Reshaping South Beach

As chefs shift, owners settle down, along with their prices

The townhouse was a novelty on South Beach. The first of its kind to be conceptualized, it was one of only five units. With three bathrooms, three bedrooms, two balconies, two covered parking spaces, and a location two blocks north of then-burgeoning Lincoln Road, the numbers made so much sense to my husband and me that we signed a contract for it on our initial walk-through.

Unfortunately, a week before we were set to close, the mortgage company still hadn't made an assessment on its value, because there was nothing on par to compare to it. Then the bank pulled out precipitously; the loan officer felt that South Beach was a bad investment. Another bank, two mortgage companies, and three missed closings later, we finally sealed the deal with the builder's Hasidic lawyers, who were so offended that I hadn't taken my husband's surname that they would only refer to me on the official documents as "and wife."

But that's another story -- perhaps one for Ms.magazine. The point is after five years and at least four chain-store invasions of the formerly funky, bohemian walking mall, we put the condo on the market for more than the realtor thought it was worth. Though I'm not going to gloat (much), I will allow that it sold on the first day to the first guy who looked it over. Fact is, South Beach real estate, whether it was for residential or commercial use, wasn't all that iffy in terms of prospects back in the day -- which was ten years after the initial renaissance that had been undertaken by the real pioneers. As an asset now, despite economic vagaries and acts of seasonal sabotage, South Beach still ain't too shabby.

Karim Masri, owner of Hotel Astor and the former Astor Place, probably couldn't agree with me more. Then a self-professed green 23-year-old, he purchased that property seven years ago this December. Now 31, he's celebrating by way of renovation, redecoration, rejuvenation, and any other "re-" words you can find in your computer's thesaurus.

Masri prefers "refocus." Or maybe "regenerate," as in business. He says, "[The Astor] is my property. This is my baby. It's a good time to reinvest because I own this place." To that end, he is sending regrets to his second offspring, Bambú, which he reportedly shut down in early summer for plumbing repairs. He admits, "Bambú was an expensive product to run, and fine dining is tricky now. People care how much a bottle of wine is going to cost. Check averages have dropped. Corporate spending has gone down." Bambú's lease, he says, will most likely be sold off to a team from New York, though he declines to reveal specifics.

He also temporarily closed Astor Place, along with the bars and the lobby, for a dramatic redo. When the restaurant reopens on December 13, seven years to the day after it first launched -- a coincidence but a good omen, thinks Masri -- it will be called Metro Kitchen & Bar. Inside, the look will be post-mod Italian, with clean, sleek lines and plenty of urban, sexy curves: Austin Powers meets Art Deco, with stainless steel tables and grids that look like backless bookcases for interior walls. "We want the bar and dining room areas to communicate but not interfere with each other," adds Masri's new partner Nicola Siervo, who recently sold his interest in Joia (but retains Mynt).

Outside, the pool area, which Masri claims "has been useless for me," will have been converted into a private, enclosed garden eatery covered with an aluminum trellis that has been threaded with white-flowering vines. "If you wanted to eat outdoors in Miami, you virtually couldn't. There wasn't an outdoor space with its own identity. Now Barton G has one, but that's it. I can capitalize on the space and do lunch, an even better brunch than Astor used to do." (Some might say Nemo and Smith & Wollensky have made a pretty penny off their outdoor areas, but we won't quibble.)

To that end he's entrusted Metro to Bambú's erstwhile executive chef Rob Boone, whom he calls "just a humble, sweet, down-to-earth guy. A real gentleman." Masri and Siervo want his humility to translate to the menu, both food-wise and price-wise. Items read deceptively simple -- braised beef ravioli with cipolline onion broth; oven-roasted chicken with glazed baby carrots and turnips; rolled lamb shoulder with chanterelles and truffles. Two of Metro's signatures will be the daily special -- a predetermined list that begins with beef bourguignonne on Monday and ends with couscous and braised lamb shank on Sunday -- and the soufflé dessert menu. It may be, as Siervo says, "just food," but you can bet Boone's training and experience show in every dish. "At the end of the day, we want [a meal] to be an experience but not pretentious. We want to be accessible and approachable. I'm talking about a vibe," Masri emphasizes.

Masri and Siervo are not the only proprietors taking last year's slow-down as an opportunity to reassess current commitments and make new ones. Party planner and designer wunderkind Barton G made a giraffe -- I mean, a splash -- with an opening that featured live zoo animals. His remake of Debbie Ohanian's Starfish space, where Kerry Simon failed to impress, is magically over-the-top, as is his version of comfort food: Desserts like ice cream and cookies translate to three pintsof the stuff, both composed and packaged in-house. What he aims to create, he told me over dinner one evening, is the kind of place where folks is folks and can afford to wield forks several times per week, rather than just on that one special occasion. (Meanwhile Kerry Simon, who went from here to Las Vegas to head up Prime, has somehow managed to convince the Hard Rock Hotel and Casino owners that he needs an eponymous restaurant. Hence Simon's is in the works, a venture that in my opinion is truly a gamble.)

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