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Imagine walking into a hardware store, asking a clerk to point you in the direction of the hammers, and having him say something like, "Well, I'm not really into hammers. Can I show you something in a wrench?" Or fancy, when shopping for a car, a sales associate who confesses he's never driven one also tells you the Kia gives a luxury ride. Or worse, perhaps, sitting in a salon and watching your stylist wield his scissors in a manner that suggests he's never cut anyone's hair before but is certainly not about to tell you.
This is the response I get when I take my seat in Michael's Kitchen in the Publix complex in Dania Beach, scan the well-informed and superbly priced wine list, and either query about or order a vintage: cheerful, blithe ineptitude. On one occasion, when I asked about a vin rouge, the waiter told me he had no idea because he was a beer drinker and didn't care for wine. Fair enough, I suppose, but then why return to the table a few minutes later and offer in complete ignorance, "If you need help with the wine list, just let me know"?
Singular daftness aside, other servers who don't even look old enough to be uncorking the stuff legally do not know how to present vintages, open bottles, or prepare tastes. On another visit, after fumbling with the screw-pull and putting her thumbs in our glasses, the waitress poured the first sip of Rodney Strong sauvignon blanc for my dining partner, despite the fact that I'd ordered the wine. I assume this was because my guest was a man and therefore far more qualified than I to judge whether or not the wine was spoiled.
Of course it's not the first (nor unfortunately will it be the last) time I have encountered uneducated wine servers. And none of this would be a problem in, say, a diner, where the casual comfort food is of issue and even wine drinkers generally opt for tap water. But while the nomenclature of Michael's Kitchen, the colorful décor, and the reasonable prices indicate that the eatery is a drop-in-for-a-bite kind of café, offerings such as the ancho chili-glazed double pork chop with smashed potatoes, Granny Smith apples, and sun-dried cherries are more upscale in tone. As a result Michael's is not only about modern American food, it is also very much about the terrific wines that should accompany such contemporary fare. You need only take a hint from the Far Niente cases that hold retail gourmet goods or sit at one of the painted wooden tables in front of the extensive wine refrigerators in the back to guess that the menu would, as it does, provide delicious and ample choices.
So assuming that the ages of the young-looking staff members are copacetic, some wine schooling would be in order. And a little diplomacy training couldn't hurt, either. As the last customers in the place one night, we were the lucky recipients of some of the day's baked goods -- oversize chocolate-chip muffins, among other treats -- which the waiter threw in with our leftovers. But when we thanked him in surprise, he said, "Oh don't worry about it. We would have just thrown them out anyway."
That said, I don't think upscale graciousness is the atmosphere chef-proprietor Michael Blum seeks. A hip young chef who wears a baseball cap (backwards, natch) rather than a toque and dresses his staff in tie-dyed T-shirts, Blum seems to be aiming at the untapped thirtysomething Dania Beach and Hollywood Hills populations. He started his business as a home-meal replacement market and expanded when demand for his products increased exponentially, opening his dining room only about six weeks ago.
Some of the loveliest details from that period of his career are still evident. Side salads that accompany sandwiches are scooped right from display cases, so you can see what you're getting beforehand, and each leftover package is appliquéd with Michael's logo and tag line: "The Cure for Boring Food."
No doubt locals are grateful for Michael's expansion; customers strike up conversations with one another to exchange notes on dishes they might try on the next visit. One couple told me that they wish the place had existed when they lived right down the street, because they would have been in every night for dinner. And in many respects, Michael's beckons as a second home for regulars. One can sup casually on barbecue; the "sloppy Spencer," a generous portion of tangy pulled pork on a kaiser roll, and the honey-enhanced barbecued ribs were some of the most savory items, and I could see myself revisiting time and again for them. Pastas, such as the spaghetti and meatballs, were overly generous portions, sauced with an onion-heavy marinara laced with fresh basil and Superball-size meatballs manageable rather than monstrous. Along with a caesar salad garnished with aromatic rosemary croutons, this pile-o'-pasta could easily serve two. A pan-seared skirt steak topped with mashed garlic made for a simple but flavorful meal, and innovative gourmet brick-oven pizzas such as the "B-L-T" -- apple wood-smoked bacon, Asiago and mozzarella cheeses, grape tomatoes, and baby greens -- works either as entrées or shared starters.