Friday, August 6, 2010

Norman's 180 - Coral Gables

[sorry, this restaurant has closed]

I'm going to come right out and say it: I don't think I can be entirely objective about Chef Norman Van Aken's new restaurant, Norman's 180. Some of the reminiscing in my last post previewing the restaurant's opening might give some indication why. A dinner nearly twenty years ago at his South Beach restaurant A Mano was one of my first truly memorable meals. His "Feasts of Sunlight" cookbook, published in 1988, was one of the first cookbooks I recall cooking from. Very simply, Chef Van Aken's food has played a not-insignificant part in my personal culinary history.

In the interest of complete disclosure, I should also add that I've attended a (free) friends and family dinner as well as a (free) media preview event at the restaurant,[1] and the chef and I have chatted at those events as well as chance encounters in local tapas bars. Since Norman's 180 officially opened, I've been back a few more times as a paying customer. But try as I might, I've been unable to do so without being "spotted," since Chef Van Aken seems to be working seven days a week. So take this all with as many grains of salt as you deem appropriate.

With that said: Norman's 180 is putting out some delicious, exciting food. It's not perfect. It's not as elegant an experience as the original Norman's in Coral Gables used to be. But it's fun and flavorful, and a welcome return for a South Florida legend.

I won't recite Chef Van Aken's whole biography here. Aside from being a famous chef, he's also a great storyteller, and his life stories are scattered all over his website, from his first gig as a long-haired line cook in 1971, to applying for a job with Charlie Trotter and being mistaken for a truck driver, to Louie's Backyard in Key West, to A Mano on South Beach. But South Floridians probably remember him most fondly for Norman's, his flagship restaurant on the quietest end of sleepy Almeria Avenue in Coral Gables. In its time, Norman's was one of the best restaurants Miami had ever seen, and before it closed almost exactly three years ago in May 2007, it was one of the last local bastions of true "fine dining" still around.

Things change. If you're a proud property owner in Miami, your house is worth about half of what it was worth in 2007. These are not the times for "fine dining." And so it was clearly time for Chef Van Aken to do something different. "Norman's 180" is not "Norman's," with a name that not only conveniently indicates the street address of the restaurant but also suggests a 180 degree turn from the past. Norman's 180 embodies all the current gestalt: it eschews white tablecloths for bare wood tables, it embraces the farm to table ethos, it exalts all that is porcine.

But it is also clearly a Norman Van Aken restaurant. In fact, it's a family venture, with son Justin Van Aken working side by side in the kitchen with the old man.[2] Though he is best known for bringing classical technique to Caribbean flavors and ingredients as a prime instigator of the 1980's "Mango Gang," Chef Van Aken's food has always been globally influenced, willing to draw inspiration from Asia or Africa as readily as South America and the Caribbean if it tastes good. What twenty years ago was called "fusion cuisine" now ought really need no nametag. It's just food, and it's either tasty or not. The menu runs in several directions at once, and sometimes it gets lost amidst all the globe-trotting, but for the most part I've enjoyed the journey so far.

(continued ...)

The space is in the ground floor of the Westin Colonnade hotel, running alongside Ponce de Leon Boulevard to the corner of Aragon Avenue. Old farts like myself may recall it as being the old Doc Dammer's Saloon spot, one of the classic (and few) 1980's Gables watering holes. A large, white marble topped bar occupies one side of the restaurant, with a column behind the bar bearing quotes from a diverse range of sources - Martin Luther King Jr., Oscar Hijuelos, Frida Kahlo, Marc Chagall, Mark Twain, Michel de Montaigne. The bar wraps around a sizable open kitchen, across from which is the main dining room, with a few rows of tables and roomy banquettes. Shades of brown predominate, with lots of wood and leather, and jars of spices on the walls serving as the primary decoration.

the bar
The menu has been something of a moving target, changing a bit every time I've visited - something I regard as a tremendously positive sign. There's about 10 "small plates" to choose from (generally priced $8-14), a few salads ($9-12), a few pizzas ($12-14), a few soups ($9-14), and then about 10 "main plate" options ($16-39).[3] In initial iterations I recall seeing some larger plates, presumably for sharing, but not in the most recent version. Rounding things out are a cheese plate ($12), a house-made charcuterie plate ($14), and a handful of vegetable sides ($8).

Among my favorites from the starters: a Colombian Arepa, the dense, crispy edged corn cake topped with some smashed black beans, a fresh corn salsa, a drizzle of crema, a squeeze of lime, and a crown of porky but light-as-air chicharrones, every bite a burst of flavor. Chicken Wings are done up "Korean style," with a deeply fiery gochujang marinade. The gochujang is rendered in a stickier, heavier style than a traditional Korean fried chicken, but no less delicious, a happy, messy start for a meal. N180's Tuna Tartare is a version for people who are bored with tuna tartare, to me more like a Hawaiian poke, with the cubes of fish tossed with soy, sesame oil, ginger, Japanese eggplant, soba noodles and spicy peanuts. It's another dish where the hum of spice stays on your lips for minutes after finishing.

Arepa, Banh Mi.[4]
"Chicken Fried Short Rib" sounds a bit heavy for a starter, and frankly it would have been. But I ordered it along with one of the other small plates and a vegetable side, and it rounded out a nice "light" meal. It is just what it's called, a short rib that's been braised til tender, then floured and pan fried for a crispy exterior. It's served over a sweet potato purée with some creamy "sawmill" gravy, along with "braised beans," which is a fussy way to describe green beans that have, frankly, had the shit cooked out of them. These are no snappy, al dente beans; these are tender and soft, cooked down with bits of bacon and then perked up with some vinegar, the kind of thing you'd be more likely to find in a soul food steam tray than in a fancy restaurant. The dish is like the South on a plate, and it made me smile.

Shrimp Ceviche is done in a Mexican "Vuelve la Vida" style, swimming in a tomato-intensive sauce, and mixed with some grilled octopus. We enjoyed this without reservation on one visit, but on another the octopus was in too-large chunks that made for unwieldy eating. Duck Meatballs had a pleasingly intriguing gaminess to them, and were draped with a Marsala-mustard reduction that plays on notions of sweet-and-sour. I would have sooner seen these paired with something to provide some textural contrast, rather than the carrot-parsnip mash in which they're nestled. I also found the Steamed Mussels, which are matched with some kabocha potstickers and served in a soy butter spiked with "backyard mangoes," a tricky pairing. The mussels and the potstickers were each delicious on their own, but I wasn't entirely convinced with how they went together.

When I first saw a preview menu, there was a column along the side for cheese and charcuterie, but I didn't see much of it when they first opened. It looks like now that the restaurant is finding its rhythm, in-house charcuterie will indeed be a feature, and I had a fine platter offering various bits and pieces of pig from Palmetto Creek Farms, in Avon Park Florida: a country pâté which was a fairly smooth, fine grind, wrapped in bacon; a head cheese studded with bits of head, trotter, and hock; and some silky pork rillettes mounted with pork fat, white wine and thyme. This could definitely be one of the ongoing highlights here. Am I spoiled that this house-made charcuterie makes me wish for house-made pickles or other condiments to accompany, instead of the generic Dijon mustard and cornichons? Probably.

The soups I've tried so far have not yet hit the right notes. The big slab of short rib and skinny noodles in the Vietnamese Phở were awkward to eat; the broth lacked that magical balance of meaty depth and limpid clarity of flavor that the best examples have, and I searched in vain for the bright spice notes - cinnamon, star anise, clove - that give great phở such unique character. The conch chowder likewise felt underseasoned, surprising given the assertive hand on evidence elsewhere in the menu. I'll confess it made me long for the orange, saffron and coconut inflected version he used to do at Norman's.

Chi Town Pizza
On the other hand, the couple of pizzas I've tried offered outstanding flavor pairings. The "Chi Town" is more traditional, highlighting fennel-spiked pork sausage, together with mushrooms, mozzarella and tomato sauce. The "Trade Route" is more exotic, topped with crispy, slightly sour fried green tomatoes, tender young mozzarella, ricotta, and some potent, neon-green chow-chow. The crust is perhaps closer to a crispy flatbread than a customary pizza, but this is not necessarily a defect.

As I usually do, I've spent most of my time in the appetizers and small plates section of the menu. Among the "main plates," my clear favorite was the "3 Little Pigs." Like the charcuterie, this dish offers another ode to porcinity in its various forms - when I ordered it, baby-back ribs, a trotter cake, and some ham 'n' mac 'n' cheese. The ribs had a nice moderately spicy rub and were tender without being fall-off-the-bone mush, still meriting a gentle pull at the bone, while the trotter cake had that mysterious, almost melting texture of the meat and not-quite-meat found in the pig's extremities, and the ham 'n' mac 'n' cheese was a fine guilty pleasure of its own. The parade of pig parts looks to change regularly, with some pork belly and beer-battered trotters being offered along with the baby-backs on this week's iteration of the menu.

A couple other items I got to sample at one of the preview dinners: the Paella, which had just the right dose of that floral, grassy, almost medicinal saffron aroma infused into the Calasparra rice, along with some perfectly cooked, juicy clams, mussels and fish (possibly swordfish when I tried it, mahi on the current menu). I've got to think that the seafood is cooked separately and then combined with rice cooked in a seafood stock, as it's unlikely you can pull this off consistently otherwise. Missing, alas, were the nice crispy edges of rice you might get from a paella served in the pan. Fried Chicken, served as traditional as can be with collard greens (plus mashed potatoes and gravy on the current menu), was a great balance of crispy skin and juicy flesh.

Fried Chicken and Collards
I have been rather jealous every time one of my dining companions has ordered the "Wig" Burger, which comes topped off with ropa vieja, Swiss cheese, crispy yuca, and various other condiments (cumin mayo, mojo ketchup), but have yet to order one myself and have yet to have anyone leave a bite behind. The Key West Yellowtail is a slightly different spin on one of Chef Van Aken's iconic dishes, the fish pan-cooked and served with a citrus butter, along with a hearts of palm slaw and some rice-and-beans congri standing in for the "belly" of mashed potatoes that used to be the customary sidecar for this dish. A side of Homestead Corn was just delicious, a riff on Mexican elote perked up with chiles de arbol and cotija cheese, with a truffled mousseline standing in for the mayo or crema.  The truffle note was possibly over-fussy and superfluous, and if I were looking for anything it might be a hit of lime here, though I could be persuaded that it's intended as a reference to huitlacoche. Brussels Sprouts were also assertively flavored with caraway seed and guanciale.

Dessert options are limited at this point. There's Pavlova, done as ethereally light cookie-sized meringues which when I tried them were topped with passion fruit curd, mango and macerated strawberries. I see mamey sapote mentioned in the current menu iteration. Even better was a "Cubano," a twist on the ubiquitous guava y queso pastelito here rendered as a rich bread pudding. There's also an ice cream sandwich featuring oatmeal-raisin cookies stacked around peanut-butter ice cream, or a chocolate brownie topped with butterscotch ice cream and candied cacao nibs.

"Cubano" Bread Pudding
Wine selections number around a hundred total, with about twenty of those available by the glass. The list is pretty budget-friendly, with roughly half of the options priced under $50 and most wines priced fairly close to 2x retail. The selection is not exactly encyclopedic but there ought to be plenty to hold a drinker's interest. They are likewise starting to build up a modest selection of craft brews. With that big bar (which is already proving to be something of a draw), I'd love to see them develop a serious cocktail program. South Floridians are clamoring for bars that can mix a real cocktail, and Norman's 180 certainly has the physical layout and tools available to meet that demand. The staff are amiable and welcoming, and in my experiences are starting to learn the ropes, though you will not find the same level of soigné professionalism and experience as you might recall from Norman's. Give it time.

When I previewed the opening of Norman's 180, I said:

This is what Chef Van Aken has always been so good at doing: creating dishes that tug at the memory, that tell a story. So I'm looking forward to finding out what new stories he will have to tell at Norman's 180.
A month in, we're starting to find out. Chef Van Aken's return to Miami does not herald the resurgence of "fine dining." Norman's 180 is not about delicate china and pressed linens. Nor is it about $40+ entrées so precious that they must be saved only for special occasions. Norman's 180 is more accessible, a place you can drop in to grab a bite without breaking the bank. The food, for the most part, is assertive and boldly flavored: those spice jars on the wall are a hint as to what's going on here.

Some may be dubious of such a globe-trotting menu, but I know of few chefs with the same kind of curiosity and knowledge of world cuisines. Some may also think the "farm to table" pitch is a trendy new affect, not recognizing that in many ways it's always been part of Chef Van Aken's repertoire: the key reason why the whole "Mango Gang" thing evolved, and why Chef Van Aken is so closely associated with tropical produce, is because that's what was growing and in the markets here. In many ways, this is old hat for him.[5]

No doubt, only a month into this new adventure, Norman's 180 is still a work in progress. I hope it always remains so. As one of the many quotes on his website says:
No man ever steps into the same river twice, for it's not the same river and he's not the same man.
Norman's 180
180 Aragon Avenue
Coral Gables, FL

Norman`s 180 on Urbanspoon

[1] As I recently noted, I tend to avoid these kinds of events, in part because the format makes it impossible for me to observe my usual practice, if "gifted" a dish from the kitchen, of adding the value of it onto the tip. But I make exceptions for personal culinary heroes, since my judgment is probably already clouded anyway.

[2]There's a good two part interview with father Norman, son Justin, and co-chef Phillip Bryant in New Times Short Order: (Part I, Part II).

[3]Other than one outlyer, a $39, 22-oz bone-in rib-eye steak, all main plates are under $30.

[4]This shot is from a preview dinner. Yes, that's a banh mi. No, it's not on the menu yet. Yes, it'll hopefully be coming soon when they start doing lunch service. No, they're not doing lunch service quite yet. Yes, it was delicious.

[5]I thought it particularly revealing that Chef Van Aken had invited several of his growers and suppliers to the media event I attended.

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