For the outside observer, the change of Michael’s Tasting Room to the newly-rebranded Michael’s may have seemed quick and perhaps even unexpected. A press release, a new sign, an introductory dinner, and that was that. But as we’ve learned over the years with Michael Lugo’s precise and intricate dishes, everything he does is planned and intentional. So it stood to reason that the new “Michael’s” was more than just a fresh coat of paint and some new chairs.
Back in June of 2006, Michael Lugo partnered with Opus 39 to open up The Tasting Room. At the time, Opus 39 was fine dining that focused on small production wines, and The Tasting Room was intended to be a seasonal restaurant that focused on small plate tapas. The Tasting Room, over the years, seemed to adapt with the menu – the team tried to stimulate the senses through live music, revolving local art, a house magician, and even bringing in flamenco dancers. The reception was a little mixed; some guests couldn’t get enough, but others didn’t really understand the experience.
Fast forward to 2016 when Hurricane Matthew swept in and essentially gutted the restaurant’s interior. The road to recovery was slow and arduous, but this was an opportunity to try something new. So out of the flood waters rose Michael’s Tasting Room. Besides the addition of Michael’s name, the new direction of the restaurant focused on the menu, and the culinary team moved away from the original tapas intention. “Looking back at this change, it didn’t do enough to change perception,” says Michael. “I knew we were a completely different restaurant from how we started and needed to get that message to the public. I get to bring my Puerto Rican heritage and my experiences from my time in Dallas Steakhouses in addition to our history with Spanish Food.”
This is a promising and delicious concept, so we were eager to see how it plays out on the plate. The first dish we experienced were the Empanaditas, a delightfully vegetarian-friendly take on the classic empanadas. These crispy pastries were filled with corn, peppers, mushrooms, and spinach then served with a garlic herb aioli – fresh, earthy flavors that are perfect for sharing.
The Tuna Tartare is a bit of an optical illusion, which is something I never thought I’d say in an article about food. In some senses, it’s classic – fresh and colorful tuna with a generous swipe of avocado crema and a serving of plantain chips. But where one would expect to find an egg yolk instead sits mango. Perfectly round, this mango even oozes like egg yolk when you break it. Michael laughed as I hesitated bringing the fork to my mouth. It’s a hesitation that almost every patron has, he says, because the mind is still fully convinced it’s an egg yolk. But once I got over that mental hurdle, the fresh and light flavors worked in perfect harmony.
A personal favorite, the Criollo Shrimp has definite roots in Michael’s Puerto Rican heritage. Beginning with a bed of yuca mofongo mash – a dish that’s typically made with mashed fried plantains – the sauteed red shrimp are drizzled with smoked tomato nage (a thick broth). The criollo tomatoes are poured tableside and add a flavor without which the dish just wouldn’t be complete. The Criollo Shrimp is a dish you’ll go back to again and again.
Visually distinctive, the Pan-Roasted Sea Scallops are paired with forbidden black rice. That name is certainly a little ominous, but it was dubbed so because (as they say) it was once reserved exclusively for the Chinese emperor. Its deep, dark hue is natural and juxtaposed with the brightness of the scallops, green coconut curry, and charred pineapple makes for a striking picture.
As for the next dish, if you’ve never eaten whole fish, the idea can be a little intimidating. The Whole Branzino a la Plancha at Michael’s, though, alleviates all those seafood fears. So tender and beautifully-cooked that it practically falls off of the bone, the Mediterranean sea bass is served with fingerling potatoes, pearl onions, crumbled Marcona almonds, and citrus gremolata. Sweet, savory, even citrusy – this dish has it all.
The new blue hues and sleek style of the Michael’s interior are a welcome change for the team, but the food – as always – takes center stage. “These additions will continue to expand our growth, and truly take the Michael’s experience to higher grounds,” says Michael. “We want to be a world-class dining destination for our city.”