Have you heard of the newest dance craze taking Miami's most popular restaurant/lounges like a riptide? It's called the South Beach Shuffle.
Oops, silly me. Of course you don't know about this hot trend yet, only those of us in the know know. But I never could keep a secret, so I'm delighted to teach you the moves.
First thing you do is get your whites on and become a chef or a restaurateur. That's one of the most tedious parts of the dance, so only attempt this if you have the demeanor of a teenager on E. Next, court a partner and make a deal to cut a rug (or some terrazzo floors) on South Beach, somewhere near the middle of that single square mile where you'll be as subtle as a six-foot model with stilettos on her feet.
Then get set for the trickiest part of the Shuffle, a series of intricate steps known as the spin: Hire PR, pour the bubbly, manipulate the media, and make room in your cash register. This is the point where the Shuffle becomes a line dance -- as in all your customers will wait in one (two, three, four). All together now: Dodge to the right to catch the flashbulbs of the photogs; fall back and left for the shower of awards; turn around and around for praise of the greenest kind.
Now, just when the dance is at its most frenetic, make your bow. Still can't visualize it? I'll give you a concrete example: Michael Schwartz, erstwhile chef-proprietor of Nemo, Big Pink, and Shoji Sushi. That's right, Schwartz is now a former. The founding partner of Nemo back in 1992, he's withstood the rigors of the dance for just about a decade. And he twirled by the rules, the Michael Flatley of fine food (but without the George Michael look-alike hairstyle). First he trained rigorously out in California under Wolfgang Puck, among others. Then, after traveling for a year or so, he skipped to South Beach where, along with partner Myles Chefetz, he opened one of the first high-end eateries (after Joe's and what was then South Pointe Seafood House, now Smith & Wollensky) south of Fifth Street. Neighborhood success was nearly immediate, and Schwartz et al. capitalized by opening the immensely likable Big Pink across the street.
The years that followed saw the duo locked in a slow dance. They attempted to clone two Big Pinks in Broward County and run a restaurant called Fish in Aventura, but none of these ventures quite panned out. Indeed, "We opened five restaurants in seven years and two tanked hard," Schwartz admits. (The Big Pink on Harrison Boulevard in Hollywood never actually opened.)
Schwartz and Chefetz decided to focus on South Beach and continued to operate both eateries there with a steadfastness and consistency that eventually began to earn them repeat vacationers as well as their loyal locals. Last year they debuted Shoji Sushi next door to Nemo, and it looked to me that Schwartz would eventually receive some of the culinary recognition that had so far been withheld from his dance card. But this past April, Schwartz's knees, so to speak, gave out, and after several months in arbitrated negotiation, he dissolved his partnership with Chefetz.
"There's no nasty spin to it. I just wasn't having fun anymore. The best thing about what I do is that I love it, and if I don't love it I have to make a change," Schwartz says. "My job within the restaurant company had become like being a big old babysitter. I like running a restaurant, but I like to cook."
Never fear, though, Nemo isn't Nomo. Chefetz is keeping everything status quo, and the entire staff, including pastry chef extraordinaire Hedy Goldsmith, remains in place. As for Schwartz, he plans on manning a new stove at some point in the area -- indeed he's already looking at spaces in areas like the Design District -- but for the moment he's keeping his own counsel and hanging out with his wife and two young girls. He notes, "I have time to spend with my family. I've lost my identity to a certain extent but I know in my heart I've done the right thing. I'm antsy and I want to work but I'm getting better at relaxing every day." He adds, however, "Once I'm back in, I'm back in 110 percent."
Karim Masri is another member of the pioneering South Beach troupe who plans on reinvesting his energies during the summer. He recently shuttered his two eponymous eateries, the seven-year-old Astor Place and two-year-old Bambú, only a month apart from each other. He points out, though, that the two restaurants have different problems, and will tackle individual issues over the summer months. "Seven years later, Astor Place is in need of a complete reinvention. [It] will reopen under a completely different concept and name," he asserts. "For Bambú, I will be reopening it in late September with some cosmetic changes and badly needed repairs [to the plumbing system]. We will also tweak the menu to make it moderately priced and more extensive, perhaps even eliminating the sushi altogether ... and focusing on signature creations by chef Rob Boone, who's a genius with ingredients. We have the whole summer to come up with something that will go the extra mile in pleasing our clientele."
In fact Boone will also be creating and overseeing the new menu at Astor Place, which will be renovated by interior designer Sam Robin. Masri and Robin will concentrate on refurbishing all the common areas as well as the restaurant and rooms. "The secret [to] my renovation is to capitalize on the outdoor space that I have which is now the pool area. The pool will be closed up and turned into a charming modern garden with vines growing overhead on a trellis system." He continues, "With Bambú, our goal is to get away from the myth that we are outrageously expensive and make Chef Rob's menu more accessible to the general public.... We've scared away some of the clientele that helped make South Beach what it is today with skyrocketing hotel and restaurant prices." Amen.
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Of course the question remains: What exactly is South Beach today? It may be easier to answer what it is not -- a home base for Tim Andriola. The executive chef of Mark's South Beach cemented his burgeoning rep there after many years working with Allen Susser. At Mark's he started to attract the attention of investors while simultaneously collecting kudos like hosting James Beard dinners. Indeed when I spoke to Andriola two years ago, right when another Mark's alumnus, Kris Wessel, had launched Liaison, he'd indicated to me that Mark's was a necessary stopping point on the way to opening his own place. I'm as pleased to see he's keeping to his timeline as I have been disappointed to see Liaison shut down. Appropriately exploiting his current name recognition, Andriola left Mark's last week with the hopes of signing a lease in Sunny Isles. And while he hasn't pounded out the details yet, he's done enough work on the basic dough to ensure that something delicious will rise in the future.
Meanwhile sous chef Christopher Tapper has been promoted to exec at Mark's South Beach, and he isn't the only one with a transition position. Frank Jeanetti, who has worked as second head babysitter for Michael Schwartz at Nemo and chef de cuisine for Ephraim Kadish at Breez before being named executive chef there (when Kadish and Billboardlive came to a parting of the airwaves), has gone over to the semiprecious frontier of Pearl. In addition a secret source who won't even tell me his name reveals that Sean Bernal, numero uno ceviche producer at almost-year-old Tambo, has departed on the infertile grounds of bounced paychecks.
All these shifts come at a time when South Beach continues to experience national media recognition. Just last week, Wish and its chef, E. Michael Reidt, were highlighted in a three-page, full-color spread in People magazine. Food & Wine magazine, it appears, was so impressed by the potential of the South Beach Wine & Food Festival that editor Dana Cowan has agreed to sponsor the 2003 event.
The aforementioned changing of the culinary guard may make us feel, temporarily at least, a bit uneasy. But this is summer after all. When it comes down to it and I look at the possibilities for next season -- a revitalized (and cheaper) Astor Place and Bambú, a fresh concept from veteran Schwartz, a resurfacing of Andriola, and, I fervently hope, Wessel -- I say what the hell. Let's dance.