Searching out Good Eats in South Beach
However, I’ve had a hiatus from the charms of South Beach over the last three years for no particular reason. When a conference was bringing me to Orlando a day after Sandra’s birthday, I thought it would be a perfect time to combine birthday celebration and South Beach sun, and drive to Orlando after.
The town I discovered upon my return was very different from the one in my memory. It was immediately clear that South Beach has broadened its appeal to a wider audience and it is managing, somehow, to thrive in the recession climate. While I’m excited to see a US vacation destination do well, the transformation has changed the essence of what I loved about this urbane beach mecca. The change has translated into a preponderance of $600 hotels rooms (the same rooms that used to be in the $200’s) and many of the fabulous art deco spots on Ocean Drive now host national chains like Johnny Rockets and Fat Tuesdays. Many of the small, excellent restaurants have been chased away by the steeply-climbing rents, much to my dismay. We discovered that, after wandering up and down Lincoln looking for Pacific Time, it had moved across the bridge, far from my car-less reach.
However, all was not lost and we did find a few culinary high spots over the weekend. It just required re-setting the expectations a bit. The glimmering highlight of our weekend was a spectacular carry out lunch from Joe’s Stone Crab (11 Washington Ave. 800-780-CRAB http://www.joesstonecrab.com/). I’ve always heard about this spot, but never ventured there because of the “scene”. When I heard that a.) Stone Crabs were in season and b.) you could take them out and eat them on the beach, I was convinced that now was the time to check it out. This, combined with the fact that Sandra is a HUGE fan of seafood, and crab in particular, AND it was her birthday weekend, destined us for lunch there.
Joe’s has a separate Take-Out restaurant (in which you can, ironically, Eat-In if you choose). After thoroughly checking out the seafood behind the glass counter and assessing the options, we carried out a cold seafood combo packed nicely in a plastic box, that included 4 stone crab claws, 3 oysters, 3 huge succulent shrimp and a half steamed Florida Lobster, as well as 7 “select” stone crab claws, an excellent greek salad, and a half bottle of King Estate Oregon Pinot Gris. They packed it all up and we headed two blocks to the beach, where we feasted on the most delicious seafood that I’ve had in recent memory. While this lunch was certainly a splurge (it set us back $95.), the quality of seafood was unparalleled, and a bargain for the quantity. The experience of sitting in the sun, listening to the surf, and dipping luscious crab meat in their killer mustard sauce, is a delicious memory will remain crystalline in my mind’s eye for many years.
To balance that splurge, we went more downscale for our next lunch and headed to a spot a good friend of ours recommended, La Sandwicherie (229 14 Street, between Washington and Collins; 305-532-8934 ). Owned by a French man, they serve excellent sandwiches on fresh French baguettes, as well as salads, smoothies and coffees. Some of the toppings include cornichons (little tart French pickles), Camembert cheese, meats and black olives. The dressing that you get in a squirt bottle, to drizzle the overstuffed baguette with, is the classic herby Parisian dressing that I love so much. We ordered cappuccinos while we waited and it was the best coffee we had all weekend. The moment, oddly, transported us to Paris for a moment. The bread was still warm and crunchy on the outside, soft on the inside. They are large so we split one that was stuffed full of top notch ingredients: camembert, turkey, lettuce, tomato, cornichon, and black olives. It was all you might want a sandwich to be and it was a perfect light beach meal split between two people.
We also stopped into a sweet little wine bar called Cava (437 Espanola Way, 305.534.3352) which was conveniently a block from our hotel. This diminutive two-room tasting room/wine shop is set-up to encourage multiple samples from their large wine collection by purchasing a card of different amounts. You buy a card with value on it and they give you a glass and then you can wander around trying either a 1, 3, or 6 ounce pour from any of the 40-some bottles of wines from around the world. The types of wines range from a mineral-crisp Sancerre to a big and bold Brunello di Montecino and the prices are anywhere from a dollar for a one ounce pour to $16 for a the same pour of a much more expensive bottle. If you fall in love with any of the wines you try, you can buy the bottle from there for retail cost, or just sit back on the cozy couch and sip the wine there, accompanied by nibbles from their light tapas-like menu.