Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Michy's in Miami is a Toss-Up


Though we are both Miami natives, I met chef Michelle Bernstein by pure chance in New York when she was promoting her Delta in-flight menu at Chelsea Market. But she had already been on my radar when she was first emerging in the Miami food scene while I was living there some 10 plus years ago, which has exponentially gained momentum within the past few years. She opened Michy’s in 2005 after I had already moved to the better-known city of food, and my frequent returns to our shared home base alerted me that it was a must-try restaurant. I was also drawn to this female chef on a more personal level, considering our striking similarities  - she has a background in dance and is a Hispanic Jew who loves food and made a career out of it. It’s not everyday you find two of those.


So when I walked into Michy’s, the warm and elegant personality I had met in New York traversed state lines and emanated from within its Midtown Miami home. With shabby chic white chairs emblazoned with bright floral patterns and a burnt orange suede banquet framing an entire wall of the cozy space, its commercial storefront entrance deceives the elegant and fresh interior.


This tasteful sense of style only translated partially to the food, but wholly to the experience. The front of house and serving staff were excellent. Even our nervous server (we learned he was a new transplant to the floor from the kitchen) managed to overshadow his lack of experience with attentiveness and a pleasant smile. Who better to trust with the answers to my (numerous) food queries than one who can expertly describe in detail the how the ingredients transform from kitchen to plate?


However this expert knowledge does not ensure an expert dish. The split was an even 50-50 - a score upon which my dining guest and I were almost unanimous. The Latin American-influenced tapas-friendly menu (most items available in half or full portions) allowed for the sharing style I am most fond of and resulted in a six-dish savory spread. Three were excellent, three were not.
Gazpacho
At the top of the ranks was the unassuming White Gazpacho. Start your meal with a fresh scoop of this chilled liquid and you may not want to eat anything else. The light mint hue can be attributed to the cucumbers used instead of the traditional red tomato. Specked with almonds for a nutty crunch against the round sweetness of pureed grapes, I found all I was missing was a sipping straw and a to-go cup.

Watermelon Salad

Equal in refreshment was the Greek-style Watermelon Salad, its ruby watery chucks tossed with mounds of cucumbers, tomatoes, and feta. Peppery arugula made an appropriately subtle appearance among simple Mediterranean spices. Another score in a satisfying balance of flavors and textures.



Sweetbreads

Such cannot be said for the other two breaded and fried smaller plates - those two factors together hampering both dishes. The Sweetbreads “Milanese” were actually passable once the crusty coating was removed. The spongy texture of the sweetbreads had a pleasant mouth-feel against the firmer black-eyed peas. Even so, the sweetness of the Cipollini onions, apples, and cider-based jus did not shine through as much as desired. (I am still in search of the perfectly prepared sweetbreads.)

Duck Confit

Even less cohesive was the Duck Confit. The compartmentalized elements of the dish on the plate translated to exactly that: a disconnect between the ingredients. The only parallel I could draw between them, unfortunately, was their blandness. The too-crisp duck did not make a notable flavor mark and neither did the shaved Brussels sprouts salad. A little seasoning would have gone a long way. The isolated dollops of mustard vinaigrette and citrus marmalade felt like after-thoughts. Disappointment resounded with this duck dish.


Chickpea Panisse

The two larger dishes were also an even divide of thumbs up, thumbs down. And surprisingly I favored the one that was fried: a Crispy Chickpea Panisse. This was presented as a chickpea mash molded into squares, which were then breaded and lightly fried - but in this case, expertly so. This texture married beautifully with the robust depth of stewed tomatoes, wild mushrooms, kale and piquillo peppers. As their “vegetarian option” this dish escaped its popular ill-thought stigma and shined stronger than the meat dishes. Certainly more than the tasteless Whole Yellowtail Snapper, which I was sure would steal the show. Claiming to be flavored with the titillating spices of Malaysian curry and saccharine mango, it instead sadly sat in a pool of saucy rice with no soul. While the fish was cooked well, the moisture did not compensate for my growing disinterest with every hopeful forkful. Contrary to my assumption, fish is not fail safe.


Yellowtail Snapper


Baked Alaska

Dessert was a trickier tally, settling on three after a tough process of elimination. My guest and I unanimously favored the Baked Alaska, taking the form of a light and fluffy meringue dome encapsulating a spongy pistachio cake, dulce de leche ice cream, and a sweet passion fruit compote. Second place for my guest was Michy's Bread Pudding, which we both concluded more closely resembled a tres leches with its soupy texture, lacking the substantial consistency this dessert usually boasts. We both also agreed its smooth Cognac undertone would have been sufficiently complemented by raisins, sans the dense chocolate chips, which weighed down an already heavy dish. 
For me it went to the Butterfinger-filled chocolate hazelnut Candy Bar brick served with a supremely satisfying peanut butter sorbet and drizzled with salty caramel.

Chocolate Candy Bar



Bread Pudding

























The plus: half of the dishes were great. The minus: half of the dishes were not. Was the glass half full, or half empty at Michy’s? My hometown pride itches for the former. We Miami girls have to stick together after all.