South Beach has never looked as good as it does this sun-drenched afternoon. You're sitting beneath the sea grape tree at Restaurant Michael Schwartz and watching two dudes play catch with a foam football in the Raleigh Hotel pool. Children romp in the water and beg their parents for more soda and fries. Under the black-and-white umbrellas, an ageless couple, immortalized by plastic surgery, smokes cigars and drinks rosé.
In a few weeks, this deck will feel different -- teeming with socialites, celebrities, and New Yorkers in floppy sun hats. But right now, you aren't thinking about that.
Your only concern is the weather -- and the ice in your cocktail, which melts too quickly in the heat.
The setting here is lovely, rivaled only by Cecconi's at the Soho Beach House as the prettiest outdoor dining on the Beach.
But Restaurant Michael Schwartz is more than just looks. It also bears the name of Miami's most revered chef.
The news broke two years ago: Schwartz had signed on to handle food and beverage operations at the iconic Raleigh Hotel. Between then and now, the chef added two more local restaurants to his repertoire. Harry's Pizzeria was followed by the Cypress Room, a fine-dining establishment that was recently named one of the nation's best new restaurants by Bon Appétit. In April, after much anticipation and delay, Schwartz took over the Raleigh. He launched Restaurant Michael Schwartz, the only venture to carry his full name.
The chef now oversees seven places, including one in Grand Cayman and two aboard Royal Caribbean cruise ships, making him perhaps the leading restaurateur in Miami. And with such success comes expectation. Can Schwartz continue to grow without sacrificing quality?
The Raleigh's Buffalo-style rabbit proves he has what it takes. Executive chef Danny Ganem plunges the rabbit into a tub of duck fat and cooks it in a low-temperature oven for two hours. He marinates it in buttermilk, fries it in hot oil, and then douses it in a habanero hot sauce. The rabbit's flesh is unctuous -- slick with butter and characterized by the fine texture of confit.
It makes you feel confident about Schwartz's leadership. Those same sentiments are summoned by the thick-cut potato chips -- golden, crisp, and dusted with coarse salt. Dig the chips into the pan-fried onion dip, a chunky, creamy sauce tangled with slivered alliums. It is delicious.
Want to make it at home? You're in luck. The menu indicates which recipes are available in Schwartz's cookbook.
Often, the food here reflects a spa-like sensibility. The grouper ceviche -- a bright medley of raw fish, chilies, avocado, citrus, and red onion -- arrives in a tiny, awkward bowl. But its vibrant flavor compensates for the cumbersome plating. Ganem also roasts half a heritage-breed chicken skin side down in a pan. The result is a dark, well-seasoned crust, which he plops atop a salad of roasted red pepper, corn, and farro.
You don't have to order the mussels. You'll get a taste when a server delivers the dish to another customer in the room. Inhale the warm aroma of saffron, chorizo, and fingerling potatoes. The scent clings to your clothes.
On the patio, beneath the lanterns and orchids, it's always a nice time for chilled soup. If you're lucky, though, you'll visit on a cool evening and order the roasted apple-celery root soup. The broth's texture is flawless, enriched with crème fraîche and silkened with Cretan olive oil.
Certain dishes inject doubt about Schwartz's ambition. The kitchen handles fish just like the chicken -- roasted in a pan until its meat turns a deep caramel hue. The accompanying tabbouleh, a combination of red lentils, parsley, and red onion, lacks proper seasoning. The lentils' edges are also nearly translucent, a telltale sign they've soaked in liquid too long. Another issue: a scoop of ice cream, laced with chocolate chips and peanut butter, was tarnished by icicles.
In any other place with any other name, those would be finicky details. But this isn't a regular restaurant. And you'll get a reminder when you see the bill. On one of my visits, lunch for two cost $137.
That's a good reason to stick with the classics. For dessert, indulge in the tangerine creamsicle pot de crème. The smooth, yellow-tinged custard is speckled with vanilla beans and paired with three warm doughnuts -- fluffy, airy balls of dough coated in sugar. A tart blackberry-tarragon compote adds a pleasant tang. It might remind you of Michael's Genuine Food & Drink, where this treat has been a mainstay for years.
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SHOW ME HOW
The original tastes sweeter, but this one comes with a helluva view.
Follow Emily on Twitter @EmilyCodik.