Michael's Genuine Food & Drink - Miami Design District
I first experienced Chef Michael Schwartz's cooking more than a decade ago when he was the chef at the then newly-opened restaurant Nemo on South Beach. The food at Nemo was full of flavor but still executed with something of a light hand, and for years the place was one of my favorites. Schwartz left Nemo several years ago after a falling out with partner Myles Chefetz, and pursued a few other ventures. Some of these went by pretty quickly - a brief stint at Atlantic in the now-demolished Beach House Bal Harbour then owned by the Rubell family (both the restaurant and the hotel were hidden jewels for a brief period of time); a menu of "beauty cuisine" at the short-lived restaurant Afterglo in South Beach.
If there were a culinary award for "Comeback Player of the Year," Michael Schwartz would have won it in 2007. Following about a year behind Michelle Bernstein, who took a first bold step by opening up Michy's on a dodgy section of Biscayne Boulevard in 2006, Michael opened Michael's Genuine in late March 2007 in the Design District, another neglected neighborhood with no evening traffic whatsoever at the time (in any legitimate business activities, in any event). And people came.
My first visit there was about a week after they opened, and I was immediately hooked. Here was a restaurant that felt like a neighborhood place but was still classy enough to bring a date or a client; food that was creative without being goofy, made with high-quality ingredients and a focus on local products; the "small plates" menu options made it possible to try a number of different items; and the prices weren't crazy. You can follow something of a chronicle of my MGF&D experiences on this Chowhound thread. I said after my first visit:
My only hesitation in recommending it is the fear that it will become impossible to get in.
Oh well. Too late now.
The furnishings are low-key but classy, with simple wood tables covered with white paper and a polished concrete floor, the primary decoration being a few large artworks on the walls and some big red-shaded rectangular lamps hanging from the ceiling. It reminds me of the kind of places we've been to in the Pacific Northwest - comfortable, casual, but still nice enough for date night. There's outdoor seating in the atrium out front which is nice in the cooler months, and a second dining room adjacent to the main space has been added - though it has something of a Siberian feel to it, the food still tastes just as good there.
The menu is divided into "snacks," small, medium, large and extra-large dishes, as well as several vegetable side dishes. When they first opened, snacks were $4, and in two years that's only increased to $5-6. Prices across the menu have generally held steady, with most "small" and "medium" dishes being mostly in a $10-15 range and larger items (including the "extra-larges" which are meant to be shared) in the $20s-$40s.
The food at Michael's Genuine has a few defining characteristics: a focus on artisanal, high-quality ingredients; a dedication to local and sustainable products (including neglected species and cuts); and a purity and vividness of flavor. This is a place that features things like Poulet Rouge chicken (an heirloom breed descended from French stock now being raised in North Carolina and Georgia), Fudge Farms pork (more on this below); locally sourced fish that you'll almost never see on a restaurant menu like pumpkin swordfish, cero mackerel, triggerfish, and golden tilefish; fresh local produce from Paradise Farms and Bee Heaven Farm; house-cured bacon and sausages; and "variety meats" like chicken livers, sweetbreads, beef cheeks, and pig ears all put to great use. Chef Schwartz styles himself as a disciple of Alice Waters (the chef, not the more annoying public persona of late) and it really shows in the menu. He even has a "forager" regularly hitting the produce markets and farms to source great product for him.
But to focus exclusively on the ingredients and their provenance would pay short thrift to the creativity and quality of the cooking here, which puts out combinations like a beef cheek over a celeriac mash with a chocolate reduction and a garnish of celeriac salad (since replaced on the menu), or a crispy pork belly and watermelon salad with a soy-inflected dressing. Yes, much of the good stuff happens on the farm, but a good bit of it still happens in the kitchen too.
Let me start by describing the last meal we had at MGF&D a couple weeks ago. The "snacks" section of the menu is always a good place to begin, and this time around we had the crispy hominy, the puffed kernels fried and dusted with a sprinkle of chile powder and a squeeze of lime; the potato chips with caramelized onion dip, a favorite of Frod Jr. and Little Miss F (it also hits all the right nostalgic notes for the grown-ups); the falafel (another of Little Miss F's favorites, the balls of mashed chickpeas crispy outside and tender inside, and flecked with fresh parsley and mint); and a newer addition to the menu, crostini shmeared with a fresh goat cheese, an apricot thyme jam and a little sprinkle of micro-greens so fresh they seemed to still want to stand upright, a nice light warm-weather starter.
Michael sent out a new item he's been working on for us to try, a crispy corned beef dish. Keep your eyes out for this one. Many of MGF&D's dishes work with what I think of as "complementary contasts" - crispy and tender, salty and sour, the contrasts keeping the palate refreshed - and this was a great example. A slab of super-tender house-cured corned beef is given a bread crumb coating and seared for a crispy exterior, and is paired with a creamy remoulade/Russian dressing sauce, and some finely julienned sauerkraut-like pickled cabbage. Crispy, tender, creamy, salty, sour - like the best Reuben sandwich you've ever had. Mrs. F literally grabbed my arm after her first bite, she was so excited by this (but then she has a serious Reuben fixation - she basically subsisted on Reubens when pregnant with Frod Jr.).
We shared a couple more of the smaller dishes. The crispy pig ear salad is loaded with strips of shatteringly crispy strips of pig ear, tossed with tiny leaves of baby arugula, slivers of red onion, and thin disks of pickled radish (again with the pickled flavors - Chef Schwartz often makes great use of this flavor note). The strips of pig ear still visually reflect their origin (with a lighter strip of soft cartilage in the middle) but actually with the frying lose much of the ear-y texture some people find, well, eery. Frod Jr. wouldn't stop picking these off my plate. A local grouper ceviche, with a dice of mango and avocado, was one of the few disapppointments - not bad, just lacking the punch that MGF&D usually delivers.
I followed with a Fudge Farms pork chop which nearly brought tears to my eyes. This is, simply, some of the best pork I have ever tasted - rich, sweet and densely flavored. A server once described this to me as the "prime beef of pork" and that's probably pretty close to the mark. And one of the things I so admire about Chef Schwartz's cooking is that he knows how to stay out of the way of a great ingredient. The pork chop is just brined and grilled, and served with simple pairings of an apple chutney and mashed turnips. And - as if to prove a point - this is not presented as a composed plate, but rather each of the accompaniments is in its own small bowl, so as not to mess with this great pork unless you choose to do so.
Mrs. F had the grilled octopus as a main. The octopus (a big fat whole tentacle served as a "medium" dish) is first slow-cooked in olive oil at a low temp, and then briefly finished on the grill for a little crisping of the exterior and light infusion of smoky flavor, and served over a bed of fat white gigande beans, roasted red peppers, olives and a salad of torn herbs and leaves, all given a good drizzle of olive oil. Frod Jr. tried a new item for him - the Harris Ranch shortrib, which is roasted, cooled, sliced off the bone into planks and then also finished on the grill, served with a hearty romesco sauce. Little Miss F had a pasta dish of home-made fettucine with shrimp, strips of zucchini, shards of fiore sardo cheese and a generous dusting of black pepper. On prior occasions I've found Chef Schwartz's pasta almost too silky and slippery, so much so that it doesn't effectively hold the condiment. This iteration was tender and soft but had enough traction to grip the buttery sauce.
The standout dessert of the night was a bowl of Meyer lemon curd topped with strips of candied peel, with a couple of dainty currant scones alongside as well as a couple Meyer lemon jellies. Like a mini English tea service for dessert, this perfectly captured the perfumey aroma of the Meyer lemons. Frod Jr. had his favorite, the chocolate cremoso. I'm still not sure exactly what "cremoso" translates too, but I know this dessert features a lusciously rich quenelle of dark chocolate, almost ganache-like in texture, with a sprinkle of coarse sea salt, a drizzle of peppery olive oil, a crispy sourdough crouton for scooping, and a cold espresso parfait for contrast. Though the combination of chocolate, salt and olive oil sounds exotic, it is actually a delicious spin on a traditional Catalan dish.
I should note that some of the dishes I describe here may no longer be found on the menu. In fact, the menu changes quite regularly, and while there are some stalwarts, new dishes appear frequently, old ones come and go, some are just momentary inspirations based on what's fresh that week, and still others get tweaked here and there depending on what ingredients are at their best and what's interesting to the kitchen at that time. I have often said that I think this approach is one of the keys to a successful restaurant in Miami as, among other things, it gives the locals reason to come back repeatedly and provide a base business not subject to the fickle and seasonal whims of the tourist crowd. Indeed, I suspect the menu at Michael's Genuine probably changes more in any three-month span than the menu at Nemo has changed since Chef Schwartz left several years ago. Given the number of things I've tried, it should not surprise that I've not loved them all - but even when a dish goes off the mark, it rarely strays far.
One of the nice things about the "snacks" is that these almost always hit the table within 5 minutes of ordering. Several of the snacks are mentioned above - the crispy hominy, the falafel, the chips & dip, the goat cheese crostini - but my favorite item is the chicken liver crostini, a few slices of bread smeared with a rich chicken liver puree with just a hint of sweetness, mostly contributed by a scatter of caramelized onions. MGF&D's kimchee is an interesting take on the Korean staple, without any real whang of fermentation but with a fresh, crisp flavor and enough spice to perk up the taste buds. Deviled eggs are creamy, rich and, like the chips & dip, nostalgia-inducing, but not anything special unless you're really in the mood for deviled eggs (I often am).
Small & Medium Dishes
The designation of dishes as "small" or "medium" has often seemed somewhat arbitrary to me. Both are usually appetizer-size, though some of the "mediums" are more substantial and could serve as a small main course.
house salad - the components of this vary from week to week but almost always involve some nice cheese, some nice fruit, and toasted brioche croutons. One variation I recall had champagne grapes, shards of manchego cheese, and a veil of thinly sliced serrano ham. The current menu iteration includes pickled rhubarb, Georgia peaches and the wonderful Midnight Moon goat cheese. There's often another nice salad that features butter lettuce, oranges, hazelnuts, and avocado.
BLT salad - house cured bacon, cut thick, in a classic combination with curly frisee (with a bacon fat dressing, I believe), heirloom tomatoes, and Roaring '40s blue cheese.
panzanella - a simple salad of brightly flavored heirloom tomatoes (you will often see a huge stack of them along the bar in front of the open kitchen) and cubes of toasted bread tossed with a vinaigrette.
pork belly and watermelon salad - cubes of crispy pork belly and cool juicy watermelon, tossed with some slivered onion in a soy-inflected dressing. A happy combination of crispy, salty and sweet.
sweetbread salad - this one didn't stick around long but was nice, a salad of well-salted frisee, tossed with a tangy vinaigrette and some julienned preserved lemon, bits of bacon, and several nubs of fried sweetbreads, crispy on the outside and tender within. My kind of salad.
mussels - steamed with a spicy tomato harissa broth and served over sticky black rice. This boldly flavored dish was a carry-over from the Nemo menu, and is still good. It used to be a regular rotation item but I haven't seen it for a little while.
tuna tartare - Chef Schwartz has previously expressed his chagrin at the difficulty of taking this item off the menu even though he's not able to consistently locally source the tuna to be used for it. Tuna tartare is a ubiquitous dish these days but his is a nice version, paired with grapefruit and chile oil. Interesting that in the latest menu iteration, the original tuna tartare is gone, replaced with a yellowfin tuna crudo with preserved Meyer lemon and fresh hearts of palm.
tuna conserva - yellowfin tuna (brownie points for sustainability), presumably cooked low and slow in olive oil and then served cold in a 1/2 pint mason jar, along with toasts and accompaniments for some "DIY tuna salad" - aioli, capers, thinly sliced radish, finely diced preserved lemon. Like a good quality Spanish canned tuna, this is another item - like the roast chicken discussed below - where I suspect some inspiration has come from Zuni Cafe in San Francisco, which has for some time done a similar dish. (I should mention here that the Zuni Cafe Cookbook is one of my all-time favorites not just for the recipes but also for Judy Rodgers' wonderfully vivid, passionate and useful descriptions of cooking processes and concepts).
"buffalo" frog legs - little tiny frog legs, fried in a light-as-air tempura batter, and served with dipping bowls of a seriously fiery hot sauce and a cooling blue cheese sauce.
crispy grouper cheek - a tender nugget of meat from the "cheek" of the fish, given a crispy coating and served over lemon-infused fregola.
cero mackerel - a local fish which is not usually commercially fished, house-cured, and served with almonds and raisins and a fennel salad. I"m a fan of all the silver-skinned fish and enjoy seeing them put to good use. A more recent menu features a Spanish mackerel done two ways - one cured, the other grilled - and I'm looking forward to trying it.
yellowjack - only saw this dish once, a small filet quickly seared, topped with sea urchin roe, fresh lychee and served in a pool of dashi broth. This is about as "precious" as Chef Schwartz ever gets. While his food is usually more robust and straightforward, he is capable of successfully going elegant and delicate like this when the mood strikes him.
double-yolk egg - cooked in the wood-burning oven in a little ramekin with some melting cheese and roasted tomatoes. Outstanding when cooked right, but sometimes the wood-burning oven can be temperamental and this comes out under- or over-done.
rabbit pâté - a nice slab of house-made pâté, tasting more meaty than liver-y, and studded with pistachios. Usually served with some seasonal jam - may be a tomato jam, may be rhubarb, may be a pomelo mostarda. I actually prefer the rabbit pâté to the duck and foie gras terrine, which I found a little too tight-textured when I tried it once (but I'm always willing to try again).
chicken wings - not a fancy dish at all, the wings are doused with a Thai-style sweet chile sauce and served with a cool raita-like creamy cucumber sauce. More like bar food or "staff meal" than high dining, but for $8 that's nothing to complain about.
duck confit - MGF&D does a good confit, and the pairings change often. For a while this was done with a cauliflower mash and a pear & raisin chutney; more recently it gets a minneola glaze and is served with some frisee tossed with some spiced pumpkin seeds.
lamb-stuffed onion - a big fat Vidalia-style onion is stuffed with Moroccan-spiced ground lamb and roasted in the wood-burning oven and served over a bed of peppery arugula. A server suggested I peel off the charred outer layer of onion and cut up the rest and toss with the arugula like a salad, which worked out well, though this item is not one of my favorites.
porchetta di testa- a head cheese made with pork's head boned out, rolled and tied, and braised for a long time, then cooled, sliced thin, and served with some greens, thinly sliced radishes and capers. This was basically the recipe done by Chris Cosentino of Incanto in this video. The porchetta was more a textural experience than anything else, with each bite giving a little of the meat, the fat, the slightly crunchy ear. Chef Schwartz is an avid proponent of the nose-to-tail school of dining, and I recall one visit when he gleefully shared with us that they had a whole hog in the walk-in and were busily plotting everything the kitchen could make with it.
pork belly - one of the classic MGF&D dishes, a slab of pork belly is cooked slow till tender and then crisped on the outside, topped with some fresh kimchee, toasted peanuts and Paradise Farms pea shoots. A beautiful combination and possibly the greatest pork belly dish I've had. Also a Frod Jr. favorite.
crispy beef cheek - this was one of my favorites when they first opened up, a slab of tender cheek given a crispy coating, served over a bed of celery root puree, sauced with a chocolate reduction (not nearly as odd as it sounds), and plated with a mound of celery root salad for a nice tart contrast to the rich flavors of the beef, puree and sauce. This is another item that's gotten a recent update, with Chef Schwartz turning up the tart flavors even more by pairing with a mustard sauce and pickled onions and artichokes.
crispy pork cheek - another example of the crispy/tender salty/sweet thing, a pork cheek is braised down and then given a light breadcrumb coating to crisp the outside, served with a tangy BBQ sauce and a celeriac slaw. I've also seen a similar prep done with a pork short rib.
Fudge Farms pork shoulder - a different dish from the standard "large" Berkshire pork shoulder done with the parsley sauce and pickled onions described below, this one was slow-roasted till just about ready to fall apart, and served on top of a crouton to soak up the juices and topped with a fennel slaw. Melt-in-your-mouth tender, this was the dish that started my love affair with Fudge Farms pork.
Large and Extra-Large Dishes
At most restaurants that offer "small plates" I tend to gravitate towards those instead of the entree-sized dishes, both because they provide an opportunity to try more things and also because they tend to be more interesting. But there are several dishes at Michael's Genuine that belie this generalization.
kingfish - another of the mackerel family, this was cooked in the wood oven in a terra cotta cazuela along with some shrimp, mussels, calamari and chickpeas, bathed in a harissa-spiked tomato broth, and drizzled with aioli. A nice version of an under-utilized and sometimes difficult fish.
pumpkin swordfish - a local swordfish, grilled, and served over a vegetable ragout studded with tender cippoline onions, fennel, and artichokes, and drizzled with a vibrant saffron aioli. I've seen him do similar preparations with other fish include tilefish and golden trout.
Alaskan salmon - not local, but still a wonderful item when they're in season, I recall shortly after MGF&D opened having an Alaskan sockeye salmon steak (cut crosswise with the central bone intact rather than as a filet), a beautiful dark red, served over a flavorful potato, mushroom and fennel hash.
pork shoulder - a Berkshire pork shoulder is roasted till fall-apart tender, topped with some red pickled onions (making it reminiscent of a cochinita pibil), and the plate drizzled with a bright green, vividly flavored parsley sauce. The Anson Mills cheese grits which come with are just as good as the pork.
skirt steak - this one is a Frod Jr. favorite, a Harris Ranch steak is grilled and served over a potato, asparagus and fennel hash, accompanied with a brightly flavored herb salad and a black olive aioli.
pizza - cooked in the wood oven with toppings that change from week to week. An early iteration of the pizza featured shredded pork, sliced figs, caramelized onions and a sprinkle of cheese. More recently I had one with wilted stinging nettles. Savvy diners may notice that the pizza often is a vehicle for using up some other menu items (roasted pork, short rib), which I see as the mark of an efficient kitchen looking to avoid food waste.
whole "poulet rouge" chicken - I've only had the whole wood oven roasted chicken once and it was one of my favorite dining experiences ever. We sat at the kitchen bar, nursed a bottle of Oregon pinot noir, nibbled on some snacks, and waited (roughly an hour) while Michael tended to the bird in the wood-burning oven. When it came out, it was perfectly cooked and moist, dripping in its own juices, but with wonderfully crispy skin and a bit of smokiness from the oven. The bird is served with some plumped raisins, toasted pine nuts and a toss of arugula, and - if you wish - brought out whole to the plate. They'll happily portion it out for you, but then you'll miss the chance to pick at the carcass. Michael's recipe is basically a dead ringer for the famous roast chicken at Zuni Cafe. I happened to have a chance to try Michael's chicken and the Zuni chicken within a month of each other. My favorite? Michael's.
The more I try them, the more the vegetable sides become one of my favorite sections of the menu at Michael's Genuine.
brussels sprouts - so many people say they don't like brussels sprouts. I think they're just prepared wrong too often. Boiling or steaming just brings out the sulphurous odors - dry heat is the way to go, and Michael's, roasted in the wood-burning oven with cubes of juicy, salty pancetta, are delicious.
local green onions - I first saw these long fat spring onions at the local farmers' market last spring and within a week they were on the menu at MGF&D. Looking like fat scallions that are just starting to form a bulb onion at the base, these were wilted on the grill and served with an herb-infused provencal vinaigrette.
ramps - also quickly wilted, and served with a Vidalia onion coulis to give layers of onion flavor.
cauliflower - roasted in the wood oven and doused with a bright green parsley sauce. Simple and delicious, this is one of our favorites and I love to have leftovers for an omelette the next morning.
wood roasted carrots - big fat knobby carrots which I think came from Bee Heaven Farm, simply roasted in the wood oven to bring out their sweet earthy flavor.
Shortly after he opened Michael's Genuine, Michael Schwartz succeeded in luring his fabulous pastry chef from the Nemo days, Hedy Goldsmith, back into the fold. Her desserts match Chef Schwartz's cooking - unfussy, homey, and delicious. The classic dessert at MGF&D is the chocolate cremoso, but we've also really enjoyed the lemon curd, also mentioned above, a peanut butter and banana panini that would have made Elvis happy, a saffron panna cotta, and a great selection of homemade ice creams. One evening we got a sampler and tried a salted caramel (fantastic - Mrs. F wanted a pint to take home), Mexican chocolate (loaded with cinnamon and chile spice), and kumquat creamsicle (a classic old school combination, made new with the tart pucker of the kumquats).
There's always a "cheese of the week" and they're often worth trying as well, which is what I'll sometimes do in lieu of dessert. Probably my favorite discovery was La Tur, a luscious Italian triple-cream cheese, which was plated very simply with a square of oozy honeycomb from local Paradise Farms.
Service at Michael's Genuine can be either outstanding or adventurous. There is a core group of veteran waitstaff who are consummate pros and an absolute pleasure to dine with, but there's simply not enough of them to handle the entire restaurant. For the remainder, there's unfortunately a lot of turnover, and while a few of them have stuck around and succeeded, there are usually always at least a few fresh faces. It's almost never a matter of bad attitude, just sometimes a lack of experience.
The wine list has always done a pretty good job of providing decent value, and of late has made some notable improvements. I've always felt that the list slanted too heavily toward California cabs and Bordeaux blends, which I don't see as the ideal match for MGF&D's food. The selection of pinot noirs in particular has been bolstered lately, but I'd still love to see more options from the Rhone and Spain, which I think would be a better complement to Michael's menu. There's also a somewhat unheralded (at least by me) list of more than 20 mostly craft beers, including a creamy, malty Old Speckled Hen pale ale we had one evening in lieu of wine.
Michael's Genuine has certainly not lacked for champions since it opened, with the New York Times' Frank Bruni naming it fourth last year in the solipsistic list of Top 10 New Restaurants Outside of New York and Gourmet magazine listing it in its Top Farm to Table Restaurants. Now a little more than two years old, it's refreshing and gratifying to see the restaurant is still regularly finding new and interesting things to put on the menu, still dedicated to local, sustainable and artisanal foods, and still absolutely at the top of its game.
Michael's Genuine Food & Drink
130 N.E. 40th Street
Miami, FL 33137
 Other than Hiro's Yakko-San, that is.
 I happened to be in the restaurant last year on the weekend of the South Beach Wine & Food Festival when Alice Waters was paying a visit to the restaurant along with Jamie Oliver. I have never seen Chef Schwartz so nervous and giddy.