Say, scream or tweet what you want about 2017, but it was a good year for eating. Stress eating, binge eating, comfort eating, I did it all. We had hurricanes close to home, floods and wildfires across the land, North Korean missiles and Elon Musk rockets flying through the sky. And we had a tweeter-in-chief who comforted us by tossing paper towels and throwing verbal Molotov cocktails.
The nice part for me is I have an excuse for the pounds I packed on (28, but who’s counting). I eat because it’s my job. Over the course of 60 review meals and dozens more food events and tastings, I had many exquisite and refined bites. Overpriced restaurant mediocrity abounds, but there are also many delicious things happening in local kitchens. In the order they jumped back to mind — and with the help of my Instagram feed — here are my 17 favorite dishes from South Florida restaurants in 2017.
1. Ceviche oysters, Bazaar Mar, Miami. Not only did chef Jose Andres feed disaster survivors and get sued by President Trump for pulling out of a restaurant deal in protest of Trump’s xenophobic rhetoric, the Spanish-born, Washington, D.C.-based restaurateur also pulled off some amazing culinary feats. Bazaar Mar, his shimmering seafood dream at the SLS Brickell that has been open a year, is a prime example. On my first visit, I ate 24 menu items, and 23 were outstanding. The dish that will inhabit my eternal food soul? Ceviche oysters ($5 each). Using a molecular-gastronomy technique called spherification, the kitchen takes Hama Hama oysters from Washington, infuses them with leche de tigre, and tops them with corn nuts and a wisp of micro herb. You slurp, there’s a crunch, and then the oyster melts and bursts in your mouth, briny ocean mixing with lime juice and garlic. It is sea ecstasy. Bazaar Mar, 1300 S. Miami Ave., Miami, 305-615-5859, BazaarMar.com
2. Edamame dumplings, Monkitail, Hollywood. This sublime dish ($9 for a portion of four) at chef Michael Schulson’s stylish eatery at the Diplomat Beach Resort is Japanese izakaya (small plate) dining at its best, even if the housemade har gow wrappers are Chinese in lineage. The dumplings are delicate and plump, round and dimpled, and resemble tortellini. They shimmer and almost float in a broth of sake and brown butter. They are stuffed with a delectable mix of pureed edamame, cream, truffle and caramelized scallion. A diner should put down chopsticks, grab a spoon and make sure to envelop the package in a chaser of liquid. Be dainty and take two bites if you must. Or devour and slurp all at once. Monkitail, 3555 S. Ocean Drive, Hollywood, 954-602-8755, Monkitail.com
3. Housemade ricotta with Tuscan kale and apple salad, Oceano Kitchen, Lantana. Every day, chef-owner Jeremy Bearman whips up something new at his small, dream-come-true restaurant that he and wife Cindy Bearman opened in a converted pizzeria in February 2017. The produce, pizza toppings, meats and fish change depending on what is freshest and most interesting from local farmers and purveyors. His housemade ricotta should become a fixture. On the night I dined, it was served with a salad of Tuscan kale, walnuts and julienne apples, and on the day our staff photographer visited, it was served with baby carrots and beets. The ricotta was a warm blanket enveloping the vegetables, with a texture somewhere between ephemeral foam and heavenly cloud. It is easy to see how Bearman earned a Michelin star in New York. Oceano Kitchen, 201 E. Ocean Ave., Lantana, 561-562-5055, OceanoKitchen.com
4. Pork-belly biscuits, Bubbles and Pearls, Wilton Manors. Joy fills the air at this cramped eatery from chef-owner Josie Smith Malave, which she has run with wife Marcy Miller since opening in autumn 2016. Oysters are shucked and slurped, sparkling wines are sipped, and all manner of inventive dishes come out of a closet-size kitchen. I was most smitten with pork-belly biscuits ($13), two meaty, fatty cubes with fig honey and pickles, served on slider-style buttermilk biscuits that Malave’s mother bakes every few days. Diners can taste the love. Bubbles and Pearls, 2037 Wilton Drive, Wilton Manors, 954-533-9553, BubblesNPearls.com
5. Nduja-stuffed dates, Terra Mare, Fort Lauderdale. Swedish-born chef Johan Svensson spans the globe at this chic beachfront restaurant, which opened in September 2017 at the pricey new Conrad resort, and he is at his best when he goes bold with flavors that draw from multiple continents. Nduja-stuffed dates ($12) fit the bill, little flavor bombs wrapped in bacon, stuffed with spicy spreadable Italian pork and served on soft crostini. They were crunchy, chewy and pillowy, a perfect mix of heat, sweet and salty. How do you say, “bravo” in Swedish? Terra Mare, 551 N. Fort Lauderdale Beach Blvd., Fort Lauderdale, 954-414-5160, TerraMareFl.com
6. Peking duck, King Palace, North Miami Beach. This humble Chinese restaurant has been around for 16 years, is finger-licking good, and is on par with restaurants found in New York’s Chinatown. When I assembled Peking duck — with crisp skin, translucent fat and dark flesh cut in a perfect cube — into a puffy bao bun and smeared it with hoisin sauce, I licked, ate and went into spasms of delight. The platter costs $29 for a half duck, $45 for a whole, and is best enjoyed with family and friends. King Palace Chinese BBQ, 330 NE 167th St., North Miami Beach, 305-949-2339, Facebook.com/KingPalaceChineseBBQ
7. Buffalo scallops, Mignonette Uptown, North Miami Beach. Why include a dish from a restaurant that recently shuttered after 11 months? Because it is important to remember that even good restaurants can be fleeting and good food memories should endure. Mignonette Uptown’s Buffalo scallops were not a deep-fried nightmarish fusion of TGI Fridays and Red Lobster, but rather a refined treat. Seared sea scallops with golden crusts and plump, sweet interiors were served with square sheets of crisp chicken skin. They were nestled atop a subtle red-vinegar sauce and celery-root puree blended with blue cheese. They were wonderful. Chef-owner Danny Serfer says he will not revive the dish at his original Mignonette in midtown Miami, which is still going strong. That’s a shame. It’s also a reminder to enjoy every bite, because tomorrow is never assured. Particularly in the restaurant business.
8. Iberico pork pluma, 32 East, Delray Beach. Regrettably, it is also almost time to say farewell to 32 East, a local culinary landmark that is scheduled to close in 2018. It opened in 1996 and spurred the remarkable development of Atlantic Avenue. When I returned last spring, I still found one of the best restaurants in South Florida, with a new homegrown chef, John Thomas, who was putting a fresh and lighter spin on the menu. Exhibit A: Iberico pork pluma ($30), tender grilled strips from the shoulder of prized Spanish acorn-fed pigs. It was crunchy and charred on the outside and tender inside, accompanied by pickled red onions and sauteed Swiss chard and topped by a lovely bed of spring garlic, cilantro and golden wisps of strawlike corn shoots. Get it while you can. 32 East, 32 E. Atlantic Ave., Delray Beach, 561-276-7868, 32East.com
9. Spaghetti caccio e pepe, Fi’lia, Miami. There is comfort in simplicity, and there is much comfort diving into the simple bowl of spaghetti caccio e pepe ($19) at Fi’lia, chef-restaurateur Michael Schwartz’s homage to his career start in Italian kitchens. Al dente pasta is stirred with a bit of salted water from the cooking pot, black pepper, olive oil and grated pecorino Romano cheese, then topped with more grated cheese. A handful of ingredients, infinite goodness. Fi’lia, 1300 S. Miami Ave., Miami, 305-239-1300 or FiliaSLSBrickell.com
10. Beef soup (cazuela de vacuno), Viva Chile Lindo, Hollywood. In a year filled with overpriced and mishandled meat, I was all smiles when served a beautiful clay bowl of cazuela de vacuno, Chilean beef soup, at this modest family-friendly Chilean restaurant on State Road 7 near the Seminole Hard Rock. It cost $11.75. It contained a hunk of tender, simmered chuck roast that shredded easily with a spoon, surrounded in a thin and flavorful broth by a corn cob, potatoes, green beans, carrots, herbs and an orange chunk of zapallo (butternut squash). Even though it was a cheap cut, it was more satisfying than some of the pricey steaks and $82 meat mountains I’ve encountered in trendier environs. Viva Chile Lindo, 4950 S. State Road 7, Hollywood, 954-327-2888, VivaChileLindo.com
11. Mixed parrillada platter, Los Fuegos by Francis Mallmann, Miami Beach. Sometimes, a splurge is worthwhile, and that is the case with the $155 grilled parrillada platter at Los Fuegos by Francis Mallmann, a stunning restaurant in the gorgeous Faena Hotel from Argentina’s most famous grill master. The sacrament of charred flesh takes on almost religious overtones for Mallmann and his crew, and carnivores will count their blessings when they feast on the family-style platter of Wagyu New York strip steak, 12-hour smoked short rib, Colorado lamb chops and a curled rope of thin salchicha parrillera sausage. The grilled meats were artfully simple, hit with salt and flame. All came out to appropriate medium rare. Los Fuegos by Francis Mallmann, 3201 Collins Ave., Miami Beach, 786-655-5600 or Faena.com/LosFuegos
12. Chicken Parmesan sub, Sonny’s Famous Steak Hogies, Hollywood. Yes, it is strange that I went to a local cheesesteak mecca and liked the chicken Parm best. But it is also strange how Sonny’s misspells “hoagies” and has a numerical shorthand ordering system devised by late founder Sonny Nigro. A “50” is a steak sub with sauce and onions (“5” looks like an “S” for sauce; “0” is for onions.) A “9” is a plain steak sub, because “9” looks like a backwards “P.” No code-cracking is required to convey my appreciation for this down-to-earth, cash-only eatery, which celebrates its 60th anniversary in 2018 and is now run by Sonny’s son John. As for the chicken Parmesan ($7.10), it is perfectly proportioned, with crisp and tender chicken breast fillets cut and battered on premises. It is topped with mozzarella cheese, housemade tomato sauce and a sprinkling of grated Parmesan, served on a hoagie roll baked fresh in house daily. Sonny’s Famous Steak Hogies, 1857 N. 66th Ave., Hollywood, 954-989-0561, SonnysFamousSteakHogies.com
13. Rice ball, V & S Italian Deli, Boca Raton. Speaking of charming, longtime family-run sandwich shops, I was delighted to finally set foot in V & S Deli, the initials standing for brothers Vincent and Sal Falcone of Queens. It has been in business since 1985, and the Falcone brothers still work the line every day. The hefty sandwiches are very good, but for some reason, I keep thinking back to the softball-size rice ball ($5.99). It is a glorious fried orb of herbed, fine breadcrumbs stuffed with buttered rice, ground beef, peas, fresh mozzarella and a tinge of tomato sauce. It is crunchy and creamy, rich and dreamy, and can be eaten by hand or with fork and knife. “It’s a meal all by itself,” Vinny Falcone says. V & S Italian Deli, 2621 N. Federal Highway, Boca Raton, 561-395-5206, VAndSdeli.com
14. Glazed short-rib banh mi, Les Banh Amis, Miami. I’m on a roll with sandwiches (groan), and so is Scott Linquist, the culinary director of Coyo Taco, who hopes his next big thing is Vietnamese banh mi sandwiches. He recently opened Les Banh Amis, a stall in the hip new 1-800-Lucky Asian Food Hall in Wynwood. Linquist is pickling all his condiments and making all his own sauces. And he is using Italian-style bread from Sullivan Street Bakery instead of traditional mini baguettes. It’s all working, because the glazed short-rib banh mi ($12) with pate ($2 extra) I had recently was great. The short rib is finished on a charcoal grill after being cooked sous vide. The pickled daikon, carrots, chilis and jalapenos all popped. And that bread, wide and crusty and not too glutenous, sopped it all up. Les Banh Amis, 1-800-Lucky Food Hall, 143 NW 23rd St., Miami, 305-768-9826, Instagram.com/lesbanhamis
15. Xocolatl cake, Casa Maya Grill, Deerfield Beach. Every few weeks, Emilio Dominguez returns to his native Mexico to get mole and spices for Casa Maya, the restaurant he has run for a decade in the Cove shopping plaza. He has numerous fans, including radio host Paul Castronovo and local chef Michelle Bernstein. I made my first visit recently, and now I am also a fan. The sweet and complex, 70-something ingredient moles are nice, but the dish that wowed me most was the Xocolatl dessert ($5.95). It is called a cake on the menu, but it was more like a chocolate mousse, served in a coffee mug and standing at whipped and firm attention. The Mexican chocolate was dark and spicy, sweet and tempting and mixed with a bit of cinnamon for an even greater depth of flavor. Casa Maya Grill, 301 SE 15th Terrace, Deerfield Beach, 954-570-6101, CasaMayaGrill.com
16. S’more pudding, Oceano Kitchen, Lantana. I usually limit restaurants to one appearance on this list, but I’m going to make an exception for Oceano Kitchen in order to pay proper respect to co-owner and pastry chef Cindy Bearman. All three desserts I tried were excellent, but I liked the playful s’more pudding ($11) with toasted meringue, fudge sauce, graham cracker crumble and an oval scoop of gelato. It looked like abstract art on the plate — scattered and splattered — yet the flavors were composed and not too sweet. I was stuffed from the meal and kept eating. That is the highest compliment a pastry chef can receive. Oceano Kitchen, 201 E. Ocean Ave., Lantana, 561-562-5055, OceanoKitchen.com
17. Duck Duck Juuse, KYU, Miami. It seems only fitting to cap 2017 not with a bite but with a double-fisted gulp. They are doing just that at KYU in Wynwood, a restaurant I loved last year and one that Time magazine named best in Florida this year. The Duck Duck Juuse ($15) is a recent cocktail addition to its revamped menu, and I had the chance to sip this hedonistic boilermaker before Christmas. It pairs drippings of rich and sweet jus from the kitchen’s smoked duck with a chaser of Remy Martin 1738 Cognac. You sip the jus, then the cognac right on top. Repeat until gone. “Yes, just yes,” its menu description reads. I think I’m ready for 2018 now. KYU, 251 NW 25th St., Miami, 786-577-0150, KYUMiami.com