If you care about food and have been in Miami for more than 305 seconds, you’ve heard about homegrown chef Michelle Bernstein. The James Beard Award-winning talent has carved out her culinary niche, celebrating Miami’s uniqueness and her Jewish-Latina heritage, at places like Azul, her own Michy’s, Crumb on Parchment and recurring pop-up gigs at Art Basel.
Seagrape — Bernstein’s latest venture with husband David Martinez at the new Thompson Miami Beach — is a made-in-Florida fit. The two-tiered, indoor-outdoor restaurant embraces our sunny past with the simple elegance of Giò Ponti-inspired mid-century modern furniture and terrazzo floors.
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It’s fun to find a place that celebrates local bounty and beauty, but that shouldn’t be an anomaly in Miami. Let’s focus on food.
Beginning with a complimentary basket of warm, fluffy Parker House rolls and crispy flatbread, Seagrape diverts from the tired dinner norm with three rousing accompaniments. Along with creamy, soft butter is a clever South Florida surf-and-turf tribute of pickled root vegetables and a mild mahi-snapper spread with crème fraîche and dill.
Seagrape’s raw bar doesn’t play regional favorites, giving equal time to oysters from both coasts and Maine lobster along with local ceviche and tartare. The ceviche changes daily, based on what’s fresh. We lucked out with wahoo as the star on one of our visits. The firm, snow-white chunks and sliced mini-peppers soaked up the hot chile oil and sour orange juice, a pink broth accented with the salty crunch of roasted Peruvian corn kernels.
A pricey “steakhouse” menu heading features four choices: skirt, filet, New York strip and rib-eye. They’re sourced from longtime Clewiston rancher Jackman Cane and Cattle Co., which started siring Angus-type cows with Japanese Black Wagyu bulls 13 years ago to produce high-grade, Kobe-style beef. The simply seasoned, aged, bone-in strip we tried was sufficiently moist and perfectly cooked, paired with a silky potato purée. My advice? Save your dollars for the real Kobe and focus on what Bernstein does best.
That begins with a “nosh” appetizer of squash blossom, its skin blistered with spots of charred goodness. The vegetable is gussied up with a stuffing of corn grits and baby corn, surrounded by layers of flavor from a smooth, rich shrimp mousseline sauce and an aromatic seafood nage. This could be a show-stopper once the kitchen begins salting them consistently and with less of a heavy hand.
Also worthy: Coriander roasted red and yellow beets hidden amid airy greens. The salad is anchored by a creamy avocado hummus, cool cucumbers and tart sumac-flavored yogurt. Fried chickpeas scattered throughout are a creative gesture at nutty texture, but instead serve only as odd, dry reminders of Corn Pops.
On the heavier side, lamb chops delivered layers of depth, served on a bed of couscous-like fregola pasta jazzed up with spicy yogurt, rich fried sweetbreads and tart dabs of lemon confiture. A sweet balsamic reduction that overwhelmed the dish kept it just shy of perfect.
Squiggly housemade garganelli pasta in a long-stewed tomato sauce, dotted with gooey burrata, parmesan chips and fresh basil, kept the comfort level high.
The entrée I’ll return for is the crispy-skin Florida snapper, light and moist with a charred exterior, served on mini paella rice cakes. Small squares of shrimp, ground and smoked like chorizo, add inventive, tangy spice to the dish. A small pitcher of sofrito broth is poured mofongo-style over the fish, turning it into a steamy, delicate bouillabaisse.
Don’t-miss desserts include dreamy beignet-like fluffy doughnuts stuffed with guayaba-and-cream paste and dusted with fine sugar. A multipage, French-leaning wine list has some interesting options in the $40-$60 range, but most bottles, especially reds, fetch three figures.
Young servers are polite if slightly unpolished, and Bernstein’s supervisory role unfortunately means she isn’t always in the kitchen (when she’s not, chef de cuisine Steven Rojas runs the show).
Still, the posh, unpretentious Seagrape is on its way to becoming one of South Florida’s authentic treasures.
Critics dine anonymously at the Miami Herald’s expense. Follow Jodi Mailander Farrell on Twitter: @JodiMailander.