Suppers in South Beach

I didn't cook a lick this weekend, and I hope you don't mind. In fact, I'm filing this post from Miami Beach, where I've been embroiled in very important business -- mindless pampering. I don't mean to sound facetious, as I earnestly believe that mindless pampering on a regular basis is critical to mental well-being and good health.

My longtime pal, Nancy, joined me to celebrate our turning 40 (My birthday is later this summer). A full-time mother of two, she rarely takes the time for self-nurturing, a topic of particular import over the course of the weekend. Money was flying out of our wallets, as Miami is an expensive vacation destination (and seemingly getting pricier every year I visit), and Nan started to worry. In 10 years of raising children, this was the first time she vacationed without the family, spending a few days on her own watch.

For Nan, it was a weekend of many "firsts" - a pedicure, a mojito ("Why did it take me so long to have one of these?" she wondered) and 16-dollar room service toast and coffee. And for both of us, it was an inaugural experience at a Turkish hamam, one of the many amazing features of the spa at the Standard Hotel, the new Andre Balazs property where we laid our heads for three nights.

You won't find many hamams in the U.S., so if you ever come to Miami, this is a serious treat. You enter a dimly lit "auditorium" of heated marble and bellystone and stretch out like a cat for one muscle-relieving, mind-numbing experiences. Nan described it as relaxing as laying in the warmth of the sun by a pool but without the UV rays. Blissed out is a good way to describe my gait upon re-entry into the world.

When we weren't feline spa creatures, we hopped on bicycles in search of food and drink (but we discovered tasty vittles at the hotel's Lido restaurant, which is under the culinary eye of famed chef Eric Ripert of New York's Le Bernadin).

The three main strips of South Beach - Ocean Drive, Collins Avenue and Washington Avenue - are teeming with restaurants and bars. Unfortunately quantity doesn't equate with quality, which means there are precious few places I'd say are worth the money and energy. A few of my long-time favorites (and a few new to add) include:

Athens Juice Bar (1214 Washington Avenue, 305/672-4648) is one of the best juice bars I've come across in my travels. We had a mango, pineapple and orange number, without ice or frozen fruit, no fillers -- just the good stuff. Pressed vegetable juices are available too in this tiny little three-seater good enough to stop by for a daily fillerup that will send you into orbit.

Tap Tap (819 5th Street, 305/672-2898) is a funky, brightly colored house that happens to be a Haitian restaurant. Folk art and murals dominate the wall space. Music is Caribbean - be it reggae, zouk or calypso. Get yourself one of their rum drinks, as they're made with the more intensely flavored Babancourt dark rum from Haiti. One might say that Haitian food is similar to Cuban food, with black beans, plantains and yucca as staples. But in Tap Tap's case, you'll find lots of grilled items, be it a whole fish or quartered chicken. You'll see conch, coconut-flavored shrimp, goat. Sauces are piquant and more vinegary than its Cuban counterparts.

A South Beach old timer that is consistent both in its menu and service, Nemo Restaurant (Collins Avenue and First Street, 305/532-4550) is my first choice for Sunday brunch anytime I'm in Miami. Typically, I'm not a fan of brunch grazing, as it's usually overwhelming and often uninteresting. I gotta hand it to them; these folks know how to put on a Sunday spread, a great representation of healthy salads, ethnic ingredients, breakfast standards and an outrageous selection of sweets.

I was delightfully surprised to happen upon Mr. Chu's Hong Kong Cuisine (890 Washington Avenue, 305/538-8424), a certifiably Chinese restaurant resplendently dressed -- with lanterns, red silk furnishings and ornate wooden (teak, perhaps?) chairs. It's been several years since I've had steamed dumplings that nearly melted in my mouth (a phrase I hate when talking about food, but that's what was happening!). The dough was perfect - a culinary jackpot. A plate of steamed tofu with basil, ginger and garlic blew me away with surprisingly flavor and depth. Amidst all the trendy spots, it's nice to hit an old classic that you might not otherwise think of in the middle of South Beach.

By the time you read this, I'll be on a plane headed back to DC, restored and ready to cook for you again. Tell me, where do you run to from the rat race and how do you unwind? Near and far destinations welcome in the comments box. Cooking or uncooked suggestions welcome as well.

By Kim ODonnel |  June 5, 2006; 8:34 AM ET Travel
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As a resident of both Dupont Circle (Washington, DC) and SoFi(South Beach) I read your article with great appreciation.

There are many times dining out in DC that I long for the outdoor eateries located under the palm trees. Likewise, while eating in South Beach I miss the quality and variety of DC's scene.

There is another alternative that is now mostly all restaurants. That is Lincoln Road. There the mix of people and cuisine culminates in an exclusively South Beach style. Whether at Balans, Sibilla, Cafeteria, the Ice Box, or the new avantguard Starbucks, it is chic to be seen on the "Road" and the food is equally great too.

Or just saunder off just a little ways to Joe Allen's for a bit of old Florida in a room as comfortable as an old shoe, with superb service and food to match any style.

That said, I think dinner tonight around the corner at Nemo's fits the bill.

Posted by: John Conrad | June 6, 2006 4:11 PM

John, thanks for writing in. I breezed through Lincoln Road a few times during my stay, and picked up a very tasty panini from a place called Paninoteca. I am a fan of the gelato at Parmalat, too. Was blown away to see that there are now three Starbucks within Lincoln Road itself! Another place I didn't mention in my post is Coma's, a great Iberian bakery on Alton Road (by 19th Street, I think). Wonderful pastries; they'll prepare paella to order at night i if you ask.

Posted by: Kim O'Donnel | June 7, 2006 4:48 PM

Ah, smoothies!

In Colombia & Guatemala I fell in love with the guanabana (English: soursop), a fruit unlike any other (though it looks like a rough relative of the chirimoya (custard apple). It made the most delicious liquadas and sorbet I'd ever tasted.

Back home I came up with my own version: Procure a *ripe* soursop, (as large as possible, so that the flesh will be luscious rather than dried-out) and when it yields easily to the thumb, break open, separate white flesh from peel & large black pits, pop into the freezer till frozen hard, then slice thin (1/8") and put it into the blender with skim milk in 50/50 proportions. The result: delicious flavour, rich & creamy.

Posted by: Adrian Hardhand | June 8, 2006 8:27 PM

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