Miami with the FT

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One does not come to Miami for subtlety. The tropical capital of the US is comprehensively vulgar, and I mean that as high praise.

The sticky weather ensures that exposed flesh — at the beach, by the pool, just walking down the street — is ever present. Much of it is sunburned or surgically modified. Loud music plays almost everywhere. The preferred colour schemes involve a lot of electric blue and pink, smeared across bright-white stucco backgrounds. Every self-respecting restaurant and hotel has an absurd Italian sports car parked out front. The city’s fundamentally Latin character shows in the fact that people want you to see the effort they put into their clothes (or their glutes). And almost everything is restlessly new. Barring a 19th-century church or two, the Art Deco hotels of South Beach — not yet a century old — are what constitutes history in Miami.

Oysters at Cote Korean Steakhouse
Oysters at Cote Korean Steakhouse

It’s all, to my taste, a lot of fun and quintessentially American, all the more so because the first language for most of the city is Spanish. But when I first started visiting Miami with my wife nearly 20 years ago, I didn’t think of it as a place to eat. It was a place to relax, swim, lie in the sun and drink. A hamburger on the beach worked just fine. A big meal out meant a trip to Versailles in Little Havana for ropa vieja, followed by espresso and a deep-orange, double-yolk flan. (I always hoped to overhear an anti-Castro conspiracy being plotted at the adjoining table, but no luck, and now Castro is dead.) Alternatively, I would go for a steak at Smith & Wollensky, indistinguishable from the one I would bite into back on Manhattan’s Third Avenue, but with a much better view looking over the water from the southern tip of Miami Beach. I was your typical tourist from New York.

But as I’ve come to discover (as I’m sure many people have known for a long time) there is a great deal more to eating well in Miami than Cubano sandwiches and the wedge of pineapple from the rim of your piña colada.

Miami’s restaurant scene has flourished in recent years. Even during the pandemic, while much of the US was in various states of lockdown — and Florida was not — some of the country’s top chefs and restaurateurs flocked to Miami to open beachside outposts and new upscale eateries. (Restaurants in Miami have been allowed to operate at full capacity since October 2020.)

As a result, Miami is awash with places for seeing and being seen. The people-watching possibilities are endless, with celebrities, property developers, art dealers, politicians and the city’s other power brokers often on display. But Miami is not exclusively about high-voltage flash and offers plenty of settings for conducting business discreetly over excellent food.

On a recent visit I had several sophisticated meals that would have been the match for any deal-sealing business dinner. Here are three favourites.

Uchi Miami

252 NW 25th Street, Miami, FL 33127

  • Good for: First-rate sushi in a stylish but friendly atmosphere

  • Not so good for: Big appetites and tight budgets; this is delicate, pricey food

  • Make sure to get: The omakase

  • Website; Directions

Stylish Uchi has a real buzz about it — but the booths are quiet enough to talk business
Stylish Uchi has a real buzz about it — but the booths are quiet enough to talk business

“That,” my companion said, “is the best piece of sushi I’ve had in five years.” He had just snapped down a piece of itoyori (threadfin bream), part of the omakase (chef’s choice menu) at Uchi — a jewel in the bohemian Wynwood area of Miami.

The neighbourhood, known for its huge graffiti murals, was jammed on a Friday night, but stepping into Uchi felt calming. The low, warm, woody interior has a bit of a fern-bar vibe. It’s got a lively, night-out buzz, but the booths in front are quiet enough to talk business. (It is definitely Miami, though. During our meal, a strapping young man at a nearby table decided to take off his shirt. A waiter rushed over to remind him that there is no exception in the health and safety regulations for six-pack abs.)

Uchi’s team of chefs at work . . . 
Uchi’s team of chefs at work . . . 
 . . . creating the exquisite sushi and sashimi for which the restaurant is renowned
 . . . creating the exquisite sushi and sashimi for which the restaurant is renowned

The sushi and sashimi is ultrarefined at Uchi: small pieces of fish often paired with one or two contrasting flavours — frequently variations on chilli and fruit. The Wagyu beef served on a sizzling hot rock was a standout. We drank Sapporo with dinner, as the bottles of sake our server suggested were so expensive we concluded we could never enjoy them enough to justify the price.

Mila

1636 Meridian Avenue, Miami Beach, FL 33139

  • Good for: Seeing and being seen while eating well

  • Not so good for: A quiet meal

  • Make sure to get: The zucchini chips

  • Website; Directions 

Mila is ideal for sharing a quintessential Miami Beach dining experience with a client
Mila is ideal for sharing a quintessential Miami Beach dining experience with a client

On a Saturday night the restaurant was almost preposterously scene-y. (Weekend tables usually book out a couple of weeks in advance.) There was a big crush at the maître d’s station as late arrivals clamoured for a table. Lots of good-looking young people and well-dressed old ones, tended to by hip waitstaff. At least two female customers came with their fluffy white lapdogs. There may have been more, but the dogs were hard to distinguish (so were the diners, if it comes to that).

In a wonderful contrast to what a New Yorker such as myself is used to, everyone at Mila was overtly checking one another out. This is see and be seen, without the pretence. Not necessarily a great spot to close a deal — but a perfect one for impressing a client with a quintessentially Miami Beach experience.

Scene-y Mila is a place to ‘see and be seen – without the pretence’
Scene-y Mila is a place to ‘see and be seen — without the pretence’
The Miami Beach eatery’s dishes include snapper crudo
The Miami Beach eatery’s dishes include snapper crudo

The food, though a little show-off itself, is skilfully made. The fried zucchini chips were so delicate we took a second order. The snapper crudo with coriander, citrus and soy offered perfect simplicity. A sauce of yuzu kosho (a fermented fruit/chilli paste) and tomatoes brought new interest to lobster. We did not order the flaming roast fish, an appropriately attention-grabbing dish that singed the eyebrows of the couple sitting next to us. We washed everything down with a simple Italian white for which we overpaid badly but not monstrously.

Cote Korean Steakhouse

3900 NE second Avenue, Miami, FL 33137 

  • Good for: Grilled meat

  • Not so good for: Vegetarians

  • Make sure to get: The galbi

  • Website; Directions

The traditional American steakhouse meets Korean-style barbecue at Cote
The traditional American steakhouse meets Korean-style barbecue at Cote © Josh Aronson

Cote’s Michelin-starred New York original already has a well-deserved cult following, for two reasons. Combining a traditional American steakhouse and a Korean barbecue is a really good idea; and the quality and variety of the meat is outstanding. All this remains true at the new outpost in Miami’s Design District. If there is a difference in the menus, it slipped past me. But the formula clearly works: good luck getting a primetime table at short notice.

In a distinctly Miami touch, you enter the dining room through a tunnel, the walls of which are lit a deep, disorienting fuchsia. But once through this psychedelic portal, the room is painted matte black and the lighting is low. The centrepiece is a lustrous, oval, marble-topped bar. The music, though it has the ubiquitous Miami thump, is at a sane level. The result feels cool and sophisticated, proof that carnivores don’t have to settle for loud restaurants and frat-boy vibes — and making a booth at Cote an ideal place for a serious, deal-closing business dinner.

A ‘deep, disorienting’ fuchsia tunnel . . .
A ‘deep, disorienting’ fuchsia tunnel . . .
. . . leads to Cote’s sleek dining room
. . . leads to Cote’s sleek dining room

There are few ways to miss on this menu, but several highs stand out. The house Old-Fashioned, made with oleo-saccharum and Old Grand-Dad bourbon, is a model for the genre. Next, oysters with sea urchin and a wedge salad. Finally, the butcher’s feast: tasting the differences between the filet, the strip, the rib-eye, the flatiron and so on (all grilled by servers at the table) is what makes Cote special, and worth the considerable prices. But it is obvious which is best: the galbi, or marinated short rib.

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