Chef/Owner Michael Schwaertz clearly had a mission in mind when opening Michael’s Genuine Food & Drink in 2007 – to source local as often as possible and establish enduring partnerships with suppliers, to visit the origins of his ingredients and keep track of their seasonal variations (even if from out-of-state), to have a life story ready for each of his ingredients, should the customer ask about one. This becomes in-your-face evident when you browse the menu. The name of each star ingredient (star only – otherwise each dish title would be miles long) is prefaced by an appellation, an indicator of the place that birthed the thing and, consequentially, the terroir that influenced or defined its flavor – just like with wine. So, heirloom tomatoes are specified as “Michael Borek, Teena’s Pride Farm Heirloom Tomatoes.” Eggs are “Alice Pena, PNS Farms Eggs.” Fish and Everglades frog legs are “George Figueroa, Trigger Seafood….” You get the idea… Geographical awareness of ingredients is unavoidable and the information is not overwhelming at all – on the contrary, it makes one appreciate each bite more. I’m sure if vintage were also included, the menu would look repetitive – everything seems fresh and new, caught or plucked or butchered hours before its appearance on the plate.
The restaurant is located in Miami’s Design District, a gallery-studded artsy neighborhood within Buena Vista, which only 10-15 years ago was naught but an embodiment of urban decay (the ugly, dangerous kind, not the cool, hipster kind). A trendy spot for a well-intentioned, genuine locavore restaurant, indeed. The district kind of reminds me of a more urban version of the South End in Boston, though a bit more “finished” in its up-in-coming process. I’m not sure whether in 2007 Michael’s still played the role of neighborhood pioneer (like Joanne Chang’s Washington St. Flour Bakery + Cafe did in 2000’s South End, for example), but either way it seems like the chef does care to give back to the ‘hood a bit, as an active participant in the nationwide initiative to clean up the nasty cafeteria food of public schools (in this case, those of Miami-Dade county) and by supporting things like the Wholesome Wave Foundation’s double value coupon program, which helps increase access to fresh stuff across communities that need it, while also stimulating the economy of local agriculture. All good deeds that have definitely gone answered, as the place seems to have acquired quite the following, and has even been awarded, by Slow Food USA, the first ever Snail of Approval, certifying it as a legit spot for sustainable cuisine.
Onto what matters…
Crispy Hominy with chile and lime. My lunch companion ordered this snack as somewhat of an afterthought, suddenly recalling having enjoyed it before, and tacking it on to the list of dishes we had already requested. Not surprising, since the dish doesn’t particularly jump out from the menu; it is nestled between other appetizer items like Chicken Liver Crostini, Crispy Pig Ears and Pork Belly, which are more attention-grabbing in their nomenclature. I’m glad he remembered though, because they really were a great little snack to munch on before waiting for the other stuff to arrive. If they served this, beer-side, at any bar in Boston (though in that case they’d be at least $8 instead of just $5), I would quickly become a regular of the place.
I am ashamed to admit I originally had no idea what hominy actually is, thinking it was a species of corn, not a treatment of it. It’s actually a tad more complex. Hominy are dried kernels of maize, which are soaked and cooked in lime or wood ash, in a process called nixtamalization. The alkalinity of the latter two dissolves the cell walls of the corn and makes it a bit looser and softer by removing the bran and germ of the corn which originally makes the coating tough. Other stuff is also made from this nixtamalized (?) maize, including a gruel-like drink called atole (popular in Mexico) or champurrado, which is an anise-y version of the same, especially popular as a breakfast beverage. The hominy in this case was cooked (I think), drained (I think) and fried in oil, then tossed in what tasted like smoked paprika and chile powder, and drizzled with lime juice. The corn retained most of its natural sweetness but was flavored very nicely with some heat and acidity. The hominy were pillowy light on the inside but golden crisp and crusty on the exterior. And a very satisfying size, compared to regular corn.
Having had a particularly laughable experience with a painfully incorrect “burrata” at Juvia the night before, we opted for a salad of heirloom tomatoes and stracciatella di bufala, which I don’t think was even on the menu for that day, but which is something I guess Michael’s just usually has lying around, fresh, all the time. In fact, one of the first things that greets the eye and caresses the soul upon walking into the bistro is the pile of mouthwateringly fresh looking, no doubt local, multicolored heirloom tomatoes proudly displayed before the semi-open restaurant kitchen counter. Fresh from the garden, rinsed and served – I got it. Unsurprisingly (considering what March looks like in Boston), I begged and whined for the outdoor al fresco style easy-breezy atmosphere as my preference for lunching in, but I kept my eyes on those tomatoes through the windows the entire time. I’m glad I got to try some of them and even gladder that they were served in such a simple way and allowed to shine (instead of, for example, being overburdened by some horrid little kalamata tapenade…) Plump tomatoes with tight skin wrapping around juicy, moist flesh. Small but concentrated and robust in flavor, not watery to the least. The straciatella had a wonderful texture, gummy but soft mozzarella with it’s smooth, simple cream flowing out over the plate, keeping the rest of the cheese wet and delicious, and adding a textural richness to the tomatoes by touching them softly, without suffocating them too much. The cream was neither sweet nor salty nor sour, really, though it leaned to the savory side and had a nice clean taste, which was pulled into a refreshingly vegetal direction by the mature olive oil drizzled on, and sobered up a bit by the fresh black pepper cracked over the top.
And then, this little show-stopper. Crispy Sweet & Spicy Pork Belly served with a kimchi salad and topped off with some toasted peanuts and pea shoots. The pork belly was beautifully layered and texturally complex on its own, as a well-sourced and masterfully prepared pork belly tends to be. Crispy sear on the outside to keep the teeth and gums interested, with a soft, buttery, jiggling bit of fat to lull the tongue into a dreamy trance. Each bite filled the mouth with the supple sweetness of the pork. The glaze was caramel smooth against the crunch of the exterior, transforming the texture of the latter into candy, like a piggy brittle of sorts. Said glaze was mostly sweet but not a dulling, dumb sweet – rather, a complex floral dulzor from ginger with a bit of acidity from lime juice. There wasn’t too much outstanding heat in the glaze, despite the name of the dish. There were some red chilis muddled into the stuff, but the spiciness was balanced out with the acidity and sweetness in there as well. Kimchi was a perfect accompaniment, as the cabbage and carrot pickled in lime juice offered an acidity which cut the tantalizing fat of the belly. It was also just great on its own, with the veggies refreshed by cilantro and ginger and provided with a spicy zing from sliced red onions. Great sweet and nutty contrast in flavor and crunch in texture from the peanuts sprinkled over the top.
An unexpectedly delicious entree was the Pan Roasted 1/2 Poulet Rouge Chicken, served with roasted zucchini and summer squash. I tend to stay away from chicken usually, but I guess ordering the bird is a safe choice in a place whose motto is bringing quality ingredients to the height of their potential and letting them bask in their own glory. The breast was moist, but creamy instead of watery, and packed to saturation with its own clean poultry flavor instead of just becoming a dumb white canvas to ballsier ingredients around it. I guess it was to stress just this that there were no ballsy ingredients around it – only some tender, naturally sweet roasted spring veggies whose char wasn’t even pronounced or smoky enough to steal the show. The skin made it difficult to believe that the thing was just pan roasted, instead of – say – removed, deep fried and magically reattached to the succulent, juicy flesh. It was golden crispy and puffed out like Parmesan broiled and bubbling over something smooth. It was almost as satisfying as duck skin, though stopped short in that it did not have that slippery, slimy, fatty layer hiding under the crispy exterior. An endearing detail of the dish was that those yummy little morsels, the lungs, were left inside the cavities of the rib cage, just like at grandma’s house, adding a murky, deliciously dirty, mushy bit of reality back into the dish.
As a side, Wood Roasted Brussel Sprouts, served with crispy little hunks of pancetta and a lemon aioli to dip in. The sprouts were roasted very nicely, achieving a char and a caramelization underneath that made the compact little buggers very sweet. This sweetness was balanced out by the intense saltiness of the pancetta whose fattiness also hydrated the veggies a bit and indirectly made them juicier. The lemon aioli was just ok… a tad too thick for my taste, and the film characteristic of mayo-based sauces formed over the surface, making it kind of forgettable. The sprouts were perfectly fine without it.
An odd but totally welcome surprise that I would have one of the best Bánh mì sandwiches I’ve ever had in Miami, of all places. Fusion is okay sometimes – the tale of Indochine cuisine. And this one was straight-up, not gimmicky, not trying too hard but, instead, staying true to the classic, with creativity and technique evident in its kick-ass components. Baguette-like bánh mì bread, crispy on the outside and hard enough to withstand potent fillings, but soft on the inside to soak up extra juices. A thick terrine of house-cured pork pâté, moist and fatty, with the feint innard-y minerality balanced out nicely by the herbs within as well as by the heat from the sambal aioli which flowed through the sandwich, hydrating it and making things a bit more interesting altogether. To offset the softness and cleanness of the pâté, some crispy, fatty fried strands of pork belly were layered directly over the former and the juxtaposition of the two caused a tantalizing contrast of textures, which was enough to keep the palate interested, despite the thickness of the bread. But the sandwich would have been nothing (okay, maybe not nothing…) if it hadn’t been for the wonderful pickled veggies layered over the doubled-up pork. Very thinly sliced, ultra-tart but sweet (bread-and-butter-like) pickles, some shreds of carrot with its natural, root-y zing, some coriander and thinly sliced red onion, red chilis to echo the sambal and bring a bit more heat. Each individual ingredient was obviously treated with love and attention. Towards the end, stuffed, while I was picking at the remains of the sandwich which, sadly, I could not finish because of the unfortunately small capacity of my stomach, it occurred to me that there was no single ingredient that I picked at more than at another. Usually, there’s a protagonist which you just don’t want to leave any of, and usually the latter is a protein. In this case, however, I’d pick up the last remaining morsels of pork belly and take tiny bites to remember the pâté, but I’d also go for some of the veggies and tear off one last chunk of that crusty, crunchy bread. It was all too painful to leave any of behind. While the ingredients each rocked on their own, the combination (in perfect proportion) yielded something even greater than the sum of parts. The sandwich was juicy where it needed to be, with excess moisture soaked up in the right spots, crispy and fatty in some places, while smooth and cool in others. Hot and sour and sweet and savory, simple in the choice of bread but crazy complex in everything else.
Schwart’s dishes are simple and clearly meant to highlight the nature of ingredients as well as the masterful technique of preparing them, without a single excess touch or gimmick in their combination. Components are brought to the height of their potential – seasoned nicely, fried or roasted at just the right temperatures to bring out desired textures, but left alone beyond that. The chef ain’t greedy with the goods either, having published many of his recipes in popular publications and even sharing some tips on their social media channels, including a blog which is updated rather frequently.
As my lunch companion stated, this Miami restaurant is unique in that it could survive and make a name for itself in almost any city – be it L.A. or New York, in my opinion even Hong Kong. Definitely one to keep on the radar.