolat and cheese danish were sublime renditions, having come out warm enough to melt in my mouth.
We didn’t want to eat too much though because later that morning we hopped in our rental car to head across the Causeway to Calle Ocho and the well known Cuban restaurant Versailles. The menu was packed with dishes I wanted to try. There were too many to choose from, so we took the easy way out by ordering and sharing their two “best of” platters – “The Criollo” and “The Classic.” The combination consisted of such classics as ropa vieja, “Picadillo” ground beefCuban black beans, yucca, white and yellow rices, platanos, cochinillo asado, onions, tamales and other delights all washed down with house made sangria. For dessert, my son opted for rice pudding, which wsa one of the better versions I’ve tasted in some time.
We arrived at Versailles around 1PM and though the place was busy, we had no trouble getting a table without a wait. By the time we left, there was a line outside and the parking lots were full.
We spent the remainder of our afternoon at the beautiful early Twentieth Century mansion of the Chicago industrialist James Deering, who made his fortune with the company that became International Harvester. Vizcaya was an incredible combination of European grandeur and tropical splendor built along the waterfront of Coconut Grove in South Miami. Deering filled this home with incredible artifacts from Italy and Spain, incorporating the finest technological innovations of the day. It provided a glimpse into another era in Miami.
Needing a bit of a pick-me- up we drove to Panther Coffee in the hip neighborhood of Wynwood with plenty of reclaimed warehouses that have been turned into a new arts district. The coffee was bright and delicious. I had a black cold brew fromNicaragua that was bold, sweet and full of spice. It was a tasty brew. I also got to say hello to Jeremiah Bullfrog, the chef of Miami’s premiere food truck, Gastropod, which was getting set to open for the evening in the neighborhood. Unfortunately, visiting Gastropod would have to wait for another trip.
Dinner that night was not too far up the road in Coral Gables. We had the pleasure of being joined by David Rosendorf, the intrepid chronicler of the Miami food food scene on his outstanding blog Food For Thought. Eating House from the talented young chef Giorgio Rapicavoli started out as a brief pop-up and after a successful run morphed into a permanent gig. With brilliantly flavored and textured dishes such as tomatoes with nitro frozen coconut and herbs, superb, meaty short ribs and desserts like a uniquely constructed and satisfying tiramisu, all at reasonable prices, it is no wonder that this is a busy spot with a great vibe. Look for more on this restaurant from me in the future.
The next day was the end of my trip with my family to Florida. After another excellent breakfast and a long walk along the blustery beach under gray skies, my wife and son continued back to Orlando for a quick visit to Disney, while I flew on to Santiago, Chile for a culinary tour of the country sponsored by Foods From Chile. You know that there will be plenty more coming on this!
We barely even got our toes wet when it comes to food in Miami. I didn’t even have a chance to visit with my cousin BettyJean, who is reportedly one of the finest cooks in my entire family. There were plenty of other restaurants and chefs whose food I need to try. What I discovered was that there is plenty of reason to come back for more.