Caribbean Cowboy Junkie

Like a beacon to the untalented, a white baby grand piano sat in the middle of the terrazzo floor of South Beach's Astor Place Bar & Grill. Next to it was a rowdy table of ten, five guys and their model-type girls. One man, encased in tight black pants and a shirt unbuttoned to the waist, rose and leaned swaying on the marble tabletop, obviously drunk. "To the best lead guitarist," he slurred loudly. "To the best tour manager."

Only a matter of time, I thought to myself, before he approaches the gleaming keyboard. And sure enough, he sidled along the bench and launched into a few of the songs he'd be taking on the road the next day. When he finished, only his party clapped. Still, he seemed satisfied with his performance, so satisfied that he grabbed one of his groupies and kissed her open-mouthed while his cigarette burned dangerously close to her bared navel.

Not as explicit a performance as some I've seen on South Beach, but still quite a show for a crowded, upscale restaurant.

Except nobody besides me was watching.
Not long afterward, the entourage departed -- and all the lights went out. Stained-glass chandeliers, red-shaded floor lamps, small fixed spots, all cut out with the abruptness of a rim shot, while the security alarm wailed a warning. "Short in the system," our waiter explained; the blackouts were to continue at brief intervals throughout the evening.

Again, no one else seemed to notice. Or care.
Hunched over their handsomely designed dinner plates, the crowd was too busy to be distracted by highbrow settings, lowbrow antics, or electrical aberrations. When executive chef Johnny Vinczencz (pronounced vin-senz) plates his fusion preparations in the open kitchen, the wood-trimmed, glass-atriumed stunning renovation that is the Astor Hotel becomes a mere backdrop.

The restaurant is owned by Dennis Max and Burt Rapoport, the minds behind Maxaluna, Max's Grille, Max's Coffee Shop/Mizner Breads, the four Prezzos, and, until recently, Max's South Beach (which was sold last month). When the partners, known for showcasing celebrity chefs, brought in Vinczencz to fortify the 145-seat Astor Place, it marked his first appearance in the South Beach spotlight, though he has worked for Norman Van Aken (at the original a Mano) and Kerry Simon (at the Raleigh's erstwhile Blue Star). Vinczencz says his background in Southwestern cookery, coupled with Van Aken's exotic New World techniques and Simon's fascination with Americana, have yielded a hybrid he calls "Caribbean cowboy," an appellation that seems pretty accurate.

The heartland was highlighted in a wild mushroom "short stack," an intriguing appetizer of three pancakes speckled with mushrooms, with portobello slices layered between. A blob of sun-dried tomato butter melted on top and a drizzle of sweet-sharp balsamic syrup imbued the breakfast fare with dinnertime appeal. (Once during brunch at the Century I was served balsamic vinegar instead of syrup with my pancakes, and I remember thinking, once I got over the shock, that it wasn't a bad combination. Vinczencz made good on that odd pairing.)

An equally risky but less successful starter, a "retro" French onion soup, was a startling presentation -- a crock covered with melted cheese, out of which poked a focaccia crostini spread with spiced goat cheese and ringed with two deep-fried onions. The soup looked delicious but was hardly "retro"; the broth, made with vegetable rather than beef stock, was at once too sweet and musky, tasting like sugared mushrooms. Onions were plentiful but had no presence in terms of flavor, and the cheese on top, supposedly a blend of three, behaved like all mozzarella, pulling and twisting as if on a Little Caesars pizza.

After two meals at Astor Place, though, I'll add that that was the only dish I didn't like.

Curry smoked-chicken won tons were far better, puffy pleasures dotted with a fiery orange-ginger sauce. A creamy puree, the filling was slightly smoky, lightly spiced. The seven steam-fluffed envelopes surrounded a "firecracker" salad, a bright combination of shredded vegetables laced with an unobtrusive vinaigrette.

Shrimp cakes were also extremely well done. A miniature layer cake, two pan-fried rounds of chopped shrimp held together by seasoned breadcrumbs were spread with a mayonnaiselike lobster emulsion. An icing of ripe star-fruit salsa, tasting like mango, introduced a tropical flair; underneath the structure a square of griddled boniato provided substance. The combination of flavors was faultless.

Four salads, ranging from tomato and avocado with caramelized shallots and citrus vinaigrette to arugula, endive, and sweet peppers with tropical fruit and orange dijon dressing, all sounded enticing. But I was more attracted to a choice of two "mainplate" salads, a lovely cool option for a humid evening. Spit-fire chicken salad was a plate jeweled with baby greens, piled high and glazed with a honey-rich barbecue vinaigrette. Salty watermelon salsa, balsamic-pickled red onions, roasted red and yellow peppers, and roasted corn kernels contributed color to the green plateau; creamy sliced avocado created textural differences. Though billed on the menu, cornbread croutons were absent. But the true centerpiece was quite obviously the chicken, not the expected small chunks of breast meat but an entire half of a small hen. Slow-cooked in a rotisserie fashion, the bone-in, skin-on bird was wonderfully moist, served at room temperature.

The same careful handling was evident in a risotto with scallops and lobster. Four pearly sea scallops, seared until just cooked, vied for attention with chunks of Maine lobster tail meat. (The lobster won by virtue of the dish's garnish, a whole roasted claw.) Though the risotto itself wasn't authentic -- the grains remained too separate to achieve that starchy breakdown, that perfect creamed cohesiveness -- as a rice casserole the combination was delicious, accented with corn cut right off the cob, peppery arugula, roasted peppers, and threads of fried leeks.

Corn-crusted yellowtail snapper was wonderful, revealing Vinczencz as a veritable colonel of corn. Coated with roasted cornmeal, the sauteed snapper was crisp outside, moist inside, resting on a lemon-scented boniato mash around which bubbled a roasted corn sauce. Smoked pepper relish, a chopped salsa, perched on top.

More fun with the chef's favorite participles -- roasting, grilling, mashing -- on the beef tenderloin entree. Two tender filets were cooked to order, posed on a "potato chip" mash of spuds stuck with waffled potato crisps. The beef was nicely complemented by a fire-roasted onion shredded over grilled portobello mushroom caps and tomatoes. A huge plateful of food, well worth the stomachache you'd get if you polished it all off.

By far the best entree, pumpkinseed-crusted rack of lamb, was simply outstanding. Three double-cut chops were generously battered with crushed pepitos, which became buttery when cooked. Inside the seal, the lamb was ideal, medium-rare and juicy, with a slight smoky tang. A chopped mint salsa underneath the meat was moistened by a natural lamb jus, and enchiladas stuffed with goat cheese and wild mushrooms paired the main course perfectly.

Like the appetizers, desserts can be experimental, and fun. We scarfed down a fried banana split that had looked so tempting in front of some kids out by the pool before dinner, the crunchy, caramelized bananas topped with a selection of that night's ice cream and sorbets.

But we left that baby grand alone.


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