With more than 6,000 restaurants, the Miami metro area tends to stump diners -- it isn't a question of where so much as which. It's a supercharged culinary scene, and everyone wants a piece of it -- Emeril Lagasse, Nobu Matsuhisa, Cindy Hutson, Christian Delouvrier, and Govind Armstrong are among the nationally known chefs who've opened branches here. Even after you've weeded out all those South Beach beauties where the celebrity action is more important than the food, you're still faced with a plethora of high-end choices. Where to begin?
For an authentic taste of Miami, gravitate to the local stars who've fused California-Asian with Caribbean and Latin elements to create a world-class flavor all its own -- call it Floribbean. Exhibit A would be Allen Susser's New World cuisine at Chef Allen's (19088 NE 29th Ave., Aventura; tel. 305/935-2900: www.chefallens.com). Though it's tucked in the back of a strip mall in the northern reaches of Miami Beach, since it opened in 1986 Susser has had no trouble packing this discreetly elegant space with customers eager to sample his inventive Caribbean-inspired dishes: grilled meats and seafood accented by jerk and curry and coconut-milk spices, harmonized by chutneys and salsas and ceviches made of mangoes, papayas, pineapple, and Key limes. The aptly named Michael's Genuine Food & Drink in the Design District (130 NE 40th St.; tel. 305/573-5550: www.michaelsgenuine.com) looks like just another neighborhood hangout, with its high ceilings and industrial-chic decor, but Michael Schwartz's simple-seeming menu items are a symphony of flavors, and each ingredient is allowed to sing. (Try the roasted Vidalia onion stuffed with ground lamb and apricots, or the grilled skirt steak with fennel-asparagus hash and black olive aioli.)
Then there's Talula(210 E. 23rd St.; tel. 305/672-0768: www.talulaonline.com), owned by the talented husband-and-wife team Frank Randazzo and Andrea Curto-Randazzo, who imaginatively mix up meticulously sourced ingredients in signature dishes like the grilled foie gras with caramelized figs, blue corn cakes, chili syrup, and candied walnuts, or the marinated hanger steak with horseradish whipped potatoes. Book a seat in the exhibition kitchen for an even more special experience. Curto-Randazzo used to cook at another well-regarded South Beach hotspot, Wish (801 Collins Ave.; tel. 305/531-2222: www.wishrestaurant.com), where Marco Ferraro now presides; in that snazzy lemon-lime-colored dining room, his Franco-Floribbean approach produces winning dishes like a chilled tomato-lime soup with lobster, or diver scallops encrusted with Serrano ham, served with fingerling potatoes, artichokes, piquillo peppers, and horseradish foam. In Coral Gables, at Pascal's On Ponce (2611 Ponce de León Blvd.; tel. 305/444-2024: www.pascalmiami.com), chef Pascal Oudin, who trained under Alain Ducasse, reimagines French cuisine with New World ingredients. Try his blue crab cake with tomato gazpacho, twice-baked Gruyère cheese soufflé, or roasted duck breast with savoy cabbage and sautéed pears.
This being Florida, of course, at some point most folks expect to have ocean-fresh seafood. Though the obvious choice is the tried-and-true Miami institution Joe's Stone Crab, for something more sophisticated, head down to Coconut Grove and Baleen (4 Grove Isle Dr.; tel. 305/858-8300: www.groveisle.com/groveisle_dining.aspx) for spectacular griddled crab cakes, lobster bisque, or wood-roasted diver scallops, served on a romantically tented seaside terrace. To get your requisite taste of Cuban food, go west to Doral to Chispa (11500 NW 41st St.; tel. 305/591-7166; www.chisparestaurant.com), a stylish, pulsating place where Adam Votaw produces gourmet versions of Cuban classics like a shrimp-and-black-eyed-pea croquetta or slow-roasted glazed short rib filet.