TABLE TALK

Michael’s: ‘I’ve kept doing the dream — and painting history’

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It’s a universal truth that familiar foods soothe in troubled times while we even find comfort in a chef’s signature soup.  A mood-elevating meal may be a short drive from home where we discover a steak house where only the meat and red wines matter — or perhaps we crave settling into a cozy trattoria where a bowl of pasta can set the world right again. Luckily, Michael’s hasn’t lost its swagger.

Somehow, chef Michael Lugo’s award-winning restaurant, Michael’s, in historic downtown St. Augustine, thrills and satisfies many palates. We desperately need the dreamers, the idealists and the risk-takers like Lugo. It’s joyously life-affirming to let his restaurant take you where you may never have been or thought you wanted to venture in the past. The story about Michael’s restaurant and Michael himself is compelling. Simply, Lugo’s comfortable, yet sophisticated, dining style with a seasonal menu, award-winning wine list and exquisite food paints a beautiful picture and conveys his personal story!

For a decade and a half, Michael has been in the news since opening his own establishment in 2006 on brick-paved Calle Cuna (Cuna Street) in a building that began in 1764. Writers and food critics have savored his story about growing up in Puerto Rico; they have honored his grandmother “Nellie” for inspiring her grandson with foods grown on the farm and learning culinary skills and secrets as a child when he didn’t even know what that meant. His path from Puerto Rico to Texas where he began in the restaurant industry was rich with restaurant and chef mentors who watched Michael cultivate his in-depth knowledge of wines, steaks and hospitality. He is a self-taught chef who pushes himself to the highest level of dining excellence. Somehow, he’s able to rub cultures together and see what color his sparks will be!

Entering into Michael’s, the restaurant feels grown up; you’re engaged quickly with quiet music and a casual ambience and a perfectly set table that makes you feel that you’re the only guests dining. Begin your visit with knowledgeable and well-mannered service. Feel the serenity and subtly textured art in the main dining room or tranquility in the outdoor garden room. Michael’s story becomes apparent through the extreme personalized service and easy to navigate menu.  His commitment is about working with a well-informed staff who also respect the artisans from around the globe who share the restaurant’s values. 

If you enjoy fine wine, The Wine Spectator has awarded Michael’s wine list with the Award of Excellence for 11 consecutive years. Notably, during Florida’s 500th anniversary, Michael and his honored restaurant were featured on the Food Network with chef Emeril Lagasse. If you choose the nightly chef tasting menu (which changes weekly), note that Lugo is also a sommelier who toured Spain and a plethora of Michelin-star restaurants as he plotted his own … with a path of a well-heeled wine cellar to share with guests on Calle Cuna. With 400 unique and independent labels, the delicious food and excellent wines live companionably side-by-side.

As Michael’s is quickly becoming popular for its three. or five or seven-course “chef experience” tasting dinners, you can opt to savor the chef’s immense creativity with or without a paired wine. It takes time to sit, sip and swoon over the weekly menu that each server masterfully presents nightly. With small yet fascinating touches from their edible herbs grown in their restaurant garden or discussing the “talking points of wine and food” with chef or sous chef, this is a distinguishing dining option that deserves checking out.

Although the weekly “tasting” menu continues to excite guests through its dramatic changes, there is one dish at Michael’s that shows a sense of humor and playfulness. It’s the “Everything Bagel” appetizer. The major components are lox, goat cheese and caper berries cleverly presented. Here’s where Michael flaunts his culinary confidence and balance of flavors.

 Turn over the reins to an exotic dish and you’ll fall in love with the pan-roasted duck breast with seared foie gras gently resting on a puddle of blackberry demi. It’s the little touches that make this chef unique — with the blackberries, blueberries and rosemary garnish. If you’re a fanatic for foie gras, you’ll find it on several of his menus waiting for you to enjoy its delicate and decadent preparations.

 Michael’s gnocchi (pan-seared for a perfect first-bite crunch) is a synergy of flavors with richly butter poached lobster, smoked tomatoes and a dreamy saffron corn puree. It’s spectacularly delicious, so I give it a standing ovation that doesn’t require any other dish to introduce or follow it!

The exciting carte du jour is focused on steaks and coastal Spanish-inspired cuisine sprinkled with influences from the finest local ingredients. It’s a dilemma to select an appetizer that is adapted from Michael’s roots where he visits the past and improves upon it — like Plantain Bon Bons (sweet plantains wrapped in smoked bacon with datil guava sauce), montaditos (sautéed steak with criollo tomatoes and avocado crème in plantain cups) and empanaditas (crispy chicken empanadas served with garlic herb aioli).

Michael pushes the limits on new ideas while maintaining his passion for classically aged beef. The overall experience is as important as the steak itself. Among the oldest type of American restaurant, the steakhouse, Michael’s serves 30-day and 60-day wet- and dry-aged steaks. These processes are similar to fine wines — the more age, the more benefit to the palate.

The overly generous portion of accompanying sides to each signature entrée are as memorable as each meat, fish or chicken entree. Creamy risotto with leeks and Parmesan cheese, crispy brussels sprouts tossed with bacon lardons and smoked tomatoes, truffle fries hand-cut with shaved Parmesan, parsley, sea salt and white truffle oil — are notable!

At Michael’s, desserts are treated affectionately. Given a kiss of sea salt to smooth out the sweetness, the dark chocolate tort might remain in your memory for a lifetime. Its simple name could never equal the complex richness of its dark brooding flavors and beauty. It’s powerfully irresistible. The precious tres leches dessert is equally tempting for an ephemeral light ending! Michael is proudly working with chef Nils Rowland, owner of Crème de Cocoa, as they collaborate to create many of Michael’s desserts. It’s obvious that Michael Lugo has a clear sense of what he wants to do.

For us, that’s a very good thing!

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