By David Minsky
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It's impossible to know whom I'm surrounded by. There are likely real estate magnates, local politicos, social sceners, and their hangers-on. They look like Palm Beach's version of Dynasty, complete with well-dressed skeletons taking tea in closets bigger than your house. Here they are at Michelle Bernstein's at the Omphoy, downing fried chicken and grits, pancakes with foie gras, and doughnuts stuffed with chocolate ganache. They're each smiling wide, chuckling as they pick up food with their hands and then wipe their fingers off on white cloth napkins tucked neatly into the collars of their thousand-dollar suits. And I can't help but laugh.
Not that these wealthy elite are the butt of some breaded, deep-fried joke. On the contrary, everyone dining at the fourth restaurant from Miami-based Bernstein is just as amused as I am. There's a startling amount of humor at play here; there has to be in a resort restaurant that sells 48-hour marinated fried chicken with "all the trimmings" for $27 (that includes cheesy grits, collard greens, and biscuits and gravy rich enough to come with a complimentary bypass). But the effect of Bernstein's new digs on Palm Beach is something like the movie Pleasantville: A town that was previously seeing things in black and white just got a little Miami style. Now all anybody wants to do is swig down caipirinhas and do unconscionable things to one another in the middle of the street.
Compared to Palm Beach, Miami takes itself far less seriously. The Magic City's nightlife scene is rich with pantomime; even its classiest eateries are so puffed full of humid air that you could float Star Island away on the fumes. But what Bernstein managed to do — first as chef at Azul, then at her trademark Upper East Side kitchen, Michy's — is cut through all that. The local girl with the affinity for croquetas and offal struck at the pearlescent core of what Miami really is — one of the many reasons she was nominated for a James Beard Award three times before winning Best Chef in the South in 2008. Her food is simple and confident, borrowed from Latin culture and a soul-food heritage and inspired by the bounty of land and sea. It's the culinary equivalent of a cafecito during one of Florida's brilliant orange-red sunsets. To eat a dish of her duck confit or melting short ribs or white gazpacho is to gaze into her easy smile framed with tightly curled hair and drift away.
Having made the trip to Palm Beach — a place awash with a different sort of sin — Bernstein is more self-assured than ever. Arriving there, however, is another matter. The restaurant is secured far past the Omphoy's dark lobby, past a quiet bar and terrace eatery, and up a relatively unmarked flight of stairs. Everything within the dining space seems to mask dimension — backlighting, mirrors, and angles abound. Against the far wall is a black void of windows that, during the day, showcases a panoramic view of the ocean. At night, it projects the nothingness of the dark Atlantic. The sum is a room with an amazing capacity for making you feel unseen; a place where you can drop your guard without worry.
Bernstein's menu has that effect too. It's divided into four sections — salads, crudos, starters, and mains — and much of what appears here is culled from her namesake Miami restaurant. All of it is ingredient-driven and changes daily based on harvests from the restaurant's rooftop garden and the availability of fresh seafood. And Bernstein is also trying to get hip to her new customers. For example, you'll still find Michy's famous sweetbreads on the menu. Only here, instead of being dusted with fennel and napped in fava bean pesto, they're coated and fried to a gorgeous crunch ($14). The daily-changing menu dictates whether the supple gland is served with braised fennel or livened with lemon and caper gremolata and set above ranch-smothered crudités (like some alternate-universe version of a Buffalo wing). Either way, it's a dish designed to entice trust funders as much as offalcentric foodists.
I've visited Michelle Bernstein's twice — once just days after the resort opened in September when Bernstein walked the dining room and again this month, when she wasn't out front. Each time, though, her presence loomed over the place — unlike other celeb chef restaurants where, for all you know, the eponymous host never once stepped into the line. Her well-trained staff floats around the room as if suspended by hooks and pulleys. You'll likely have several different waiters at any given time, some swiftly taking your order and answering questions in great detail, others sweeping your table of crumbs and refilling drinks. Regardless of who's on point, the service is charming and unpretentious.
It's also efficient. On our first visit, our cocktails from the bar took maybe ten minutes to arrive, a delay that prompted the manager to comp my aum-foy ($13) made with gin, grapefruit, and basil. I would've paid for the well-mixed drink twice. The same isn't true of the nacional ($13), a too-bland mix of cucumber, tequila, and chilies. A safer bet is to stick with the wine menu, which is impressively deep and varied with bottles broken down by region and ranging from $30 to $250. By-the-glass options include several at or below $10, such as a stunningly crisp Albariño from Abadia de San Campio ($11).