Chef Johnny Vinczencz made a name for himself during a star-making stint at the Hotel Astor from 1995 to 2000. He also made a nickname for himself, "the Caribbean Cowboy," which he discarded after leaving town and riding off to other restaurants in Palm Beach (Sundy House) and Broward (Johnny V Las Olas) counties. Now Johnny's come marching home again to the Astor, as chef/owner of Johnny V South Beach, and he's giving us a hearty welcome with Latin- and island-inspired American comfort cuisine.

The staff of the lovely downstairs restaurant offered us an especially warm greeting as well, and why not? After all, reservations were made from a swank hotel where my out-of-town dinner guests were staying, so no doubt the assumption by the host (and by extension the waiters) was that a party of well-heeled tourists was walking through the door. Which was pretty much true. Except for me, that is.

From the start our waiter seemed overeager in pushing cocktails and wines, but I chalked it up to pent-up energy — there were few other diners in the plush, 140-seat, coral-and-copper-hued dining room (with plenty more seating outdoors). Plus, the visually dominating presence of a twenty-foot-tall glass and mahogany wine tower, housing more than 5000 bottles, might conceivably provide added incentive to move product. It likewise seemed innocuous enough when the waiter handed out a cheese menu and "strongly suggested" we try some. This is, after all, the finest and most extensive cheese selection (some 50 choices) in Miami-Dade County. That he repeated the recommendation another time or two didn't cause alarm either, but his persistence became pestering as he kept coming up with new angles ("You know, a cheese plate would be perfect to snack on while you're waiting for your last guest to arrive"). He ultimately closed the deal with a pair of preteens at our table, who succumbed to the pressure and pleaded for a plate of gouda, brie, and parmesan.


Johnny V South Beach

Johnny V South Beach, Hotel Astor, 956 Washington Ave, Miami Beach; 305-672-9998. Open for dinner Sunday through Thursday 6:00 to 11:00 p.m., Friday and Saturday 6:00 p.m. to midnight.

A short while later, the waiter returned with stellar specimens of those cheeses (we especially enjoyed the Pierre Robert triple cream), along with the cheery news that "we have added a couple of treats to the tray" — one of which was a wonderful white Stilton, sweetly laced with mango and ginger. It seemed like an awfully nice gesture — I perceived it to be a generosity of spirit born from the euphoria of a successful sale — but it proved just an awful gesture later on, when a charge for five cheeses, rather than the three we ordered, appeared on the bill. I might add that the wait staff had a fluid hand in pouring bottled water ($32 worth), yet when it came to honoring a request for a refill of our allotted strip each of focaccia bread, we were left dry.

Although I don't appreciate the manner in which the cheese plate was foisted upon us, the accompaniments were peerless: a martini glass of house-cured olives teeming with roasted garlic; fig-and- balsamicmarinated grapes; pear-hazelnut paste; sweet/spicy pecans; and a smattering of croutons.

I was not the one doing the ordering, but we were clearly requesting too much food — when I looked up at our waiter, I swear to you, the pupils of his eyes had morphed into dollar signs. In his haste to paste more items onto our tab, he enticed us into a tapas sharing plate, neglecting to note that two of the main components are roasted garlic olives and a quartet of Spanish cheeses (Mahon, Manchego, Cabrales, and Idiazabel) — a regrettable echo of the cheeses and olives already on the table. The $21 medley of Mediterranean tidbits also contained grilled chorizo on croutons, Serrano ham, and spicy grape tomatoes.

Chef de cuisine Kelly Sheehan shares top menu billing with Johnny, who shuttles back and forth between here and his Las Olas outpost. Some foods are the same in both spots, like the popular, always comforting "short stack" starter of grilled portobello mushrooms interspersed between silver dollar buttermilk pancakes, with sun-dried tomato butter melted in, and a mildly sweet balsamic syrup drizzled on top. But the menu is not just an autograph collection of Vinczencz's signature dishes. The chef is dubbing his cuisine here "Nuevo American," and new additions among the appetizers include the whimsical "green eggs and ham" (herbed and truffled egg salad, Serrano ham, toast points), and a series of "tres maneras" — triptych takes on a single ingredient. Beef short ribs, for instance, arrived plumped into a mini-empanada, as a salad with frisse and barbecuevinaigrette, and burnished with a brash barbecue sauce. This is delicious stuff, and vintage Mr. V, a St. Louis native who has always displayed a fondness for big, smoky flavors. Again there is no shortage of big wines to pair with the effusive fare.

It ticked me off that duck confit was nowhere to be found in what was supposed to be a three-duck entree, but delicate red slices of the seared breast and a trio of meatballs composed of the poultry were tenderly endearing. Sautéed spinach on the side possessed a citrusy spark, and thin little wisps of toufie pasta were done al dente — some too much so, to the point of uncooked crunchiness. When one of the servers boasted that toufie was "the last hand-rolled pasta in the world," we had no idea what he meant; still I was tempted to smuggle some home to sell on eBay.

Seafoods satisfied, the pleasantly sweet taste of fresh corn-crusted yellowtail snapper aptly offset with lemon boniato mash; and grilled salmon lightly glazed in barbecue sauce, adeptly accompanied by chunky applesauce, asparagus spears, and a soft, cream-cheesy potato gratin (though I wasn't sure what to make of an incongruous bagel chip perched on top of the salmon).

Steaks are prime USDA beef aged for 28 days. A ten-ounce Black Angus filet mignon and black skillet-seared, eighteen-ounce New York strip were sumptuously textured, but didn't possess the crisply seared, well-seasoned crust of a steak house product. They did, however, boast steak house prices ($38 and $42 respectively) and presentation (naked on a white plate). Not to fret about the latter — the service staff will be more than ecstatic to make suggestions on ways to fill that blank space. Side dishes ran the gamut from sensational (thin, truffled french fries with deliriously tasty lobster gravy) to so-so (creamed spinach), to sad (dry, puny-noodled, "five-year-aged cheddar" macaroni and cheese).

The pastry chef at Johnny V Las Olas, Malka Espinel, also provides desserts for the Astor. Banana cream pie, chocolate decadent torte, and Asian pear cobbler all passed muster, but her creations seem brighter and more creative at the northern branch. The coffee is also better up there — here it was old and cold. When we pointed this out, the cups were removed from the table and brought back just a minute or two later — reheated, but certainly no fresher.

At white-cloth restaurants like this, where entrees run $27 to $42, it is not unusual for guests to get pampered with little gastronomic gifts — an amuse-bouchée, intermezzo, whatever. This is especially true when the bill for a table of diners approaches $500, as ours did. No such tokens were tossed our way, which is okay (trust me, we weren't going hungry). But the bottom line is that no matter how talented a chef may be, getting treated as nothing more than a bottom line makes for an unpleasant dining experience. Johnny has come marching home again all right, but our hurrahs are decidedly muted.

Hotel Astor, 956 Washington Ave, Miami Beach; 305-672-9998. Open for dinner Sunday through Thursday 6:00 to 11:00 p.m., Friday and Saturday 6:00 p.m. to midnight.

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