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A meal at MB's is governed by an amazing amount of precision. Plates arrive at the exact moment they're meant to and with no less than a parade of servers to hoist them. When a table of six nearby received their entrées, the procession of dishes was like someone was being knighted. I watched their eager faces as I settled into an ordinary pleasure of thin-sliced wheat bread with sweet cream butter. Immediately after, we were gifted with fennel and arugula salad, a dish of clarifying simplicity plucked fresh from the garden and dressed with the faintest hint of lemon and olive oil ($11). My companion's salad of butter lettuce with housemade jalapeño ranch dressing ($11) sported slivers of avocado so creamy, it made me wonder why people choose to mash the stuff and serve it with chips.
Embracing simplicity doesn't stop at the garden. Bernstein has a knack for transforming pure flavors into something profound, and nowhere is this more evident than with her preparation of fish. Each day, the restaurant showcases three or four fresh selections, and each receives treatment befitting its character: Robust, fatty black cod ($29) is pan-seared and set among fruity pomegranate seeds and salty-sweet wheat berries fashioned into a chewy risotto; dorade, a delicate fish culled from the waters of the Mediterranean ($29), is encased in sea salt and baked until sweet and tender.
Our dorade arrived from the kitchen swaddled in that mountain of salt, and eyes from all across the room met it on the way. After presentation, the wait staff took the fish back to the line to fillet it, then set it above a smear of mashed potatoes whorled with enough sweet butter to suggest that the restaurant keeps a dairy cow on the roof along with the garden. "Isn't that salty?" asked a woman at the table next to us. Not at all, I told her. The salt crust works similar to steaming, sealing in juices and preventing the flesh from drying out.
In some cases, the restaurant's gambit with the locals seems like it has a long way to go. On another visit, I was eating the cod and imagining an alternate life as an Alaskan boat captain when a table nearby was presented a whole, fried yellowtail snapper. The recipient, a well-quaffed Lady of the Island, had no clue how to work her way around the animal, head on in all its glory. One of the waiters politely showed her how to remove the fillets, and the look in her eyes was something like being told for the first time that the Easter Bunny doesn't exist. So this is how fish gets made?
The staff is well-aware, though, of the challenges a whole fish presents to someone who's never eaten at a Cuban fish fry. And it's quick to plant less adventurous diners on their feet and point them toward entrées like Michy's famous fried chicken ($27), New York strip steak ($38), or braised short ribs ($29). Each is comforting, yes, but Bernstein's methods are more complex than that. With the strip steak, she presents an inch-thick slab of ruby-hued meat that could please the most finicky of sensibilities and then kicks it into the stratosphere with the addition of bone marrow butter. And you need only glance around the busy room to see the draw of her fried chicken marinated in mustard and buttermilk — just watch for the trail of servers clearing bits of deep-fried debris from the tables of newly minted 50-year-old children.
It's there that MB's becomes truly spectacular: in those dishes that weave whimsy into the familiar, that confirm your beliefs while placating your fears. Two of my dinner companions were foie gras virgins, but a round of the stuff mounted atop a single, folded pancake ($20) was enough to persuade them to try it. They were instantly sold. The rich duck liver is imbued with maple syrup and seared so well that it acts like a crème brûlée, it's crunchy coating hiding the sweet-savory pudding beneath. "I've tried three things today I never thought I would," remarked my friend, a guy who practices law by day in downtown West Palm. Is he changed for life? Who knows — this time next year, he could be facing down a foie gras habit so deep that Hudson Valley will dispatch a flock of hit geese to collect.
This is where Bernstein truly gets her hooks in. You can't help but leave the restaurant feeling a change in alignment. Even if you tried to slip out of that dark foyer unchanged, back into the mysterious anonymity of the island, your waiters — that tricky lot — would stop you. All they would have to do is drop a dessert menu and a sly nod and you'd be theirs again. And so we sat, lingering over a glass of 10-year-old port and completely giving in to a plate of ricotta cheesecake with Concord grape sorbet, a purple ball of ice that was the very essence of ripe fruit. With it came vivid memories: grape jam, Italian ice, the hot Florida sun. You couldn't pry our grins away with a crowbar.