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Norman's in Coral Gables, Florida

Steve Plotnicki

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For a number of years I have been taking my kids down to South Florida for spring break. During that time, we ate at every possible place imagineable. And every year the first thing I would do is to check for  openings of new, serious restaurants which we would try. There would always be at least one or two. And more often than not, one was always being heralded as now being the best in South Florida.

But despite the non-stop barrage of competition, one place always stayed at the top of the pile fending off the competition. That was Norman's in Coral Gables.  And over the years I had some wonderful meals there. Norman's cuisine which is a hybrid of French, Floridian and Caribbean influences. His menu is both well thought out, and substantial enough in scope so you can actually structure a proper tasting menu. That is a rarity for the casual South Florida dining scene. And not only was his the menu always deep in food choices, the wine list was superb too. Stocked with choices from every country and every region, and in all price ranges too. Everything from a $40 bottle of Gruner Veltliner to a $550 bottle of Coche-Dury Corton Charlemagne.

But even though I always enjoyed eating there, if I didn't say that I thought that Norman's had seemed to have slipped a bit over the last few years I would be lying. Maybe it was that the spark went out of the food. Or maybe the flavor profile was getting a bit redundent. In fact in my opinion, redundency was a problem that many of the South Florida restaurants seemed to have come upon. Or maybe we just hit it on bad days. But the truth is I'm used to having the best place in town turn for the worse, even if slightly so. And at my last two meals there Norman's seemed to be between 85 and 90 percent of intensity.

Whatever it was, this year in planning our trip, I had thought of skipping it. We were only going for 3 days and if I could find something more interesting, maybe we'd try it instead and I would take this year off. But the problem came when trying to think of an appropriate replacement. The only other place in town we hadn't been to was Azul, and we were booked there on Monday night. So I booked a table for dinner last Tuesday, and crossed my fingers that Mr. Van Aiken had figured out a way to revitalize  his restaurant

It usually only takes me a few seconds to tell. Once they give me the menu, it either has interesting dishes or not. Especially the appetizers which have far more possibilities for interesting combinations than the entrees. Here they were just popping off the page, many of them brand new combinations I had never seen there before. But a few of the old standards were there too. Like Norman's Caribbean French Toast with Foie Gras.

I started with the Trio of Tuna Sandwiches. It was six triangular slices of tuna loin that were seared to about 1/8 from the edge. They were made into three little sandwiches, each with a different filling. There was braised and shredded oxtail, finely chopped shitake mushrooms and a filling of crab salad. My wife had the Blue Crab Crabcakes with a Cilantro, Onion and Jalapeno in a Mojo Verde. Both appetizers delicious. We drank a 1998 Coche-Dury Meursault Perrieres, abiding by my rule that whenever a Coche Perrieres is on a wine list you have to buy it. The Coche was its usual intense Perrieres self, maybe a little less intense than the '97 bottling.

For my main dish I had a good sized chunk of Chilean Sea Bass that was marinated, seared and then finished off by being roasted, served atop a Boniato (white sweet potato) and Conch Hash that was shaped into a small cake. Then three small egg shaped mounds of a dry Romesco Salsa surrounded the fish and hash which were sitting in a Mojo Sabayon. The sea bass which was lightly flavored with cumin played off the subtle sweetness of the hash. And the texture of the fish, firm yet flaky made a great contrast to the starch of the boniato but everyonce in a while a nice chewy strip of the conch would emerge to give it all some counterpoint. While I was yumming away, I gave my wife a taste and told her it reminded me of a Floridian version of the way people serve cod and mashed. She had the Mignonettes of Tuna and Beef. Two small filets, the tuna with a sauce Aigrelette and the beef with a Bernaise were surrounded by a sauce Bordelaise that ringed the plate. And betwen the mignons was a gratin of Potato and thinly sliced tomato which was crusted by manchego cheese. Both dishes were superb and plates were absolutely cleaned. And if I had any complaint, it was that my Banana Mousse and Milk Chocolate Timbale was too heavily weighed in favor of the chocolate.

The reinvigorated Norman's left us both quite happy. My long history of fine dining is that the direction that places usually go in is down. It could be anything from the chef getting some national fame to his getting tired of mixing the mojo. Well at least here is an example of where a chef intervened and stopped it from happening. And in the process of reiventing itself, managed to alter the style of the place while staying true to the principals it was based on. Just my kind of place.

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Steve--I was thrilled to read your posting. I met Norman a few months ago at a NJ charity event. What a lovely man. Lowell and I are finally going to get a chance to dine at his restaurant in a few weeks. I will print out your report.

Rosalie Saferstein, aka "Rosie"


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Can't miss a chance to agree with you, Steve.  Winter before last was our first trip to Miami, and we had a cracking dinner at Norman's.  I recall an appetizer called "fire and ice" which was two contrasting ways of presenting oysters.  I also recall an expensive bottle of J. Phelps Insignia (which year?), of which the meal was more than worthy.

(I must figure out a way to keep my old tasting notes more accessible, because my memory is shot!)

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I'm not at all sure, Steve.  Trouble is, I launched off on a post about how great our dinner was before realizing, (1) I couldn't recall the details, and (2) my notes on the dinner, which I certainly have, are in a stack of unsorted journals in the still disorganized library in my new apartment.  

I will make a note to look it up over the weekend.  And I must figure out a way to make this information more accessible to me, not least because it will allow me to participate on the wine board more often (sorry, no excuse, but a terrible memory all round and getting worse by the year  :( ).

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Okay, I can now refine my enthusiastic babble by providing some facts.  The appetizer was indeed called 'Fire and Ice' - no copyright there, I guess - but it was a lobster dish, not an oyster dish.  Seems to have been a pairing of cilled lobster salad with a slightly spicy lobster succoutash.  Anyway, I knew I liked it.

From there, I appear to have moved on to a bison filet.  Further details of the wine proved scarce.  The next night it seems we went to a raucous spot on South Beach owned by Gloria Estefan called Lario's.  There was dancing on tables, but nonetheless I ate a huge, home-style ham hock, soft and delicious.  I guess that's a peasant dish which turns up in cuisines all over the world!  This must have been a good week, because I ended up back in New York at Bouley Bakery a few days later.  


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  • 3 weeks later...

If you find yourself in the Miami area be sure to try Norman's. It certainly was worth the hour ride from Coconut Creek. We started off with champagne and a few amuse bouches and proceeded to have a very fine dinner. The tasting menu looked very interesting but we wanted to try as many dishes as possible so we opted for an a la carte dinner.


A round stacked Caesar salad that was perhaps a good eight inches tall with the chopped dressed salad separated by tomato rings.

Perfectly spiced large yuca stuffed crispy shrimp with sour orange mojo, torn greens and habanero tartar salsa.

Chef Van Aken's signature dish of French toast with Curacao scented foie gras, and a passion fruit caramel and gingery candied lime zest. This was accompanied with a glass of Deinhard Beerenauslese, Rheinhessen, '94. I will never be able to eat plain French toast again!


Meaty soft shell crab pad Thai with a stir fry of shrimp, snow peas, carrots, cabbage and Shanghai noodles.

Mongolian barbequed marinated and grilled veal chop with grilled Chinese eggplant and Thai fried rice. Loved the spicing on this dish.

Roasted rack of lamb with red mole, hearts of palm slaw and an addictive savory Latino styled cobbler that we couldn't stop eating.


We had a three cheese tasting that in hindsight was a mistake and we should have opted for something "chocolate" and a scoop of ice cream containing had hazelnuts and chocolate. We found it to be too sweet. Coffee was delicious.

Steven--You sure know how to pick 'em! Where are you going next?


Rosalie Saferstein, aka "Rosie"


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  • 7 months later...

I tried Norman's last night. I wasn't too hungry, so I add two apps and some sorbet.

I was somewhat dissapointed with the first appetizer, Yucca stuffed shrimp with sour orange mojo, torn greens and habenero tartar salsa. Not much sour orange mojo flavor, it was really glorified fried shrimp. I was steered towards this by the waiter (away from scallop spring rolls). If I knew the shrimp were fried, I wouldn't have ordered it (I should have asked I guessed). The tartar sauce was excellent.

The next appetizer was the Carribean fois gras with a griddle brioch, passion fruit caramel. This was absolutely outstanding. So good that I forget to ask whether the blini was what is called the french toast (or was it left on the plate). A real winner.

For desert I got pineapple sorbet, exotic fruit sorbet (mostly passion fruite) and lime ice cream. They were very good; the lime ice cream was like the flavor of the best key lime pie.

The wines by the glass were surprisingly good. While I was initially disappointed with the list, it turned out much much better than expected. I had

a very pleasant 2000 Pinot Gris by Kuntz-Bas, Norman's Kabinett Riesling (by Von Buhl) and a lovely Beaume de Venise (forgot the name, sorry).

The waiter made up for the problem with the first app by giving me a half glass of the Riesling and of the Beaume de Veinise when I couldn't make up my mind which I wanted with the Fois Gras. (The Riesling was a great a palate cleanser).

While the wine list had a lot of cherries, I didn't find it balanced. Very few offerings around $50. However, the ones they had went very well with the food.

The cheese course looks very tempting. Overall, it was a very pleasant light meal. I hope to go back and do a more serious tasting.


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