Big fat Americans like big fat food. That's why God gave us The Cheesecake Factory. Michael's Kitchen, a hit in Hollywood before its relocation last month to the Newport Beachside Hotel & Resort in Sunny Isles Beach, is a step above that cheesy chain but shares the same cuisine-as-circus-act sensibility. Chef Michael Blum calls it "Cirque du Soleil dining;" the official restaurant motto is "The Cure for Boring Food."
Although it's true the oversize, over-the-big-top presentations are anything but dull, when stripped of special effects, the "eclectic American bistro fare," which somehow features a lot of Asian touches, doesn't seem so special.
I have no problem with food being fun. Whenever I've taken guests to Barton G. The Restaurant, they've enjoyed it immensely. Barton's cuisine isn't the finest in town, but the cute concepts are culinarily sound, the fare and its preparation of quality high enough to render the garish garnishes an entertaining sideshow. Michael's is new — it opened only last month — and perhaps for that reason its execution is shakier, the novel notions not as clearly thought out. Take an appetizer described as "NYC curbside Sabrett hot dog served on pretzel bread with homemade sauerkraut, a side of chips, and a can of Dr. Brown's soda." It almost has to be tasty, but is this the smartest way to start a meal? Plus, considering that warm, homemade pretzel rolls are served as predinner bread, it's a little redundant.
I'm not sure that beginning things with two humongous meatballs was any savvier. The menu claims these were made from filet mignon, but they tasted like any other meatballs — except drier. A cold wedge of bread, river of red sauce, and dollop of ricotta cheese accompanied the balls, but as the waiter placed the long, rectangular plate on the table, the cheese plopped off the edge and onto the tablecloth.
Our choice of chopped salad was unavailable — a matter of form over function, for the waiter explained it is supposed to be served in a special bowl that hadn't yet arrived. Instead we shared a crisp head of iceberg arranged on a large floor tile alongside slices of tomato and red onion, cubes of sweetened applewood bacon, and a dismal drizzle of Maytag blue cheese dressing (we were brought more upon request).
A starter of succulent "movie theater popcorn rock shrimp" ($14), cleanly fried and seasoned with lemon-infused sea salt, gets scattered with actual popcorn atop a faux but life-size film reel. How does one fit a floor tile and movie reel on the same slender tabletop? Barely. And the tables are bunched too closely together. I got elbowed by a passing waiter, while one of my guests had her handbag, which was slung over a chair, knocked to the ground — twice. You can't really fault the servers, who have to juggle heavy platters of all shapes, sizes, and materials while squeezing through tight spaces.
The décor is contemporary in a loungy, Eighties sort of way. When you enter the dining room, a sprawling, wide-open kitchen with a wood-burning hearth oven seizes visual and olfactory attention. Once you're seated, focus shifts to food and wine menus, the latter an extensive global listing. One of my companions asked the server to suggest a dry red wine that would go well with the hearty fare. She said she'd get back to us, and returned with the declaration "Opus One is really good." She is correct, of course, but just about everyone knows Opus's status as a great and expensive wine (here it goes for $237 per bottle). Plus it's not really the match that comes to mind for foods accompanied by potato chips and popcorn.
Credit the waiter for a creditable back-up suggestion, Monsanto Chianti Classico Riserva, a medium-bodied Tuscan wine robust enough for the assertively flavored cuisine ($51). When first poured, it had an off-putting amber tint, but that was owed to what is, depending on how you wish to look at it, either the most compelling or annoying feature of the room: backlighting that subtly changes color. As the walls turned from yellow to pink, the wine blushed into an appealing crimson hue.
The main components of most entrées sampled were adeptly prepared. For instance, there was a crisp, meaty half-duck; a juicy wad of salmon cooked on a cedar plank; and a sizable slab of Mongolian baby-back ribs. All three dishes sweetly stimulated the taste buds and came grandiosely plated — with generally listless accompaniments. The ribs, glossed with Asian sesame glaze, featured a mini hibachi ostensibly to heat the already hot meat, and a Chinese take-out container filled with mushy fried rice. The Peking-style duck, polished with Asian orange glaze, sat atop a nest of julienne vegetable salad and two triangular wedges of sesame-flecked "chilled sticky sake rice." I was tempted to warm the rice cakes on the hibachi, but the crunchily undercooked grains weren't salvageable. Salmon with Asian plum glaze arrived on a cedar plank in a big wok (not "served on fire and still smoking" as the menu promised, which was probably a good thing). The charred wood did imbue the wide coral flakes of fish with pleasantly smoky flavor, which played advantageously against the sugary plum notes. A gingery stir-fry of noodles and vegetables on the side exhibited little finesse.
"Chimichurri skirt steak," fully garlicked-and-herbed, was lukewarm and flaccidly grilled. That the lengthy cut of meat was wrapped around an ear of corn didn't make much sense — the tastes do not meld, and neither can be eaten until the beef is unrolled. I wasn't sure what to do with a fried red tortilla round emerging from a mound of yuca mash, either.
Heftily portioned à la carte sides hit the spot. Penne mac and cheese is an earthy, smoky mash of mascarpone, Parmesan, and smoked Gouda cheeses, with a finishing dash of black truffle oil. Creamed spinach bucked the menu trend by going the light route — a thin cream sauce pooling bulbs of softly roasted garlic and fresh, gracefully wilted bright green leaves.
Richly satisfying, supersweet desserts march to the same whimsical beat as the preceding courses. A sampling of miniatures shines the spotlight on six meticulously crafted pastries, including key lime pie, tiramisu, baked Alaska, and a Milky Way chocolate malt. "Deep-dish Rice Krispies Treats pizza" for four adds a tasty twist to the classic confection via a topping of raspberry coulis and white chocolate shavings (to resemble tomato sauce and cheese). This might be the cure for boring food, but it sure ain't the remedy for obesity.
The service staff is woefully undermanned. Our harried waiter performed admirably under circumstances that included having to cover too many tables, and clearing plates and doing other tasks normally assigned to buspersons — who were in very short supply. Everyone was friendly enough, but there was nobody around to say good night to us. Whether you're spending $30 or, as in our case, $300, it's always nice to be acknowledged on the way out.
Chef Blum knows how to operate a restaurant, so such service quirks will likely be smoothed out over time. Having graduated top in his class at the Culinary Institute of America, Blum is likewise capable of fine-tuning the food — although, in his own words, Michael's Kitchen is "all about the show." The more-is-more style displayed here cuts against my less-is-more leanings, but three years of critical and popular acclaim in Broward, and the crowds cramming into this new 160-seater, attest to there being a considerable number of diners who appreciate Mr. Blum's cuisine and showmanship. A helpful gauge for how you might react is to determine your preference when it comes to culinary influences: Beard and Bourdain, or Barnum and Bailey?