Schwartz…in Miami Beach? It’s not what you think.

Miami beach

By way of weather or food, Montréal and Miami seem to have little in common. But, I happened to have a stopover in Miami for one evening last week. I thought I’d follow my gut. You see, my suspicion was that some kind of culinary simpatico must exist between these two towns. With little time to test my hypothesis, there was only one choice: deploy the Namesake Methodology. Here’s how it works:

1) Jot down the names of the first 5 Montréal eat/drinkeries that come to mind
2) Search for their Miami namesake over crappy, stolen WiFi at a South Miami strip mall
3) Visit as many as physically possible within a 6 hour window, in an economy rental car, during rush hour traffic
4) Compare and contrast their essential nature

The optional fifth step, which I’ll for next week is to: summarize your (mis)adventures into some kind of far-reaching pronouncement as to how Montréal should enrich its culinary landscape.

I’ll get to the bulk of my findings next week. The first journey of Namesake Quest yielded enough to whet the appetite for these subtle affinities.

Random test 1: Schwartz

Schwartz of Montréal is “world famous, serving the best smoked meat from the original recipe of spices since 1928,” and is demarcated by a large orange and black sign.

Schwartz of Miami flies under the radar, tucked away like a delicate flower in a hidden, gleaming patio.

Michael Schwartz Restaurant, MiamiOur smoked meat purveyor’s only namesake in Miami, it turns out, is also preceded by the first name of its founder: “Michael.” Yes, Chef Schwartz was apparently so rushed (or just so badass?) that he didn’t even spin celebrity-chef nameplay–so common in large American municipalities. (Think of the shudder-worthy Guy’s American Kitchen & Bar in NYC, or Ramsay BurGR in Las Vegas).

No. In his bid to compete with suave South Beach elitesplaces with names like Meat Market, Zuvia, SLS and 660Mr. Schwartz seemed to just have said, “enough!” to all the vapid words. “Why not just copy the name on my passport onto the sign,” I imagine him thinking, “I’ll just ‘Restaurant’ to the top of the menu.” It’s the drabbest name in town. But it’s ingenious.

When I arrived at Restaurant Michael Schwartz, I’d already strolled past half a dozen half-empty lounges on the bouncy strip known as Collins Ave. Meanwhile, his venue was humming.

Entrance to Schwartz resto, at the Raleigh HotelSchwartz’ entrance is as inconspicuous as its name. Tucked behind unmarked glass doors at the back of the stunningly-preserved Art Deco lobby of the Raleigh Hotel, I completely missed it. I must have seemed so obviously Canadian to the valet boys: fumbling around the hotel environs, address in hand, marveling at the lack of deli signage.

Then there was the fact that I was arriving on foot (unheard of in Miami), in Birkenstocks (even more uncouth), hands hitched to my backpack (shudder!). It was a wonder they even let me into the lobby. But they did show me pity–once they had finished parked a pair of matching white BMW 5-series that appeared to belong to some fellow diners.

Unlike its St-Laurent sibling, tables at this Schwartz are located almost entirely outdoors. A small dining room opens up onto a vast terrace spilling over two deco-tiled levels that flank the original 1941 pool replete with chairs and vines à l’époque. And every table was packed.

Despite my aforementioned attire (I’d just come from a campground), an effervescent hostess guided me to a spare seat at the small bar.

Backlit with a deep yellow light, the wood-panelled drinkery was stocked to the hilt with a seemingly well-heeled selection of liquor. It appeared to hover in space, a backdrop to four (count ’em…four) perfectly-tanned male bartenders. The closest one greeted me with a refined swaggerthe not-at-all-unpleasant air of an establishment that has confidence and class. “What’s going on tonight, sir? What are we having?”

I was almost upset. I had wanted to hate this place so much.

The barman even avoided the natural up-sell (there’s a $25 martini and a $28 glass of merlot), pointing me instead to their more-than-respectable house ale…for $8.

When my bottle of “Michael’s Genuine Home Brew” arrived, I was sorta kicking myself for not ordering a cocktail. But once again, Miami Schwartz’ eponymous naming conventions proved deceptive: this ale had a nice tone and a sweetish nose with hints of fruit and molasses. It was followed up by a surprisingly bitter, but very agreeable finish. Yet another indication that the U.S. is becoming a craft beer mecca.

Instead of brisket, Schwartz Miami has ceviche ($13). I expected a few lonely morsels of fish, but was instead saddled with a cereal bowl packed to the rim with fleshy morsels of tilefish swimming with Florida orange segments in a no-holds-barred citrus sea. I like agressively-acidic ceviche, and this one had such fresh citric acid that I literally tilted the bowl up and finished every last drop. Cilantro and chili slivers topped the near-perfect dish. If only there’d been more of the latter (there was but two tiny red slivers), Mr. Schwartz would have surely knocked this one completely out of the park.

By the time my bowl was empty, the terrace was blanketed in diners’ chattera flurry of voices and chuckles left mostly naked to the wind. And such a welcome respite from the basslines pumped by the majority of its South Beach neighbours.

Warm refinement just oozed out of the place. The longer I sat by this cabana-style pool bar, inflected with a certain 1940s vigor, the more optimistic I began to feel about Miami itself.

To sum up: Miami Schwartz was contrapuntal to its Québec namesake in nearly every imaginable way: from décor to flavours to pricing to clientele. But its mastery of each of these ingredients produced a southern Schwartz that was just as true to its roots–the history and ethos of Miami Beach–as our own version is to Montréal.

Next week: the wrapup of the MIA-MTL culinary mashup wherein we visit bagel shops, Really Bad Brazilian Restos, and a dive bar…and propose that Montréal start offering more Cuban food to distract us from snowstorms…ASAP!!

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