Saturday, March 10, 2012
New Islamorada bistro: Chef Michael's
The culinary rumor mill went into high gear last September when the sign in front of Chanticleer Restaurant in Islamorada was hand-painted, "Gone Fishin'." Owner chef Jean-Charles Berruet had, indeed, retired to enjoy his other passion, fishing, and turned the space over to local chef Michael Ledwith.
A series of humorous hand-painted signs followed with names like Sally's Seashell Supper Club and Aesop's Table, which kept people guessing for months. In January, Ledwith put up his final sign and opened Chef Michael's Restaurant, an American bistro with French flair.
"We were just having some fun with it," Ledwith said. "We decided to make the sign a guerilla marketing ad and changed it every couple of days. We talked about what would be funny and slapped it up there. I painted them myself."
A long-time fixture on the Islamorada dining scene, Ledwith left is five-year stint as executive chef at Kayio about a year ago to pursue his catering company, Hungry Heron of the Keys, with his fiancé, Mary Carrol. The initial business plan did not include opening a restaurant. Instead, they were using Berruet's kitchen facilities for storage and prep for the catering business.
"It fell into our lap," he said. "We had a good relationship with Jean-Charles. He was ready to retire, and I needed a bigger kitchen. Once the word got out that we were here, it was a constant barrage of people asking when we were going to open the restaurant."
The interior of the 40-seat eatery is decorated in a cream and chocolate palette. Works from local artists dot the walls, like swordfish and heron paintings from local artist Pasta Pantaleo. The warm lighting created by candles glowing under beaded shades and melted glass light fixtures over the curved bar creates an inviting atmosphere. A side porch offers al fresco dining.
"It's small, but I like the size," Ledwith said. "It's very personal and intimate. Mary and I can cruise around the dining room and talk to the guests, and it's not overwhelming"
Ledwith devotes much of the menu to the local seafood. He does eight different fish preparations with the type of fish changing daily according to what's fresh and local.
"They are good, simple, classic preparations," he said. "We usually know the source of our fish, the name of the captain and the way it was caught."
One of his signature dishes is the Pontchartrain - the catch of day lightly blackened with crawfish, shrimp and blue crab in a piquant Creole cream.
Also featured on the menu are starters like conch and rock shrimp fritters, peppered tuna tataki and salads topped with their homemade hazelnut vinaigrette.
Other entrees like filet mignon, braised lamb shank, chicken saltimbocca and linguini pomodoro, round out the offerings. Ledwith noted that his bone-in prime rib, available on Wednesday, Friday and Saturday is extremely popular. Entrees range in price from $17 for pasta to $34 for filet mignon.
Ledwith said that business has been brisk with a mix of locals, winter residents and tourists. "It's been steady. Things are going very well."
Chef Michael's Restaurant is located at mile marker 81.6 O/S in Islamorada. Open from 5 p.m. to 10 p.m. daily. Call 305-664-0640 for more information or reservations.