Remember the Mad Men episode in which Don Draper travels to California and tries on another life -- one filled with banana-leaf lawn chairs and retro vintage pool homes? Walk into Seagrape, Michelle Bernstein's restaurant at the newly renovated Thompson Hotel, and you'll feel like you're in the California of that era.
But then a patterned pathway leads you through the lobby and into the 250-seat "Floridian brasserie," where a green-marble, horseshoe-shaped bar provides Seagrape's first and lasting impression. Walk past it and into the retro tropical dining room separated by geometric space dividers. Relax in one of the celeste-colored booths, or sink into one of the bright-yellow mod chairs. Open the mangrove-textured menu and peruse all the locally inspired cuisine that Seagrape proffers. Think local-catch ceviche, heirloom tomato with whipped burrata, and housemade garganelli.
To run Seagrape's dinner service, Bernstein has brought on Los Angeles' youngest Michelin-starred chef, Steven Rojas, as chef de cuisine. Rojas moved to Miami in 2012 to open George's in Midtown and tried his hand at front of the house in Brickell Key's Island Bistro, but it's at Seagrape where the talented toque really seems to have found his calling. "When I was at George's, Michelle came in to eat, and that's where I first met her," Rojas says. When the opportunity to work with her came, he couldn't pass it up.
"When Michelle and I talk about food, we see eye-to-eye. Not everybody has the same type of palate, but she has a really sensitive palate, which I do too. She's a bit more acute, though."
The menu is collaboration of both palates -- and inspired by the flavors of Miami, with items expected to change frequently. "We're outsourcing as little as possible and using as many local artisans as we can. South Florida gets pretty hot in the summer, and a lot of things don't grow, but that doesn't mean we still can't get seafood."
Cocktails have been conceptualized under the direction of Julio Cabrera, who's served as a consultant for Seagrape, as well as the Thompson's other imbibing outposts, Crown Room and 1930's House. The guava cobbler -- served in a mermaid vessel -- is a mixture of Facundo Bacardi Neo, Pierre Ferrand dry orange curaçao, guava purée, and lime juice ($15).
You'd expect a restaurant that serves three meal periods, including breakfast, to make its bread in house. Such is the case at Seagrape, which bakes brioche, as well as wheat and Parker House rolls, which are served with pickled vegetables, honey butter, and fish dip. The fish dip is definitely where it's at.
Local ceviche ($15) changes daily. "Today it's cobia, tomorrow it will be wahoo, and the day after hog snapper." The last, with red onion and peppers, is marinated in Calabrian chili oil, sour orange, and a dash of blood orange. "Calabrian chili oil is great. It's a very spicy and savory oil fermented in salt and blended with oil."
Tuna tartare ($22) tossed in sesame seeds, sesame oil, sriracha, garlic, and scallions. "We basically just use really good-quality tuna and let it speak for itself." Scoop up the raw bits with prawn or rice crackers.
Uni toast ($15) will blow your mind -- it's uni-believable. "Uni is one of the ingredients that Michelle and I both love," Rojas says. "I'm a big fan of guacamole on buttery toast and thought it would be nice to add something creamy. At first I was going to go with crab, but the uni gives a real texture." The powerful combination is topped with lardo for some richness and sea salt for an even bigger flavor punch.
Kale is everywhere, but at Seagrape the organic kale salad ($14) mustn't be overlooked. Pomegranates, toasted walnuts, and Asian pears share the spotlight with the popular green vegetable dressed in a tangy pickled raisin sauce.
Coriander roasted beets ($18) atop avocado hummus, with fried chickpea, cucumbers, and sumac yogurt beneath some greens.
Asked what dish people should try at Seagrape, Roja says, "Definitely the octopus. It's a great representation of what we're doing as a whole." It's grilled Spanish-style and served with potato foam, squid ink crackers, and orange gochujang.
Rojas' second-favorite is the roasted porchetta ($17). These, by the way, are all starter portions. Rojas cooks the the rolled-up belly sous vide for about 24 hours till it's tender and then fries it till it forms a crisp exterior. The richness of the dish is cut by a sweet green apple caramelized purée and cleaned up with a Swank Farms heirloom bean salad dressed in red-wine vinaigrette for acidity.
Moving on to the entrées -- or "plates of resistance," as they are called on the menu -- you'll find crisp-skinned Florida snapper ($27), which is more of Rojas' take on the classic Spanish dish paella. Two crisp snapper fillets are served atop a paella rice cake of chopped mussels, clams, and calamari. It's intended to be reminiscent of socarrat (the caramelized crust on the bottom of the pan) and softened by a paprika shellfish broth that's poured tableside. It's a convoluted but clean dish that works in every way.
Lamb aficionados will love the chops ($39). "The lamb that we use is a really nice product from Washington that's grass-fed. These are very happy cows that get to lie on vineyard and grass all day long." Rojas grills the lamb, slices the chops, and adds dollops of cucumber mixed with sheep's and goat's milk, forming a yogurt. He serves it with stewed fregola that's been cooked down like a risotto using lamb stock, as well as crisp sweetbreads in a lemon confiture. There's so much going on here, but also lots to love.
Braised short rib ($39) is cooked the traditional style and served with a rich cornbread foam and Brussels sprouts. Pickled pearl onions balance the richness of the foam and meat.
Housemade doughnuts ($9)
Berry angel food cake ($12) with lemon grapefruit curd, soft and crisp meringue, microblossoms, and frozen yogurt.
"Walk in the woods" ($12) reminded me of Games of Thrones for some reason. Dark-chocolate semifreddo, pistachio, local citrus, extra-virgin olive oil, cocoa, chocolate, and sea salt compose this sweet creation.
Rojas is definitely one to keep an eye on. "This is the first time in a long time that I could be proud of the food I am putting out," he says. "I couldn't really say that about the other places that I've worked since getting here, but definitely this one."
Follow Carla on Twitter @ohcarlucha