By Mitchell Nover
Despite the lack of power and A/C that many Miamians had to deal with after Hurricane Irma, all things considered, our city fared pretty well during the storm. Unfortunately, the same can’t be said for our neighbors to the south in the Florida Keys. It’s been tough to hear about the destruction they faced, however the good news is starting to trickle in and, as of October 1st, the island chain is officially back open for business and happily welcoming visitors and tourists. Of course there’s still a lot of work to be done, and considering The Keys are a special place for a lot of us up here in Miami, it’s important that we do our part to help stimulate the local economy.
So, here I am, trying to do my part by recommending a great discovery I made on a trip down to Islamorada back in July in the hopes that you’ll soon make a visit. Chef Michael’s (81671 Overseas Hwy, Islamorada) is a New American seafood restaurant that serves up polished dishes in an upscale, island-style setting.
Menu highlights: The Chef Michael’s menu is full of creatively-inspired local Florida Keys cuisine, and that means seafood, seafood, and more seafood. That said, the dinner offerings also include a number of different preparations of prime meats and game, but how would I know? Let’s be honest, I was there for the fish because, as I would soon find out, Chef Michael’s in Islamorada is the place to go for fresh hogfish cooked to perfection.
But, before we get there, let me tell you about some of the other dishes I tried. If hogfish is the #1 dish of The Keys, anything with conch in it would be a close second. And the Conch Chowder at Chef Michael’s is a thing of beauty. With a light, spicy, and tangy tomato broth, the soup is chock full of veggies like potatoes, tomatoes, carrots, and celery, but the star of the dish is the conch. And it’s most definitely not lacking; there are plenty of meaty, tender, and briny conch chunks for you to enjoy in every spoonful. Then, to cool down your palate a little bit, give the Shrimp & Lobster Ceviche a try. Beautifully served in a hollowed out coconut, the large pieces of chilled shrimp and lobster offer up a soothing bite, especially with the fresh coconut milk sauce they’re swimming in.
To finish up the meal, no trip to the Florida Keys is complete without a slice (or two, or three) of Key Lime Pie. Chef Michael’s serves up a pretty classic rendition that is the right balance of tart and sweet. Add a dollop of whipped cream and a smear of the raspberry sauce and you’re in dessert heaven.
Standout dish: Thanks to Chef Michael’s close relationship with local Keys fishermen, he’s able to offer up fresh catch selections that change daily while also keeping his specialty hogfish on the list. That fresh catch selection also features fish that you may not see on other menus such as tilefish, tripletail, and mutton snapper.
Given my love of sampler platters, and the fact that I wanted to try as much of this delicious fish as possible, I opted for the Fish Three Ways. In addition to giving the opportunity to try three different fish varieties, it also allowed me to choose three of the eight different melt-in-your-mouth sauce preparations: (from left to right) the Ponchartrain, lightly blackened topped with crawfish and shrimp in a piquant creole cream; the Mixed Nuts, pistachio, cashew, and macadamia crusted, served with mango sauce; and the Juliette, seared with shrimp, scallops, chardonnay butter, and toasted almonds.
Are we boozing? We’re doing better than boozing, actually. We’re drinking. One of the perks of Chef Michael’s upscale style is a stellar wine list. So, for at least one night, I left the traditional rum punches, tequila sunrises, and other more “boozy” Keys drinks behind and opted for a nice, classic bottle of red wine.
Pro tip: forget everything you heard about whether or not you can or can’t drink red wine with seafood, and just drink what you like. Good wine is good wine, and it pairs with everything.
Check this place out if you like: To be honestly, there aren’t a lot of seafood restaurants like Chef Michael’s in Miami. Most are either of the dive-y Cuban variety where you go for a pargo frito and the like, or the high-end, fancy schmancy South Beach variety. Both have their time and place, but Chef Michael’s manages to fill that middle ground space where you’re getting quality fish in a nice, pretense-free zone. While I wouldn’t necessarily classify it as a seafood restaurant by any means, the Miami restaurant that, to me, has the most similar sensibility is Chef Adrianne’s Vineyard Restaurant and Wine Bar.
Mitch’s take: A quaint and special place, Chef Michael’s is one of the few chef owned and operated restaurants in the Florida Keys, and locals know from experience that an evening at Chef Michael’s is one to remember. Mine certainly was, which is why I’m sharing it with you. Next time you escape the hustle and bustle of Miami for our little island paradise to the south, make a stop at Chef Michael’s for a little “peace, love & hogfish.”