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Someone's in the kitchen with Michael Blum. Like 40 or 50 someones. You don't have to go behind the scenes to find out what's really going on at Michael's Kitchen: Just take a front row seat at the bar, or sink into one of the nearby leather banquettes, and watch the chefs go at it from a couple of feet away. This kitchen is wide open. When it comes time to write his tell-all biography, Blum might not have many secrets left to air.
But that's the way he likes it. The Hollywood chef wants your restaurant experience to be like a night out at a Broadway musical or the Folies Bergère. There should be thrills (flames leaping around a sizzling New York strip) and chills (your first bite of a dense chocolate ice cream cake). And he wants this show to have a long, long run.
Michael's Kitchen opened in Hollywood in late December 2004, to great expectations -- including prayers from the City of Hollywood: The CRA kicked in $150,000 for a project officials hoped would become a centerpiece of downtown dining. They also included the big dreams of chef Michael Blum and his wife, Jennie, who'd scraped together an additional million dollars with the help of partners Andy and Mina Savvidas (Savvidas owns 11th Street Diner in Miami). Add to that the crossed fingers of hundreds of happy customers who'd become regulars at the original Michael's Kitchen in Dania Beach, and there was a bucket of high hopes.
So far, those hopes haven't been dashed. The place is already packed nightly; it's almost impossible to get in on weekends. Before Michael's opened, Blum told us that he wanted to create a restaurant that's "all about the show." He's succeeded. The beautiful open kitchen, flames from the grill reflecting off stainless steel walls; the built-in ovens and state-of-the-art ranges where chefs perform choreographed culinary feats -- they're as much an attraction as the food. Blum calls it "Cirque de Soleil dining."
"This is big-city type food, it's in your face," Blum says. "We're not trying to be the neighborhood diner."
The style may be big city, but even so, there's not an ounce of discernable pretense. Although we had to wait a few minutes past our 7:45 p.m. reservation, the staff bent over backwards and forwards throughout what turned into a very long meal to make us feel as pampered as A-list celebs.
The building, on the corner at 2000 Harrison St., is a pretty pale-pink confection -- Corinthian columns and a mosaic tile entry. It was originally designed for Big Pink, but after the Miami restaurant, and several others, got cold feet, this stunning space sat empty. The Blums gutted almost everything, preserving the original mosaic floor, adding the front bar, the open kitchen, a glowing, transparent, floor-to-ceiling wine cooler, and a refurbished back room as an intimate space for private parties. They chose warm colors and fiery lighting -- oranges, yellows, leather banquettes the color of dulce de leche.
Ten years ago at his Dania Beach location, Blum, who'd graduated from the Culinary Institute of America, was selling takeout prepared meals, baked goods, and peddling muffins to local restaurants. By 2001, the Blums had expanded twice, built up their catering business, and set their slogan, "A cure for boring food," on the radars of politicians, sports figures, and national food critics. (The original restaurant, which did a stint briefly as Michael's Grill while the new place was being planned, is now closed.) So Blum was well prepped to make his leap into the limelight.
If the City of Hollywood wants to lure the rich and famous to fill those upscale condos now breaking ground, they'll need the kinds of local chefs who can make you go "ooooh." And Blum knows how to do that: His menu isn't particularly focused, but it trots confidently across the globe, nodding at American Southern and Northeastern, Mediterranean, Asian, and European cuisines -- from pecan coated grouper to braised lamb shank and specials like osso bucco. Many of these dishes appeared in earlier incarnations at the Dania Beach location. Some appetizers and entrées are plated on big floor tiles, and the chefs show flair with design. The showbiz angle is all in the presentation; even the lowliest bite looks spectacular.
A chewy, pretzel-like roll came warm to the table while we perused our menus over a couple of glasses of wine and the night's special berry martini. (Michael's list of several hundred wines leans toward U.S vintners but dips, like the menu, into international waters: Australia, Israel, Greece, New Zealand, Europe, the Americas.) We finally settled on four appetizers: a firecracker yellowfin tuna martini ($14); crispy dusted calamari ($11); kalamata olive-marinated and grilled filet kabobs ($9), and a spinach, artichoke, shrimp, and boursin cheese dip ($10).
The kitchen had permanently struck one appetizer from the menu, the $60 "Seafood Split Banana Style," a medley of fresh shellfish that we'd wanted to order. Thank God, because what came from the kitchen was roughly enough food for our entire meal plus a week's worth of leftovers. It got a little embarrassing when our server, plus her back-up brigade, tried to fit it all on our table.