Okay, I've heard enough. Stop telling me it's going to be a slow season, that dining aficionados are destined for disappointment, that nightlife connoisseurs will be bored enough to consider day jobs and reasonable bedtimes. If the season's offerings are so supposedly meager, then why have I been signing my paycheck over to my babysitter?
Despite dire predictions, there have been more high-profile openings of restaurants and lounges on South Beach these past couple of weeks than there have been anthrax scares. To name a few: Tambo, a Peruvian-Japanese place, launched on Purdy Avenue to a claustrophobic crowd of 1000. On Ocean Drive, a bistro called OceanFive is extending the nightlife scene down into SoFi, where 55 (nee The Strand) last attempted to revitalize. As for 55, former chef Jason Strom and partners just unveiled 6 Degrees Restaurant on Washington Avenue, an eatery that promises to be "Continental in theory, California in presentation." Hmm.
Part of the reason for the glut is that long-anticipated joints like Sushi Samba Dromo, which were supposed to debut last season on Lincoln Road, finally got its tushy (I mean its sushi) into gear. Likewise Nobu. And while Cafeteria's prospects look pretty dismal still, other proposed restaurants on Lincoln Road have completed construction as planned. One of them -- KISS, a risqué steak house and lounge located in the lobby of the Albion hotel -- has succeeded in its intent despite protest from the community and struggles with the city, opening this week with a pair of wild parties and, well, not that many pairs of panties.
Not that KISS is a strip club. It only looks like one on TV. Local designer Stephane Dupoux has outdone the Chinese with the mass spread of red. The floor is covered with red-and-tan checkerboard terrazzo carpeting; the armchairs are Medieval in nature and done in red-and-tan-striped ticking; and the tables are fiber optic-lighted stacks of red Lucite that look like you should be playing chess matches on them. A series of suspended stages around the dining room and on the mezzanine level are spot-lighted from underneath. The atmosphere feels decadent, looks lush and warm, and is in no way recognizable as the formerly metallic Mayya.
It's not the décor that has concerned the community, though, but the staff. Owners Bobby Rifkin and David Tornek, assisted by director of operations George Slover and director of entertainment Michael Tronn, have hired about twenty women, only one or two of whom were originally born to the male gender, to titillate the beef-eating masses. Veterans of the adult scene, such as the "Fire Kids" Kris and Amy, have been brought down from Diamond Cabaret and Steakhouse, Rifkin's club in Denver (one of his 40-odd establishments, including Touch on Lincoln Road), to train the girls in a series of sessions prior to opening night. And while this training did not entail the removal of articles of clothing, it did mean trying on elaborate costumes, practicing exotic dancing, tossing ideas around for light bondage vignettes, and learning about fire-eating.
I walked in during the fire-eating clinic at one of the "un-dress" rehearsals, which I was invited to observe for the sole purpose of KISSing and telling. I was immediately impressed by Amy, a 24-year-old who is covered with more tattoos than Lou. She was giving a demonstration on how to dance with torches that have been dipped in lighter fluid and set ablaze, a practice she says is even more difficult than eating fire. As opposed to swallowing the flames, a stunt that requires an awful lot of saliva and usually results in a burned palate, fire-dancing is dangerous not just to yourself but to those around you. "You have to take into consideration other people and the stage as well as your costume and your hair ... you don't want to fall with fire in your hands." She relates an anecdote about the time she burned four inches off her ponytail. Hence her current style -- flame-retardant hair extensions.
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Naturally none of the girls will want to char their outfits, which range from spangled bikini tops and micro-shorts to Sixties-era mini dresses á la Austin Powers to baby-doll robes over garters and corsets. While most of the girls seem interested in pyrotechnics, they also clearly like the way those faux-fur skirts wrap around their thighs and the brush of those candy-colored wigs they get to wear on their shoulders. So they won't be playing with fire immediately. Even after they wind up dancing with "fire-fingers" (gloves that have ten individually lit torches), they probably won't progress to the point that Kris and Amy have: Smearing liquid fire onto each others' bodies and licking it off." Sometimes Kris will put it on my butt and then spank it out," Amy confides. "It does burn for a few seconds."
Yeah, I bet.
For now, the only things the girls will be putting on their, er, assets is chocolate, in order to become human fondue pots. Interpret that how you like. They'll be learning other social graces, too, like how to recline instead of sit so that their stomachs don't collapse into unattractive folds. How to handle the leers of the bartenders, who came to the un-dress rehearsals for the sole purpose of becoming inured to the girls' more obvious charms. And how to dance suggestively but with their legs closed enough so that patrons who stand under the Lucite stages can't see, well, everything. Just most things. After all, I repeat, KISS is not Club Madonna. The dancers are not strippers. At least not here they're not.
As for me, I'm not a stripper either. However I'll be heading back to KISS not only for the requisite taste tests, but to make good on an offer Tronn gave me. Because while I have swallowed many unusual items in my line of work, you see, I have yet to consume fire.