Restaurant Reviews

Cena Marks Michelle Bernstein's Return to Greatness

Michelle Bernstein knows she let her eponymous MiMo District restaurant get stale. "I got comfortable," she says. "I outdated myself."

It's a jarring confession from one of Miami's most celebrated culinary figures. Bernstein, who's 45, catapulted to greatness in 2000 when she took the reins at Azul inside Brickell Key's Mandarin Oriental.

Classic ingredients are plated with ingenious flavor combinations that perfectly accent each dish.

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In early 2006, she and husband David Martinez opened Michy's on Biscayne Boulevard not far from the neighborhood where Bernstein was raised. In 2008, the James Beard Foundation named her the best chef in the Southern United States. The following year, she launched the Design District's now-closed Sra. Martinez and followed with Crumb on Parchment in 2011. In 2014 came the Old Florida-style Seagrape inside the Thompson Miami Beach. In between, she's juggled television shows, a cookbook, product endorsements, too many events to count, and a young family.

Because of her ballooning curriculum vitae, the announcement last year that she would shutter and revamp her flagship was met with equal parts excitement and trepidation. How would it differ from the original? Would her classics remain? Was it a ploy to reinvigorate a slowly emptying dining room?

If lack of popularity was ever a problem, it isn't anymore. The 55-seat dining room at Cena by Michy opened in May and fills to capacity with loyal fans throughout the week. The almost iridescent purple-blue hue that once lined the ceiling and floor has been stripped away, along with the white tablecloths and ornate chandeliers. Off-white paint is spread onto walls covered with sprawling mirrors and dozens of stainless-steel amoeba-like disks. Soft, inviting chairs with a quilt of mismatched fabrics push up against tables hugging forest-green banquettes.

The menu also received a face-lift. Half-portion options were axed and vegetable offerings vastly expanded. Still, the fare doesn't stray far from Bernstein's refined, homestyle comfort zone, and many classics remain. Her sweetbreads — a nod to her Argentine heritage — are creamy nuggets repurposed into tacos with a funky huitlacoche cream and pickled cabbage. Her iconic short ribs are still culled from a center-cut 18-ounce portion braised in a hearty stock of calves' feet and lamb bones. The liquid is reduced to a lip-smacking, savory demi-glace that sauces the plate. It arrives atop an ever-changing root vegetable purée that one night featured earthy celeriac and sunchokes. The $39 price seems extreme for the secondary cut of meat, but it's the lengthy preparation that pushes its cost into the dry-aged realm. "I don't make that much on it, but I have to have it on the menu," Bernstein says.

That attention and adherence to a tried-and-true formula has helped steel her reputation throughout the years. Classic primary ingredients are plated with simple yet ingenious flavor combinations that smartly accent each dish while mirroring Miami's complexity and nuance.

Much of the kitchen work is overseen by chef de cuisine Mike Mayta. The 29-year-old Johnson & Wales graduate toiled at Michy's from 2009 to 2012. Most recently, he ran roving sweets purveyor Illegal Bakery with his wife, Keily Vasquez, who now oversees Cena's pastry department.

Bernstein and Mayta collaborate well on dishes, such as fettuccine carbonara. The senior chef initially envisioned it built on the Japanese seaweed and bonito broth called dashi, which offered a briny, umami-laced twist. When that didn't pan out, Mayta proposed a ham hock concoction that's a perfect foil for the creamy Saint-André cheese that binds the firm noodles.

Bernstein's growing fixation with vegetables, a side effect of becoming a mother, is seen in a handful of plates that spin new flavors out of trendy flora. A meaty cauliflower steak rests atop a smooth, piquant bed of pickled garlic aioli and beneath a smattering of Marcona almonds. It's a fork-and-knife version of Spain's sopa de ajo, accented by sugary raisins and salted with capers.

A beet sorghum risotto, strikingly similar to a version I tried a few months ago in San Francisco at Matt Accarrino's SPQR, gives the fashionable ancient grain a fine treatment. Beet juice is squeezed in-house and reduced to intensify its sugar and earthiness. The grains are cooked in a robust vegetable stock spiked with fennel. Then the beet reduction and roasted roots are introduced to the mixture. The grains remain toothsome in a silky sauce that's creamy enough to fool you into thinking it was finished with a hefty dose of butter. (Think Scott Conant's famous spaghetti.)

Roasted trumpet mushrooms are also a triumph. They're cross-hatched, roasted, and sprinkled with a crunchy, lemony gremolata that helps accent the fungi's loam. The accompanying thimble of mushroom jus is fortified with brandy and helps return a bit of savory richness to the plate.

Cena's wine list heavily favors younger European varietals, with plenty of choices well below the $100 mark. A sommelier helped select a bright, bracing Pinot Noir from Oregon's Willamette Valley. The clean grape nicely counters the jiggling gobs of fat in the spicy-sweet lamb ribs and the porchetta. For the latter, the kitchen forgoes rolling the pork belly around its loin, instead curing only the fatty cut before cooking it sous vide and serving it with braised peaches. The result is gelatinous and overly sweet. It desperately needs the original's crackly skin and meaty center.

The same technique works far better on octopus combined with olive oil, lime, garlic, and chili, giving each butter-soft bite an addictive combination of fruitiness and tartness. Later, a whole snapper is deboned, leaving only the tail to make for a dramatic presentation. Leek and fennel ribbons are quickly sautéed and then hit with white wine, cream, and mascarpone. It's all stuffed inside the fish, which is tied off and seared. Though some of the filling oozes onto the plate and moistens the once-crisp skin, a few flakes of fried bok choy help preserve the textural contrast.

As with the rest of the menu, the simplest dessert offerings turn out to be the best. Take, for instance, the bread pudding, made with day-old challah soaked in a milky, sweet custard. It's placed in a shallow dish that, when baked, yields a brittle cap atop rich sponge. It might not be exciting, but it's perfect. So are the house-made vanilla ice cream and cognac-plumped raisins that accompany the bread pudding.

For the better part of two decades, Bernstein has proved that classic dishes and flavors can be as pleasurable as haute indulgences. She does it with things you might whip up at home, like a cheeseburger, a skirt steak, or a tomato-mozzarella salad. But she disassembles and rebuilds them with jolting flavor combinations that are impeccably balanced and nuanced.

As the years pass, she grows ever more adept at taking universally loved food and replicating the model of maximizing its potential. What's best, however, is that she's also passing it all on to the next generation of cooks who've toiled under her relentless, watchful eye. Whenever Bernstein decides to slow down, many others will be ready to carry her game plan into the future.

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Zachary Fagenson became the New Times Broward-Palm Beach restaurant critic in 2012 before taking up the post for Miami in 2014. He also works as a correspondent for Reuters.
Contact: Zachary Fagenson