Describing Michael Schwartz's food these days is no easy task. The tag line of his Design District flagship, Michael's Genuine Food & Drink, which opened in 2006 and earned him a James Beard Award in 2010, is "Fresh, Simple, Pure." That often meant locally or thoughtfully sourced ingredients that are minimally manipulated, often wood-fired, and dressed with something bright and herbaceous, like salsa verde or lime aioli.
Since then, however, Schwartz has opened a wide variety of concepts that never strayed from his kitchen credo but looked and felt different from what made him a standard-bearer of Miami restaurants. In 2013, he launched the Cypress Room — his third project in the Design District alongside Harry's Pizzeria — where he and a small team plied delicate, elegant fare in a city still seeming to struggle with differentiating price and sophistication.
Then came the developers and hotels, the latter leading to Traymore inside the Como Metropolitan Miami Beach. Here, ingredients synonymous with Schwartz — radishes, tomatoes, and cobia — are prepared and plated in a pan-Asian style once barely visible at his Design District restaurant.
For the past four years, his biggest undertaking has been a wide-ranging venture with the Related Group, which persuaded Schwartz to partner with it for ground-floor restaurants in its Edgewater and Coconut Grove condominium projects. The hope, one would think, is that Schwartz's inviting food and welcoming design aesthetic would help soften the image of yet another concrete-and-glass behemoth built for millionaires and well-heeled foreigners.
Schwartz called his Edgewater restaurant, Amara at Gran Paraiso, a "love letter to Miami." After years of admittedly resisting a full embrace of Latin cuisine, the waterfront restaurant presents a menu rife with dishes such as yuca cheese puffs, empanadas, sweetbreads, the Brazilian peasant stew feijoada, and spectacular housemade chorizo.
Yet in creating his latest restaurant, Tigertail + Mary (3321 Mary St., Coconut Grove; 305-772-5688; tigertailandmary.com), Schwartz, along with executive chef and Miami native Stephen Ullrich, has returned to the style of cooking, food, and eating that made his first restaurant such a delight and keeps it thriving to this day.
Of course, not everything is the same.
"In the beginning, Michael's Genuine was very much European, French, and Italian," Schwartz says, "but I always loved to play with Moroccan, African, and Indian flavors, and some of that is showing up at Tigertail, along with a Mediterranean influence."
Tigertail's menu is split into the familiar format of snacks alongside raw dishes, pizza, and pasta, and small and large plates. The main difference here is the vegetable section, which has been billed as the highlight of the menu, making the place a "vegetable-forward" eatery where the produce offerings outnumber those centered on protein.
Among the dishes that best illustrate the vegetable focus, as well as Schwartz's newer sources of inspiration, is a plate of sunchokes ($16) that ply a crisp, papery shell around tender tubers. A smoky harissa and sunflower seeds help provide spice and crunch. Hard roasted carrots ($15) with nearly burnt exteriors crackle away to reveal sweet, earthy candy. A scattering of the Egyptian spice blend dukkah expands each bite's fragrance and crunch, while a curried cashew crème adds a hint of richness and spice. If you're not a strict vegetarian, a similar experience awaits in a plate of charred snap peas ($15), which arrived courtesy of the kitchen after it undercooked a half Poulet Rouge chicken ($28). The peas were light on the char but heavy on the beautiful combination of whipped ricotta and country ham brightened by torn mint and biting slivers of preserved lemon. A second chicken arrived shortly thereafter, cooked just through while remaining gorgeously juicy and scattered with a F of leeks, rosemary, potatoes, and lemon confit. Nothing went to waste, not even the bird's natural juice, which was sopped up by thick slices of the puffy foccacia ($6) that boasts a slick of good olive oil atop and a pleasantly browned crust.
Other vegetable dishes focus on the familiar or seek to re-create it. There's a version of a caesar salad, which was one of the signatures of Fi'lia, Schwartz's Italian restaurant that earlier this year was taken over by SBE Group. At Fi'lia, it was a classic tableside preparation. At Tigertail + Mary, it's founded on charred escarole ($15), a bright, bitter green that Schwartz has long adored and which Ullrich has repurposed with a light, lemony dressing seasoned with shaved pecorino and punched up with pulverized dried shrimp to replicate the delicately briny flavor of traditional caesar dressing.
Asparagus and morels ($21) is a classic executed with deftness, leaving neither the greens nor the mushrooms overcooked and able to convey their true flavors. But the dish also highlights one glaring omission: Schwartz, who's long extolled the virtue of local produce and proteins, seems to have none on this menu. It's a caveat of opening a new restaurant at the beginning of the summer, when the South Florida growing season has wound down, leaving none of the more familiar produce the restaurant's affluent clientele would surely demand. Collard greens could be a hard sell here. Yet Schwartz said local sourcing will ramp back up in the fall and, in the meantime, he's focused on thoughtful sourcing.
"We're always trying to bring in better product," he said. "If we're running asparagus, we want to bring in the best asparagus possible, not just something from Peru or Chile."
In addition to running the vegetables, the kitchen boasts an impressive roster of seafood. A king salmon crudo ($15) offers a taste of every part of the fish; thin slices of the assertive, slightly oily raw salmon are flurried with a scattering of fresh horseradish and topped with briny trout and crisp shards of salmon skin that can be used as scoops to create the perfect bite. Short, skinny fideo noodles ($15) arrive enveloped in a rich sauce bolstered by a saffron stock combined with the liquor of littleneck clams, chorizo, and aioli. A jarring oceanic pop, courtesy of juicy sea beans, accompanies almost every bite and takes the classic flavor combination to new heights. Be sure not to miss the salt cod brandade ($8) from the snacks section. Even on a hot night, the combo of whipped potatoes and preserved fish is addictive, as are the thick housemade potato chips that if oversalted can be ameliorated by simply brushing away some of the crystals.
The biggest hit so far has been the suckling pig ($31), and for the first week, the kitchen couldn't keep up with demand. The whole beast is broken down into primal cuts and slowly cooked in fat with orange oil and star anise. Once it's tender enough to be pulled apart with a fork, the meat is plucked from the carcass and layered into a terrine crowned with a slab of skin that's roasted until the point of nearly shattering. It arrives with a touch of cabbage, some beet greens, and a delicate mustard jus to help cut some of the rich fat.
Such simplicity is what helped make Schwartz one of South Florida's most iconic chefs. In these times — when chefs and restaurants compete for attention and customers through ever more elaborate ingredients and preparations — to see Schwartz sticking to what he does best and evolving it is nothing short of pure joy. Ask most chefs, even those who create tasting menus that cost hundreds of dollars, what they like to eat, and you'll often find it's simple food, well cooked, and in smart combinations. Schwartz has skipped the middle steps and cut straight to the good stuff, and for that, diners will be forever grateful.