The goods: If there's one venue on South Beach that needed a gifted showman in charge it was the Versace Mansion, aka Casa Casuarina. Telecom entrepreneur Peter Loftin, who bought the residence in 2000, turned it into a boutique hotel and club that never quite stuck. Enter the inimitable Barton G. Weiss, who signed a 10-year lease on the property in December, rebranded it The Villa by Barton G and restored much of the opulence that makes this rococo confection such a draw on Ocean Drive.
Most of the splashy suites go for thousands of dollars a night, but you can experience the magic by having dinner at the in-house restaurant. Make sure to book in advance - there only about 50 seats, and tables fill up quickly on the weekends. While the weather is still manageable, request a table on the outdoor patio overlooking the dazzling mosaic-tiled pool and dramatically lit courtyard.
Ambience: The indoor dining room is intimate and plush, with blue and gold upholstered chairs, Moroccan lanterns and in tricate tiling. There's a high staff-to-customer ratio with multiple servers, managers and wine attendants adding to the posh atmosphere. And while Weiss has toned down his trademark circus-like presentations, there's still plenty of pomp to the proceedings, including pricey Versace china, inch-thick crystal dessert plates, $150 napkin rings adorned with Versace's signature Medusa head and a wine list encased in a 20-pound wooden tome.
The grub: New American cuisine with a molecular bent, no doubt inspired by chef Justin Albertson's stint at Alinea in Chicago, the best-known bastion of mad-scientist cooking this side of the Costa Brava. Prices match the luxurious setting: starters are $17-$28 and mains $34-$59. Wines can get expensive, but sommelier Hakan Balkuvvar (BLT Steak) can guide you to a $60 bottle. Complimentary bread service includes truffle bread and crusty cheese baguettes. A seared tuna starter comes with a scoop of fennel sorbet and red pepper puree while the beef carpaccio is adorned with a "cured" egg sphere. Entrees are rich and delicately portioned. The lobster with lobster-stuffed tortellini is topped with poached tail meat bathed in a musky lobster reduction, while the duck breast is accompanied by a side of bacon-studded turnips and a slab of seared foie gras. An ethereal chocolate mousse and a fluffy souffl with Earl Grey gelee round out the regal sweets.
Verdict: The Versace mansion is restored to its former glory under Barton G.