The stately whitewashed building served for decades as the Buena Vista post office. More recently, it was home to Domo Japones, Amir Ben-Zion's restaurant in the nascent Design District neighborhood. Ben-Zion has become accustomed to success (Miss Yip Chinese Café, Bond Street Sushi), so when Domo faltered last year, he quickly pulled the plug and set his sights on a surefire seat-filler: Miami's homegrown culinary queen Michelle Bernstein, a redoubtable talent who has been nationally crowned with a tiara toque. Any project Bernstein puts her name on is pretty much guaranteed to have its hype signed, sealed, and delivered by media to the public via overnight express. Handle with care: Exalted expectations are enclosed.
Consider Sra. Martinez as the Andalusian alter ego of Michy's — same big flavors packed onto "small plates," albeit with a heavier anchor in the Mediterranean. And think of the décor as a Seville-style makeover of Domo: a lovely, lofty, softly-lit space for dining. Immense wooden shutters on oversize windows still take up most of the walls. But the exposed brick is now plastered over, and artwork consists of two large framed posters — one of a bullfighter, the other of a flamenco dancer. Tables straddle a divider in the middle of the room; a ten-seat tapas bar occupies a portion of the right side, and a few horseshoe booths bundle together across the way. A stairway toward the rear climbs to a balcony bar and lounge with limited seating.
During the first visit, we didn't get to appreciate much ambiance. Although we arrived on time for our reservation, the host told us it would be about a 30-minute wait; we chose instead to take a table on the front patio. We were lucky to nab even this spot, for fannies have been filling the 125 indoor/outdoor seats since the restaurant opened December 1.
The menu divides into "frio" and "caliente" sections, and though there might be slight changes from night to night, the former category generally comprises four salads and eight or nine other offerings; the latter lists two dozen selections and a trio of main courses (an 18-ounce T-bone, whole boneless fish, and boneless half chicken). Everything except the entrées is $18 or less.
Waiters — friendly, informal, and informed — recommend three or four items per person. Portion sizes vary greatly, but most are generous enough that a trio apiece should suffice. This will tend to total $35 to $50 for each diner, or less if you select from the dozen or so dishes that are tendered for less than a ten-spot. These include the smaller, more tapas-like plates such as ethereal wisps of Serrano ham with fig marmalade and Marcona almonds; white anchovy fillets marinated in musty vinegre de Modena (boquerones escabeche); smoky shisito peppers fried and speckled with sea salt; bacon-wrapped Medjool dates bulging with blue cheese and almonds; Manchego, Valdeon blue, or wine-dipped Murcia al vino with matching marmalade ($8 per cheese, or tidbits of all three for $15).
These foods pair ideally with the smartly selected list of regional Spanish sherries and wines, which of course is the whole idea of tapas. Markup on bottles is two and a half to three times, and most by-the-glass selections are $10 and under — such as the 2007 Telmo Rodríguez Dehesa Gago, a Tempranillo that wine critic Robert M. Parker Jr. calls "one of Spain's greatest wine bargains." A full bar shakes out "signatures" such as the Matador, with vodka, strawberries, basil, lime, and jalapeño syrup; reinvented classics like a smoked Kentucky ham-infused Maker's Mark Manhattan; and a sparkling and citrusy sangria.
Bernstein and husband/partner/señor David Martinez embarked on a tasting tour of Spain prior to opening, and many of the foods at Sra. Martinez are just like those you're likely to encounter at reputable neighborhood tapas bars in that country. They are the dishes I was least impressed with, if only because of a nagging notion that one of our city's finest chefs should do more than authentically mimic what a street cook in Seville can assemble. Yet there are also inspired foods that amplify Bernstein's creative knack. The chef de cuisine, Berenice de Araujo, has worked at Michy's from its inception, but Bernstein has thus far been bustling back and forth between her two kitchens. Because courses aren't categorized as starters or entrées, we'll designate our impressions in postage terms:
First-class: A bowl of artichoke hearts, long stems attached, lightly battered, frizzily fried with finesse, and tartly matched with lemon-coriander dip; lemony arugula leaves punctuated with salty shavings of Piave vecchio cheese, Asian pears, and a perfume-like whiff of fresh tarragon; monkfish cheeks piqued with sherry gastrique, contrasted with molasses, and garnished with cranberry beans and crisp sticks of fried okra; a fat, meaty square of pork belly richly delicious in sweet-and-sour glaze, capped with paper-thin slices of vinegared kohlrabi.
Desserts appear to be unfocused at this point, but that didn't stop us from relishing three scoops of Greek yogurt ice cream pooled in basil syrup and smothered with sweet tomato confit; whether perceived as a confectionary Caprese salad for kids or a savory ice-cream sundae for adults, it delivers the goods. So did a thick cylinder of warm, aged Boucheron de chèvre bathed in glistening thyme-infused honey, accompanied by toasted raisin-nut bread and two tidbits of membrillo (quince paste).
International first-class: Shrimp tiradito is one of a handful of items whose ingredients and influences come from beyond Spain's borders. This rendition doesn't involve the traditional raw, sliced preparation, but triumphs instead via a trio of whole, cooked colossal Madagascar prawns perked with ginger, soy sauce, cilantro, lime juice, corn nuts, popcorn, and spicy aioli culled from hot and fruity aji amarillo chilies. Ginger-soy butter accents a sensational sweet/salty sea urchin sandwich crisply pressed in French bread, and sweetened Korean soy glazes skinny planks of braised short ribs (galbi pinchos) sided by tart green tomato slaw.
Regular: Predinner slices of boring basic baguette; darkly hued caldo gallego soup stocked with rich chicken broth, white kidney beans, small bits of bacon and pork, and lots of kale; tender calamari a la plancha with a chimichurri-like paste of garlic and herbs and a dab of aioli, nestled upon swelled grains of ink-black rice; and a round of aioli-smeared tortilla española freshly made from Homestead eggs, onions, and too few bits of chorizo (certain inspectors might qualify this as first-class with postage due on the sausage).
A trio of thin, garlicky lamb chops was tasty if nothing to write home about, and a flat, dense, rectangular slab of black forest cake was more like a common flourless chocolate concoction, albeit with sautéed cherries and whipped cream; not bad, but not black forest.
Return to sender: Eggplant zalouk alongside the lamb exuded the unpleasant flavor of undercooked or unripe eggplant.
Zalouk shmalouk. When it comes to serving up delectable foods and wines in a boisterously buoyant environment, Sra. Martinez delivers.