Friday, April 24, 2009
Sra. Martinez - Miami Design District
[sorry, this restaurant has closed]
I don't believe I've ever seen a restaurant come together quite as quickly as Sra. Martinez did. On October 6, 2008, Domo Japones, which had occupied the old Post Office Building in the Miami Design District for less than a year, shut down. The same day, it was announced that Michelle Bernstein (most recently famed for her eponymous restaurant Michy's on Biscayne Boulevard) would be opening a tapas bar in the space. I've always enjoyed Michelle Bernstein's cooking, back to the days when she was the chef at The Strand, one of the pioneers of the South Beach dining scene. The combination of her talents with a tapas bar format hit a real sweet spot for me (I am sort of a tapas fan), and this was an opening I was eagerly looking forward to.
Less than two months later - and just in time for Art Basel crowds - Sra. Martinez (the name a reference to Chef Bernstein's husband and partner David Martinez) was open for business. The refurbishment of the Domo Japones space (built in the 1920's and originally the Buena Vista Post Office) was done quickly but effectively, with the black & white Naomi Campbell photos swapped out for bullfighting posters, and the primary visual highlights being courtesy of some bright red Philippe Stark "Ghost" chairs and barstools. Most of the restaurant is open to a 2-story height, with the bottom floor taken up on one side by several large horseshoe-shaped booths, with more tables through the middle of the space and the opposite side providing about 15 bar seats, the space behind which is being used as the cold-prep station for the kitchen (which it later occurred to me must have been the sushi bar for the prior incarnation). A staircase ascends to a small upstairs loft, which has two long tables for bigger groups and a small bar (which happens to mix some pretty awesome cocktails, several involving house-made bitters and other intriguing ingredients like ham-infused bourbon). They make a mean Sazerac.
The menu [note: this is a very early iteration of the menu, which has - as is typical for M.B.'s restaurants - evolved and changed over time] clearly shows the influence of a recent trip to Spain. There's a healthy balance between traditional items like boquerones en escabeche, tortilla española, or pimientos de padron, and more contemporary creative items like a pancetta-wrapped rabbit loin with carrot-cumin sauce, sea urchin "sandwich," or crispy pork belly with a fennel-orange marmalade and "Benihana salad".
My first visit was the day after Sra. Martinez opened, yet remarkably the restaurant was running as smoothly as one that had been open for years. The waitstaff knew the menu, the service was efficient, and the kitchen was getting the food out timely (though we've always made clear when we're there that we're happy being served tapas style with dishes coming out as they're ready). We've been back several times, mostly with larger groups, with similar experiences (though our last visit, a final round arrived a good 20 minutes later than anything else, by which point most of our group had already stuffed themselves).
We've now worked our way through most of the menu at this point (in fact our last visit, with a group of ten, caused the kitchen to ask "Who ordered 'the menu'?"), and so I'll try to work my way through the dishes we've tried and identify those that have been my favorites.
crispy artichokes - elegant long-stemmed artichoke hearts, delicately fried with just a hint of a crispy bread crumb coating, served with an aioli dipping sauce brightened with a liberal dose of lemon. Have had these several times now and they're always good.
bacon wrapped dates - these seem to be the official snack of the Design District, with Sra. M, MGF&D and Pacific Time all having served their own variations. Sra. M's, like many of the dishes here, play on the salty-sweet thing, with a sweet date paired with salty bacon and a filling of Spanish blue cheese.
boquerones - traditional white Spanish anchovies marinated in vinegar. Nothing special, but good if you like such things. Me, I'm a big fan of the shiny-skinned fish.
pimientos de padron - another classic tapas bar item, these little green peppers - basically the same critter the Japanese call "shishito" - are quickly sauteed with olive oil over high heat till their skins blister, and sprinkled generously with sea salt, and have an herbaceous, smoky flavor. An added thrill is that roughly one in ten pack some serious spicy heat, so that eating a bowl of them is a bit like a culinary version of Russian Roulette. And this gives me an excuse to link to a Calvin Trillin piece on the peppers, which is always a good thing.
charred fava salad - this was a new item from my most recent visit and a nice one, the favas having their characteristic earthy flavor, and also a whiff of smoky spice (chipotle?). I preferred this to other salads I've had there, which were unmemorable.
croquetas - the filling of the croquetas has varied from visit to visit - sometimes wild mushrooms, more recently chorizo. These are very light in texture, but I've found the flavor of the fillings to be difficult to discern.
poached egg - I've seen this a couple different ways. The first time, it was poached then fried (a technique Jonathan Eismann uses at Pacific Time too) and served on a bed of crispy kale and serrano ham; the next visit, it was just a garden-variety, perfectly poached egg, over a nice hash of chorizo and potato. This one would surely please Jonathan Mardukus - [2:20 mark]. The Spaniards understand that eggs are delicious for breakfast, lunch and dinner, and Sra. M gets it too.
tortilla española - a somewhat small hockey puck sized portion of the classic Spanish omelette, but not too dried out like you often find it here in the States. Even better with some diced chorizo (what isn't?).
pan con tomate - a simple dish - just crusty bread rubbed with garlic and tomato and drizzled with olive oil - but one that can be wonderful when done right (like at Paco Meralgo in Bacelona). The bread was a weak link here, seemed like garden-variety Cuban bread that was too spongy and insipid, and not enough olive oil.
crispy eggplant - thin disks of eggplant are fried till crispy and drizzled with dark honey. A great combination, and one that sounds somewhat avant garde, but actually a fairly common Spanish tapa.
piquillo peppers - these smoky Spanish peppers with just a hint of piquancy are wonderful things, and they're served simply with a drizzle of good olive oil. A simple traditional tapa, good but nothing extraordinary.
patatas bravas - another traditional Spanish tapas item, typically cubes of potato are twice-fried and served dressed with a fiery tomato sauce, and often accompanied with an aioli as well. The first time I had these, the bravas sauce was too sweet, and the portion too dainty. Both issues were fixed on a subsequent visit, by which time these had become "untraditional" bravas with Peruvian dipping sauces. The tomato-based sauce was now happily fiery, and an aji amarillo sauce made for a nice alternative. I now understand the dish has been tweaked even further in the Peruvian direction, with potato skins subbing for the cubed potatoes and a salsa huancaina in the mix. This tilt towards Latin America seems to have generally become stronger over the few months since Sra. Martinez first opened.
prawns a la plancha - massive head-on "Madagascar prawns" were grilled head-on and whole, and served with cloves of "confit garlic" and a shmear of a smooth chimichurri sauce. I always love good head-on shrimp, but this dish seemed caught somewhere between a classic gambas a la plancha (simply grilled, often with nothing other than sea salt) and a gambas al ajillo (sauteed in olive oil and lots of garlic) and fell a bit short of either. I believe this has undergone some metamorphosis as the menu has been updated.
clams - steamed open with sherry, garlic, chiles and roasted tomatoes, I thought these were fantastic, juicy and loaded with flavor. Unfortunately, they are also off the menu, as M.B. said they weren't getting ordered often enough. What a shame. I hope they make a comeback.
white bean stew w/ duck & foie sausage - a great dish. Mammoth white beans (like the gigantic judion beans I recall seeing in Segovia) are served with big hunks of botifarra sausage made with duck and foie gras, all laced with a port reduction that gives the dish a hint of sweetness. M.B. gives full credit to the legendary Barcelona restaurant Cal Pep for the inspiration for this dish, though she self-deprecatingly says her version is not as good as the original.
garbanzos - the first couple times I had these, the beans were done with crumbled morcilla (blood sausage) and cubes of sauteed apple, a combination I quite liked. On my most recent visit, the recipe had changed, and they instead were flavored with an overpowering dose of orange. I liked the initial iteration much better.
sea urchin "sandwich" - another of my favorites, sea urchin roe, together with some soy-ginger butter, are pressed within some crusty bread, Cuban sandwich style. I usually don't like my uni messed with at all, but I thought the soy-ginger notes complimented and enhanced the salty, sweet, spicy flavors of the uni. On later visits the portion sizing of this seems to have been downscaled and it may not be the greatest value for the price.
calamari a la plancha - grilled calamari, served over a bed of arroz negro flavored and colored with squid ink and ringed with a circle of green herb oil.
pork belly - the pork belly is crispy outside, tender within, topped with a smidge of a not-too-sweet fennel orange marmalade, and accompanied with a "Benihana salad" (which is indeed much like its namesake). One of the standout dishes.
galbi pinchos - short ribs sliced thin across the bone, dim-sum style, marinated in a Korean style sweet soy sauce, and served with a kohlrabi "slaw" of thinly sliced and vinegared rounds of kohlrabi, reminiscent of a Korean banchan. A little chewy, but tasty.
rabo encendido - liked this one quite a bit, oxtails given a long braise, the meat then pulled and shredded and stacked onto little toasts. The meat was wonderfully tender and richly flavored, even if I missed the opportunity to gnaw on the ends of the bones.
rabbit loin - this is a dish I'd had as a special at Michy's previously, a loin of rabbit is wrapped in bacon and served with sauteed rounds of carrot, a carrot-cumin sauce, and cubes of panisse (chick-pea fries). One of the best rabbit preps I've ever had, and was just as good at Sra. M as it had been at Michy's. Unfortunately it was not on the menu for my last visit.
sweetbreads - Any sweetbread dish at Michy's is always one of the high points. Chef Bernstein has a complete mastery of the things, achieving a wonderfully light and crispy exterior while still preserving the ethereal, delicate fluffy interior, and I've had some fantastic pairings at Michy's. The initial incarnation of a sweetbread dish at Sra. M. was just as good for the prep of the sweetbreads themselves, but the pairing (a romesco sauce and a caperberry) was disappointingly bland. On my last visit, there was a new version, this one topped with a semi-sweet orange sauce and plated with some lettuce leaves for making sweetbread lettuce wraps. A vast improvement and a really nice twist.
marrow bones - a great ingredient but a flawed execution the time I tried them. Each order comes with 4 bones, the shanks split lengthwise in half and then crosswise into roughly 2-inch lengths so that the marrow is exposed. Unfortunately there was a lot of variation from one piece to the next so that one might be loaded with marrow and the other have almost none, and also there were little shards of bone which easily broke off. A shame, as I am a huge fan of roasted marrow and had a similar dish done just perfectly at Michy's on one visit (served there with a pear gremolata).
cheese plate - a simple presentation of three cheeses (a Manchego, a Mucria al Vino, and a Valdeon blue when we ordered it), each with a little dab of a different jam or marmalade to accompany it.
donuts - dulce de leche filled donuts, accompanied with a coffee granita (coffee and donuts!). The coffee granita was pleasantly strong and not too sweet.
goat cheese and honey - listed as a dessert but really more of a cheese course, a round of a really nice goat cheese (pale and creamy in the center, gooey and golden around the edges, with a soft white rind) is warmed, topped with a smear of honey and a sprinkle of fresh thyme leaves, served with olive oil crackers for spreading. I often love the combination of cheese and honey and this really worked for me.
torrejas - basically french toast for dessert, this tasted like it was made with a panettone-type bread, sweet and dense with hints of dried fruits. Since one of my favorite treats is to make french toast from panettone, this made me very happy.
greek yogurt ice cream - an interesting play between sweet and savory, with a very yogurt-y ice cream accompanied by a sweet tomato marmalade and another sweet syrupy component (reduced balsamic?).
There are a few entree-sized items on the menu - a steak, a fish, a chicken - but they seem to be there primarily to appease those folks who can't get into the tapas spirit. The one time I was with a group that ordered one of these, the fish, it was perfectly fine but completely unexciting. The lesson - stick with the tapas.
The wine list is exclusively Spanish and has a number of interesting items and some real bargains, including an Alto Moncayo Veraton (a modern-styled garnacha) very fairly priced at $55, and an eminently drinkable Borsao Compo de Borja garnacha/tempranillo blend for only $20. On another occasion I had a nice Rioja with some bottle age on it, a 2001 La Rioja Alta Viña Alberdi, for only a bit over 2x retail.
As often as not, Michelle Bernstein will be in the house making sure everything is running right (she regularly does double-duty here and at Michy's up Biscayne Blvd. the same night), though it's her former sous chef from Michy's, Berenice de Araujo, running the kitchen at Sra. Martinez. Portions can be on the small side, and prices have crept up a bit from when they first opened, with most items involving a protein around $15. Since a typical meal may be 3+ dishes it is certainly not a cheap meal, in contrast to the Spanish tapas bars it is patterned after. But it'll be a good meal, and the place also lends itself to having a little snack and a drink at the bar instead of a full-blown meal, perhaps even before a meal as you head off to one of the Design District's other eating establishments.
4000 N.E. 2nd Ave.