Julio Cabrera and Michelle Bernstein Plan a Masterpiece in Little Havana

There are ambitious plans for this space.
There are ambitious plans for this space. Photo courtesy of Julio Cabrera
click to enlarge There are ambitious plans for this space. - PHOTO COURTESY OF JULIO CABRERA
There are ambitious plans for this space.
Photo courtesy of Julio Cabrera

It's Friday afternoon, and Michelle Bernstein is taking a short break from testing recipes. She tucks her legs beneath her on the sofa in the Design District lobby that houses her eatery Crumb on Parchment, now under renovation. Her curly hair frames a gigantic smile, and her denim chef's coat is stained with béchamel that spilled while she was preparing a spinach croqueta. She takes out her phone and shares a photo showing something that resembles a bright-green cigar. "Look at this croqueta," she gushes. "It's made with the best creamed spinach you'll have and dashi. I put three different cheeses in it, including a special feta."

Bernstein is testing menu items for La Trova (971 SW Eighth St., Miami), a new Calle Ocho bar and restaurant set to open later this fall. It will reunite the chef with her friend Julio Cabrera, a bartender known for his suave demeanor and classic cocktails.

There are ambitious plans for the 5,000-square-foot space, including an all-day Cuban café, two bars, and a cantinero school that will teach young bartenders classic Cuban bar technique. Bernstein is in charge of the food, while Cabrera will manage beverage operations.

The name, La Trova, comes from the Cuban singer-songwriter music style known as trova. With origins in Santiago de Cuba, the music was a precursor to modern singer-songwriters who earn a living by singing songs of their own composition, usually accompanied by guitar.

Though Cabrera made a name for himself working for Bernstein and her husband/partner David Martinez at the now-closed Miami restaurants Michy's and Sra. Martinez, they met long ago in Cancún. She and Martinez were setting up a restaurant in the Mexican seaside town when she was injured. While convalescing by the pool of a hotel where they were staying, she began talking with the property's beverage manager, Cabrera.

The trio, along with chef Lindsay Autry, forged a tight-knit group, bound by the commonality of living and working away from home. "We don't have a huge amount of blood relatives, so we made our own family," Bernstein says. "We love them. We're kind of like Lindsay's big brother and sister, and everyone calls Julio 'papa.'"

Then Hurricane Wilma swept through Cancún in 2005, abruptly closing the resort for more than a year. Martinez and Bernstein returned to Miami and had just opened Michy's in February 2006 when they received a call from Cabrera, who had moved his family to Miami. "One of the first people I called when I arrived was David. I said, 'I'm here and I'm looking for a job,'" the bartender says.

Expect not only a menu by a James Beard-winning chef but also the feeling of the island.

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The couple immediately offered Cabrera a bartender position, though they didn't have a full liquor license. Recalls Bernstein: "Julio would make cocktails out of prosecco, and he would come into the kitchen and try new flavor profiles."

When Sra. Martinez opened in the Design District in November 2008, the partnership reached a new level. Cabrera became even more creative. Soon Martinez and Bernstein sent him to an intensive training program in New York with James Beard Award-winning barman Dale DeGroff, who made a name for himself at the Rainbow Room at New York City's Rockefeller Center. Says Cabrera: "I was a good bartender, but there were people in New York and San Francisco that were working with different types of ice and herbs, and I needed to be at that level."

Cabrera returned with renewed vigor. Soon the small eight-seat bar at Sra. Martinez became the place to be to get drinks such as the gin-based Buena Vista or the Matador, a vodka and strawberry libation spiced with muddled jalapeños.

Cabrera became a sensation. "He started a trend," Bernstein says. "I think he trained nearly every bartender in Miami."

Though Sra. Martinez closed in 2012, the chef and bartender never parted ways for long. They collaborated on the cocktail menus for her restaurants Seagrape and Cena by Michy. Cabrera also worked as bar director at the Regent Cocktail Club, a cooler-than-cool hangout. Clad in a white dinner jacket, the bartender flew around the globe preaching the gospel of the cantinero — the traditional Cuban bartender. He even appeared on a GQ cover.

Three years ago, Cabrera invited Martinez to his house for rum and cigars to pitch the idea of a bar and restaurant steeped in Cuban tradition.

La Trova will include not only two bars, music, and a menu by a James Beard-winning chef, but also the feeling of the island. Last year, Cabrera invited Martinez and Bernstein to visit Santiago de Cuba. "We experienced the music," Martinez says. "We also danced a lot." The café is fashioned from Cabrera's memories of his father's restaurant, located in a small Cuban town just outside the seaside city of Varadero.

In creating the food, Bernstein tapped into her Argentine-Jewish mother's cooking. "My mother had her own twist on Cuban dishes growing up, and so do I." A paella croqueta is made with seafood stock. The dough for the beef empanadas is hand-cut.

Bernstein laments the fact that many of the Cuban restaurants that line Calle Ocho in 2018 aren't even owned by Cuban families anymore. "They made their money and they left." She says she simply wants to offer Cuban food that pays attention to the island's history and flavors, which are closely intertwined with Miami's.

La Trova's front cantinero bar will offer classic cocktails such as the Papa Doble, served by gentlemen wearing jackets and ties. It will aim to be a training ground for the next generation of cantineros. A back bar will get playful with takes on 1980s cocktails such as the kamikaze, the blue Hawaiian, and the cosmopolitan. Cabrera says that although these drinks have bad reputations, they're intriguing when prepared with fresh ingredients. "They're really good cocktails when made properly." Patrons can also enjoy a cigar and a glass of rum on a back patio.

And because it is a family establishment, there will be a tribute to the one family member who, although gone, is still very much present. The back bar of La Trova will be dedicated to John Lermayer, a famed Miami bartender who had partnered with Cabrera, Martinez, and Bernstein but died this past June at the age of 45. La Trova would never have happened without the encouragement of what Martinez calls "the most American bartender in the world. I mean, the guy loved hockey."

Though it's been several months since Lermayer's sudden death, the pain is fresh among La Trova's partners. "He was messy. You wanted to question him; you wanted to kill him," Martinez recalls. "But he would put this glass in front of you, and it would be perfect. Let's all agree on record to something here: John Lermayer was the most creative bartender in the country — no... in the world... His death has been a shock felt internationally. Whether he knew it or not, he was a mentor to all of us."

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Laine Doss is the food and spirits editor for Miami New Times. She has been featured on Cooking Channel's Eat Street and Food Network's Great Food Truck Race. She won an Alternative Weekly award for her feature about what it's like to wait tables.
Contact: Laine Doss