Posts Tagged ‘Miami Restaurants’

Louie’s Back Yard ~ Key West, FL

Posted 08 Aug 2011 — by S.E.
Category Fine Dining, Travel

Pepe’s Restaurant circa 1909

Arriving in Key West, I research the local restaurant scene and make some decisions about where to go. A couple of restaurants attract my interest but, to be honest, I am just as exited to take some time and wander around town having last been here more than five years ago. I like the Key’s, the local pink shrimp, Jimmy Buffet, Ernest Hemingway, and treasure hunter Mel Fisher. The great many free spirits that call the Conch Republic home add texture and because of them Key West always provides for something unusual or unexpected. Stepping out of the steaming hot rental car, I am punched in the face by the humidity and heat. I need a cold drink. That’s how things start in Key West; the heat naturally forces you to find a cold drink and soon enough things are loosened up. Time to find a watering hole and some vittles.

Key West Cuban Coffee Queen

Prior to driving to lunch I roll over to Caroline Street for a Cuban Coffee on ice to accompany me while I drive. The Cuban Coffee Queen serves the best coffee and Panini sandwiches on the island and it’s still early enough for another cup. Plus, the location is nice for a short stroll. There are souvenir shops right next to the Coffee Queen with just the kind of strange, cheap, waste-of-money things that captivate me. Further down on the waterfront huge tarpon roll underneath the docks and perform if you toss some bait into the water.  Right across the street from the queen is Pepe’s restaurant, one of the oldest in Key West. One quick stop for coffee and I am starting to feel settled into a Key West groove and ready to eat.

Coconut Pirates Heads ~ Tourist Trap on Waterfront

Key West has always had good restaurants. On this trip, I am looking for an established place to eat not the most recent or trendiest. It doesn’t take long for me to head to Louie’s Back Yard. In addition to chasing a cold drink and some food, the other reason I am at Louie’s Back Yard is so I can sit on the back deck and soak in the vibe just like Chef Norman Van Aken did back in 1987. I even selected the time of day to approximate Norman’s experience as closely as possible; Norman had his epiphany while sitting on the deck during the morning. You see, Norman Van Aken, a chef who I have admired for more than 25 years and the one, who arguably gave birth to what we recognize as the regional cuisine of south Florida, was the chef at Louie’s Back Yard back in 1987. It was just five years after Pat and Phil Tenney bought the place and renovated it in 1982 that Norman decided to shift his culinary focus to a Nuevo Cuban

Louie’s Back Yard

It didn’t take long or people to notice. Under Van Aken’s watch, a young Charlie Trotter ventured own to the Keys and spent a season in the kitchen earning his stripes in the Conch Republic. Trotter points to this time with Van Aken as critical to his own culinary development and focus. Twenty five years later and I am sitting on the back deck, ice cold beverage in hand, enjoying a light breeze. Although I don’t expect to find anything new or earth shattering at Louie’s or major urban technical cuisine this far into seasonal tourist territory, I know the food is good and the restaurant has made its mark on American regional cuisine.

Louie’s Back Yard Interior

Back in January 2011 the New York Times published a “36 hours in” article on Key West and mentioned Louie’s as a perfect place for a cold cocktail comparing it to an “outdoor Cheers” with a crowd of artists and displaced New Englanders escaping the cold. Today, the deck is nearly empty because it’s so hot but people appear to be enjoying themselves. The view is stunning and service is sound if not slowed a bit because of the heat.  Rather than fuss I order the daily fish special and then screen the menu for the most unusual thing I can find.

Louie’s Back Yard Deck

The special is straight out of Norman Van Aken’s play book consisting of a sautéed Yellow Tail Snapper over grilled peach cous cous with watercress salad. Simply prepared and presented, this dish is correctly cooked and delicious. It is also light as a feather and just the kind of entrée for the weather. The other dish I order is a bid odd but certainly interesting. It consists of two large poached duck eggs drizzled with wasabi hollandaise on toast topped with crab legs. Small round soy pearls are sprinkled over the top of the dish as garnish. This is not a dish Norman would have served nor one that quite fits my image of Louie’s but the draw of modernist cuisine goes far and wide; all the way down to Key West I guess. The Snapper is a winner, the duck eggs are tasty but don’t fit my preconceived notion of Key West cuisine. Still, Louie’s Back Yard remains worth the trip and the traditional dishes on the menu are outstanding. The restaurant is extremely well maintained and is a standout compared to many in Key West and the service crew is dedicated and professional, another unique feature compared to other restaurants in the Keys.

Louie’s Back Yard Bar

It’s just past mid-day now, I am finished eating and wander down to the deck bar and grab a seat in the shade facing the ocean. Although I wonder if Hemingway ever visited this house, I am sure that Van Aken did and that his presence can still be felt here all these years later.


Ciabatta, Dried Cranberry Nut Muffins


Sweet Crab and Duck Eggs Benedict with Wasabi Hollandaise and Soy


Sautéed Yellow Tail Snapper over Grilled Peach Cous Cous with
Watercress Salad


Louie’s Back Yard

700 Waddell Ave

Key West, FL


Sra. Martinez: In Miami The Food is Hot!

Posted 08 Aug 2010 — by S.E.
Category Fine Dining

It seems strange to have dinner in Miami with the sun still shining. Even though its 8:30PM, it seems so early that I feel like I am here for the early-bird special before heading home to soak my false teeth (joking here, I dont have false teeth!) It’s just too bright out to have dinner. I usually don’t even head out for dinner in this town until its dark, regardless of the time of year. However Sra. Martinez is starting to get busy and I think we may have beat the rush. We take a table on the outside patio, order a couple glasses of wine and settle in.

We selected Sra. Martinez because I am a huge Michelle Bernstein and David Martinez fan and I am curious to find out how things are going. Sitting outside allows me to fully absorb the beauty of the 1920’s era Post Office that David Martinez and Michelle Bernstein, aka Señora (Sra.) Martinez, converted into a hip tapas style bistro. The exterior of the building retains many of its original features including a majestic carved stone eagle perched above the main entry.  As I sip my wine, I notice my water glass coated in condensation. Taking a closer look I find the wonderful logo that Bernstein and Martinez created for the restaurant printed on the side of the glass. It’s a black outlined ellipse with “Martinez” in bold lettering and a small bright red pig in profile in the center. The umbrellas above each of the outdoor tables are adorned with this logo as well.


Memories of my first introduction to David flash through my mind. It was March 2005 and I was two courses into a twelve course dinner at Charlie Trotter’s in Chicago when he and his delightful fiancé (now wife) Michelle Bernstein came in and sat at the table right next to us. Michelle and I had crossed paths over the years and I was delighted to see her but didn’t recognize the person she was with, David and I had never met before. She waved just before being seated and I reciprocated. At that moment Charlie Trotter came up the back stairs and over to our table to say hello to us. After a brief conversation I pointed Michelle out to Charlie (he recognized her right away) and walked over to her table with him. She jumped up to give Charlie a hug, introduced me to David and she and Charlie had a polite chat while I engaged in conversation with David. The main thing I remember about this first introduction to David was how gracious and kind he seemed and how much taller he was than Michelle. I also recall Charlie asking Michelle what she was planning to do now that she was on her own and Michelle relaying a vision of opening a restaurant of her own in the near future.

Five years later and Michelle and David have opened more than a couple restaurants, consulted, participated in multiple television shows and launched Sra. Martinez as their latest venture. One of the beautiful things about Michelle, other than her ballerina like grace and wonderful culinary skill, is the energy she gives off. She never sits still. She’s always on the go, there’s no holding her back. I already know, from talking with friends in town who know her better than I do, that she’s not at Sra. Martinez tonight. She’s cooking dinner for a small group of patrons who won the bidding for her services during a charity event a few months earlier. As busy as she is, she still has time to give back. David is probably here though and I decide that after dinner I will head inside to see if he’s around.

We decide to share four dishes and ask our server to pick them. Descriptions of two of the four dishes follow. The first is the Egg Yolk Carpaccio with Sweet Shrimp and Crispy Potatoes. This dish has received some publicity and I am curious to try it. When it arrives I am stunned. The dish is exactly what it claims to be, a “Carpaccio” of egg yolks. That is, a plate full of whipped raw egg yolks topped with sweet shrimp, crispy shoe string potatoes, and a drizzle of olive oil. My first thought is a knee-jerk fear of the raw egg yolks. Knowing Bernstein, there has to be more to this dish. I wonder if she cooks the eggs sous vide prior to whipping and plating them. My fear fades away after thinking about who’s in charge of the kitchen. I trust Michelle and she probably knows the exact farm from where these eggs were sourced and the names of each of the chickens who gave birth to them. Fear aside, I dig in and am not disappointed. The egg yolk flavor is intense, fatty and smooth. Each shrimp is just cooked and seasoned perfectly. Their buttery sweet flavor and texture offer an appropriate and complimentary contrast to the yolks. The crispy potatoes provide the final touch and make the dish complete. It takes a bold chef to offer this type of item and an even bolder one to pull it off so well. What a great item! 


We also tried the Butifarra; a dish consisting of giant white beans, Foie Gras duck sausage, and Port Wine. Bernstein serves this item on a large, narrow, white oval platter. The white beans are huge and the duck sausage rich with Foie Gras. After a quick flash in a sauté pan the sausages are deglazed with port wine, reduced with duck stock and topped with the white beans. As I eat this dish I sop up the sauce with a thick piece of bread, enjoying the light coating of duck fat that has collected on the surface of the sauce. This is another bold flavored dish and one that I assumed would be better in the fall than in summer. Again, Bernstein proves me wrong with this dish. Although bold in flavor and rich with Foie Gras and white beans, the dish works well in the heat of Miami.


After sharing two more dishes and a few more glasses of wine, we cash out our check and move inside. The restaurant is full now and David Martinez is at the bar. He has just finished visiting each of the tables in the dining room and smiles as he sees us. We let him know that we have already had dinner and just stopped in to say hello. He shares a couple anecdotes and tells us that the restaurant is doing great. Sra. Martinez is close enough to Michy’s (their other restaurant) for the two to easily travel between them. David was over at Michy’s for part of the night and will remain here at Sra. Martinez for an hour before returning back. He still has that same gracious and kind vibe that I remember from our first meeting and, after such a good meal, I think he has much to celebrate.

 Sra Martinez

4000 NE 2nd Avenue

Miami, FL 33137