Updated 11 months ago
An old guide to understanding our state’s politics and culture claimed that in Florida, the South is in the north, while the North is in south Florida. The division held true for food, too: Mullet, grits and fried chicken on one end of the state; bagels, hotel haute cuisine and Floribbean touches on the other.
No longer. In the heart of Miami, top chefs who sharpened their skills in its ritziest kitchens are now playing with the plainest old dishes of the South, from beans and greens to banana pudding. Nationwide, barbecue is booming; fish camps have returned; and some old gas stations are now selling comfort fuel.
But Miami? No one could be more surprised, pleased and proud than Phillip Bryant of Yardbird Southern Table & Bar, formerly of several Norman Van Aken restaurants and also of rural Stafford, Va. Unless it’s perhaps Jeff McInnis, his comrade at Yardbird, another Norman alum who grew up in Niceville in the Panhandle and lived on family farms in Alabama before working in fine kitchens from the Caribbean to San Francisco, Monticello to the Ritz-Carlton and competing on “Top Chef.”
“I grew up with this food,” says Bryant. “It makes me happy to see we’ve received such warm responses in South Beach. For a Southern restaurant to excel in, say, Atlanta or New Orleans is one thing, but Miami is kind of a different town altogether. To be appreciated here really speaks volumes about where food is headed.”
Bryant’s a sucker for basics like unadorned shrimp and grits. Still he likes elevating old favorites like the Brunswick stew of his youth. At Yardbird, they use smoked rabbit, alligator sausage, bacon butter beans roasted with corn, tomatoes and fennel broth. Chefs like Bryant and McInnis have learned and reinvented a world of cuisines where there’s extra pleasure with flavors closer to home.
Recipes reared in poor Southern kitchens make business sense in hard times: Lower food cost and broad popular appeal. It’s the one cuisine that is truly ours. In the end, everyone loves fried chicken no matter where they are from.
Yardbird’s owner will soon open another Southern outpost, Swine, a pork-centric restaurant for posh Coral Gables.
Down-home flavors also waft out of the Federal, where chefs with equally classy pedigrees and dare-anything tastes set up in an admittedly unreconstructed stretch of the Biscayne Boulevard Historic District. The Federal styles itself an American tavern and loves to flirt with pork-happy German cooking with a decidedly southern bent.
No surprise, the Federalists come from all over; head chef Cesar Zapata polished his skills in luxury at Four Seasons and the Setai; Aniece Meinhold came from Ritz-Carlton Four Seasons, Michy and Fratelli Lyon.