Great food in South Florida

For many, the mention of vacations to South Florida conjures up memories of hot sunny days and visits to the beach. Culinary delights were few and far between. But these days, a visit to the southeast coast of Florida can reward food lovers with a bounty of wonderful taste treats. The new regional cuisine is based on local treasures – all manner of seafood, exotic fruits and top-quality vegetables.

Mark Militello, one of the leaders in the local culinary revolution, started cooking at the age of 14. He caught the attention of the national media in the late 1980s and has been garnering accolades ever since. Sample the cuisine at any one of his four restaurants in South Florida, and you’ll know why.

Militello can usually be found at his Fort Lauderdale restaurant, Mark’s Las Olas (954-463-1000, http://www.chefmark.com), where the variety of tantalizing offerings can lead to agonizing over the menu. His eclectic mix of creations includes more than 15 main-course choices, such as prosciutto-wrapped veal tenderloin over a wild mushroom polenta and fresh Dover sole with a lemon confiture.

The daily menu includesore than 20 appetizers, but save room for dessert. Three of us demolished the carrot cake with cognac butterscotch sauce and cream cheese ice cream in no time flat. Sharing an assortment of dishes is a smart idea, but be careful about who does the divvying up of the dishes. When it comes to Militello’s food, an uneven division could lead to trouble in paradise. Just ask my husband.

Not the food court
Shopping malls often serve ordinary fare, but at the Bal Harbour Shops where Rolls Royces, Bentleys and Hummers crowd the parking lot and the shops sell high-end designer goods, Carpaccio (305-867-7777) consistently serves outstanding food at affordable prices. Although it’s not on the menu, ask for marinated tomato topping to go with the almost addictive warm and crusty bread.

Appetizers include salads, such as a favourite made with fresh mozzarella, marinated mushrooms, onions and tomatoes on a bed of arugula, to seafood and vegetable dishes such as stuffed artichokes and eggplant. Try the crispy thin-crust pizza or one of the pastas topped with seafood and wild mushrooms or spinach, garlic and pine nuts. Servers are happy to provide half orders, which equal a normal Canadian portion. Steaks, fish and seafood and assorted veal scallopini dishes are also popular here.

Giraffes and a monkey?
When event planner Barton G. Weiss opened his restaurant, Barton G., The Restaurant, in South Beach in 2002 (305-672-8881, http://www.bartong.com/restaurant/), the party featured two giraffes and a monkey. Patrons are still amused by the playful presentation of food, such as swordfish on a sword, popcorn shrimp in a movie theatre popcorn container and seafood in giant martini glasses with a side dish of greens inside a carved life-sized duck.

But the food is not just theatre. Everything measures up taste-wise. But beware, this is American cuisine, which means big portions. And only the word gargantuan can describe the desserts. You’ll likely have to skip the final course if there are fewer than four in your party. Selections include whole pies such as Chocolate Chimp Pie, Big Top Cotton Candy (which fills a tabletop) and sundaes with an array of toppings on one, two or three pints of ice cream. Ask to sit in the magnificently landscaped garden surrounded by orchids and palm trees.

You haven’t experienced South Florida until you’ve had a meal at Rascal House, a Miami Beach institution (305-947-4581, http://www.rascalhouse.com). From lunch until the wee hours of the morning, tabletops in the huge deli are filled with a variety of pickles, salads and baskets of freshly baked miniature rolls guests devour with glee.

Daytime fare ranges from deli sandwiches and the fresh, smoked or pickled fish to latkes and blintzes. Portions are always huge, so it’s worth paying the fee for sharing or you can take home a doggie bag.