Michelle Bernstein Looks Back on 2015's Culinary Scene: "Everyone Wants a Piece of the Miami Action"

Michelle Bernstein has had quite the year.

In 2015, Bernstein has seen positive reviews come in for her Seagrape, which opened at the Thompson Miami Beach in November 2014, and revamped her eponymous Michy's as Cena by Michy.

The chef, who admits she has emerged from what appeared to be a brief hiatus, says it's good to be back in the kitchen. "It's all about transitioning."  

Bernstein says that in the past year, she's seen many changes in the Miami dining scene, including in her clientele. "It's a different demographic. We don't have the influx of people getting away from the cold like we used to. The diners are so much younger, and every year they get even younger." The chef says the crowd also seems to be more cosmopolitan and informed. "It seems like every year, people seem to be reading up on culinary trends and techniques. They know so much more about food."

The chef also says people don't generally have time for long, three-hour meals anymore. "It's a bit faster-paced now. Thank goodness I'm still getting my good old customers that want to dine. It's fun to see the mix of older and younger people all enjoying themselves." 

Bernstein also cites this year's problems in Homestead and the Redland, including a quarantine of 85 square miles of farmland to reduce the Oriental fruit fly and floods as a challenge to Miami chefs. "The worst part is what happened down in the Redland and all through Florida and how it's affecting our prices and menus." The chef says that although she tries to work with what she can get, some people have complained that menus are too small. The chef has tried to compensate for the produce shortage by reaching north. "I have a new relationship with people from Orlando who drive south, picking up produce at different farms along the way. It was great, and all of a sudden there was the rain." 

Bernstein says that no restaurant can be 100 percent local, but she tries to achieve about 75 percent locality. "You get the best you can, but then we start paying more and more for it, and the bottom line comes out to very little. It's hard and becoming harder."

The chef has also noticed Miami's culinary growth surge. "I feel like everyone wants a piece of the Miami action, and we're finally getting some incredible talent here. Now it gets to the point whether there are enough people to spread out the business."

One surprise standout for the chef is Marion, a Mediterranean bistro that opened in Brickell in August. "I was wowed. I had no idea what to expect. I had been living in a bubble, working very hard, and David [Martinez, my husband] took me on a date for lunch. I had one of the best meals I've had in South Florida. It was just perfect." The chef is also happy that Seagrape shares space at the Thompson Miami Beach with Dale Talde's new restaurant, Talde.

Looking toward 2016, the chef would like to see more authentic ethnic restaurants open. "On a personal note, I would like to see more authentic restaurants open. I would like to see an amazing Israeli restaurant open and a good Thai restaurant that doesn't do sushi on the side." What else is Bernstein looking forward to? "I can't wait for Hy Vong to reopen."

The James Beard Award winner is also planning some changes, such as making Seagrape more accessible. "We've changed the restaurant to be a bit more casual on the menu and the feel." The chef says that over the summer, during the hotel's off-season, the guests were younger and didn't seem to want to indulge in a traditional dinner service. "They were going shopping and then eating in their rooms." The new Seagrape, according to Bernstein, will focus on faster service and food that's less pretentious. "It was somewhat like tweezer food when we started. The food is brighter and fun. It's let-your-hair-down food."

New menu items include lettuce wraps with sweetbread, kimchee, garlic soy, and crispy garlic ($12); black pepper carbonara topped with a poached farm egg, crispy bacon, and Parmesan ($24); and papas rellenas with short rib and tomato jam ($10), a dish that one of Seagrape's sous-chefs created. The prices have also been lowered. "We wanted everyone to come on in and enjoy. We just want to kind of appeal to a different crowd and not be so darn serious. It's more about having drinks and great food."

Seagrape also offers a weekday "social hour" from 5 to 7 p.m., when cocktails and wines by the glass cost $7, local beers are $5, and bites from the restaurant's new bar menu run $8 to $12. Items include short-rib sliders with cotija cheese, spicy cucumbers, and crispy shallots; local farm tempura veggies with sea salt and garlic aioli; grilled chicken wings tossed in fermented chili hot sauce; and crunchy pork belly with clam butter and greens.

Finally, Bernstein has one wish for her fellow restaurateurs in the coming year: "I would love to see all the restaurants doing well. I would love to see people enjoying what we have, and I would like everything to slow down a hair so we can appreciate it all."
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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