Satisfying to the senses
Relaxed atmosphere offers the hidden delights of classic dishes and casual cuisine at Michael’s on 7th
BY BARBARA REID
In 2014, a popular fine dining establishment on Ocean Drive in Vero Beach closed its doors. Michael’s Table, the creation of chef /owner Michael Lander, was only open for two seasons yet Lander’s innovative menus and flawless dishes left fans clamoring for more.
In May of this year, their cravings were satiated when Lander opened his latest iteration in a line of ambitious restaurants, Michael’s on 7th. Tucked away in a strip mall just off Miracle Mile, the setting is unassuming but exactly as Lander intended — a relaxed environment and approachable menu that delivers finely executed dishes for reasonable prices.
Once the home of Brain Freeze, a frozen yogurt and coffee shop before it morphed briefly into the Corner Café, the vacant property was not lost on Lander. “I have always kept an eye open for opportunities, and I passed this space every day on my way to the market. One day there was a closed sign on the front door, so I inquired and the rest is history.”
A soft opening at the end of May met with a fanfare of praise. “The response has been quite a surprise,” Lander admits. “I always thought we’d be recognized, but we had an invite-only opening and we’ve been busy ever since.”
Serving breakfast and lunch five days a week, dinner three nights, and brunch on Sundays, the décor is welcoming and unstuffy. Designed by Lander’s wife, Lydia, the long bank of windows sports ferns and simple panels of brightly colored fabric while exposed ductwork, a barista counter and linen-free tables set the stage for an informal dining experience. However, the informality is merely a ruse. A quick perusal of the menu confirms that this French-leaning chef knows his classics well. The dishes resonate with creativity, seamlessly traversing Lander’s Southern roots, with appetizers like the picnic deviled eggs and aged cheddar pimento cheese while simultaneously giving a nod to his European training and love of Asian tastes and accents.
To this end, dinners might start with kung pao ribs doused with a sweet Asian sauce and served over dressed greens. The ribs are cooked sous vide, French for under vacuum. This slow method of cooking ensures fall-off-the-bone tenderness before the meat is briefly pan-fried for color and crispness.
The same method is used for the salmon served with lemon dill and caper aioli on an open-faced baguette. Sandwiches are on both the lunch and dinner menus, which has proven popular, says Lander. “We sell a lot of sandwiches and salads at night. And the raw bar that we started from conception has really gained traction. We primarily get northeast and cold-water oysters and we sell out every night.”
Several standout entrees serve as springboards for Lander’s talent as a chef. Meatloaf, a combination of beef, pork and veal, is wrapped in smoked bacon and presented to look like filet mignon. Chorizo and roasted broccoli shrimp étouffée, a dish redolent with the flavors of Louisiana, relies on the traditional, slow-cooked dark roux and trio of Cajun spices to render the rich flavors of the Deep South.
A dish of plump, pan-seared sea scallops on a bed of creamed corn spiked with smoky bacon showcases a blending of flavors and textures that work together beautifully. And prime beef short ribs — first seared with a vegetable mirepoix then finished with balsamic vinegar, port wine, and beef stock — are braised for five hours before finding a perfect accompaniment in a three-aged-cheddar mac and cheese gratin. It’s nuanced comfort food at its best, an eclectic mix of classic and homespun dishes that offers something for everyone.
Lander’s cooking, a style he calls “down-to-earth, casual cuisine with responsibly sourced ingredients,” is driven by locally sourced, seasonal produce. Ever one to share the glory, he features the contributing farms prominently on a chalkboard above the salad prep area. “When things are available from them, they are my primary source,” he says. “I like to know where it comes from and how it’s handled and cared for.” And this defines his ethos. “Everything is fresh. Everything is homemade,” he maintains.
Born in Atlanta, Lander grew up surrounded by good cooks. “My grandmother and our housekeeper, Mame, were traditional Southern cooks as was my mom, but she had a taste for the finer things, lobster, lamb chops, game bird, et cetera. The mushroom-stuffed poussin on the menu is a nod to her. That’s what she would make for me when she had me over.”
And when asked why he became a chef, he states simply, “I just like cooking, it’s all I’ve ever done. Unlike today, we were at the table every night when I was young. I was cooking and watching The Galloping Gourmet and Julia Child.”
Forgoing culinary school, Lander gleaned his skills from the best. “I apprenticed with a European chef, so I am rooted and grounded in French cuisine. I started working as a sous chef primarily in high-end private clubs in Atlanta. Then the Moorings brought me to Vero Beach at the end of 1999.”
Lander’s tenure at the Moorings Yacht & Country Club lasted 12 years. He oversaw the extensive remodeling of the kitchens after hurricanes Jeanne and Frances, and he initiated the planting of an organic garden. After Michael’s Table closed, he opened the Garage Woodfired Pizza & Pub on Old Dixie Highway in downtown Vero Beach, a venture he ran with his son from 2013 to 2015. Then Alden Bing invited him to create a beer-centric menu for Orchid Island Brewery, an operation he still oversees today.
Lauded for his considerable talent, his loyal following has expanded over the years. Yet he remains humble, unassuming and surprisingly laid back for someone in his profession. “I have a more Zen-like approach than a lot of other people,” he says, smiling.
As a testament to the palpable passion he brings to both the kitchen and front-of-the-house operations, many people in his staff have been with him since the early days. He is quick to include them in his success. “I feel lucky and blessed that those people are drawn to where I am. I like to provide a home at work where we can enjoy what we do together. I try to take care of everyone as best I can and make it an enjoyable place.”
So where else might his career path take him? “Vero Beach has been very good to me, so who knows what will happen in the future,” he says, noting that he still gets requests to bring back Garage Pizza. But he has other ideas percolating too. “I have always wanted to do a diner-type place, an elevated, market-driven diner with a smaller menu that changes constantly.”
But for now, his focus is on the business at hand. “I like what I do here,” he says. “I love seeing friends, neighbors and locals having a good time in our newest space. Our current (project) is intended to be enjoyed by all.”
IF YOU GO …
What: Michael’s on 7th
Where: 2217 7th Avenue Vero Beach, off Miracle Mile
Hours: Breakfast: Tuesday – Saturday, from 7:30 a.m. Dog-friendly patio.
Lunch: Tuesday – Saturday, 11 a.m. – 2:30 p.m.
Dinner: Thursday, Friday, Saturday, 5:30 – 9 p.m.
Sunday Brunch: 11 a.m. – 2 p.m.
Alcohol: Beer and wine
For more information and reservations: Call 772-213-8554