When Michelle Bernstein announced the opening of Cena by Michy, Miami was thrilled by the prospect of the James Beard winner's return to the MiMo District.
Most importantly, though, was the hope that the chef would bring back her seasonal all-you-can-eat fried chicken dinners. Last month, Bernstein announced her beloved bird would, indeed, return, with Cena by Michy hosting the meal every Wednesday. Although the deal typically lasts only through summer, the Wednesday chicken feast will probably be extended through October, according to partner David Martinez.
Bernstein started hosting these endless summer feasts in 2009, which include a watermelon salad, unlimited chicken, coleslaw, mashed potatoes and gravy, biscuits, and dessert. At $39 per person (excluding tax and gratuity), it's the same price as Miami Spice, but much more satisfying than most Spice menus.
At last evening's meal, there wasn't an empty seat in the house. Although the regular Cena menu is still offered, every table I could spot was filled with plates of fried chicken. According to chef de cuisine Mike Mayta, about 85 percent of Wednesday evening diners opt for the "Fried Chicken D'Light" as it's billed on the menu.
With the dinner come some basic rules. There are no substitutions and the entire table must opt into the chicken meal. You can't specify white or dark meat, and, while you should feel free to enjoy as much food as you want, you can't take it with you when you leave. In a fit of whimsy, the menu also states red wheelbarrows are available upon request (to wheel you out after you've had your fill).
As I sat down to my watermelon wedge, served with tomatoes, cucumbers, and queso fresco, a couple was just finishing their meal. Although the menu states that all food must be consumed in the restaurant, their server had packed their dessert, two helpings of brown butter upside down plum cake, to go. As I caught their eye, they sheepishly said that they got carried away on chicken and didn't have room for their last course. That's actually an easy mistake to make when the servers are so eager to replenish your table with another heaping platter of golden thighs and breasts, accompanied by endless amounts of potatoes, slaw, and biscuits.
Most people do take advantage of the offer of seconds. But thirds? Fourths? According to my server, several helpings of food is the norm, but the record still stands at five servings of chicken and biscuits. How far did we get? Honestly, the first helping was so generous, we were sated at round one.
The chicken, by the way, was seasoned perfectly, crispy on the outside, juicy on the inside.
According to a 2012 Deco Drive segment, Bernstein's secret is twofold. First, the chicken is marinated for 24 hours in seasoned buttermilk, then is double battered before being fried in canola oil. Although the platter of chicken and biscuits was graced with honey and hot sauce, neither was needed.
If you're looking for a good cocktail pairing, the Cena Bramble fits the bill. Gin and lemon juice are shaken and strained over crushed ice, then drizzled with aperol and topped with an aperol-laced mango and rhubarb compote. The tartness of the lemon and rhubarb, mixed with the fragrance of mango and gin and the sweet bitterness of the aperol tastes like summer.
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The upside down brown butter plum cake tasted of bake sales and lazy afternoon picnics catered by your favorite aunt. Though you're likely lapsing into a poultry-induced food coma by the time dessert comes, just roll with the punches. As Shakespeare would say, "summer's lease hath all too short a date." In other words, this chicken deal doesn't last forever so enjoy it while you can.
On the way out, I caught up with chef Bernstein, who was making sure to have a chat at every table in the house. She asked if I had seconds of my chicken. When I admitted that I was full on the first go-round, she smiled then gave some sage advice. "Next time, don't eat lunch before you come in." I'll do one better. I won't eat at all that day — and I'm shooting for thirds.