Hometown: New York City
Occupation: Executive Chef, The Forge
Years worked as a chef: 23 years in the industry
Years lived in Miami: 1 year, 4 months
Awards/Accolades: 40 Under 40 Award, Long Island Business News (2013)
Contestant, “Top Chef Masters” (2009)
Best New Chef, Food & Wine (2006)
Nominee, Best Chef: Mid-Atlantic, James Beard Foundation (2006)
Rising Star Chef of the Year, James Beard Foundation (2005)
Name the top restaurants and dishes that you think every visitor in Miami should try.
Pubbelly: Kimchee fried rice. The charred pineapple is great.
Macchialina: Beet filled mezzaluna is awesome and the polenta boards are always fun.
StripSteak Miami: The roasted cauliflower with Madras curry and cashews is a side standout in the city. Also, the blis maple bread pudding for two is incredible.
Quality Meats: Their steak tartare is one of my favorites of all time.
Matador Room: The black truffle pizza is still on my mind after eating there two months ago.
What’s your favorite neighborhood to dine out in?
Don’t have one yet. Still exploring the city. There are so many pockets to explore; my wife and I are getting to them slowly, but surely.
What do you love best about Miami’s food scene?
I strongly believe Miami is an up and coming food city. Each year, more and more great young talent travel to Miami or emerge within the city. I love what José Mendín is doing with Pubbelly. Aside from that, there are good amounts of foodies in the city, which helps.
What’s your earliest food memory?
Cooking wonton soup with my grandfather when I was six. It is a family recipe and tradition. My father and my grandfather influenced me on how I incorporate traditional Cantonese cuisine in my dishes.
If you had to name one favorite dish from The Forge, what would it be and why?
It is very hard for me to name one personal favorite dish on the menu; I love them all and if I didn’t, I would just create something else. I think our tuna tartare is a fan favorite and a dish that has been in my repertoire for a while. It is a great balance of classic and modern cooking styles. I also love our 35 to 40 day dry aged prime New York strip steak, a.k.a. “The Super Steak”; it is one of the best cuts of meat I have ever tasted.
Imagine you had a limitless appetite and describe your perfect “dining out day” in Miami.
Breakfast would start at New York Bagel on Collins with an everything bagel with cream cheese and smoked salmon. Next stop would be Makoto for a chef’s sushi and sashimi sampler. Then a midday snack would be the pasta at Macchialina. Following that would be an early dinner at Joe’s Stone Crab for what else, stone crab!! Then I would swing by The Forge for a dry aged prime New York strip steak. I would finish the day at StripSteak for the blis maple bread pudding for two.
What other cuisines do you enjoy eating or cooking, and where do you go for these foods?
My favorite cuisine is Italian. A few spots that we are loyal to include Macchialina. I think Mike Pirolo does a great job with merging classic real Italian with French technique. His pastas and sauces are absolutely awesome and some of the best I have tasted to date. Scott Conant at Scarpetta, not only his pastas are great, but Scott’s Italian-influenced main courses are creative and tasty. In my opinion, entrées in most Italian restaurants always fall short of true excellence. Randazzo’s in Coral Gables is another favorite. My wife and I love going to Randazzo’s because it reminds us of our hometown, New York. They have great food, service, and the décor is cheesy Little Italy, which we LOVE!!
Any great watering holes you like to visit often and any specific drinks you like to order?
My favorite place to go is The Broken Shaker. The drinks are creative and always changing, which makes it a fun place to experiment. The last time I had a popcorn old fashioned, which would be best described as “buttery and delicious.”
Since it’s Miami, we have to ask: what’s your go-to place for Cuban and what do you like ordering there?
I haven’t experienced much so far, but my cooks took me to El Exquisito Restaurant for vaca frita and it was damn good.
What’s one dish that blew you away and left you wishing you came up with it yourself?
The steak tartare at Quality Meats appears simple, yet it is very good. The taste is unique and it makes you want more, which is the secret to a great recipe.
Since Eats Abroad is geared toward travelers, are there any restaurants or bars in Miami-area airports or hotels you would recommend?
Two favorites are Lure Fishbar in the Loews Hotel and Matador at The EDITION.
What’s your guilty pleasure and where in Miami do you go to get it?
My guilty pleasure is three color cookies. It’s a New York thing, and I can only find them at Roasters’ n Toasters on 41st Street. Three color cookies are made of almond sponge that is layered with raspberry jam and then coated with chocolate and chocolate sprinkles. Yummy!
Are there any foods native to Miami that you particularly like and that visitors should try to find?
Freshly picked mangoes. I have been buying mangoes for years, but the ones my cooks bring in from the trees in their yards are the best I ever tasted.
Finally, what would you say any visitor must see or do before leaving Miami?
The island of Key Biscayne. It’s a beautiful drive that ends with a stunning state park. One can walk, jog, lay in the sun, BBQ and go fishing all in the same day.
Chef Lee’s Shortlist:
The Forge, 432 41st Street (Mid-Beach); steakhouse, dinner only daily.
Pubbelly, 1418 20th Street (South Beach); Asian/Latin, dinner Tuesday-Sunday, brunch Sunday, closed Monday.
Macchialina, 820 Alton Road (South Beach); Italian, dinner only daily.
StripSteak Miami, Fontainebleau Hotel, 4441 Collins Avenue (Mid-Beach); steakhouse, dinner daily, brunch Sunday.
Quality Meats, 1501 Collins Avenue (South Beach); steakhouse, dinner only daily.
Matador Room, The Miami Beach EDITION, 2901 Collins Avenue (Mid-Beach); Caribbean/Spanish/Latin American, breakfast, lunch and dinner daily.
New York Bagel Deli, 6546 Collins Avenue (North Beach); deli, breakfast and lunch daily.
Makoto, 9700 Collins Avenue, Bal Harbour, FL; Japanese, lunch and dinner daily.
Joe’s Stone Crab, 11 Washington Avenue (South Beach); breakfast daily (take-out only and closed during summer months), lunch Tuesday-Saturday (closed during summer months), dinner daily.
Scarpetta, Fontainebleau Hotel, 4441 Collins Avenue (Mid-Beach); Italian, dinner only daily.
Randazzo’s Little Italy, 385 Miracle Mile, Coral Gables, FL; Italian, lunch Monday-Friday, dinner daily.
The Broken Shaker, The Freehand, 2727 Indian Creek Drive (Mid-Beach); bar, open daily.
El Exquisito Restaurant, 1510 SW 8th Street (Little Havana); Cuban, breakfast, lunch and dinner daily.
Lure Fishbar, Loews Miami Beach Hotel, 1601 Collins Avenue (South Beach); seafood, dinner only daily.
Roasters’ n Toasters, 9465 South Dixie Highway (Kendall); deli, lunch and dinner daily.
Second location: 525 Arthur Godfrey Road (Mid-Beach); lunch and dinner daily.
About the Chef: Christopher Lee is one of Miami’s newest chefs, but he’s established quite the career over the past two decades.
Born in Queens and raised in Long Island, Lee went to culinary school and trained in San Francisco before returning to New York. He worked at acclaimed restaurants such as Daniel, Jean Georges and Oceana before executive chef stints at Striped Bass in Philadelphia and Gilt and Aureole in Manhattan; he led Gilt to two Michelin stars. In early 2014, Lee was offered to lead the kitchen at The Forge, a Miami steakhouse that opened in the 1920s and has been owned and operated by the Malnik family since 1968. He says owner Shareef Malnik’s personality, beliefs and family values, along with the restaurant’s long history, ultimately sealed the deal for him.
The move to Miami meant a number of changes in the kitchen. There were initial challenges, such as finding purveyors carrying their high standards for product, but also much-welcomed opportunities to cook more with certain fresh, local ingredients (“I find myself using snapper and grouper more than I ever did before.”). In his first year, Lee has won over diners and critics with both traditional steakhouse favorites and more modern offerings on his menu.