Michelle Bernstein's at the Omphoy First Impressions
|Michy B looking dead sexy in the kitchen.|
Last weekend, perhaps Miami's best-known restaurateur, Michelle Bernstein, made the trip up north to Palm Beach and debuted her new restaurant, MB at the Omphoy. From her days at Tantra and Azul to the opening of her flagship restaurant, Michy's, in 2005, Bernstein has long captivated Miami with simple, elegant dishes that draw from her Latino background. In 2007, Bernstein was awarded the coveted James Beard Award for Best New Chef South, only a year after Michy's was crowned Food & Wine's Best New Restaurant and was listed among Gourmet's Top 50 in the country. Last year, Bernstein followed up her successes at Michy's by launching Sra. Martinez, a tapas spot in the Miami Design District that's garnered a host of great reviews.
And now, it's our turn to get a share of the stunning Latino-Jewish chef -- well, not us, specifically, but the well-to-do enclave of Palm Beach Island. Her fourth restaurant is in the brand new Omphoy Resort, a sort of miniature hotel and spa shadowed between the Four Seasons and a private resort along the beach. There hasn't been much released in the way of a menu for MB's. A few news releases sent out have said it would feature largely seafood and Mediterranean-inspired dishes, but if that's not a vague description in South Florida, I don't know what is.
The mystery doesn't stop at the restaurant. The resort arrived with little fanfare. And there's not much in the way of signage to direct visitors, which seems intentional: When I called the Omphoy after passing its address a second time, the receptionist told me, "Yes, it's sort of hidden. They wanted to give the resort a very private feel." Finally, I found the long driveway leading past a very municipal-looking pool building (at least from the roadside), which in turn hid the dark-hued resort from road traffic.
Once you find it, the Omphoy is certainly a unique-looking resort. A smooth, onyx-colored facade and dark-tinted doors open in to a foyer that's confounding and mesmerizing all at once. It's dark and sexy, lined with odd shapes that never seem to meet parallel to one another. Mirrors and glass abound and direct lighting is minimal; almost everything is back lit. A staircase up past the front desk houses a pool beneath with what looks like an exotic cave structure trickling water. The entire effect is one of concealment, as if every design decision was made to hide dimension, to take you out of place and time. There's a certain seductive, majestically infernal quality to it all. I think they pegged Palm Beach just right.
The restaurant is up another flight of stairs by the zig-zagging bar, past a pool table and waiting lounge. It too is all back lighting; dark blue pillars serving as focal points in each of the dining room's four quarters. The whole east wall is decked in dark tinted, floor-to-ceiling windows. In the late afternoon you can see out of them, but since MB is not open for lunch, there isn't much time to catch light from outside. At night, the glass resembles a black abyss, a refracting portal that never seems to stop. As such it's difficult to tell just how large the room is. You feel simultaneously alone and surrounded, even as we were ushered to a white-draped booth by the northern edge.
The menu is small and rotates daily -- both the wine and drink lists are larger. Apparently, much of the herbs and vegetables are culled from a rooftop garden, which, coupled with the day's fresh seafood haul, informs the menu choices. There are three salads, three crudos, and about eight starters and entrees each, many of which seem inspired from Bernstein's other restaurants; all of them being extraordinarilly simple (asparagus with poached egg, braised short rib, seafood tagliatelle, boulliabase, fried chicken). We decided to start with something from the garden, a simple salad of butter lettuce and escarole with strips of anise-flavored fennel, crisp radish, and some very mild nicoise olives ($9). Clean, crisp, fresh, especially with a dressing of lemon juice and (grapeseed?) oil and not much else. I could hardly resist the draw of Bernstein's sweetbreads ($14) -- the woman knows her way around some thymus, as regulars at Michy's will tell you. Here, the preparation is pretty classic -- breaded and fried to a uniform crisp, and dressed with a sort of caper and lemon supreme gremolada. The supple, oblong gland is perfectly cooked, melting and delicious against the supremely crisp coating. MB keeps it raised off the plate slightly with a stack of julianned carrots and string beans, a sort of crude crudite with the addition of ranch dressing on the bottom. The whole thing reminded me of chicken wings... in a good way, I guess. I would probably skip the ranch next time, however.
Another offal entry: seared foie gras on a folded pancake with a sweet, salty maple sauce and razor-thin slices of apple ($20). It's a playful dish made more serious by the excellent presentation and the intense flavor -- there's a sear on the duck liver that would make Malliard proud, lending the caramelized liver a concentrated, almost beefy flavor. Great stuff.
We sipped on a few drinks from the bar as we waited for our main courses, an aum-foy (gin, grapefruit, basil, $12) and a nacional (cucumber, tequila, chile, $12), the first of which was a fine drink. The nacional, however, well... it sucked, to put it bluntly. The cucumber was faint, the chile non-existant. It slinked closer to margarita territory than anything else. While we imbibed, Michelle Bernstein emerged from the kitchen and made a few controlled passes around the dining room in a white chefs coat and long white skirt that matched the servers.
For our entrees, we stuck to seafood: Malaysian curried snapper with hearts of palm "slaw" ($25), and salt-encrusted dorade (sea-bream) with thin mash and wilted spinach, perhaps a riff on steakhouse cuisine ($29). The snapper I didn't really want to order, but my companion did -- it sounded sort of boring, plus I felt the curry might overpower the fish, though our waitress (who was extremely well-versed in the menu for day four or five) assured us it would not. She was right, though I didn't really love it. The curry was more of a light broth infused with lemongrass and spices, which went nicely with the white flesh of the snapper. And the hearts of palm I dug deeply, though it was less a slaw than a sort of pico de gallo ladelled into empty cylanders of the tart fruit. Accompanying sticky rice added some body, I'm just not sure this dish really excelled beyond something passingly interesting.
The dorade, on the other hand, was sublime. A busboy had brought it out whole, still encased in salt for inspection, then hauled it back to the kitchen to plate. They could've done a better job in that department, as the filets were cut off and arrived loosely stacked atop one another above a very messy spread of whipped potatoes and a hastilly sided stack of spinach. But the flavors were fantastic. The dorade was wonderfully oceanic, firm and meaty and moist all at once. There were flecks of large-grain sea salt on top that you wouldn't get with each bite, resulting in little waves of pleasure between the simple, pure flavors of the sea and then explosions of salinity. The mash was really interesting too: basically a starchified transport for sweet cream butter. I'd order this again and again.
We wrapped up our meal with a cup of French press coffee and two desserts, a tray of ganache-filled donut holes sided with coffee pudding and a 66% dark chocolate tart with fig sabayon ice cream($7 each) -- the ice cream was extraordinary, in silky texture and in lucious fig flavor. I'd skip the rest next time. All told, service knocked it out of the park considering this was the first week. They were gracious, helpful, and -- best of all -- amazingly friendly. We ended up talking to one of our servers (we had two) Dupree, throughout the night. Really funny, awesome guy. And the kitchen did well, too -- I really liked the simplicity of everything, the willingness to let ingredients speak on their own. Some might find it predictable, and maybe, in a way, it is. But since the rest of the resort experience is so mysterious, MB's is a fine dose of reality in an a stretch of Palm Beach that already has its fair share of pretense and illusion.