Review: The queen retains her crown with new Cena by Michy

Michelle Bernstein and chef de cuisine Michael Mayta. Photos by Walt Michot / Miami Herald Staff

Wearing one of Miami’s culinary crowns has its dangers. Weighed down by expectations, it can become a burden that grows heavy with time.

Unless you’re Michelle Bernstein, who wears hers jauntily tipped to the side.

Purposely homey and approachable, Bernstein’s recently revamped namesake restaurant in Miami’s emerging MiMo District eschews formalities. The atmosphere and one-page menu are as disarming as her WPBT-TV Channel 2 show, Check, Please!, where she invites everyday diners on air to review South Florida restaurants and dish about food.

Cena by Michy, the name of her new place, roughly translates in Spanish to Dinner by Michy. This is a supper invitation you don’t want to pass up.

Almost a year after closing Michy’s in the same space, 6927 Biscayne Blvd., the cobalt blue and orange accents, fried chicken and croquetas are out, replaced by sophisticated mid-century modern furniture, terrazzo floors and sputnik chandeliers. Waitstaff in lumberjack plaid shirts politely weave through tightly packed tables. It feels like a party in somebody’s 1965 living room. 

David Martinez, Bernstein’s husband and partner, works the noisy space, greeting regulars and newcomers with equal warmth. The bar has moved to front of house, a better perch facing Biscayne Boulevard. It offers classic and modern cocktails, along with a solid wine list that favors Old World selections.

A carefully curated menu plays up nine no-meat starters and salads dressed to impress. Bernstein is both a James Beard Foundation Award winner and a mom to a toddler. She seems bent on getting us all to eat our veggies. Roasted beets are tossed with spicy crème fraiche; trumpet mushrooms are doused in brandy.

Cauliflower “steak,” a dish popping up around town, distinguishes itself here with the salty sweetness of pickled garlic aioli, marcona almonds, raisins and capers. Rich and creamy Sardinian ricotta and Moroccan carrot purée add layers of flavor to roasted carrots, with sunflower seeds contributing crunch.

A refreshing heirloom tomato salad rests on a firm pillow of stracciatella custard with basil pesto. The variety of tomato flavors — sweet, tart, lemony, earthy — peaks with grassy, sour wisps of thinly sliced fried green tomatoes scattered on top. This is the perfect summer salad.

Equally intricate and imaginative, scallops fried in light tempura batter are stacked on a mold of smoky, mustard-based potato salad. Like a giant, fancy sushi roll on our tongue, it was one of our favorite small plates.

Less impressive were the harissa lamb spare ribs, which were charred and lacked meat, leaving us mostly bone to suck up the delicious sumac yogurt and slow-cooked dried fruit.

Seven “big plates” offer pasta, seafood and beef, including a burger made from a blend of prime aged brisket and short rib. The scene-stealer is the whole boneless snapper, sweet and succulent, stuffed with leek and fennel strips and served on a bed of bok choy with preserved lemons and buttery sauce.

Emerald-color fluffy gnocchi is electrified by peas, kale pesto and parmesan broth. Who knew green could come in so many flavors and shades?

Although it’s a stretch to call the petite, pricey portion “big,” Bernstein brings back her beloved braised short ribs, with a twist. This time, the boneless cut of beef rests on a blanket of root vegetable purée, with scattered baby carrots on top. It’s surprisingly light and delicate.

The only steak on the menu is a skirt, and it’s a bore compared to the intricacies elsewhere. It comes simply grilled with limp duck-fat fries and a béarnaise sauce.

Desserts are dainty and distinct. Michy’s signature bread pudding is back in a shallow, brûlée-like dish, more pudding than bread. Our favorite was the apple pie: two bite-size fried apple fritters with vanilla ice cream and cider caramel sauce.

Opened in May, Cena has some new-restaurant kinks to work out. Complimentary Parker House and wheat rolls were delivered warm to our table on one visit but never appeared on another. Poor acoustics make dinner conversation difficult. Outdoor seating is still being developed on the sparse, uninviting back patio (while out front a tired Michy’s awning remains). 

Bernstein can be forgiven for taking her time. The Miami native is busy with Seagrape at the Thompson Miami Beach, Crumb on Parchment in the Design District, her catering business, two TV shows, the Common Threads nonprofit, as well as consulting gigs and other endeavors.

Despite going in so many directions, she’s maintained her authenticity. With Cena, she has created the neighborhood restaurant everybody wants in their neighborhood. She still wears the crown, and doesn’t let it wear her. 

Critics dine anonymously at the Miami Herald’s expense.