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Sexy, show-stealing MUNDO is that something special
we have come to expect from Norman Van Aken: a high quality brasserie
with a cross-cultural menu that reflects the vision of one the most
imaginative chefs in Florida.
By Simone Zarmati Diament
Like many of his colleagues in the US and in Europe, star-chef Norman Van Aken has branched out from his flagship Norman's -- the quintessential New World Cuisine fine-eating establishment that has contributed to put Florida on the international map of high gastronomy - to MUNDO, an informal eatery appealing to a wide range of budgets and tastes.
While it is a strikingly beautiful space, there is nothing formal about the location on the ground floor of the elegant Village of Merrick Park. Amber lighting, wooden floors, an outdoor terrace, a market on the side and an open kitchen make it inviting in a warm and casual way.
The tables, some with banquettes, are well spaced, and it is easy for the well-trained wait staff to deploy the large menus and wine list to large parties or make couples in for an intimate dinner feel at home. It is not unusual to see people dropping in at the bar until late night for a Mojito cocktail, or a glass of Malbec and a temaki-sushi cone, a tapa sampler, or a thin-crusted, wood oven baked pizza of duck, Chinese sausage and shiitake.
A little over a year old now MUNDO has settled into that something special we have come to expect from Norman Van Aken: a high quality brasserie with a menu brimming with cross-cultural creations that reflect the vision of one the most imaginative chefs in Florida.
Chef Arthur Artiles, who has been working alongside Mr. Van Aken for over six years, skillfully turns out dishes with challenging ingredients. Whether it is in small plates or Pintxos, pizzas, fire-grilled, wok-cooked or wood roasted fish or meats, he revels in textures and tastes contrasting and coming together.
Just about everything is good.
Just about everything is good: from the thin rice paper spring rolls with soft soba noodles and carrot threads, fried to a crisp and served with a sesame sriracha ( a kind of pepper) mustard, to the salad of ripe tomatoes, tomatoes that taste like they should: sweet, tart and juicy, tossed with baby greens, walnut brittle and a gorgonzola fresh dressing.
Cochinita pibil is dramatically presented on a black square dish: slowly braised shredded pork is served on a banana leaf next to a little marble crock of guacamole and a bowl of homemade hot corn tortillas covered with a dainty cloth, just like in a colonial home in South America.
And then there's ceviche. You are told to eat the ceviche trio from left to right so that you can gradually feel the heat come on from the white tuna, fresh tasting and citrussy, then the exquisite red ahi tuna with a wasabi foam infused with mirin topped with black sesame, and last, the tender conch ceviche with fresh and biting salsa.
Sandwiches and pizzas, a treat
There's nothing sophisticated about a burger. But listed in the Small plates, Sandwiches and a la Plancha items the Frita Burger, a take on the Cuban hamburger in which you throw in oregano, cumin and any spice you have at hand, is an intensely tasty, thick hamburger set on a cheese arepa, with mozzarella, sweet caramelized onions, a traditional tomato-based Cuban frita sauce, served with a colorful side of tuber chips: sweet potato, purple potato, yucca and regular potato fanned in a bowl. A treat!
Mr. Artiles' idea of a sandwich is a very tender cut of grilled beef short rib on toasted focaccia made even better with a mild creamy horseradish foam and a sweet and tart coulis of tomato marmalade. Or Irvs' BBQ pork with pickled red onions and Southern slaw.
Pizzas are recast as rectangular thin-crusted wood oven baked creations large enough for two or three, if you're willing to share, like the grilled chicken pizza with smoked chipotle mayo, diced tomatoes, queso blanco and parsley. The most amazingly complex and the one we liked most, because of the delicious play of salty shredded duck confit over a dough slathered with green garlic aioli and mushroom ragoût, is the crisp duck pizza with Chinese sausage and shiitake.
Every dish upstages the other.
But since all dishes are meant to be mixed and matched, shared or not, one can indulge in trying them out in one seating or by coming back for more.
Our fish choices were delicious and unexpected. The Wakame-stuffed Alaskan salmon is a thoughtfully assembled combination of tamarind-glazed fillet wrapped around crunchy seaweed, the familiar kind served as a salad in sushi bars, then pan-seared and set on a crisp wonton chip over a shiitake ragoût and vegetable stir-fry.
Not to be missed are the amazing tastes of Mr. Van Aken's signature dish: Rhum Painted Grouper with mango habanero purée, boniato confit and a dramatic reduction of habanero sauce painted across the plate. Or the irresistibly flaky, impeccably pan-fried and roasted Mahi Mahi set on a cylinder of earthy purple Peruvian mash in a nage of yellow sweet corn-citrus cream, topped with a colorful julienne of red, yellow and green peppers.
Under the caption Fire Grilled, Wok Cooked and Wood Roasted, there are gnocchi, little clouds flash fried and baked with cremini mushrooms, sage, eggplant, dressed with a light marinara and topped with parmesan.
A lacquered crust encases a juicy maple cured, spice-rubbed 14 oz. pork chop, sliced and fanned over sweet potato mash drizzling with maple sauce and apple gastrique.
A homey concept brought up to a level that justifies the name MUNDO.
Meat dishes are dealt with a display of creativity while sticking to tradition.
The 12 oz. charcoal grilled and perfectly cooked to order New York strip steak is served with an elegant side dish of potatoes cazadores; melt-in-your-mouth dream potatoes flavored with earthy bacon, blue cheese and grilled green and red peppers. A dollop of green chimichurri - the intense Argentine green sauce made with garlic and parsley - gives a jolt to the steak's pink flesh.
The day's special written on the blackboard over the bar was a 12 oz. sake-marinated, teriyaki-glazed fork-tender strips of flank steak draping Thai fried rice and topped with a lacy fried noodles.
Pastry Chef Max Santiago has a tough act to follow. Yet, he doesn't stay behind with Tapas Dulces, that is sweet tapas such as spiced apple "clouds" with lavender-Yuzu honey and Cinnamon ice cream and vanilla mascarpone panna cotta with Bing cherry consommé.
To wrap it up we ordered the MUNDO dessert sampler with a colorful and satisfying cheesecake trio: guayaba, lulla and mora; the key lime margarita with grapefruit-lychee granita was superb on its own, sans the plain key lime crème brûlée.
But was made us swoon with pleasure was the pavé of "Nox"chocolate goddess; a chocolate lover nirvana. It is a sophisticated chocolate extravaganza that combines the tastes and textures of peanut butter cake layered with a thick, creamy, chocolaty, sensuous ganache studded with toasted hazelnuts, topped with more chocolate and a gold leaf on top. House gelatos and sorbets can be ordered by the scoop, with or without a warm churro.
MUNDO is one of the new sexy, good food, show-stealing restaurants that have opened lately in Coral Gables, making the city, which not so long ago played second fiddle to South Beach, a foodies' destination.