The big review: Sra. Martinez ***

A plate of "Pulpo a la Gallega" at Sra. Martinez, Michelle Bernstein's new tapas restaurant. Octopus is paired with a potato salad flavored with lemon, capers and smoked paprika. Bernstein and her husband, David Martinez, opened the restaurant in December 2008. Photo: Alex Kolyer.

The name Sra. Martinez may conjure a sweaty old lady rolling tortillas behind a smoky grill, but you’ll find a sexy, grown-up locale worthy of nearly all the buzz it’s been getting since opening just before Art Basel. Michy’s chef/owner Michelle Bernstein (Mrs. Martinez since her 2005 marriage to restaurateur David) has found a second Miami venue worthy of her skills — a century-old, neo-classical post office building that’s been whitewashed, clapped with sturdy wooden shutters and dotted with broad patio umbrellas, sofas and chairs.

In the likely event that you must wait for a table, head upstairs to the tortilla-sized bar, where a stunningly good bartender whips up some of the best drinks in town, including a frothy pisco sour that could turn a teetotaler into a lush. House-made bitters, fresh squeezed juices, freshly muddled herbs, small-batch mixers, ham-infused Kentucky bourbon, lavender honey and sturdy bricks of ice for rocks drinks are just a few of the touches that make this one of the best bars in town. All that was missing was a bowl of almonds or a bit of bread — a lapse our sweet bartender remedied by breaking into his own backpack to share some mixed nuts.

The daring and delightful all-Spanish wine list makes you feel as though you’re at a particularly well-curated party with a few good friends and many intriguing strangers. Prices veer from a refreshing $30 2006 Monastrell to a $690 1996 Ribera del Duero Unico by Vega Sicilia. By-the-glass selections begin at just $5 for a rough, young garnacha Campo de Borja to $12 for a velvety Telmo Rodriguez Toro.

The lengthy menu is divided simply into Frio and Caliente but is a bit confusing, with some items priced and served more like entrees ($28-$32) but not billed as such. Most fall into the traditional Spanish tapas category but others blend Asian, Middle Eastern and Latin American flavors with great results.

Simple classics such as vinegary boquerones (pickled anchovies), smoky caldo gallego and smushy pan con tomate (tomato bread) are satisfying. Other simple pleasures include a soft-as-honey poached egg with a hash of roughly chopped potatoes and chorizo as well as a bowl of tiny, tender clams with chorizo in an outrageously tasty broth of garlic, chiles and sherry.

Even better are more adventurous dishes like monstrous shrimp tiradito Peruvian-style sauced with a piquant ají amarillo sauce topped with crunchy corn nuts and crispy popcorn as well as a white bean stew with duck and foie gras sausage. Any of the salads is a great way to cut the richness of the many hearty dishes. The one that thrilled me most was a simple plate of peppery young arugula with sweet, musky bits of persimmon and see-through sheets of piave vecchio cheese.

As in Spain, many of the bar snacks are fried. Standouts include thin rounds of eggplant given a sweet lift from a drizzle of honey and divinely light, long-stemmed artichokes with a thick lemon-coriander dipping sauce. Cigarillo-shaped mushroom croquetas with fig marmalade are tasty enough but not as good as the ham and cheese version I fell in love with at Michy’s years ago. Offbeat items like a buttery uni (sea urchin) sandwich with a salty, briny funk thrilled me, though not my tablemates. Chickpeas with a sauce of ground blood sausage and bits of sweet apple also charm.

Losers were few and forgettable, including marrow bones that were sliced open, making the interior crusty and thick in some cases and utterly absent in others.

The standout on the dessert menu are the hot ropes of crispy churros sprinkled with cinnamon sugar and served with a bowl of thick, cayenne-laced chocolate. Tangy yogurt ice cream with tomato puree is another winner.

A few dishes are uneven, the stiff bread is subpar and there are pricing and portion issues to address, but in the hands of Bernstein and her innately hospitable husband, Sra. Martinez is a lovely, lively addition to Miami’s dining scene.

Sra. Martinez, 4000 NE Second Ave., Miami; 305-573-5474. 6-11 p.m. Mon-Thurs, 6 p.m.-2 a.m. Fri-Sat, weekday lunch beginning Monday. Tapas $6-$18, entrees $24-$33, desserts $6-$8

FYI: Reservations suggested; full bar; corkage $25 (limit two bottles per table). Valet parking $7. AX, DN, DS, MC, VS.

Published: 2/09


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