Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Genuine South Beach?

Down the block over at Miami Rankings, there's some concern over the recent announcement that Chef Michael Schwartz of Michael's Genuine Food & Drink will be taking over the restaurant (and all F&B) at South Beach's Raleigh Hotel. South Beach, with its fancy cars, glitzy hotels, and abundant breast implants, may seem a potentially less than "genuine" move. This, no less, right on the heels of the news that Schwartz is also taking over Jonathan Eismann's recently closed PizzaVolante spot in the Design District to open Harry's Pizzeria (named for the chef's son, who is still a bit too young to be working a regular shift on the pizza oven).

I understand the concern. And I have no particular love for South Beach myself. But I think some of the worry is misplaced.

The success of Michael's Genuine since it opened in 2007 was and remains a significant development in Miami restaurant history in a number of respects. Along with Michy's on Biscayne Boulevard, MGF&D marked a shift of the center of Miami's restaurant universe away from South Beach and over to less colonized areas of the mainland. It was (and is) dedicated, perhaps more than any other local restaurant, to the "farm to table" ethos, before every restaurant started throwing "organic," "sustainable," "local" and "artisan" (occasionally even "artesian") into every menu description. It was (and is) geared as much, if not moreso, to locals than to tourists, with a menu that changes regularly and always seems to have a couple new items, even for regulars. It was (and is) a place that's popular because it is comfortable rather than scene-y, and both the food and the atmosphere achieve an "upscale casual" vibe that is the way more people want to dine these days.

But it's not necessarily the only trick in Chef Schwartz's bag either. When he opened a second Michael's Genuine in Grand Cayman, I think the goal was simply to duplicate what he'd already done here in Miami at an off-shore outpost. I don't think that's what he'll do at the Raleigh, separated from the mothership only by a 15-minute drive across Biscayne Bay.

(continued ...)

Rather, much as I love MGF&D, and while it might be great to have one exclusively for the tourists on South Beach, and then the original could be locals-only, I actually hope the Raleigh isn't just a Michael's II (or Michael's Jr. for that matter). Instead, I've been curious for some time to see what would happen if Chef Schwartz went either higher- or lower-brow.

On the low end, I've felt for some time that with his house-made ingredients and great touch for flavor combinations and textures, he could do a fantastic sandwich shop a la New York's No. 7 Sub. On the high end ... well, high-end dining has always been a tricky thing in Miami. It's a place where people are not afraid to drop a lot of money - witness the prolonged success of Prime 112, run by Schwartz's former business partner Myles Chefetz - but true "fine dining" is still a tough sell.

But what if the food and the service at MGF&D could both be taken up a notch - a little more elegant, a little more refined, a little more ambitious even - while still retaining the same spirit? Can it be done? On South Beach? And would it still be "genuine"?

It's worth remembering as well that Michael Schwartz is no stranger to South Beach or hotel dining. He first made a name for himself while running the kitchen for several years at the now-closed Nemo, down in the "South of Fifth" area that was considered nearly as pioneering as his venture into the Design District a few years ago. And he had a brief run at the hotel thing in the now-demolished Beach House on Bal Harbour, where for a time he ran the charming Atlantic restaurant.

Of course, this could just turn out to be another "gig," one of those situations where the chef designs the menu, supervises the place for six months, then checks out and it all goes to shit. Or, it may just go the route so many have gone lately of doing updated comfort foods, usually at upscale prices (i.e., The Royal, New Yorker John Delucie's short-lived venture at the Raleigh itself, or Geoffrey Zakarian's Tudor House in the new/old Dream Hotel).

Even then, there are things about Michael's Genuine that I suspect will come through in any format as long as Chef Schwartz is involved - in particular, the focus on sourcing ingredients and doing things in-house. But maybe, just maybe, the Raleigh actually becomes a reason for locals to brave their way back into South Beach.[*]

[*]Like it or not, the pendulum does seem to be swinging its way back toward South Beach. Pubbelly is colonizing its corner of Sunset Harbor with the upcoming Pubbelly Sushi and Barceloneta. Chef Jeff McInnis ditched Gigi in Midtown and will be opening Yardbird Southern Table and Bar on the Beach. Speaking of which, haven't heard much of late about the Gigi-megalopolis supposedly being planned for Lincoln Road. So apropos of the "Return to South Beach," a brief rant, if I may, on two particular service issues I recently experienced there which reminded me why I venture into the heart of SoBe so infrequently.

(1) If I've made a reservation for 7:30, and my full party shows up at 7:30, and the restaurant is nowhere close to filled at 7:30 - don't send me off to the lounge to wait "until the table is ready." It is inexplicable other than as a transparent ploy to coerce diners into buying a drink. And when three of the five diners in my party are children, it ought to be recognized as a useless ploy anyway. This is a terrible way to introduce yourself to your customers, one step removed from simply saying "Give us your money and go fuck yourself."

(2) If I'm going to have to pay $20 for the privilege of valet parking at your hotel restaurant, since there are usually no other viable parking options in the heart of South Beach and the restaurant doesn't offer any validation to get a discounted rate, that $20 should at least buy me the right not to have my stereo changed to crappy, blaring hip-hop when I get my car back. For $20, you can put up with my musical selections during the 20 minutes it invariably takes for you to retrieve my car.

Of course, these things will never happen at any restaurant Chef Schwartz runs. Right? My fingers are crossed.

1 comment:

  1. I'm curious as well of the extent of Schwartz's F&B duties here. Assuming he won't be sitting in the office of the Food and Beverage Director overseeing room service, all outlets, his beverage staff, organizing banquets and executing them, making sure his managers are getting their employee reviews done on time, acting as the liason between sales, accounting and all of the other departments, overseeing the employee cafeteria, sitting in Executive Committee meetings... you get the idea. Just what does being 'in charge of F&B' mean exactly here. This is not to say, of course, that Chef Schwartz is not capable of this. It's simply a matter of time restraints with all of his other very involved projects. Many times a chef attaches himself to a restaurant within a hotel, and does not have to dirty his hands with all of the other political and time-consuming BS.
    Granted, I know very little about the Raleigh (translated: nothing), but just curious to see through the media lingo on this subject.