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By Bill Citara
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Printed atop the old-timey logo of the new-timey Michael's Genuine Food & Drink are the words "fresh simple pure." Not very original. In fact so many chefs have been professing this same pledge, that "fresh simple pure" is to contemporary American cuisine what "snap crackle pop" is to Rice Krispies. Yet chef/owner Michael Schwartz was at the head of Miami's natural food line when there was nobody else even in line. During his stint at Afterglo he introduced locals to upscale, nutrition-based cooking, and he helped inaugurate, and continues to host, the series of all-organic dinners at Paradise Farms in the Homestead area. So while "fresh simple pure" has been hijacked and turned into a mindless mantra for marketing mavens, when dining at Mr. Schwartz's restaurant you are sure to marvel at just how genuinely he takes the notion.
The menu is a concise, daily-changing amalgam of small ($8 to $11), medium ($9 to $15), large ($16 to $27), and extra-large ($31 to $44) plates, each involving ingredients produced by local growers and small farmers whenever possible. Like all great American cooking new and old, Michael's food comes from heart, not haute. It also comes from hearth, as in a wood-fired vidalia onion, its soft, sweet, translucent rings smokily roasted and cupped around ground lamb scrambled with apricots and Moroccan spices. Arugula greens on the side contribute an effective yin-yang tang when scooped up with the rest, even echoing, if you pay close attention, the grass-fed nature of the beast.
Our shiitake mushroom pizza was likewise forged in the hearth, its crispy wispy crust earthily enhanced by cave-aged Gruyre, caramelized onions, and fresh thyme. Many of the meals here emerge from that wood-fire oven, situated at the far end of a narrow dining room that looks and feels like the sort of bustling bistro or trattoria you might find in any sophisticated American city. Actual aromatics of the burning wood are more evident when sitting on the outdoor patio, which because of the weather seems less generically urban, more specifically Miami for better during most of the year, possibly for worse on some sticky summer nights.
130 NE 40th St.
Miami, FL 33137
Region: Central Dade
The lamb-stuffed onion comes as a medium plate, as does a bulky beef cheek, softly braised, bathed in deep, dark demi-glace with molelike hints of chocolate, and sandwiched between a fluff of whipped celeriac and a tiny toss of celery salad. A little more of the latter could have more assertively cut the richness of the meat, but it is a terrific tandem of tastes.
A subtly flavored small plate of faintly house-cured salmon comes daintily dressed with orange sections, pearl-size salmon eggs, and lemony fennel slices shaved so thin you could read through them (although I'm not sure why you would want to do that). A more rustic small plate, panzanella salad, actually comes in a bowl, and pleases via softly ripe heirloom tomatoes, mellow balsamic vinegar, olive oil, fresh basil, and crunchy cubes of soudrdough one of three breads, along with olive and cranberry, that comprise the predinner selection.
It should be clear from the aforementioned dishes that a stream of Mediterranean consciousness flows below Schwartz's contemporary American sensibilities. Integrity of ingredients would seem to be the common ground. Poulet rouge chicken, for instance, is a rustic breed from France that has only recently begun to be grown in the U.S. (on small farms in Piedmont, North Carolina). It is organic, free of antibiotics, hormones, and growth stimulants, and known for its meaty texture and very thin skin (so if you don't like it, keep it to yourself). Still, even a bird with a backstory needs to be cooked properly, which is just what Mr. Schwartz and his kitchen crew do. We tried it for lunch one day, pan-roasted until juicy, the skinny skin a shiny mahagony, matched with thick stalks of wood-roasted asparagus.
Pigs here are pedigreed, too: descended from the House of Windsor's Berkshire line, touted as "the most influential breed of swine in the history of the world" (I thought that distinction belonged to Babe's family, but what do I know?). In Japanese restaurants you'll see the same meat referred to as kurobuta, but at Michael's it is called "slow-roasted Berkshire pork shoulder," and has quickly become one of the signature dishes. Plump succulent morsels of the pork are chaperoned by cheese grits, parsley sauce, and pickled onions, the last ingredient summoning memories of the delectable Yucatecan specialty cochinita pibil. This is a large plate you should not miss.
Those with extra-large appetites might wish to indulge in an extra-large serving of 24-ounce grilled Harris Ranch porterhouse steak with whole roasted garlic, French fries, and porcini Worcestershire. Harris Ranch Beef products are minimally processed and contain no preservatives, antibiotic residue, or artificial ingredients, but you don't need to know any of this to appreciate the full, meaty, wood-roasted flavor.
There are usually three or four entrée portions of seafood to choose from. Most, such as swordfish, snapper, pompano, and striped bass, come from Florida waters. So does black grouper, another signature dish, roasted in the wood oven and served with a side cup of thin, bright lemon aioli and Brussels sprouts marvelously charred and juiced with chewy nubs of pancetta a combination as comforting as a campfire.