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Michelle Bernstein Reappears With Panache at Seagrape

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Inside Seagrape's dimly lit dining room at the Thompson Miami Beach, a meticulously plated starter dish is revealed courtesy of our waiter's iPhone flashlight. Veiled in foam are locally grown squash blossoms infused with mousse derived from Florida shrimp. Underneath is a sauce prepared from the shellfish's heads plus plenty of Tabasco. It's a pristine appetizer that the harsh light makes only more alluring.

The restaurant's executive chef is Miami's culinary darling, Michelle Bernstein, who -- like the shrimp dish -- has been briefly lost from view. Michy's, her acclaimed eatery in the MiMo District, is closed for an extensive face-lift, and her Design District tapas spot, Sra. Martinez, is a thing of the past. Seagrape marks the James Beard Award-winning toque's return to the spotlight.

See also: Ten best tacos in Miami

Of course, the 44-year-old cookbook author has been busy. She and her husband, David Martinez, own a catering company and the café Crumb on Parchment.

Given their credentials and ties to the community, it's hardly a surprise the Thompson hotel chose to partner with the couple on a Sunshine State-inspired restaurant. The result is a "Florida brasserie" centered on fare sourced from local purveyors.

Even the eatery's name pays homage to the trees that flourish along the coasts of South Florida and the Caribbean. Sea grapes grace a wall inside the restaurant, which is a sleek but unpretentious multilevel space with a decidedly 1950s Miami feel.

Glamorous and bohemian, the 267-seat room is furnished with mustard-seed-yellow chairs and faded blue/green banquettes. Wooden tables and room dividers with geometric cutouts, as well as a green marble bar, contribute to the retro vibe. There's also a tiled patio overlooking the hotel's stylish pool area.

"It's not a flashy restaurant. I love to go out for dinner, but sometimes I run out of the house and don't realize my hair is undone or I forgot to put on lipstick," Bernstein says. "I feel that Seagrape is the place I can go when I'm not feeling good about myself and when I am."

At the 2-month-old spot, cocktail preparation is directed by the much-sought-after Julio Cabrera, and the dinner service has been entrusted to Steven Rojas. In 2008, Rojas earned a Michelin star while at Saddle Peak Lodge in Los Angeles.

Bernstein met the 35-year-old toque when he was working at George's Kitchen in midtown and immediately took to his confident French cooking. When the restaurant closed, she was thrilled to have her fellow Argentine onboard as Seagrape's chef de cuisine. Together they created a balanced menu that they continue to perfect.

The Maine lobster ravioli is one dish that's seen several reinventions. Atop an alluring red curry lobster emulsion lie three homemade dumplings containing generous hunks of lobster meat. Tapioca, ginger, and grated lobster roe help to further draw out the delicious flavor of the crustacean. The chefs have a winner here.

One dish likely to appeal to myriad taste buds is the organic lacinato kale salad. Luscious greens are paired with multitextural accents such as pomegranate, toasted walnuts, and Asian pear. The anything-but-boring vegan starter is then finished off with a vivid pickled-raisin dressing.

Spanish octopus is brought out next. A large piece of glistening meat is prepared sous vide with olive oil and then grilled to ensure it's irresistibly tender. The comely plate presentation also includes a frothy potato purée that's been enhanced with Korean chili paste, an orange reduction, and some paprika. Delicately fried and wafer-thin squid ink rice crackers flank the octopus and add an unexpected burst of salty goodness.

When the main courses take slightly too long to emerge, our waiter apologizes profusely and a manager pours complimentary Cabernet Sauvignon from a fresh bottle. (Service was flawless throughout the evening, and my guest and I weren't about to fault the relatively new restaurant for the delay. But the gesture was very well received.)

Typically, clams are accompanied by a long pasta, but Rojas wanted to use rigatoni for Seagrape's version to give the entrée more texture. The decision paid off. The homemade rigatoni boasts a beautiful chewiness and allows for better absorption of the sauce. And though it tastes complex, the sauce is limited to herbs blended with the natural sweet juice of various kinds of plump, freshly shucked clams. Once all the shells are empty, the addictive liquid is ideal for dunking fluffy dinner rolls.

Then comes a crisp-skinned Florida snapper over two paella-style rice cakes. Underneath is a chorizo broth mixed with a shellfish stock comprising shrimp, lobster, wine, smoked paprika, and pepper. The lightly fried bottom of the rice cakes is a nice touch, and the fish is well seasoned.

That said, when compared to everything else sampled, this dish falls short. With a little tinkering, Bernstein and Rojas will surely pinpoint exactly what this main needs to dazzle. He calls her a great teacher, and she says they make each other better.

The braised short rib with cornbread foam is saved for last -- our waiter had pointed out that the ribs' rich taste would overpower everything else. Though the "steakhouse" section of Seagrape's menu uses protein from Jackman Cane & Cattle Company in Clewiston, the short rib meat comes from Harris Ranch in California.

The entrée is rich but not cloying.

The glossy, juicy meat, cooked in copious red wine and veal stock, is fork-tender and dissolves upon the first bite. It could very well be the finest short rib in Miami, even finer than the one that was proffered at Michy's. Order the duck-fat fries as a side and prepare to unbutton those pants.

Desserts are taken seriously at Seagrape, and Bernstein refers to pastry chef Max Santiago as a "wunderkind genius." His complex technique is best displayed in Walk in the Woods. Dark chocolate semifreddo takes the shape of logs, and an airy pistachio yeast cake resembles moss. Oranges and extra-virgin olive oil combined with chocolate vinaigrette and a smidgen of balsamic lend the dessert a tanginess. A sprinkle of sea salt finishes it off.

Santiago's artistry is commendable, and the dessert is good. However, in a battle of substance versus style, the latter wins. Conversely, his traditional apple crostada accompanied by homemade chai tea ice cream is comforting and perfect in almost every way.

Bernstein, the Iron Chef America champion (she beat Bobby Flay), says she wants her latest venture to appeal to locals and tourists, young and old, and complex and simple palates -- hence the affordable $5 valet parking, a children's menu, and offerings that range from uni toast to pasta with tomato sauce and burrata. "You can't be everything to everyone, I know that," she explains, "but I want to try."

And though Bernstein is right to call Seagrape's food "straightforward," the quality of ingredients and attention given to each dish create a sophisticated culinary experience. So, yes, most people could easily find something to order here, but diners looking for a memorable meal are the ones who will truly appreciate Seagrape.

  • Stuffed squash blossoms $9
  • Organic lacinato kale salad $14
  • Maine lobster ravioli $21
  • Spanish octopus a la plancha $18
  • Rigatoni vongole $24
  • Crisp-skinned Florida snapper $27
  • Braised short rib $39
  • Duck-fat fries $9
  • Warm apple crostada $10
  • Walk in the Woods $12

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