Kitchen Confident

Joe Rocco

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.


Michael's Kitchen

2000 Harrison St, Hollywood, 954-926-5556.

Open 5 to 10 p.m. Tuesday, Wednesday, and Sunday; 5 to 11 p.m. Thursday through Saturday (bar open until 2 a.m.) Closed Monday.

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.

My yellowfin martini was beautiful: meltingly tender pink chunks of tuna and mandarin oranges set delicately in a giant martini glass over crisp rice noodles. It was topped with a bit of seaweed salad and four chopsticks protruding like the decorative sticks in a geisha's hairdo. And scattered around on the tile beneath: wakame salad of cucumber and mandarins, a squiggle of spicy chili sauce, black sesame seeds, more seaweed, and a pile of pickled ginger. The tuna was spicy hot, lightly tossed in a ginger-wasabi marinade, tempered and sweetened by cool mandarin oranges.

The crispy calamari was also a success: huge, chewy rings, finely crisped on the outside, piled high and served with a rosemary-spiked lemon and a drizzle of pommery lemon aioli. After a quick conference, four of us concluded that these were probably the best calamari anywhere within driving distance. But we could have used more of that aioli -- the drizzle was barely enough to dab at, just a teaser.

The kabobs, also served on a big tile, were tender, fragrant filets grilled on a skewer. A fresh cucumber salad with mint, plus black olives and feta cheese were artfully scattered between two dishes of dipping sauce -- a fatty, garlicky tzatziki yogurt, and another sauce that tasted like tomato confit. If you could manage to get all these elements on your fork at once, you were nibbling at nirvana.

The only appetizer that didn't strike any major chords was the spinach dip. We decided it might have been our mistake to order it. We guessed that the dip is really meant as bar food (Michael's stays open late, serving martinis), and for late-night fare it would have been splendid -- rich and creamy, surrounded by a delightful medley of brightly colored chips (the design of this dish was a knockout, too). Before a fancy dinner, it lacked the pizzazz of our other choices, though.

We were semi-stuffed by the time we'd decimated our appetizers. Four more huge plates arrived, borne by a new brigade of waitrons and chefs. Twin boneless pork chops ($22, a single chop is $16) were tender and sweet, cooked lightly pink. We guessed they'd been brined or marinated to achieve that melting texture. They'd been slathered with a tart, winey demi-glace of Granny Smiths and cranberries reduced to their essence. A dab of mashed potatoes was sublimely creamy, offset by crunchy, curly apple chips. This dish was a study in delicious textural and flavor contrasts.

So was the whole rack of black bean sesame- glazed Asian ribs ($26, or $17 for a half-rack). These are big ribs, and the meat just falls off the bone, sweet, savory, smoky. It's served with fried rice made with applewood bacon and vegetables. The dish had the hearty heft of American barbecue married to the exotic flavors of the Orient.

We were less enthusiastic about our other entrées. Filet mignon fusilli ($27) was composed, according to the menu, of slices of filet, multicolored peppers, shallots, asparagus, and roasted garlic tossed with virgin oil, brown butter, sage, and finished with aged balsamic vinegar. But the elements were introverted, keeping to themselves -- they should have been having a party, or better yet, an orgy. The liquid was too thin to really coat the pasta -- a long fusilli might have worked better, or perhaps fresh rather than dried pasta. The asparagus was slightly bitter; the filet, cooked medium, was wasted. For the price, it wasn't a showstopper.

Neither was the Hollywood pizza ($13): smoked salmon, chives, boursin cheese, capers, and caviar. It tasted more or less like your Sunday morning bagel with lox and cream cheese. Like the spinach dip, it's quality bar food and would be dandy for a late night bite with an ice cold shot of vodka. I just wouldn't order it again for dinner.

Dessert comes as an ice cream cake, big enough to serve four -- chocolate, strawberry, or apple. They'd run out of the apple, so we went for strawberry ($10.00), layers of fresh whipped cream, vanilla white cake, and strawberry ice cream. I wasn't much impressed with this concoction, except possibly as a fancy birthday party offering for eight-year-olds. I yearned for a more sophisticated way to end such a gorgeous meal: a fancy cheese plate with fruit, an exotically infused ice, maybe a soufflé. But I was outnumbered: the rest of the table was gaga for this ice cream cake, and I was chastened.  

Our final take on Michael's: For pure delectable razzmatazz, it's up there with the very best in the two counties. The service is just wonderful. Our waitress wrapped our millions of packages to take home without a crack in her cheerful good humor; she even replaced an entire order of sushi grade tuna when the kitchen inadvertently threw out our leftovers! She and the entire staff couldn't have been nicer. And the prices (around $200 for four of us including glasses of wine and tip) were beyond reasonable.

A Shakespeare professor I once had explained his grading system like this: An A- is truly outstanding work. But to get an A, you had to give him something he'd never seen before, something he'd never even conceived as possible. Michael's food is, as yet, an A-. This menu is firmly rooted in the zeitgeist; it's not even a little ahead of its time. From Jersey City to Honolulu, from Ashville to San Jose, the best restaurants are serving ceviche martinis, crispy calamari, and pecan-crusted grouper, just like Michael's. Blum is tuned into this network, and he's already proven he knows what will sell in South Florida. But you can't help but wish that a talent like his would take a risk or two with the menu, just nudge it one step higher. It's that willingness to concoct, say, a gêlée of Botrytis Semillon with lavender-infused cream (a weird and wonderful dessert I once had from Jonathan Eismann's kitchen at Pacific Time) that would turn this new kid on the Hollywood block into a star of the first magnitude.

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