MIAMI EATS: The Good, The Bad, And The Yummy

Everytime I return to my Miami hometown, the scene to survey is not that of nightlife, dance clubs or fashion, but my dear dining. While I visit frequently, it never fails that some new restaurant has popped up on Lincoln Road or a tried and true favorite has been revamped, remodeled and renamed. In the same breath, it is refreshing to see those holes in the walls that have stood their ground and resisted the push of changing winds. My resulting experience at three restaurants spanning the aforementioned spectrum yielded "the good, the bad, and the yummy."
Happy Hour: Stella & Marcona Almonds
Spoiler alert: I start with the "good" that is the new Oak Tavern in Miami's flourishing Design District. Home to a manifold of storefronts parading nouveau couches and sleek kitchen facades, this neighborhood nook also makes room for a gem of a restaurant. Owned by David Bracha of River Seafood & Oyster Bar in downtown, the indoor-outdoor flow of former dance club, The District (where I spent many a youthful night bopping away), lends itself perfectly to this rustic dining experience. I found myself there for happy hour, sipping on an ice-cold Stella under the gorgeously lit thick oak tree (hence the name) stretching its branches in the spacious front patio. Not only was the breezy ambiance spectacular, the noshes put me in my happy place as well. Despite being freshly open for a mere week, my Bone Marrow with succulently sweet oxtail marmalade was impecable, as were the Lamb Ribs on the bone served over a luscious layering of mint pesto and thick lemony yogurt. While the House-cured Maple Bacon bites were oddly naked and dwarfed on a supremely large serving board, salty and sweet is always a home run. The Roasted Beets were simply satisfying with creamy goat cheese and a detectable hint of nutty pistacchio vinaigrette. To boot, the service was attentive and amicable, giving you all the more reason to extend that happy hour past curfew.
Maple Bacon
Lamb Ribs
The "bad" begins and definitevely ends with Jaguar restaurant in Coconut Grove. With an enticing menu and a longstanding respectable reputation, I took my stab at this upscale Latin "ceviche spoon" spot – and vow never to return. As a place advertising its expertise in the Peruvian marinated fish classic, they certainly need to take a few more lessons in its execution. Out of the three ceviches ordered, only one was a passable plate: Ceviche Oriental. With wisps of ginger, spicy jalapeno, and seasame seeds, the Asian flavor palate enhanced the cubed tuna well. The same could not be said for the awful Ceviche Vuelva a la Vida, which practically did the opposite in killing any semblance of a ceviche by drowning the swordfish, shrimp and calamari in a sea of saccharine ketchup (no exaggeration), making any other flavor undetectable. This one could not be finished. The Ceviche Peruano, intended to be the most traditional, was bland as bland can be, with white fish barely being aided by corn and red onion. Stepping outside of ceviche, the fried Potato Cake special mounted with uber-mayonnaisey crab salad was so assaultingly salty (pun intended), more than the initial bite would have been torture. This too was left untouched. To rub salt in the wound (yes, another pun), what was expected to be a comprehensive entree (Moqueca de Camarao) of shrimp embued in coconut milk tinged with tomatoes and garlic, was instead separately grilled shrimp placed carelessly and flavorlessly on top of the sauce, with a mound of bare white rice as plate-filler. I left hungry and disappointed and our server – who we barely saw – had a negative-Nancy attitude of his own. Not worth it. Never again.
Moqueca de Camaron

But thankfully, there is always the "yummy" to fall back on. For me (and everyone else who knows the hour-plus wait is worth it) is Hy Vong, a cozy (read, tiny) nondescript Vietnamese restaurant tucked on Calle Ocho: an anomaly on a street characterized by more Hispanic "old Miami" mom-and-pop businesses. Mom and pop this is, with no hostess but the proprietor simultaneously checking the scratch-paper waitlist and taking orders. Not a thing that touched our tongues was not complex in flavor and ultimately satisfying as it went down. For anyone that thinks they do not like Vietnamese cuisine, these dishes will convert you. The tender tongue was licked with soft notes of ginger and the sauteed calamari salad was coddled by the most impressive soy-lime dressing I've ever tasted. Going with superlatives, I had the best roast duck of my life here (this is not hyperbole). An impressive half bird is marinated and cooked in the perfectly sour-sweet sticky black currant glaze, deep but bright. The skin is blackened to a light crisp and the meat more supple than I could ever imagine duck to be. Also noteworthy were the brothy pumpkin soup spiked with fried shallots and the incredibly doughy Bahn Cuon rolls stuffed with pork and mushrooms. Dessert delivers with a thick pie-slice of firm but airy bread pudding, and well as the decadent chocolate brownie cake coated with gloriously rich fudge. So exceptional is this place, it can afford to be closed three days out of the week! Like its name means, Hy Vong is everything one could "hope" for, though ironically, little hope is needed for a fantastic meal.

Roast Duck

Oak Tavern, 35 NE 40 St, 786.391.1818

Jaguar, 3067 Grand Ave, 305.444.0216

Hy Vong, 3458 SW 8th St, 305.446.3674

All photos by Rebecca Kritzer