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Glitz-Free Food in Miami

Photo by: David Yellen

Posted: Feb 7, 2008 4:36pm ET

I lived in Miami for seven years in the 1970s, and still have friends there to visit. So when my travels took me there last week, I phoned my friends Rich and Wendy to schedule a dinner out. Turns out one of the restaurants with the biggest buzz is only a few blocks from where they live, just off Biscayne Bay in a quiet northeastern neighborhood.

Michy's is the talk of the town, but unlike most of the hot restaurants in Miami it makes no attempt to dazzle you with cutting-edge decor. Entering from the parking lot, you pass a casual patio and walk through a narrow passageway past the busy bar lined with horizontal wine bottles, to the cozy dining room where translucent shells create sculptural hanging lights. The menu is folded in thirds like a take-out menu.

It would fit unpretentiously into several neighborhoods in my home town, San Francisco. Like the food, which has flair without laying on too many fancy ingredients, the wine list bypasses big-ticket labels for affordable, well-chosen current vintages.

And the menu has so many tempting dishes (Peruvian-style seviche, duck confit with frisee salad, braised snapper with saffron mussels and fennel) that it's impossible for me to limit myself to a couple. Thoughtfully, it offers most items in half portions. Double the options! Make your own chef's menu! My kind of place.

Chef Michelle Bernstein made her reputation with haute cuisine at Azul, the high-octane restaurant at the Mandarin Oriental Hotel. She left in 2005 with her new husband, David Martinez, who managed the front of the house at Azul, to open a similarly luxe restaurant in a new development on the Bay. But the developer's partnership fell apart and they were left high and dry.

To make ends meet, they consulted with a new restaurant in Cancun, Mexico, but kept an eye on possible spots in Miami. They found one on a formerly forlorn strip of Biscayne Boulevard, just now enjoying a modest gentrification. They settled on a storefront near 69th Street. Out went plans for a big kitchen and snazzy dining room. Now open 18 months, they pack in folks from the neighborhood, a nice mix of old and young, no one dressed up much.

The three of us ordered a dozen dishes to share, most of them half portions at $8 to $19. The only disappointments were an underseasoned green curry sauce on the daily grilled fish (grouper) and too-thick breading on sweetbread "scaloppine" (a nice idea, though, with the sweetbread flattened into something resembling a veal scallop).

I liked that confit, though, which came with excellent frisee given zip by a Bourbon molasses vinaigrette, topped with a couple of sunny-side-up quail eggs, sprinkled with crisp lardons. Arrayed on a plate, it made it possible to savor the salad in various combinations.

The braised snapper impressed me too, perfectly cooked and balancing the spices in a savory mussel fumet with fresh fennel and seed. But the most memorable dish layered beautifully tender gnocchi with the standard ingredients for baked lasagne, using bufala mozzarella and a bit of Parmigiano in the bechamel.

"That's new on the menu," our waiter said when we asked what it was. "I've been eating it every day."

Bernstein clearly understands Italian food. Aside from those gnocchi, she and Martinez slice true prosciutto di San Daniele for a charcuterie plate that also include coppa and finocchiona salame. You can do a ham tasting with the prosciutto, Tennessee and Kentucky hams, ordered separately in generous servings for $4, a bargain.

Desserts were good too. Lemon mousse cake had enough lemony flavor, and custardy bread pudding was enriched with bits of chocolate.

All this exceeds what you might expect in such a casual environment, but that was part of the plan. I asked Bernstein about it after dinner. "I used to watch people getting turned away from Azul because they were wearing ripped jeans," she said. "I wanted a restaurant for the people, where you could walk in, have a few small plates or a big meal, and not feel intimidated."

When the food is this good, that's a great idea.

The wine list follows the same sort of mindset. Martinez is responsible for it, assisted by one of the brightest, most enthusiastic young sommeliers I've met recently, Allegra Angelo. I tested her by asking to help me choose among several Pinot Noirs. She homed right in on my first choice, Patricia Green Cellars Ribbon Ridge Estate 2006 ($77), which had the balance to cozy up to all the dishes we tried, although she could have offered Jean-Marc Morey Beaune Grèves 2002 ($110) or Miura Gary's Vineyard 2005 from California ($160).

In an attempt to make the list more friendly, Angelo divides the list with cute subheads. She says customers like them. "Escaping the Heat with Sleek and Sharp Whites" comprises Grüners and Sauvignons. "Craving Curvy and Voluptuous Whites" includes Chardonnays and white Rhônes. "Drinking for the Home Team" encompasses California reds such as Robert Sinskey Cabernet Franc 2001 ($80) and Tablas Creek Côte de Tablas 2005 ($44). A page of higher priced wines ("The Closing Act") has Heitz Cabernet Sauvignon Martha's Vineyard 1999 ($295), Fontodi Flaccianello 1999 ($165) and, for big spender, Château Ducru-Beaucaillou 1982 ($790).

You can also make do with a glass of Fantino Barbera d'Alba Vigna dei Dardi 2004 ($14).

Michy's is a real restaurant without the pomp and circumstance, the kind that sources excellent ingredients, cooks them well, presents them with flair but doesn't need to gussy up the plates too much. In my family we called it "haimisch" food, meaning homelike. Bernstein gets enough visual appeal from rearranging the ingredients, what she laughingly describes as "deconstructed haimisch." It works.

6927 Biscayne Blvd.
Miami 33138
(305) 759-2001

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