Sunday, September 4, 2011

Many "Misses" in Sra. Martinez: Chef Michelle Bernstein's Tapas in Miami

Old-world Havana, churned with leather-cushioned speakeasy and a dash of contemporary chic. This is the recipe Chef Michelle Bernstein conjures for the decor of Sra. Martinez in Miami - her take on tapas. The restaurant is housed within the historic walls of a 1920's post office, already tipping its hat off to the Design District in which it resides.



I came to give the missus another chance - a redemptive visit to the hit or miss experience I had at Michy's a few months earlier. I so wanted it to be a home run across the board; I was rooting for this meal. To cut to the chase, it was a repeat performance. The peaks and valleys of this meal were a risky roller coaster unworthy of the high prices. 

Passing the umbrella-d patio seating and stepping into the dim bi-level, lofty space, I was ready to nestle into one of the dark leather high-backed booths and cup a rich glass of red. With a menu saturated with small plates, the cordially competent staff guided our gut. Choosing from the categories of Charcuterie and Cheeses, Cold, Crispy, Local Vegetables, Land, Sea, and Mains, I sampled upwards of 10 dishes and only a few hit high marks. And I emphasize "sample" as the plates were delusionally priced at tiny portions. My qualm was the majority of the dishes were unbearably salty. Whether the culprit lay hidden in the recipes or in the kitchen that day will remain a mystery to me. What was clear was that by meal end, my sodium-induced hyper-dehydration had me guzzling water by the gallon.

Octopus Carpaccio
Bronzino (Snapper pictured) with Cauliflower Puree
Salty saturation tainted the limited-time Miami Spice menu's oil-drenched Octopus Carpaccio, dotted with capers that pushed it past the a normal sodium tolerance. So too was the cauliflower puree that the Bronzino ($34) fillets rested upon (ours was Snapper) with again, a caper-infested brown butter sauce. All three foie gras-centric dishes were a disappointment in three distinct ways. The Foie Gras Croquettes ($15) were two tiny fried balls sitting in an unappealing blueberry mustard sauce, which concealed any flavor the costly filling may have contributed. The Foie Gras Torchon ($21) was a disjointed "salad" with apricot preserves and Brioche that unfortunately did nothing to mask the peculiar flavor and texture of the liver pate, which broke apart like a cakey Jelll-o.The highly recommended Butifara ($18) duck and foie gras sausage fell victim to salt assault, making a second bite unmanageable. It's a shame because the plump whit beans and the sweet port sauce it bathed in were a delicious combination sans the sausage.
Foie Gras Croquettes
Butifard of Duck & Foie Gras Sausage
Foie Gras Torchon
A drastic pitfall in my spread came in the form of barely-there Pulpo a la Plancha ($18). Imbalanced in component ratio and texture, a thin singular tentacle was unnecessarily fried and sat in an overly viscous cream sauce that was too heavy for the battered fish and heavy heap of accompanying potatoes. And I will reiterate that grilled octopus is a requisite order of mine whenever it is offered, so this was an especially tough "pulpo" pill for me to swallow. Much to my chagrin, this off-putting white sauce made a reappearance in the Cauliflower "Steak" which was laughably priced at $10 for its bisected palm size
Pulpo A La Plancha
Cauliflower Steak
The silver lining is that these insults were interjected with praise-worthy compliments. To the same degree that the aforementioned fell flat, the following soared. If you make the visit, do not miss the glorious Egg Yolk Carpaccio with sweet baby shrimp ($13), the fall-off-the-bone curry-spiced Lamb Ribs ($18), and the hearty Oxtail ragout shreds piled onto a perfectly plump arepa ($16). And if you opt for the limited-time Miami Spice menu, revel in the runny yolk of the Poached Egg that combines beautifully with tasty tomato butter and firm farm vegetables. Or make a tough decision and go with the equally satisfying White Fish layered on lush Israeli cous cous pearls with a subtly sweet curry vinaigrette. And when your taste-buds are finally prepared for a palate cleanser, the refreshing Passion Fruit Sorbet does not disappoint with succulent strawberry jam and tapioca pearls.

Egg Yolk Carpaccio

Lamb Ribs
Oxtail Arepa

Passion Fruit Sorbet
Honorable mentions go to the Tuna Tiradito tartare ($17) and the Greek Yogurt Panna Cotta dessert accented with sweet stone fruit and dusted with crisp shaves of pastry dough.

Tuna Tiradito (not usual preparation)
Panna Cotta
With the high expectations that the prices and celebrity of Sra. Martinez set, I'm not so sure the risks outweigh the benefits. I'm no gambler, but if you like to play high stakes, be prepared to take your loss with many grains of salt.