New dining era begins at Aventura Mall with Treats Food Hall, Tap 42 and big-name chefs galore
By Michael Mayo
I have seen the future of mall food at the Aventura Mall’s new expansion wing, and it is a whole lot better than a slice of Sbarro pizza and a gloppy pile of sweet-and -sour chicken from Panda Express. Unfortunately, after sipping a terrific cup of pour-over Burundi coffee at Blue Bottle Coffee and munching on a Luke’s Lobster roll of sweet crustacean meat that the front chalkboard indicated had come from Cranberry Isles, Maine, I realized it was also a whole lot more expensive.
The coffee cost me $7 (after I had thrown the few loose quarters and nickels in change into the tip jar) and the lobster roll cost $17, before tax. I handed the Luke’s Lobster cashier a $20 bill, looked down to the Tesla showroom below and told her to keep the change. No sense getting cheap in these surroundings.
On the bright side, the 93-foot-tall spiral Aventura Slide Tower that loomed outside was free. I did not unleash the inner child in me, however, for two reasons: I was not sure that my expanding girth would fit, and I was reasonably sure the shrimp-and-manchego pizza from Michael Schwartz’s Genuine Pizza and black-and-white shake from Shake Shack that I had just consumed might make it to the bottom before I did.
The dining offerings at the Aventura Mall’s $212 million expansion wing are actually twofold: a new food court with elevated fare on the third floor that is trendily labeled Treats Food Hall, and traditional full-service restaurants that have been opening on the first two levels. The wing was slightly barren when it opened in November, but new arrivals come weekly. Last week, it was regional chain My Ceviche in the food hall. This week, it is popular gastropub Tap 42, which started in Fort Lauderdale and opens its biggest location yet on Wednesday, May 2, with roughly 7,000 square feet of indoor and outdoor space, including a patio overlooking the slide.
When all tenants open, the complex will feature a dozen fast-casual eateries in Treats Food Hall and nine restaurants on the bottom levels. Those are in addition to the mall’s offerings that remain on the opposite side near its movie theaters, including the Cheesecake Factory and Five Guys. The new wing contains a pleasing mix of local and national celebrity chefs and chains, including Shake Shack (the high-quality burger-and fries emporium from New York restaurateur Danny Meyer), Figs + Mozzarella from Todd English (a pizza and pan.ini joint from the acclaimed Boston-based chef), Pubbelly Sushi (from Miami Beach chef Jose Mendin) and Genuine Pizza (the growing pizza concept once known as Harry’s Pizzeria from James Beard Award-winning chef Schwartz).
“We’ve added a lot of luxury over the last 10 years, and we realized that we needed to bring in better-quality food and restaurant options to keep up,” says Jackie Soffer, CEO of Turnbercy Associates, the owner and manager of Aventura Mall.
Soffer pointed out video art on the walls that she selected and proudly spoke of the level of craftsmanship that went into eatery interiors and food-hall furnishings, with one restaurateur insisting on bringing their own woodworkers from Italy.
After four recent visits to Treats Food Hall and the new wing, here is what I liked: The diversity and overall quality was impressive. Zuuk Mediterranean Kitchen was a winner, with tasty bowls and salads (I had a grilled chicken and lamb-patty bowl over basmati rice with mixed vegetables, hummus and spicy harissa sauce for $11.95 that was great).
Genuine Pizza’s dough, crusts, cheeses and toppings were very good. Blue Bottle Coffee, which I first experienced at the San Francisco Ferry Market, is top-notch. I’m intrigued by a first-floor restaurant in the works, a global grilling concept called International Smoke from chef Michael Mina and Ayesha Curry (budding chef and wife of NBA star Steph Curry) that is set to open later this year.
Here is what I didn’t love: Figs and Mozzarella’s oval pies had so-so crust and mediocre tomatoes. The Bol, an Asian eatery that shines in the Seminole casinos in Broward, is dulled down here and basically a glorified Panda Express, with uninspiring chicken and rice dishes and no Vietnamese phos or authentic specialties such as spicy noodles with pig’s blood (as is found at the Hard Rock). A ho-hum Chipotle will soon open and a ho hum Haagen-Dazs is the only ice cream option (Soffer explained the chain has been a good and loyal tenant since the mall’s 1983 opening). And mall parking and Aventura traffic can always be maddening.
The cushioned seats, wooden tables, sleek counters and modern lighting fixtures in the common dining area of Treats Food Hall are definitely a cut above typical mall surroundings. But when it got crowded and noisy and the trash left behind, I still got the sense I was in a mall food court.
On the ground level, closely bunched Genuine Pizza, Pubbelly Sushi, Cvi.che105 and Le Pain Quotidien (a Belgian cafe chain featuring pastries and sandwiches) have patios and indoor dining rooms, and the vibe is partly Lincoln Road pedestrian mall in Miami Beach, with street performers and music near the slide tower on weekends.
Will the outdoor setting thrive during the hot and sticky summer months? “People are used to the weather – this is South Florida,” Soffer says, noting Lincoln Road’s year-round crowds.
I ran into Schwartz during a recent visit, and he told me he has been spending time observing the ebb and flow of mall crowds and eating habits. “It’s different than typical restaurants,” says Schwartz, who runs Michael’s Genuine Food and Drink, Fi’lia at the SLS Brickell and Amara at Paraiso in Miami. Lunch is later, and crowds become more sustained as the day goes on. He expects more business during summer months, when kids are off and families spend more time together. As it is, the new wing has been slowly gaining traction. It is hidden in a rear part of the mall, and many people are not aware that it exists. Soffer says word of mouth is building.
Ongoing construction and perennial parking hassles at the mall have been challenges, but when all is complete, there will be a new JW Marriott hotel across the street and more visitors and residents shopping and eating.
“We get 28 million to 30 million visitors a year,” Soffer says. “People have to eat.” With the new food additions at Aventura Mall, they can eat well.