Swelter 12

The neon jangle of Collins Avenue instantly evaporating at the front portico, sheathed in white linen and hibiscus trees, the porch equipped with an enormous mildew-prone sofa, an extravagant touch of whimsy. In the main lobby, a soothing dark sea of cherry wood floors, ashwood-paneled walls, and huge pillars framing a free-floating museum of designer furniture: Chippendale, Charles Eames, simple bentwood pieces, a Dali female-nude chair with high heels, and a futuristic Christian D'Astuguevieille piece, nestled in a phone nook screened by white linen. Farther back, the pocket-size Rose Bar and an elegant dining room with more linen drapery and theater, facing the grounds sweeping to the ocean. An orchard with a subwaylike grate spewing forth atmospheric steam, stately rows of royal palms leading to a lounging area of imported sand. Cabanas with canvas drapes on one side of the vast wading pool, white-on-white poolside suites on the other. Up and down, a grand jumble of elements: mirrors propped against trees, a suburban swing hanging from a tree, an outdoor Starck chess set, New Englandish latticework, and, just for pure punch, an old-fashioned patio table with two chairs and a lighted candelabra, smack-dab in the shallow end of the wading pool. The whole package inspiring similarly eclectic repercussions, from "they have to be kidding" to the fervent blessings of the excessively cultivated: "Finally, a place where I feel normal."

As it happens, the debut festivities inspiring an abnormal level of self-generating neuroses beforehand, gossip transforming the place into a monolith of intimidation. Given the celebrity connections of management, Beach people mistakenly assuming the opening would be a no-chumps-allowed attitude carnival, and no one, after all, wants to look like a gawking rube. Accordingly, a very grand hotel sliding into being with an eerie, studiously uncrowded pleasantness. None of the usual door-groveling or stampedes for free hors d'oeuvres, and a surprising paucity of models, professional personalities, and regulars, the brave souls in attendance on their best behavior, more palatable than usual. From the start, the opening running like clockwork -- smooth, cordial, and more efficient on opening night than most veteran South Beach establishments. Finally, a service business that actually knows how to do business: Open the right property, and over time the right people will come.

At the stroke of 1:00 a.m., our table still lingering over executive chef George Marone's tasty cross-cultural dinner: tuna with foie gras and spinach, steak, crab cakes, with cräme brnlee and root beer floats for dessert. Piped-in music, from Leonard Cohen to nine inch nails to Billie Holiday, drifting over the room, the evening taking on the quality of a dream. A posse of retro Shaft wanna-be's, all Afros, Cuban heels, and hip-huggers, constantly parading through on the way to the pool. Some hipster, an attitudinal Lurch with a peroxide hairdo, jarring against gum-chewing, off-the-list types. Way too many aging sex kittens, opting for ridiculously inappropriate attire: In a way, Miami always gets what it deserves. Designer Norma Kamali, Suzanne Bartsch and husband David Barton coming down from New York, along with a guy billed as "the ex-husband of Carolina Herrera's oldest daughter," and finally a Christo look-alike, warmly embraced by McNally and Schrager.

McNally, an affable pro, explaining the gentleman's true identity -- Charles Gandee of Vogue -- and good-naturedly noting that "Christo might be a little busy with the Reichstag right now." Winding down with the likable Colin Callender of HBO, both of us dodging some trashy things, McNally talking of the real opening on November 10: "We're going to call in all our favors, bring down everybody, have a bash going all the way to the sea." And then it's home to bed, dazed from the night of the soft sell, perplexed, and a little lost, our companion perfectly capturing the curious chimera: "I've figured out why tonight's been so strange: This may be the only nice opening I've ever been to, the only time I haven't totally disgusted myself.

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