It's 8 p.m. on a Saturday and Michael Schwartz, the chef and owner of Michael's Genuine Food and Drink, is dressed in his near constant uniform of jeans, T-shirt and crisp, white apron. What Schwartz started nearly eight years ago as an out-of-the-way restaurant in a part of town not known for nightlife, let alone great restaurants, has grown into a genuinely homegrown brand.
Around the corner, he operates an Old Florida-style restaurant called the Cypress Room. Walk west, and his Harry's Pizzeria, named after his son, is bustling. A second location will open next spring in Coconut Grove. Across the causeway in Miami Beach, he has Restaurant Michael Schwartz at the Raleigh Hotel. There's a Michael's in Grand Cayman, and cruise guests can find his food on several Royal Caribbean ships.
So how is it that this impossibly busy, James Beard Award-winning chef is standing behind the bar shucking oysters?
It's the first Saturday night of service since the restaurant debuted its renovation. The redo expanded the bar from 11 to 25 seats, and, more important, created a much larger room with a vista from the newly created Bar Room to the open kitchen. It still has the feel of a well-worn city tavern, with a bright-red spiral staircase in the middle of the dining room and old-school jazz on the sound system. You can't help but feel comfortable.
Schwartz says the renovation was designed to accommodate what's going on in Miami's Design District. Cartier, Dior, Pucci, Prada and Vuitton have taken up residence there. More luxury brands are on their way, but Schwartz was here first.
The chef also understands that great restaurants evolve. The expanded bar features an impressive raw bar with offerings that include oysters ($36 per dozen), flounder tartare ($14) and Florida shrimp ceviche ($13) with Hatch chiles, avocado, cilantro and lime. Iced seafood towers can be had for $65 or $130.
Schwartz was the first South Florida chef to succinctly use local ingredients in his menus. What isn't local is thoughtfully sourced from like-minded purveyors. It's an eclectic, ever-evolving American menu, but Schwartz brings an easy elegance to even the simplest dishes.
I'm thinking of crispy pig ears ($7), salty with a lime wedge to squeeze over top, served standing on end in a triangle of waxed paper. Country pate ($14) comes with grilled sourdough slices, cornichons, Dijon mustard and apricot mostarda. A wood-oven-roasted double-yolk farm egg ($9), a reliable favorite, is a very rich ramekin that includes cave-aged Gruyere and chives. Spread the goodness on sourdough crostini. Char-grilled octopus ($19) is served with a salad of Gigante beans, roasted peppers, tomato harissa, green olive and herbs.
Schwartz likes to introduce diners to little-known ingredients, such as the red-fleshed navel orange known as Cara Cara, which accompanies incredible duck confit ($18) with frisee and spiced pumpkin seeds. He can seemingly reinvent an old standby vegetable such cauliflower ($8) by cooking it in the wood oven and tossing it with parsley sauce. Brussels sprouts ($9) are similarly done in the wood oven and plated with lemon aioli.
His so-called large plates include steak au poivre ($48), which starts with a tender Neiman Ranch New York strip and finishes with a green-peppercorn sauce gently flavored with brandy. Wood-oven striped bass ($24) gets a flavorful tomato vinaigrette. Pan-roasted half chicken ($23) has a crispy coating and tender interior. Delicious slow-roasted pork shoulder ($23) gets pickled red onion and parsley sauce.
I've always known that executive pastry chef Hedy Goldsmith's desserts were as good as the savory side of the menu. But they're also a perfect match for Schwartz's cooking style. Presentation is clever, but not overwrought. Flavors are familiar, but not cliched. So you get things such as sweet potato pie in a jar ($12), made with sweet potato ice cream, toasted marshmallows and homemade graham crackers. You get lemon creamsicle pot de cream ($12), with anise-accented doughnuts and blackberry-tarragon jam. Goldsmith ought to be a national treasure.
Michael's Genuine Food and Drink also offers that rare restaurant commodity know as continuity of service. How is it that Michael's finds and retains wait staff who seem genuinely invested in their work? Maybe that comes easily to them, considering everything the restaurant does is imbued with so much integrity.
Michael's Genuine Food and Drink
130 NE 40th St., Miami
Hours: Dinner daily, lunch Monday through Saturday, brunch Sunday
Reservations: Strongly suggested
Credit cards: All major
Bar: Full service
Sound level: Noisy when full
Outside smoking: Yes
For kids: Highchairs, boosters
Wheelchair accessible: Yes
Parking: $3 validated valet