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.
Michelle Bernstein's at the Omphoy
Michelle Bernstein's at the Omphoy, 2842 S. Ocean Blvd., Palm Beach. Open for dinner 5:30 to 10 p.m. daily. Call 561-540-6450, or click here.
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).
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?
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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.
And still, there was MB's staff giving a wink. A chuckle. A friendly little "gotcha." A reminder that, even in Palm Beach, disposition trumps drama. By proving she can convert any one of us, Bernstein has made the transition from Miami's gal to Florida's woman in style. We're so lucky to have her.