Miami Tastemaker – Evan Benn

Evan Benn, Food & Restaurants Editor, Miami Herald and Miami.com
Evan Benn was born and raised in York, Pa., and graduated from Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism in 2004. He covered breaking news, crime, courts, hurricanes and other stories for the Miami Herald from 2004-2009, when he moved to St. Louis, where his wife, Teri, was in her medical residency. He wrote about food and beer as an editor and columnist at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch from 2009-2013. While in St. Louis, Evan wrote a book, “Brew in the Lou,” about the city’s beer history and present scene. He rejoined the Herald and became food editor in April 2014. Evan occasionally freelances food-and-drink stories for Beer Advocate, Bloomberg Businessweek and Esquire, among other publications.

You’ve been writing about food and restaurants for years on both national and local levels. What’s your take on the current Miami food scene?
I’d say strong to quite strong (sorry, “Meet the Parents” quote). I do think we’re on an upswing that’s showing no signs of slowing. Look, Miami is not an easy place to run a restaurant. Real estate is expensive. The city’s on-the-go, transient nature makes it difficult for restaurants develop regulars. And luring top-notch front- and back-of-house talent just isn’t as easy here as it is in San Francisco or New York. But I think we’re seeing the pendulum shift toward Miami being recognized as the world-class food city it is. That’s evidenced on the ground by independent, chef-driven restaurants like Proof, where Justin Flit left the corporate fine-dining world to do his own thing, and he’s crushing it. Same deal with Brad Kilgore, a wildly talented guy who left a cushy hotel gig to open Alter. And you also see it at flashy, glitz-and-glam staples like The Forge, whose Michelin-starred chef Christopher Lee isn’t just phoning it in from New York: He moved here for this gig, and he brought most of his kitchen crew with him. I’m eager to see the James Beard Award semifinalists list when it comes out next month. It’s an imperfect litmus test of a city’s culinary strength, but I’m optimistic that this year’s nominations will reflect just how much Miami has arrived, and that the state of our scene is strong.

What Miami restaurant(s) are you loving right now?
NIU Kitchen downtown is the kind of restaurant I wish we had a dozen of. The Catalan food is second to none (the “Ous” dish of creamy eggs, truffled potato and Iberico ham is one of my favorite plates on Earth), and the adorably tight space is a world away from the steroidal celebrity-chef restaurants of South Beach.

You were the Beer Columnist for the St. Louis Dispatch in arguably the country’s biggest beer town. How does Miami’s growing beer culture compare?
When I landed in St. Louis in 2009, it was soon after Anheuser-Busch had been sold to this multinational conglomerate called InBev. People who had been drinking Budweiser their whole lives because their uncle worked in the brewery and A-B sponsored their kid’s soccer team, all of a sudden their loyalties shifted when their uncle got laid off and more of A-B’s money went to its new headquarters in Belgium, not St. Louis. Soon a whole bunch of these small, mom-and-pop craft breweries started popping up, and people in St. Louis supported them through things like beer weeks and beer dinners and beer festivals. By the time I moved back to Miami in 2013, there were something like 24 breweries within a two-hour drive of downtown St. Louis. Even more now. Miami isn’t there yet, but that groundswell I witnessed in St. Louis is 100 percent happening here. Our new breweries are focusing on their quality and consistency, not their marketing and PR. We have more in the works. And even though Miami as a whole has been known for its cocktail culture and wine lists more so than for its craft beer, that’s changing and changing fast.

What’s your all-time favorite beer-food pairing?
I think people turn to beer to start their night – with apps, cheese plates, etc – but don’t necessary think of it as a dessert drink or nightcap. A good stout with high-quality chocolate can be a revelation. (And never drink a stout straight from the fridge; all of its chocolaty, malty aromas and flavors come out as it loses its chill.) Raspberry and chocolate make one of my favorite flavor combinations, and Schlafly, a brewery in St. Louis, makes a limited-release Raspberry Coffee Stout. The beer is out of this world on its own, but paired with a slice of raspberry chocolate cake? The best.

What’s your ideal beer-drinking situation?
I’ll often open a beer when my wife and I are prepping dinner at home, talking about our days. That’s my happy place.

What food item best describes you, and why?
Braised beef brisket. Jewish and fork-tender. (What?)

What are the top three things you look for when you go out to review a restaurant?
The overarching thing I try to snuff out is how well a restaurant is accomplishing what it sets out to do, whether that means haute French cuisine or rustic BBQ. Beyond that, I’m looking to answer the question of whether I’d recommend this place to a friend and whether I’d go back (not on the newspaper’s dime). And a third thing, one that I think can really differentiate an OK restaurant from a great one, is service. I’ve had some truly outstanding meals marred by ambivalent service, and I’ve had some mediocre meals elevated by standout service and hospitality. A little FOH training goes a long way.

What food trend are you really into right now?
I don’t know if it’s a trend, but I really like pot pies, and I think they’re ready for a comeback. Chicken. Turkey. Oyster. Lobster. All the pot pies.

What food trend do you wish would just go away already?
Tuna tartare. #ByeFelicia

What restaurant surprised you the most in the past year, good or bad?
It’s almost cliché to say because it’s been getting *so much* local love recently, but Mignonette gave me a great first impression and hasn’t let me down since. You just can’t find that combination of freshness, variety and value of oysters anywhere else in the city, and then you get into the cooked food, and it’s like, Why can’t every restaurant be this spot-on?

If you could swap jobs and be the Food Editor of any other U.S. city’s newspaper for one month, which would it be and why?
None. Nowhere else I’d rather do this than here. It’s my dream job. But if you asked what U.S. city I’d want to vacation in for a month? Right now I’d say Asheville. Solid food city, strong craft beer scene, mountains.

What’s your favorite thing about living in Miami?
It’s the best news town in the world. So many major stories and weird, only-in-Florida nuggets that go viral have a South Florida connection. That’s what drew me here from Chicago way back in 2002, when I was a college student looking for a newspaper internship. I was on the Metro Desk, the news side of things, for my entire Herald career until I became Food Editor last year and moved over to Features. A part of me worried I’d miss the adrenaline rush of chasing a breaking story, of being in the newsroom for the final returns on election night, of live-blogging from the eye of a hurricane. I do miss those things, but the people doing them now at the Herald are the best in the business, so I get a front-row see to watch them do their thing. And the way our food scene is right now, it’s just as thrilling to cover. Who wouldn’t want to live here?

Mitch & Mel

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