If there’s one person we can say with certainty is not jaded about the explosive—some might say overcrowded—restaurant scene in South Florida, it’s Michelle Bernstein. A true pioneer of Miami’s food scene, a stalwart of her industry and a vibrant presence in her own right, the chef with the megawatt grin and endless font of appetizing ideas remains—18 years after making her mark with Azul at the Mandarin Oriental downtown—passionate about every project she takes on. And about what’s going on here in her own backyard. “I truly think that one of the most exciting things that’s happening right now in South Florida is ethnic cuisine, whether it be a little Korean cafe that just opened in North Miami where everything is written on a chalkboard and made authentically or my favorite Indian restaurant from New York that just opened in Midtown, which was one of the best Indian meals of my life, or incredible Argentine all over South Florida,” she says. “We are finally covering all of the bases. While we might not have a Chinatown or a Little Italy, we definitely have our fair share of those restaurants as well. It’s the most thrilling time that I’ve ever seen in my career for dining in South Florida and considering all the young chefs that have learned throughout the years from some of the best we have, I think that we are finally getting high up there in the ranks as a culinary destination.”
Which is, in large part, thanks to Bernstein and her continuous devotion to the dining community over the years. Four years after opening Azul, she and her husband and business partner, David Martinez, opened Michy’s (which Gourmet magazine designated one of the Top 50 Restaurants in the country); in 2005, they opened their tapas restaurant, Sra. Martinez, in the Design District; the café Crumb on Parchment, Seagrape at the Thompson Hotel in Miami Beach and Cena by Michy soon followed. Now Bernstein has teamed up with renowned cantinero—Spanish for mixologist—Julio Cabrera to bring her latest concept, Café La Trova, not to Downtown Miami, not South Beach, not the Design District, but to the heart of Little Havana. And there’s a reason for that. “Because it feels like coming home for Julio, my husband and I,” she notes. The three met about 12 years ago in Cancún, when Cabrera was the director of beverage in a hotel in which Bernstein and Martinez were opening a restaurant; years later, when Cabrera and his family relocated to Miami, he worked with the couple to create cocktails in every single restaurant they opened. “We’re giving the town of Little Havana what they want and deserve: a place that celebrates their culture, their music and their flavors from one of the best time periods.”
Cabrera, a native of Cuba who decided after finishing college that he wanted to follow his family’s path into the hospitality business, had for years dreamt of opening a Cuban bar on Calle Ocho. “To become a Maestro Cantinero, it was all about passion and hard work,” he says. But it was only after he presented the idea to Martinez that it was eventually brought to fruition as part and parcel of Café La Trova—it is a place where the food and drink are equal components of an authentic Cuban experience. Now, he is doing what he loves most and does best, creating the perfect accompaniments to Bernstein’s dishes. “It’s like being a songwriter,” he says, of developing new flavor profiles for his drink menu. “It comes to your mind when you least expect it. You can get inspired by a song, a person, a fruit. I usually find my muse while smoking a cigar.”
“The cocktail menu is rooted in classic Cuban cocktails from the ‘40s and ‘50s,” Bernstein elaborates. “The cuisine, however, is a combination of the flavors I grew up with, that I discovered in my travels to Spain and Latin America, and the incomparable arroz con pollo my mother taught me to make when I was a child. First and foremost, I believe the food should marry well with the cocktails, not compete with them. I’m finally giving South Florida the croquetas they keep asking for, but for this important concept, I’ve come up with new variations especially made for Calle Ocho.” Paella croquetas, corn and chicken empanadas with black garlic, butifarra [a type of Spanish sausage] with Pedro Ximenez and foie gras are among those variations, along with, Bernstein says, “the best flan I’ve ever tasted that is made nightly by the wife of one of our partners.”
The fact that Bernstein, inspired and encouraged by Cabrera, has brought this concept to life so vibrantly is no surprise to her devoted following. A shortage of fresh ideas has never been an issue for her. “I’ve come up with ideas in the middle of the night, in the middle of the day and sometimes in my dreams,” she says. “I spend most of my life dreaming of what recipes to concoct next, whether it be one that’s delicious and satisfying for my son to something that proves to be consistent and easy enough to put out for 1,000 people or a plate of food that makes a person at Café La Trova smile. But most of all, I try things out on my husband, who has the most critical of palates and is the most honest with me. The worst reaction he would ever give is a rolling of the eyes.” We imagine she doesn’t see that too often.