Best Restaurant Decor 2008 | The Four Rivers | Food & Drink | South Florida
Paula Palakawong and Ravin Nakjaroen have designed a brilliantly soothing space to showcase their menu of new Thai cuisine at the Four Rivers, one of the dreamiest rooms you'll ever set foot in. Forget an afternoon at the spa, a meal at the Four Rivers will do more to lower your heart rate and blood pressure and induce beta waves than a month of massages. Raised pools are a lucent canvas for floating candles and water plants; a wall of lotus flowers showcases each single stem in its own pristine, uplit vase; on another wall, Buddhist poetry worked in bas relief makes a kind of intuitive sense as design, even if the strange curling script is illegible. You sink into buttery leather on the banquettes, note the whorl of the wood grain in the polished tables and the solid geometric shapes of the tableware, and begin to appreciate detail again. A veil of darkness has been laid over everything, occasionally punctuated by shocks of luminosity, like a low-volume conversation between light and dark, presence and absence, here and there.

"So how did you meet? During a liposuction appointment? How sweet. And you say you were married? Oh, I'm sorry: you're still married — but you two share a deep connection that needs to be explored. Right, I understand. Do we what? Swing? Oh, no — I mean, we aren't ones to judge or anything like that, but we also don't blow other couples. Thank you for the offer." Double dates can be awkward, but there are a few ways to troubleshoot tricky situations. Pick a restaurant with an exquisite menu: At Sushi Blues and Blue Monk Lounge, you know that whether you go for the sweet potato French fries, the special roll of the day, or any of the delicious noodle dishes, you're going to wind up with something worth raving about, and so will everyone else at your table. You also want to select a place with ambiance: This is where the Blue Monk half comes in; on Friday and Saturday nights, session cats populate Blue's inside stage under the direction of jazz musician Kenny Millions. If conversation gets thin, just redirect your gaze to the stage. Or better, get up and dance. There's also excellent people-watching through the oversized front windows; you'll see the best of downtown Hollywood right from your table. To break the tension, you'll want booze: Sushi Blues not only has a full liquor bar, its staff knows how to use it so well that you won't even notice that the other couple has been talking about their cats for the last 30 minutes.

Rainforest Café has been at Sawgrass Mills for more than a decade, but for tykes and the young at heart, the restaurant's gimmicks still seem fresh. Lightning flashes. Thunder cracks. A thin mist wafts. Monkeys chatter. Drums beat out an African rhythm. It's all simulated, of course, but there's enough going on to keep even the squirmiest children amused long enough to eat a meal. The Disney-esque animals are naturally a big hit with the little ones: Thanks to animatronics, a python wiggles, a larger-than-life butterfly flaps its wings, and an elephant charges through the brush. The menu is amusing, too: For kids there are items like "Jurassic Chicken Tidbits," which are dinosaur-shaped nuggets, while for weary moms and dads there are signature cocktails like the Tropical Toucan and the Margarilla and an enormous selection of dishes from appetizers to desserts. For those searching for extra sensory stimulation, on Wednesday evenings kids can get balloon animals, get their faces painted, and hang with a guy in a green tree-frog costume.

A view of the water from a restaurant terrace usually guarantees lackluster food. Not so at Cero at the St. Regis, where the breezes wafting from the Atlantic across the street seem to have inspired chef Toby Joseph and pastry chef Jordi Panisello to create dishes so fresh, airy, and temperate you almost feel you're inhaling rather than swallowing. Begin with something raw: ginger marinated escolar, a plate of bluefin and hamachi sashimi with jalapeño gelée and wasabi rice foam, a half dozen kumamoto oysters with red onion confit, or, if you're feeling super swell, a selection from a caviar menu featuring Russian, Iranian, Italian, and American eggs by the ounce (break open the piggy bank: recommended champagnes to accompany the caviar run from $240 to $780 a bottle). Yessir, this is a special-occasion place, so pull on that bespoke suit and your best cravat. Your tab will be stiff but so will your martini, and by the time you've worked your way through mirin-poached Maine lobster, line-caught swordfish, foie gras-crusted halibut, or beef short ribs paired with diver scallops (Joseph is fanatical about choosing his scallops), and a couple of Panisello's tour de force desserts, you'll be feeling like you and your doll are worth any extravagance.

It's probably no coincidence that two of our choices for best restaurants this year, Cero and Solu, are brought to us by the same outfit: Starwood Hotels and Resorts. Starwood evidently doesn't fool around when it comes to hiring terrific chefs and giving them the resources to make culinary magic — not to mention a fantastical setting to dish it up in. The Resort at Singer Island is magic; what looks like one more dull tower on the outside reveals an interior of swirling color and swooping forms, of striated woods and vanilla cream banquettes, of rooms so luscious you hardly need to eat anything to feel utterly done in. But you will eat, because chef Carlos Jorge has put together a menu of Asian and Caribbean-inspired haute cuisine as sparkling as the polished windows overlooking the sea, as brilliant as the uplighting that makes everybody look so gorgeous. A salad of slivered kobe beef with watercress, daikon, peanuts, and cucumber is a sophisticated joke on Thai yum nua; Jorge plays similar tongue-in-chic games with crab Rangoon, potstickers, and spring rolls. Entrées gather a basket of island ingredients such as jicama, coconut, boniato, ancho chilies, sweet potatoes, and tamarind to dress up steaks, chops, and fillets of snapper and branzino. Sunday brunch, with its endless ocean views, is a more affordable knockout: try the Solu crab benedict.

Hollywood has long deserved a bistro like Lola's. Many have tried, and like suitors vying for the king's favorite daughter's hand, local restaurateurs have had trials aplenty. But the neighborhood has attracted places either way grand or way limited — lisping princes bearing delicacies too rich for the average Hollywooder's palate or too bland to engage our interest. And then along comes chef Michael Wagner, a guy with the right pedigree (a CIA degree, apprenticeships with Florida's top chefs) and a quirky but serious sensibility. The décor chez Wagner is elegant, modern, just noisy enough to feel lively; his comfort food and classics — short ribs, lamb chops, potato skins — have been revved up with rocket fuel like Coca-Cola and red pepper marmalade, sturgeon caviar and pomegranate cherry gravy. He got it right: Lola's is the kind of haunt you can drop into on a whim for a cheeseburger and a beer, or a place to casually suggest to out-of-town snobs. It moves effortlessly high and low. That's our definition of class.

If you want a true Reuben — the eponymous sandwich invented by either Arnold Reuben or Reuben Kulakofsky, depending on which origin story you credit — first you need to find yourself a diner. City Diner, opened this year by irrepressible Palm Beach restaurateur Jo Larkie, offers a devil's choice: the traditional grilled corned beef on rye (in this case two thick slabs of rye-pumpernickel swirl) layered with melted Swiss, sauerkraut, and Russian dressing; or a "California Reuben" composed of sliced roast turkey breast, melted Swiss, and homemade cole slaw. Either sandwich will make you wish you had an extra stomach in order to follow good with better, but if one were forced to choose from the receiving end of, say, a Walther P99, one might quaveringly allow that the corned beef ($8.50) just has the edge. Its fat and juice content, evidenced by what dribbles down the chin and puddles on the plate, its color and texture (a satisfyingly visceral and silky magenta), generous volume, ratio of cheese to meat and meat to cabbage, the pleasing char on the lip of that butter-saturated toast, and its long finish, which lingers on the palate like a good cabernet, taken together from the vantage point of a rotating chrome stool, add up to one permanent bad habit.

Saporissimo has been around for several years now, but somehow, even with an ever-lengthening list of passionate devotees, it hasn't lost its sense of being secret. No matter how many times you dine with the Monegattis, a husband and wife from Tuscany (she cooks, he charms your pants off), you always feel like you've discovered something. Maybe it's the well-worn look of the place, with its single, small room hung with an assortment of homey art, press clippings, and lace curtains, so unlike the chrome, glass, and relentlessly spotlit aesthetic of the chic eateries surrounding it. Maybe it's the stubbornly individual menu with wild boar, truffles, rabbit, and elk chops, or the preparations incorporating bitter chocolate or mascarpone, squid ink, or foie gras. Or the way Signore Monegatti presents glistening trays of fish and shellfish, and stuffed ravioli so fresh it still bears the imprint of his wife's fingers. It could be the heavenly burrata, still wrapped in damp leaves, or the cart of complimentary after-dinner drinks the staff wheels out with a flourish. The fact is, you can't dine here without feeling you've experienced something rare and magical, and you're the only two people in the world who know it.

Just how good is Zona Fresca's daily-made habanero salsa? Good enough that, despite the possibility of bodily harm — evidenced by the plumes of scorching heat trailing from your mouth down to the pit of your belly — you'll want to consume way more of it than you or any other human rightly should. The salsa — constructed of grill-charred tomatoes, onions, and peppers, complemented by a generous portion of cilantro and those frighteningly piquant habaneros — tastes of summer, a mélange of sweet, savory, and spicy with just the right balance of acidity. It has an uncanny knack for making you return to the always-free salsa bar for cup after cup of the stuff, to slather on your monster burritos or scoop up with salty tortilla chips. It also slowly burns as you eat it, building a five-alarm fire in your insides that continues to smolder throughout the day. Yes, you could wimp out and eat Zona's fabulous mild salsa instead, which tastes just as vibrant but foregoes the heat. But it's precisely that head-clearing warmth that launches you into a state of salsa-induced euphoria — a trip which might induce some pain, but from which you will most assuredly gain.

A decent plate of seafood in South Florida is getting to be as rare as an overfished bluefin: seems all our local undersea wealth gets shipped north. Eastern urban elites may rave over some chef-of-the-moment's prep of "shrimp six ways," but we Floridians know there's nothing our luscious homegrown Gulf shellfish needs beyond a squirt of lemon and nine or ten tablespoons of butter. Same goes for our snapper and grouper: No need to dress up these starlets in anything but their own glistening skins, pan-fried crisp. Ke'e Grill understands that any sauce or preparation is only as good as the animal you start with, and what they start with is good indeed — from Floridian sea life like the Palm Beach snapper in a light, fragrant preparation of tomatoes and artichokes, to imported filet of Dover sole with a spoonful of citrus beurre blanc, and south African lobster tails naked except for a cup of drawn butter. Owners Jim and Debbie Taube have been cooking and serving seafood long enough to have long since forsworn any froufrou in their menu — the glitz is reserved for the service and décor in this beautiful room overlooking a tropical garden and the haute couture of their clientele.

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