TALE OF TWO CITIES

Michael’s Genuine is a Miami classic, both destination and neighborhood joint, as John Irwin discovers when he sits at the bar to discuss all things local with Miami’s own influential sommelier Amanda Fraga

To talk about Miami is to qualify; are we talking about the bacchanalian beach destination? Or are we talking about the Miami of people who actually live there? In my twenties, I only knew one version of Miami (I’ll let you guess which one). But increasingly, when I travel there, my time is spent off of Miami Beach, in neighborhoods as distinct from one another as they are culturally rich.

For most vacationing in the Magic City – as it was for me – the first foray away from the gravitational pull of Miami Beach will be to the abutting oh-so-cool neighborhoods of the Design District and Wynwood. It’s here that you realize, beyond the late nights and lazy beach days, the plastic-cupped mojitos and bronzed rollerbladers, that there is a thriving urban scene where art, fashion and food collide. These neighborhoods are the gateway to the “other” Miami. Stepping into them makes every subsequent visit more meaningful and, when you’re away, you begin to crave Miami as a city, not Miami as a beach.

But, before the Design District became a temple to couture, before Wynwood Walls, cocktail bars, and Michelin stars, there was only a pineapple-farm-turned-warehouse-park, untrafficked and unloved. And then, in 2007, there was Michael’s Genuine.

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Sitting with sommelier and beverage director Amanda Fraga, I start my voice memo app and place my phone near her. “Ok, I say ‘like’ a lot, so if you could cut out a few, I would appreciate it. Make me sound like I’m 50 percent Miami instead of, like, what I am, which is 150 percent Miami.”

Frago grew up here, born and raised in Hialeah, a Cuban enclave that pierces into Miami like an arrow. After college at Florida International, she went from restaurant to restaurant to get a foot in the door of Miami hospitality.

Her first role was wine steward at the ultra-luxe Setai in Miami Beach, working her way up to sommelier. “I made sure that, once a week, I bought a bottle from the list at a retail shop…I would drink it, and I had this book, and all I did was write everything I could about it,” she says in reference to the wine and the region.

Eventually Frago left to take on a few other wine jobs in new restaurants – “They open, they close. It’s Miami” – and worked a harvest in Burgundy before landing at Michael’s Genuine in 2014, where she has been ever since. However, this brief bio doesn’t do her justice; you don’t become the beverage director at one of the great restaurants of Miami by matriculation. You have to work hard, but more importantly, you have to care.

When I ask her about this, she demurs: “I couldn’t explain it, but [when I went to college] I wanted to join the wine club.” At just 18 years old, she couldn’t legally drink, so she would do a little tasting (and spitting), but, most importantly, she would listen. For her, it was a form of travel. “Growing up, our travels were to Orlando or Disney. All I ate was Cuban food and, like, maybe a quesadilla.”

“Then,” she says, “at 19, I was like, I’m going to China for two weeks.” It was a moment of inspiration that opened the doors to her love of food and exploration, which has defined her ever since. As I’m talking to Frago, it strikes me that she embodies the restaurant we’re sitting in: scrappy, dedicated, and – in a town often defined by holidaymakers and imported concepts – a Miami original.

Michael’s Genuine, sommelier and beverage director Amanda Fraga, feijoada and chocolate flan at Michael’s Genuine

“When it comes to a wine, to my list, to my pricing, I always ask myself, ‘Is this genuine?’ It’s a silly thing, but I ask it of myself a lot”

Amanda Fraga

Fresh, simple, pure

Michael Schwartz opened Michael’s Genuine in Miami’s Design District in 2007, a neighborhood that currently boasts not one but two multilevel Louis Vuitton stores (and five of the city’s thirteen Michelin stars).

Today, opening a restaurant in the Design District can seem like a coronation in and of itself. But 16 years ago, the neighborhood was just coming out of its 1990s empty-warehouse nadir and still three years away from the investment that has turned it into a global shopping mecca – many credit Michael’s Genuine as a catalyst. As Frago tells it: “At the time, there weren’t a lot of independently owned restaurants, and there weren’t a lot of people really pushing the limits when it came to food.”

My first experience at Michael’s Genuine was on vacation in 2016, based on a recommendation from a local. I remember vividly that it felt both “of its place” yet different, nothing at all like the art deco glitz of South Beach and seemingly in a revolt of the Vegas pastiche of the city’s more touristy areas. It was a spare, tucked-away neighborhood joint, with a few tables scattered around an open courtyard. But it happened to serve really, really good food.

The other thing I remember? The stracciatella with heirloom tomatoes. It just so happens that this is the dish that Frago uses to explain the restaurant’s ethos. “We take a Florida ingredient, tomatoes, and a Florida cheese, and we’re just going to drizzle it with some really good olive oil, a little salt, and some basil, and let the ingredients speak for themselves.” It’s simple food from local purveyors, executed with the kind of elegance and restraint that’s only possible from someone very talented.

This dedication to “fresh, simple and pure” captures what chef Schwartz set out when he opened the restaurant. You could also add “courageous” to that list; after cooking at high-end restaurants all over Miami Beach, Michael’s Genuine was a last-ditch, for-all-the-marbles idea, hatched after falling out with an old business partner. He and his wife sold their home to scrape up enough cash to open in an area that, at the time, had cheap rent. As he told the Miami Herald in 2017: “I always felt there was a need for a restaurant like that in Miami. I like to think that’s why we made it: We were all in 100 percent. We were cooking what we wanted to cook in an environment we wanted to be in.”

It paid off; in 2010, Michael Schwartz was given the James Beard award for “Best Chef: South” and in 2020, Michael’s Genuine was named a James Beard semifinalist for the fifth time.

Finding balance

When I arrived at Michael’s Genuine this January, the bar was already filling up with locals for happy hour (the fact that a fine dining restaurant of this level has a happy hour menu gives you a sense of its “for the people” vibe). The bartenders greeted customers by name, oysters were being shucked, and a fisherman walked in behind me carrying a large bag of fresh stone crabs for that night’s ever-changing menu. There was a casual grace to the proceedings, and the wine list captures it.

Frago says she builds her list to complement the food, with a bias for high-acid whites and low-to-medium-ABV reds, but she always “wants someone to feel comfortable.” The result is a list of benchmark classics mixed with of-the-moment producers and new discoveries. She points out that Michael’s Genuine is often the first or last place people come to Miami on their way to or from the airport, so she has to hit a lot of diverse palates. The result is not a dogmatic or didactic approach, but it still shows a curatorial eye.

The 2020 Erbaluce from Cieck – an aromatic, herby, and saline white – paired beautifully with saffron braised turnips from a local farm.
The Pierre Gimmonet Blanc de Blanc was perfect with steak tartare, mushroom conserva, and black truffles. And the 2018 Remelluri “Viñedos de Labastida” Rioja from Spanish maverick Telmo Rodríguez was a killer match for spiced lamb.

I ask Frago what her favorite wines are at the moment, and she gives me two: Louis Michel Chablis and Domaine Serol’s ‘Turbullent.’ One is a classic Chablis from a generational producer, and the other is a biodynamic pet-nat Gamay from the Loire. This, of course, makes sense in the world of Michael’s Genuine; the stalwart and the possible, the sacred and the accessible. To capture this dichotomy so effortlessly, to be at once a neighborhood hangout and one of the great restaurants in the country is a kind of miracle; to do it for 15 years feels impossible.

What is their secret? I get a clue from Frago as we’re talking, “When it comes to a wine, to my list, to my pricing, I always ask myself, ‘Is this genuine?’ It’s a silly thing, but I ask it of myself a lot.” In a city too often defined by its artifice, here is an oasis of authenticity.

Eggplant appetizer at Michael’s Genuine

©The Genuine Hospitality Group

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