Saturday, August 7, 2010

On Vacation

Off to Maine for a little vacation. Portland, ME looks to be turning into a pretty food-centric town, some interesting stuff going on there. Fore Street is on the agenda, hopefully a stop at DuckFat, with a few others on the list too, plus maybe a trip out on a lobster boat. A couple days at an inn and organic farm near Wiscasset, likely some lobsters on the dock in Boothbay Harbor, then off to Camden, with a side trip to Primo in Rockland. Mrs. F also has fond memories of Moody's Diner in Waldoboro from a meal there about fifteen years ago. Then off to Bar Harbor for a few days. Do we follow in the President's footsteps to Havana and Mount Desert Island Ice Cream (a/k/a "Black Power Ice Cream")? Which is more implausible: black militants in Maine, or good Cuban food?

Suggestions welcomed.

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 ...)

Sunday, August 1, 2010

Spiceonomics 101

As mentioned peripherally in my last post, it's become increasingly common practice to kvatch about Miami Spice season, and to bemoan the absence of "values" among the $35, 3-course offerings. I'll be the last person to defend the ubiquity of the "Spice Trifecta" (farmed Atlantic salmon, chicken breast, churrasco); but I'm equally underwhelmed by complaints about restaurants not offering their "signature dishes" as part of the Spice menu, or the suggestion that restaurants are generally raking in money through their Spice deals.

As to the latter issue, it's one that Lee Klein of New Times seems to be pushing in his latest Spice post, "Five Annoying Things About Today's Herald Story on Miami Spice." Among other things, he points out that Florida restaurant sales totaled $27 billion last year, a statistic that prompts him to ask: "You kinda have to feel sorry for this industry, right?" It goes from there to a brief rant that restaurants whose non-Spice price points average higher than the typical Spice bill have an "effete, elitist, could-care-less-about-locals" attitude.

This faux populism is really rather unbecoming, particularly from someone who just recently praised a restaurant with $17-23 appetizers and $40-50 entrées.[1] The implicit suggestion that restaurants are getting rich off your precious $35 seems an unlikely premise, particularly for restaurants where the average bill is usually higher.

Let's do some math. I've never run a restaurant, so my assumptions here do not come from experience but rather from some haphazardly researched educated guesses based on reported industry averages. Nonetheless, the information I came across was reasonably consistent. Let's assume that at the typical full-service restaurant, food cost averages around 30%. That means that if the average bill per person is $50, the restaurant's food cost for those items is around $15.[2] So where does the other $35 go? Mostly payroll, then rent, utilities, insurance, maintenance, marketing, financing costs, tattoos, recreational drugs, and ideally, some profit. With a little more guesswork, it's reasonable to hypothesize that the average profit margin (pre-tax) is around 5%. So out of that $50 bill, the restaurant is actually making ... $2.50. And that's for a successful, profitable restaurant.[3]

(continued ...)