A revolving menu Mouth-watering destinations beckon vacationers who have no intention of leaving their taste buds at home

Miami: South Florida chefs are melding traditional American fare with Caribbean flair.

November 23, 1997|By Bryan Miller | Bryan Miller,NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

America's gastronomic weather vane is increasingly twisting southward, toward the homey regional fare of the coastal Carolinas and extending all the way to Louisiana and Texas. And some of the most vibrant restaurant scenes are found in South Florida, specifically Miami and Miami Beach.

Trying to keep up with restaurant comings and goings, particularly in Miami Beach, sometimes seems like counting ocean waves. A mighty Darwinian struggle is raging among restaurateurs to capture the renascent tourist business and the growing year-round trade of Miamians. Many are doing so by offering a diverse cuisine that melds traditional American fare with products and techniques from the Caribbean.

Some chefs have rather grandiosely begun calling it New World Cuisine. No matter. When this fusion cooking succeeds, it can be exhilarating; when it flops, however, it goes down like a screen-bottomed sailboat.

Here are four greater Miami restaurants that are not only afloat but making waves.

Nemo

At the south end of Miami Beach is a winsome cafe called Nemo that looks like too much fun to serve good food -- but it does. Under Michael Schwartz, a self-taught chef, thekitchen turns out an impressive array of creations that are as delectable as they are architectural. Schwartz reaches into the Caribbean pantry to invigorate his cooking, but also borrows liberally from Japan and Southeast Asia.

Nemo's main dining room features a bleached blue ceiling, terra-cotta walls, color-splashed banquettes, high-tech copper lanterns overhead and a terrace framed by palm trees. Two other sizable rooms bring seating capacity to about 200.

A good way to start is with thick cubes of polenta fries, crisp and greaseless outside and almost creamy at the center, served with spicy ketchup -- close to a meal in themselves. Or try the dainty, garlic-cured salmon rolls cushioned with filaments of alfalfa sprouts and served with a mild wasabi mayonnaise. Big, meaty prawns gift-wrapped in shredded phyllo were nicely cooked but sorely in need of a dipping sauce.

This chef loves to stoke the jalapeno fires, so ask the waiter about heat levels in dishes described as spicy. A Vietnamese beef salad -- strips of skirt steak layered over a mound of sliced sweet peppers, onions, mung bean sprouts and peanuts -- made my point. Within this innocent-looking dish, on the beef itself, was an incendiary salsa that had nearly everyone at my table gulping water. A safer bet is the mixed green salad with shaved Parmesan and crispy rings of cleanly fried calamari in a Caesar-style dressing.

Typical of Schwartz at his best is an entree of wok-charred salmon, rosy in the center, flecked with toasted pumpkin seeds -- a wonderful marriage of texture and flavor. It was sitting atop sprouts and sweet peppers tossed in a cleansing soy-lime vinaigrette. At lunch one day we tried a hefty sandwich of roasted duck, aromatic with tamarind, with melted fontina cheese -- the duck was actually good enough to have carried the show without the cheesy understudy.

The desserts by Hedy Goldsmith, the pastry chef, were marvels of texture and balance: Imagine malted milk flan ringed with tangerine caramel and orange, served with a chocolate-almond biscotti, Key lime napoleon with a Caribbean fruit salsa, and Jamaican ginger cake with tamarind-pineapple chutney and macadamia brittle ice cream.

Nemo offers a wide and eclectic range of wines. Prices start in the $20 range but escalate fast.

Norman's

About half an hour's drive down the coast in Coral Gables is Norman's, one of the hottest new dining spots in greater Miami. The owner and chef, Norman Van Aken, has been on the scene for more than a decade with several restaurants, most recently a Mano. His exuberant approach to Caribbean-American cooking, which includes hints of Asian and Mexican flavors, is carried out with intelligence and visual flair.

Here's an example from the dinner menu: "Pork Tenderloin with Haitian Grits, 21st Century Mole, Smoky Plantain Crema and a Red Onion, Black Bean and Sweet Corn Salsa." We couldn't ascertain what made grits from Haiti superior, nor could our server explain the chronological reference to mole -- but it was fun trying. All this scholarship was in vain anyway, for the wood-fired pork was dry and tough -- the only disappointment in an otherwise exciting and illuminating meal.

Norman's is a big, airy place done in terra cotta and stucco, with Moorish arches, two capacious wood-burning ovens and flattering lighting.

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