Thanks to the farm-to-table movement — and the countless growers, farmers' markets and niche distributors that support it — any chef who wants to get his or her hands on seasonal ingredients like English peas, radish, mint and pea tendrils need simply place an order. It's what happens next that separates the pros from the rubes. In the kitchen of Michael's Genuine, for example, they become spring pea toast ($11), a vernal haiku without a single extraneous component. Atop a shingle of hearty toast are light-as-air layers of minty mashed peas and fluffy burrata. Strategically placed slivers of radish bring crunch to every bite, while a sifting of orange zest conjures warm Miami breezes.
Up until now, the only celebrity chefs to truly plant a flag in Cleveland were born and bred here. Chef Michael Schwartz is a bona fide celebrity, but he lives in South Florida, where his ever-expanding collection of eateries has earned him the title of Best Chef according to the James Beard Foundation. To make a splash in splashy Miami you need to be able to cut through the clutter, and Schwartz does that by dishing up electric food that is in step with the seasons.
Step inside Michael's Genuine at Van Aken District and you're immersed in the same colorful energy that has made the original a smash hit for a dozen years. At 65 seats, the buzzy neighborhood bistro is small compared to most contemporary restaurants, but the space is broken up into distinct zones. An open stud wall separates the bar and lounge from the dining room, which itself is anchored at one end by an exposed kitchen with wood-fired oven. Depending on one's mood, the restaurant can be described as intimate or cramped.
Schwartz has a knack for devising globally inspired menus that are simultaneously approachable and thrilling. Options range literally from a single oyster on the half shell on up to large-format dishes like wood-fired steak for two. It is precisely the kind of roster that will keep diners coming back for more, even in the very same outing. Dunk fat wedges of grilled sourdough into a seductive fondue-like ooze comprised of baked egg yolks ($8) enriched with cream and cheese. Move on to the warm-spiced, ground lamb-stuffed roasted onion ($15) while you wait for a wood-oven pizza ($15) so good that it launched an entire brand. If you're lucky, you'll still have some of that cheesy, yolky goodness to dunk the pizza crusts into because, why not?
I love a chef who isn't afraid of spice. The wood-roasted octopus ($17) is a balls-out presentation that sets a chili-rubbed, flame-kissed tentacle against a cool slick of crema. While weighty, the meat is perfectly cooked to a tender finish. Eggplant ($11) is rarely sexy, but once again that wood-fueled oven transforms the humble aubergine into a lushly textured, assertively spiced dish that should not be overlooked.
Peas so pert they pop when you bite them elevate a seasonal pasta ($16) into a flawlessly composed plate bursting with spring flavors, textures and colors. This symphony in green combines squiggly fresh pasta with diced asparagus, leafy greens, garlicky pesto and salty grated cheese. There's a solid burger ($17) on the menu, this one topped with cheddar and house-smoked bacon. A juicy roast half chicken ($24) nails everything but the crispy skin. The white and dark meat pieces are paired with pan juices, seasonal veggies and a kicky green olive salsa verde.
Whole roast fish (MP) can suffer all manner of calamities, but the stunner served here is a joy to see and eat. A prize-catch snapper is meaty, essentially bone-free and blistered from the wood oven. A squeeze from the juicy grilled lemons is all the sweet flesh needs to reach its purpose.
Snacks and starters are delivered to the table as they're ready, but main dishes tend to arrive in concert.
For now, chef de cuisine Vinnie Cimino is following his boss's lead in terms of food, with many of the recipes hailing from the Miami kitchen, but diners can expect more latitude and freedom of expression down the road.
Service appeared to be on overdrive, with more than enough staffers and managers on hand to anticipate every need and desire. When a dining companion tipped her half-empty glass of red wine, it was cleaned up and topped off before you could say, "Salud!" While friends who dined separately reported slight hiccups — seatings 30 minutes or more after scheduled reservations, a party of three being seated at a two-top, servers who briskly asked for orders without volunteering descriptions of dishes and portion sizes — they also noted the staff's corresponding gestures to make up for those minor mishaps: a complimentary glass of champagne while they waited, gratis snacks upon arriving at their table, etc.
I'm looking forward to bypassing the dining room altogether for a seat at the sleek, angular bar. It's the ideal spot to enjoy a carafe of French rose ($28), some salty snacks like house-fried chips and dip ($8) or crunchy chili-dusted hominy ($7) and take in the scene. As far as scenes go, it's pretty wild.