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.
Other concepts, however, need to be reworked. For instance, I loved the idea of the complimentary trio of spreads, which comprises chickpea, white bean, and honey butter varieties, and fresh, yeasty breads that precede the meal. But the candelabralike contraption that holds the assortment is bulky and threatens to overwhelm the small two-tops, which are constructed of a mosaic tile that echoes the back wall of the kitchen. Though she was obviously trying to be helpful, our server wanted to place the apparatus on another table nearby so we could have more room; we had to point out that we would then have to get up out of our seats every time we wanted some bread or butter. (Not to reveal my age by paraphrasing Pink Floyd, but hello, is there anybody in there?)
Execution, too, requires a second look. Salads such as the Napa Valley shrimp salad lack cohesiveness. It read well enough -- roasted lemon-dill shrimp, toasted pine nuts, Granny Smith apples, baby spinach, and romaine, all drizzled with balsamic syrup and chive-scented extra virgin olive oil -- but the reality was a plain pile of greens barely tossed with a couple apple slices and a few bland shrimp. The balsamic drizzle was nonexistent, and we had to request a side of salad dressing twice before it appeared. Likewise an appetizer of roasted stuffed artichoke needed some integrity, tasting like nothing more than three ingredients -- lump crab, Asiago cheese, and an artichoke -- placed serendipitously on the same plate.
Of most import, though, is the quality. When Michael's Kitchen functioned as home-meal replacement, a mediocre pantry and cost-efficient habits served their purposes. When they have traveled in a car and are consumed an hour after they were prepared, tough corn-on-the-cob (which in Jersey we'd politely call "cow corn") and gluey mashed potatoes (which are as far from the billed "smashed" as Idaho is from Florida) can be kindly overlooked. But when a lobster martini -- two baby tails poached in vermouth and Dijon mustard and served in an oversize glass -- is too rubbery to comfortably chew and brick oven-baked shrimp in a scampi sauce have a watery texture that suggests they have been frozen and thawed repeatedly, patrons are bound to complain. Our biggest concern was the wild mushroom-and- filet mignon fettuccine, which despite a tasty tomato-red onion demi-glace, tasted spoiled and on the verge of rancid.
If you do encounter a disappointment, don't despair; turn to dessert. Here is where the Kitchen might be better called the Oven, given its assortment of pastries, including an almond-coated apple tart that was as wonderfully heavy on the cinnamon as a vamp is on eye makeup. Frothy coffee drinks and dairy concoctions in kaleidoscopic sundae glasses also finish a meal with both warmth and cool class.
Speaking of class, Blum plans to institute a course called "The Cooking Class Theater," an interactive cooking compendium complete with wines for $75 a person in September. Though I might suggest he perfect his menu before teaching it to others, I have to admire the guy's ambition and note that on determination alone Michael Blum may just make it out of the kitchen and into the dining room.
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