The rave was so uncharacteristic coming from Marco, my oldest Italian friend, that I put down the phone seriously wondering if he’d gone out of his mind. He’d just been to Norman’s in Coral Gables and he couldn’t say enough about Norman Van Aken’s New World cooking. Now you have to understand that Marco is, if anything, a purist with an incredible instinct for what’s authentic and true. He doesn’t like many big deal restaurants. He’d rather hang out with the cooks in a little trattoria he’s discovered in Sicily or Campania than suit up for a three-hour meal at a pretentious high-end restaurant. So when I heard the thrill in his voice when he talked about his meal at Norman’s, I listened up. He’s never steered me wrong.
That was some years ago when Norman’s was already well established as a culinary destination. But South Florida never seemed to be on my itinerary. Now Norman’s has come to Los Angeles, specifically to the new Sunset Millennium complex on Sunset Strip. Its debut is exciting because Van Aken is the first high profile chef from outside California to sign L.A.'s dance card in recent memory.
Norman’s stands out on the trendy Strip for the very fact of its low-key sophisticated ambience. Designer Michael Guthrie has created a restaurant that’s eye-catching and comfortable. The palette runs from blues and earthy greens to terra cotta and persimmon. Shirred silk lampshades hover overhead like giant upturned mushroom caps. Floor to ceiling windows inset with the occasional tinted glass panel offer unobstructed views of the state-of-the-art kitchen with a chef’s table at one end.
The first thing to know about Van Aken’s food is that it’s refined. The menu’s descriptions can suggest to the wary that the dishes will be over the top, because we’ve occasionally been subjected to exaggerated versions of the world cuisine Van Aken helped invent. But this is a guy who has tasted the real thing, who seems to have a boundless curiosity about food and the world. Maybe that comes from a Midwestern upbringing.
For The Record
Restaurant location -- A review of Norman’s in the June 30 Foodsection gave the restaurant’s location as Los Angeles. The restaurantis in West Hollywood.
But once the teenage Van Aken hitchhiked to Florida and landed in Key West, there was no going back. He stayed on, working in fish shacks and dives, little restaurants and later fancy ones. Along the way, he taught himself the fundamentals of French cuisine. Whatever he does with his palette of Latin and Caribbean ingredients is based on rigorous French technique. The exotic dances through his cooking with a light step.
Though his style has been widely copied, his signature dishes still taste fresh and interesting. I have the sense he could riff on a single ingredient for weeks at a time. Put him on Iron Chef and he’d vanquish any challenger with the sheer audacity of his ideas. Coupled with exacting execution, it’s a killer combination. But Van Aken is still based in Florida and plans to spend only a week to 10 days a month at the Los Angeles restaurant. When he’s on site, the kitchen rises to the occasion. The cooking has a crispness and focus that’s absolutely seductive and the food on the plate looks and tastes newly minted.
The seduction starts with the amuses. Van Aken might send out a “flan risotto.” Say what? Say pearly grains of rice baked into a diminutive flan perfumed with a citrus vinaigrette studded with pieces of lemon flesh. It’s followed by a sopa (griddled masa cake) the size of a 50-cent piece, tasting sublimely of corn and topped with crema fresca and an organic tomatillo sauce. They get your attention.
Don’t miss his opulent, creamy, cracked-conch (Turks and Caicos Islands) chowder topped with coconut-suffused “cloud.” The haunting flavors are a Technicolor dream of parrots, sea and palms. And, when you bite into Van Aken’s yuca-stuffed shrimp, you can practically feel the beach sand beneath your feet. Two shrimp arrive, posed on the plate like giant shaggy sheep horns; inside, the surprising texture and taste of starchy yuca.
I wasn’t a fan of his signature French toast with seared foie gras the first time I tasted it, but on a second try, I got past the sweetness and appreciated the way the griddled brioche toast and passion fruit caramel take the place of the syrupy fruit often paired with foie gras. A hint of Curacao on the seared liver heightens the contrast.
A couple of courses from a recent tasting menu floored everyone at my table. A few Tomales Bay oysters on the half shell topped with a generous spoonful of California osetra caviar, sweet against salt, were accompanied by a tiny glass of agua fresca tasting of kaffir lime and habanero -- the chile a light haze of heat that set off the rest of the flavors.
Key West was represented by grilled Florida black grouper, which really did taste like chicken of the sea. Juicy and firm, it came with a smoky black bean puree, crunchy torpedo-shaped hush puppies laced with a confetti of red and green peppers and a tartar sauce lit up with Scotch bonnet pepper. But his slow-braised pork belly “painted” with soy sauce and ginger topped even that with its sumptuous texture accented by applesauce and creamed fresh corn. What a great dish!
The standout among the main courses on the a la carte menu right now is marinated grilled veal chop with a sweet Asian glaze. The quality of the veal is phenomenal and it’s cooked to the perfect point -- a pale pink -- to achieve maximum flavor and juiciness. Satiny grilled Chinese eggplant and a Thai fried rice are ideal accompaniments.
If you’re from the South, you’ve got to have catfish on the menu. Here the down-home catch gets a pecan crust and wears a jaunty fried green tomato beret. The flavors absolutely make sense. When I try the roasted pork “Havana” I’m more interested in the fluffy tower of golden Haitian grits and the black bean salsa that come with it than the meat itself. But it’s the thick slices of moulard duck breast that star in Van Aken’s credible paella nueva dotted with house made chorizo and langoustines.
Choosing the wines to go with this colorful carousel of dishes is no easy task. Fortunately, Norman’s has an able and enthusiastic sommelier in Peter Birmingham, who previously worked at Elizabeth Daniel and Rose Pistola in San Francisco.
For Norman’s, Birmingham has put together an eclectic, fascinating list that plays with the cuisine rather than against it. He’s got some wild and wonderful bottles up his sleeve, if you’ll only give him the opportunity to suggest them. To finish off the bottle, Norman’s offers a fine collection of cheeses, which might be a better choice than the undistinguished desserts.
For the most part, the service is excellent and unobtrusive. Some diners, though, are going to need gentle prodding to try some of the dishes. This is not a restaurant for the food-phobic, but one for anyone who loves to eat and explore different cuisines.
When Van Aken is not in the kitchen, the flavors seem slightly blurred. But at its best, with Van Aken present, Norman’s thrills with original dishes, global flavors and refined cooking. It’s unique in the world of Los Angeles restaurants. Yet after three months on the Sunset Strip, Norman’s is a restaurant still in search of an audience. I sincerely hope it can find one.
This just in: to lure the younger, more casual crowd, Van Aken is adding a menu of small Caribbean plates in the lounge and part of the outdoor terrace.
Location:Sunset Millennium Plaza, 8570 W. Sunset Blvd., Los Angeles; (310) 657-2400; fax (310) 657-4900; www.normans.com
Ambience: Sophisticated and comfortable -- a restaurant for grown-ups, with views of the Sunset Strip and the state-of-the-art kitchen
Service: Gracious and unobtrusive with particularly good wine service
Price: First plates and salads, $11 to $18.50; main plates, $29 to $39; desserts, $9 to $11; six-course tasting menu, $85 per person
Best dishes: Conch chowder, Tomales Bay oysters with agua fresca, yuca-stuffed crispy shrimp, soy and ginger-painted pork belly, “macho” black grouper, duck breast paella nueva, “Mongolian” veal chop
Wine list: Wide ranging and thoughtful selections that complement the food. Corkage, $25
Best table: One of the curtained booths
Special features: Chef’s table in the kitchen for up to 12 people
Details: Open for dinner 6 to 10 p.m. Tuesday through Thursday; 6 to 10:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday. Tapas on the terrace menu served 5:30 to 10 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday. Full bar. Valet parking, $7 beginning July 10
Rating is based on food, service and ambience, with price taken into account in relation to quality. ****: Outstanding on every level. ***: Excellent. **: Very good. *: Good. No star: Poor to satisfactory.