I’m not sure there is a sexier city in the country than Miami, and the Mandarin Oriental on Brickell Key island near downtown certainly fits in perfectly. It’s not uncommon to bump into athletes and celebrities here (I walked right into the chest of Miami Heat player Dwayne Wade while coming out of the elevator on a recent visit), and the reason is simple: The place is downright cool. It has a larger-than-life vibe with high ceilings, marble floors and opulent finishes, but it also has a flip flop sensibility I appreciated (Dwayne was wearing his with a pair of shorts and a T-shirt).
Rooms have stunning views of Biscayne Bay and the sleek silver skyscrapers that make up the financial district known as Brickell. At night they light up and create a dramatic backdrop for the glistening bay. The rooms are spacious, with huge marble bathrooms that have both walk-in showers and tubs big enough for two. A manmade beach with chaise lounges and daybeds is the perfect perch from which to watch boats cruise by. Harmless, colorful iguanas running around add a playful touch.
After some lounging by the infinity pool, where I was thrilled to find delicious fresh sushi rolls taking the place of the usual fried pool fare on the menu, kicking off my first night at Mo Bar in the lobby area was the next logical step. As I sipped a glass of wine and watched a bartender break into a short mixology lesson, live music was prepping to fill the air. You can’t help look around here; everyone looks like they could be famous, and there’s the feeling that if you blink, you just might miss something. The sound of a sax warming up guided me to the hotel’s signature restaurant, Azul.
Besides the overnight guests, the hotel buzzes with locals who come for dinner at one of the two restaurants on property. The kitchen at Azul is led by a young chef named William Crandall. Alongside an elegant and interesting meal that included a green almond gazpacho with king crab and a risotto with carrots and Key West shrimp, wine director Todd Phillips made excellent choices that included my first Slovakian wine, a tasty cross between chardonnay and sauvignon blanc.
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I spent my second day checking out the new Perez Art Museum Miami downtown. It sits on a stunning piece of bay-front property, and the building itself is as impressive as anything inside. Designed by Swiss architecture firm Herzog and De Meuron (the same group that designed the Tate Modern in London), docents will happily guide you thought the indoor/outdoor structure for an architectural tour. The tours seem as popular as those of the exhibitions inside. A new exhibition on Caribbean art seemed homogenous and predictable, but the rest of the museum had mostly abstract, funky installations that are fun to look at, even if you don’t quite get them all. On the Saturday I visited, a band played on the second-floor terrace while I sipped a cappuccino at Verde cafe below. A friend who’d recently been for lunch recommended it, which was unusual for a museum restaurant, but I opted to keep it to a simple indulgence and nibbled on a chocolate croissant.
As great as my meal at Azul had been, my dinner at La Mar, the newest restaurant from celebrated Peruvian chef Gaston Acurio just one floor below Azul, pulls ahead as the winner, though ever so slightly. It had a lively, hipster vibe to it with living walls filled with herbs and a fun mix of sleek metals and warm woods. I loved the rustic chic ambience, and it extended to the menu, where the food is as fresh as it gets but served family style, casually tossed together and utterly delicious. The ceviche neiki with tuna, avocado and nori was tops, but the lomo saltado, a classic Peruvian stew of angus beef and tomatoes in a savory soy sauce, was the most memorable dish. My friends in town who joined me for dinner loved it, too, and it was gone in minutes.
On my final morning I went back to Azul for chef Crandall’s cooking class, which he’s recently started offering to both locals and hotel guests. His sweet, casual demeanor made him the perfect coach. After chopping and marinating small Sudachi scallops in a Japanese ponzu sauce, we sat down to eat our self-made dishes. Again wine director Todd Phillips made excellent choices, though I’m as novice as it gets in the spirits category. Afterward we went back into the kitchen to learn how to cook a perfect New York strip steak. After years of asking for my meat well done and being disappointed to find it more tough than tender, Crandall showed me the secret trick: Take it off the grill when it’s medium well, then leave it nearby for 15 minutes, where it will continue to cook with the indirect heat until it’s perfectly well done. The steak was fantastic and fueled me up one last time for the road.
The Mandarin manages to feel luxurious without the formality, which is exactly what you want if you’re a weekend traveler. I’d been to the Mandarin Oriental Miami years before, but I won’t wait long to go back next time.