"Sorry," joked the guest, a regular on the South Beach scene, "I don't have a passport."
Partly because they're touchy and affected but mostly because it's too far to drive after they've had a few glasses of something-or-other, status-minded Miamians think Broward and Palm Beach counties are other countries. As a result, they don't know where to have a fashionable meal up north. Or even why they should; after all, Fort Lauderdale and the like were last considered groove-worthy during the Strip days, and then only if you liked girls in string bikinis. Indeed, the popular consensus among self-labeled A-list Miamians is often that restaurants in these here parts must be like hepatitis-infected green onions -- you only notice them after they make you sick.
But before you start laughing at their ignorance, I have a challenge for you: Name me five happenin' eateries in Miami-Dade County. Here are the rules: None of them can be on South Beach, and your grandmother's favorite, ancient Italian joint in Kendall doesn't count.
Can't do it? And doesn't it just figure? 'Tis the season for friends and relatives to descend on you like turkey vultures. Clearly, they all expect you to provide a hot, hip time in at least one Miami restaurant, and damn but you're fresh out of carrion.
If you're about to worry, stop. In addition to my role at New Times Broward/Palm Beach, I get to write a column on the restaurant industry for Miami New Times. So relax, I've got what you need to feed. I promise, you don't even have to retrieve your passport out of the safe deposit box where it's lingered since 9/11.
In fact, you don't even have to put that much mileage on your car, because several interesting Miami-Dade restaurants are not far over the Broward-Dade barrier. This is a result of a burgeoning trend -- young, talented chefs and restaurateurs finally have gotten sick of renting the exorbitant South Beach square footage and looked to invest instead in more suburban properties. The response was almost immediate: The clientele -- neighbors and the like who had despaired of ever finding a valet-worthy eatery close to home -- are so grateful they're dining out in these venues several times a week.
Thus we have Timo (17624 Collins Ave., Sunny Isles; 305-936-1008). Co-owned by chef Tim Andriola and maitre d' Rodrigo Martinez, Timo has been delighting North Miami-Dade locals since its launch last May. Andriola, a long-time chef de cuisine for such venerable talents as Allen Susser and Mark Militello, and Martinez, who earned his chops as general manager of Norman Van Aken's eponymous (and if you read the Wall Street Journal, the nation's most overrated) restaurant, know a thing or three about upmarket hospitality. Service at this 100-seat Italian-Mediterranean bistro is simply excellent in ways we have come to forget here in South Florida: Silverware is replaced at every course from a linen-draped platter of fresh cutlery, for instance.
Timo means "thyme," an apt appellation considering that the fare is so alert with herbs and redolent with spices. I always have a dilemma when ordering here, because Andriola and company make rustic pizzas enchanting by adding roasted chicken, wild mushrooms, and white truffle oil. Simple salads such as the organic beet with oranges, arugula, and ricotta salata or crisp oysters with white beans and smoked pancetta are nevertheless robust and shimmering with appeal. And the spinach-ricotta gnocchi pasta with baby artichokes and rock shrimp is divine. But I am most often completely taken by the quality of the wood-oven roasted fish here, which is so fresh the purveyor, Captain Jim Hanson of Captain Jim's Seafood Market & Restaurant in nearby North Miami, gets a credit on the menu.
Like Andriola and Martinez, Scott Fredel, chef-proprietor of Pilar (20475 Biscayne Blvd., Aventura; 305-937-2777), is a graduate of local kitchens headed by Militello and Van Aken; like Hanson, he is an avid, homegrown fisherman and licensed captain who competes at the world-class level on his 31-foot Contender "Lone Wolf." Named for Hemingway's prized fishing boat (which is, FYI, on display in Islamorada), the restaurant is Fredel's first solo venture and a very successful one at that. He last gained acclaim with co-chef and childhood friend J.D. Harris at the lounge-driven Rumi in South Beach; tiring of the glitz, he opened his more sedate but equally as modern bistro in the Promenade Shops, an enormous plaza with its entrance set back from the road, about six months ago.
Not that you would know you were in a shopping center; once inside the subtly lit, cherry wood-furnished rooms, surrounded by spiky greenery, with privacy courtesy of the well-planned window treatments, you'd swear you were in a contemporary New York hot spot. One taste of Fredel's fare would confirm your hunch, as the classically trained chef marries ultrafresh products of the local sea with regional ingredients via ceremonious French technique. The results -- finely chopped, judiciously spiced salmon tartare with lime crèma; moist, pan-seared mahi-mahi with roasted onions, plantains, and citrus; perfectly tender, fried Bahamian cracked conch with hearts of palm slaw and Caribbean curry sauce -- stir, like Hemingway, both appetite and imagination.
Equally invigorating and inspirational, chef Kris Wessel's concoctions at Elia (9700 Bal Harbour Ave., Bal Harbour; 305-866-2727) also draw largely from the sea -- the Mediterranean Sea, to be exact. A veteran of his own restaurant, the New Orleans stunner Liaison, which closed last year, Wessel has turned his talents to another region that encompasses a broad spectrum of influences. Under the auspices of Greek restaurateur Thanasis Barlos, Wessel has created a "New Mediterranean" menu that ranges from the "ocean trio mista," a succulent collection of baby octopus, baby squid, and baby conch tossed with peppers sofrito, to vibrant lemon-pomegranate-glazed gambas (prawns), to sweetly fleshed skate wing, given a flavorful lift from a dusting of crushed hazelnuts and a braised leek-avgolemono (lemon-egg) sauce.
Elia is in the notoriously upscale Bal Harbour Shops just north of Surfside, but don't let that influence a decision to dine there. The restaurant is sophisticated yet approachable -- a portion of the dining room near the elegant stone bar is given over to couches, settees, and lounge chairs, which extend outdoors -- and expansive patio seating allows for less-formal dining. Significantly, almost certainly owing to Wessel's status as a young father of two daughters, Elia presents an imaginative kids' menu -- just another way to welcome a range of diners from families with baby strollers to exhausted Chanel shoppers.
If you prefer to wait on dining in northeastern Miami-Dade County until after the holiday hoopla dies down, know that two chefs are about to return to the scene after excused (but lamented) absences while pursuing other goals. Former Savannah (South Beach) chef-proprietor Marvin Woods will be bringing his Low-Country/Caribbean skills -- grilled pulled pork; jerk duck cake; Cajun ribeye -- to the 60-seat M. Woods (12953 Biscayne Blvd., North Miami) in January. And last weekend, Nuevo Latino king Douglas Rodriguez will introduce OLA (5061 Biscayne Blvd., Miami; 305-758-9195). The restaurant's name stands for Of Latin America, and Rodriguez's dishes, including calamari "linguine" with smoky aji amarillo vinaigrette or beef tenderloin with chunky crab salad chimichurri, not to mention his dozen ceviches garnished with corn nuts and rice puffs, bear testimony to his widespread influences. Best of all, no passports required.