Johnny Comes Back
He's got the best rock-star name of any local chef: Johnny V. And the coolest dub: Caribbean Cowboy. Never mind that Mr. Vinczencz is from St. Louis, Missouri, the important thing is that he's come back in the kitchen of Astor Place, where before leaving in early 1999 he had established himself as one of Miami's best chefs and most popular practitioners of New Florida cuisine. During Johnny's absence Astor owner Karim Masri turned to Norman Van Aken for consultation, but the Norman-Karim dream team never really jelled. Two months ago the prodigal cowboy returned. Question is: Can you really come home again?
Things haven't progressed much, in a culinary sense, during Mr. V's leave. For all the talk of Miami's restaurant renaissance, there still aren't many run by experienced, professional chefs and/or restaurateurs. The Astor Place décor has changed even less, the once chic and cutting-edge design surpassed by an influx of more stylized dining spaces. But there's comfort in a familiar setting and an underlying confidence in knowing the place has been around a while. The airy atrium with tall glass ceilings is still a beautiful room in which to dine day or night. The brown-tone, lower-ceiling room by the bar, while intimate, seems drab and uninteresting in comparison.
We didn't notice any celebrities milling about, but the clientele is ostentatious enough that they consistently pop up in those scene photos in our local mags and rags. Their very showiness is what makes the cruddy baseball cap (or sometimes bandanna) upon Vinczencz's pony-tailed head visible during his rare forays into the dining room so deliciously incongruous. He looks the same as before, but his food has undergone a subtle transformation: more streamlined, more Mediterranean, less Caribbean Cowboy, and, according to my tastes, better than ever.
Astor's bread baskets have always contained compelling choices -- currently the softest of focaccia, thin Parmesan crisps, and slices of baguette. On one occasion a marvelous miso spread came alongside, another time garlic-herb butter, once just regular butter. What happened to the miso spread? Sometimes we have it, sometimes we don't, the waiter replied matter-of-factly.
We began with two starters that are old favorites of the chef. One, his wild-mushroom pancake short stack (not to be confused with Norman's foie gras French toast -- can truffled waffles be far behind?) features thin slices of grilled portobello mushrooms layered between buttermilk pancakes, with a mildly sweet balsamic syrup and dab of sun-dried tomato butter melting and melding well into the savory stack. Barbecue shrimp martini is another Johnny V signature -- literally, as a V-shape glass holds a dollop of creamy smoked shrimp-potato salad, grilled corn salsa, and three meaty barbecue-marinated shrimp. A dish of spicy cocktail sauce spiked with chipotle comes on the side, though the tastes are large enough without it. Two cornmeal-crusted duck cakes, sauced with a dark brown berry demi-glace, look just like big crabcakes. The filling is made from only moderately adulterated confit of duck leg, meaning it's robustly flavorful, though so finely shredded as to become texturally repetitive. An accompanying cabbage slaw flecked with fine bits of mango does help a little in that regard.
Restaurant rule of thumb: If you're going to offer only one soup, better make it a darn good one. Smoked tomato soup is just that -- full bodied and deeply seasoned, with an A immaculately inscribed in cilantro sour cream and a couple of buttery croutons filled with melted Brie sitting on the edge of the bowl. By adding French and Southwestern flavors to the beloved duo of grilled cheese sandwich and cream of tomato soup, yet retaining the integral aspects that made the combo popular to begin with, Vinczencz has created a classic example of smart New American cooking. This ability is, in effect, what makes him so good.
Salads are Johnny on the spot: baby greens adorned with goat cheese, citrus sections, toasted almonds, and fig-balsamic vinaigrette; cobb salad with the addition of roasted corn, blistered pineapple, honey-roasted hazelnuts and a vinaigrette made from lobster stock; and sushi salad, four rounds of tuna tataki with raw center and red curry-seared exterior, four too-loosely wrapped disks of king-crab rolls, two skewers of rare salmon, and a mound of sesame-dressed wakame salad with bean sprouts, shredded carrots, and red onion -- all sublimely fresh, though the dish seemed big and expensive ($24) for a starter. On a subsequent visit, the same salad was offered as a $17 appetizer or $26 main course. That makes more sense.
Only one entrée traipses into similar pan-Asian territory: the wasabi-seared tuna with rock shrimp and jasmine rice. And just two contain tropical touches: Miami cioppino, with a tomato-mango-scotch-bonnet broth; and Jamaican jerk veal tenderloin, thick round wheels of rich, very tender veal in a pool of sultry veal demi-glace with a spicy fruit and scotch-bonnet salsa seeping into a mound of spinach callaloo, along with multiple wedges of sweet, crunchy-on-the-outside and creamy-on-the-inside coconut-yuca cakes. Really a perfect plate, each component carefully prepared and, together, offering innumerable blasts of contrasting but complementary natural flavors (no chef relies less on salt than Mr. V). A pair of succulent domestic lamb chops also were prepared with aplomb, served with creamy Yukon mashed potatoes, a mélange of baby vegetables, and natural lamb essence.
A fresh fillet of seared lemon-basil yellowtail snapper in a buttery chardonnay vegetable broth also was fine, the whitewater littleneck clams, pencil asparagus, and smooth cannellini bean purée appropriately light accompaniments that don't interfere with the delicacy of the fish. A quartet of herb-griddled prawns and gracefully grilled diver scallops are able to absorb stronger flavors, like that of a truffled honey-mustard vinaigrette. In truth the vinaigrette tasted overwhelmingly of truffle oil, which was fine by me, and fine by the top-shelf shellfish.
Desserts by pastry chef Malka Espinel were very good, though marred by poor handling. The dessert tasting plate, centered by a cup of malted milk custard, contained a minidonut filled with dulce de leche, a small s'more that tasted more like a Malomar, a teeny ice cream sandwich, and three or four different cookies. Would have been a delicate and delicious way to end the meal, but a few items tasted of refrigeration. And while three of the cuatro de chocolates were pleasing (peanut butter and chocolate bar, dome of chocolate mousse, and Gianduja custard with crackly brélée crust), the fourth, a flourless chocolate cake, was smothered in whipped cream that was off. When the waiter picked up the plate and inquired how dessert was, I mentioned that it was fine, but the whipped cream was not. Oh, really? he asked in a surprised tone. When he returned with the check, not a word regarding the cream. When you're paying about $75 per person, excluding wine and tip, and even when shelling out far less, such an occurrence usually brings forth an apology, or an explanation, or a comp on the offending dessert, or the offer of an after-dinner drink (Astor has 44 types) or dessert wine (they've got ten by the glass). Is there a manager in the house? Well, no, it doesn't seem like it, which is probably why nobody bothered saying thank you or good night to us on our way out -- during any visit.
Service was professional and not unfriendly, but overall we felt like customers, not guests. Can you imagine being in someone's house and politely suggesting, in private, that the cream in one of the pastries might be a little off, and having the host take away the plate and not say a word? Can you imagine that host, on an occasion when you don't question the freshness of their cream, not bothering to say good night, or even notice that you're leaving? Neither can I, and therein lies the difference between a local restaurant with great food, which is what Astor Place is, and a great restaurant for locals. So to answer the question first posed: Yes, Johnny V, you can come home again. There's just no guarantee the house will be in order.
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