She’s back! Celebrated Miami chef Michelle Bernstein returns with the delicious and locally focused Seagrape.
Chef Michelle Bernstein.
Among the pioneering chefs who set the table for our city’s cornucopia of great restaurants, Michelle Bernstein is the only one born and raised here. So when the Commune Hotels Resorts group needed someone to oversee a “Floridian brasserie” for its newly renovated, 380-room Thompson Miami Beach hotel, it turned to Miami’s quintessential chef to do the job. “Everybody says they’re a ‘Florida restaurant’ these days,” says Bernstein while seated in Seagrape’s sunny 267-seat dining room. “[But] 80 percent of our product [at Seagrape] is homegrown, and we serve only meats and seafood from Florida. Let’s face it, not a lot of restaurants can say that.”
It isn’t only where the product comes from that accords the eatery its local flavor. “The cuisine is made for the people here,” explains the spirited James Beard Foundation Award winner. “We have healthier, vegan, let-me-feel-good-in-my-bathing-suit food.”
She could be speaking of the sashimi, ceviches, and other raw bar selections; or of a kaleidoscopically colorful composition of coriander roasted beets and Persian cucumbers over avocado hummus; or of the ethereal chestnut foam that floats above Blue Hubbard squash agnolotti. There are vinegared heirloom vegetables aplenty in an escabeche that, together with an impossibly silky rendition of mashed potatoes, accompanies whole salt-crusted snapper. The flavors of the pristine filets are exquisite as ocean mist, quietly enhanced with a whisper of Oaxacan recado verde (herbs, olive oil, and lemon juice).
Coriander-roasted beets and Persian cucumbers over avocado hummus at the vegetable forward Seagrape.
Beyond the food being lighter and more vegetable forward than at Bernstein’s prior projects, the new restaurant is also buoyed by the youthful energy of 35-year-old chef de cuisine Steven Rojas, and by the Thompson’s executive sous chef, 36-year-old Jason Schaan. Bernstein is quick to stress Seagrape’s collaborative nature and to deflect credit towards her team. She also confesses to taking something of “a Jewish mother, or maybe a Latin mother approach” (she is both) with them: “A little guilt and a lot of teaching.”
The instincts kick in from the Latin side when it comes to the bone-in rib eye and other grass-fed Jackman Wagyu meats. “Maybe this is the Argentine in me, but if I’m going to order steak, I want the concentration to be on the steak. Maybe I’ll want some fries or mashed potatoes, but let me be the author of my dish. So I kept the steak menu à la carte.”
After dinner, guests may choose to take A Walk in the Woods, one of Executive Pastry Chef Max Santiago’s artistically composed desserts. Dark chocolate Valrhona tree trunks, filled with semifreddo and chocolate crunch pearls, rise from clumps of pistachio sponge cake that resemble moss. The forest scene is colored in with citrus sections, olive oil, and Maldon salt.
Whole salt-crusted snapper with vinegared heirloom vegetables in an escabeche.
Seagrape’s décor is more a walk into beach-y 1950s Florida. Terrazzo floors, light oak woods, and Giò Ponti style chairs reflect the past through a contemporary, pastel-tinted lens. A green marble-topped horseshoe bar provides the main focal point and proffers an eclectic array of cocktails, such as the bracing cardamom-lemongrass daiquiri. Bernstein is ceding the bar side of the business to Director of Beverage Michael MacDonnell, beverage consultant Julio Cabrera, and especially partners Karim Masri and Nicola Siervo of KNR Hospitality Group (The Dutch, Quattro, Cavalli). “Their blood is nightlife,” she says. “They live it. They breathe it. And they also know about restaurants.”
As does Bernstein’s husband, David Martinez, who partners with her on Seagrape, Michy’s, Crumb on Parchment, and the numerous other ventures she always seems to have a hand in. “I used to say to David, ‘If we ever do something again on the Beach, we’re going to do it big.’ And you can’t get much bigger than this.” 4041 Collins Ave., Miami Beach, 786-605-4041