New World Cuisine Shines

Chef Van Aken conceptualizes dishes with considerable finesse, creating delicious paradigms with ingredients served cooked and raw, cold and hot.

By Simone Zarmati Diament

Fame – local, national and even international – doesn’t come easy, and serious restaurateurs need to achieve an extremely high level to thrill audiences for more than six years. It takes a chef like Norman Van Aken, who never settles for the routine – even a good one – to put Miami on the map of high gastronomy.

At Norman’s, the room is charming and the ambiance convivial. Yet, nothing is left to chance. World class is in every detail: from the type of wood burning in the huge ovens glowing in the back of the restaurant, the exquisite ingredients, and the wines, to the carefully chosen dishes, silverware, and the impeccable service.

Chef Van Aken constantly raises the bar. While the regular menu maintains signature appetizers and entrees such as chilled Vietnamese soft spring rolls with paw-paw salad, and Mongolian BBQued grilled pork chops with grilled Chinese eggplant and Thai fried rice, the ever-changing menu fearlessly explores the cutting edge of food. His creations take shape in degustation menus called “A Study in Singularity: In Celebration of Corn,” or “Great Chefs and Cookbook Series,” ($58 to $68) paired with wines cleverly put together by sommelier Rodrigo Martinez.

We recently returned to Norman’s for a dinner paired with wines. Before wine was poured into the Riedel glasses set before us, and before the hot amuse gueule of crispy lobster wonton with peanut sauce was brought, a tapenade-like spread with roasted garlic, sundried tomatoes, cilantro and black olives was sharpening our appetites.

Our sharply dressed waiter, Gil – a Hugh Grant look-alike – knew exactly how each dish was prepared.

Heavenly from the starters
As our soups arrived, we realized that there is nothing pedestrian at Norman’s. A rustic minestrone, rich with navy beans, diced vegetables and herbed pesto, topped with foie gras-buttered bruschetta, was heavenly paired with an Osborne Pedro Ximenez sherry. In a light, straightforward chicken broth, a melt-in-your-mouth caramelized maduro plantain plays against a smoky-flavored, spicy lamb chorizo, cooled by a dollop of citrus crème fraîche.

Chef Van Aken conceptualizes dishes with considerable finesse, creating delicious paradigms with fish served cooked and raw, cold and hot. A rectangular plate brushed with citrus oil and diagonal streaks of bright green fresh wasabi “war paint” is a stage for a deliciously refreshing dark red tuna ceviche, served sashimi-style over marinated carrots, and a pink quenelle of salmon tartare studded with sesame seeds.

Symphony over a duck theme
A clever word game turns into a symphony over a duck theme. Seared duck foie gras, amazingly rich and velvety, is countered by crispy duck chicharrones set on a bed of calabaza-sweet potato puree drizzled with duck essence and apricot glaze, then topped with guava marmalade, and sprinkled with queso blanco. The wine, a sweet Deinhard BA Beerenauslese, Rheinessen, 1994, balanced with good acidity, sent us to duck heaven.

Fish as a main course is an adventure in taste. Accompanied by a Zind Humbrecht Riesling “Clos Hauserer,” 1997, a salty prosciutto wrap plays off against a delicately fleshed white and creamy Atlantic cod. Served in a broth of clam liquor, the cod comes with a divine medley of artichoke heart slivers, fresh fava beans, asparagus, and olives.

Next was a fine, complex Maine lobster and Diver sea scallop stew. This truffle-scented masterpiece, in which broth, laced with white wine, accentuates the flavors of sweet, tender lobster and pan-seared huge scallops, is served with a mold of delicately earthy morel mushrooms, fruity heirloom tomatoes and a brioche crouton.

Redefining the concept of meat
Choosing between wood oven barbecued breast of duck with cornbread stuffed roasted quail garnished with mango lychee chutney and watercress Vidalia onion salad, and grilled Chilean country rib on Brazilian black bean feijoada with hearts of palm and citrus slaw, (both $34.50), is a dilemma.
So we opted for the Cervena venison. We were thrilled: tender, densely flavored medallions of venison were cooked rare and topped with crunchy caramelized onions. The sweetness of the side of diced calabaza was undercut by Manchego cheese and spiked with chipotle butter.

Delicious aromas of sage, rosemary and thyme emanated from the herb and breadcrumb-crusted rack of lamb drizzled with a reduction of sherry vinegar and red wine sauce. This version of steak frites came with a mound of adobo shoestring potatoes and collard greens braised with bacon.

Pure indulgence
We nibbled on a cheese course of various terrific blue cheeses, soft and hard French, Spanish and American cheeses, chèvres and sheep.

But the embodiment of pure indulgence came with desserts. Not too sweet, they end the meal in sheer delight. Pastry chef Todd Müller, who, we learned later studied with Gaston Lenôtre, is truly inspired, and often changes the menu. But I hope that the exquisite 5 chocolates “five ways” – all the hues and notes of chocolate are in one plate, is here to stay. Dramatically set around a towering inverted cone of chocolate/dulce de leche, there is a chocolate beggar’s purse filled with chocolate toffee bread pudding; a sandwich of Oreo wafer with malted chocolate ice cream filling; milk chocolate mousse with gianduja chocolate sauce; and chocolate sorbet.

The apple tart here is caramelized puff pastry turnovers filled with tart apples accompanied with pecan brittle, rosemary caramel and vanilla ice cream; and the banana split is New World style with macadamia nut brittle ice cream with rum-flamed niño bananas.

21 Almeria Ave., Coral Gables
Open for dinner Monday through Saturday from 6 to 10 p.m. Closed Sunday
Outstanding New World Cuisine
Impeccable, knowledgeable and attentive
Appetizers, $9.75 to $18.50; entrees, $24.50 to $37.50; cheeses, $8 to $15; desserts. $6 to $14. Degustation menus $68 and $58; $45 for wine flights
Exciting, stylish, sophisticated yet convivial and casual
A well-thought, well-priced international list, with a good selection by the glass, half and large format bottles
A must
At the bar
All major

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