Fit for a Kingston

At this time last year, in addition to writing this column, I was a staff writer for a company that publishes Caribbean travel and tourism books. One great thing about working during the holidays: the gourmet edibles brought in by colleagues or sent by clients (the golden rum cakes in particular, the ones that are so popular on many of the islands). Somehow those cakes always seemed to find their way to my desk, and consequently to my waistline, willpower not being one of my strong suits.

So what if I'm five pounds lighter this year. Imagine my delight when I heard about the rich, dense rum cake being dished up at the new 90-seat French Caribbean restaurant Norma's on the Beach! Then imagine how my spirits sagged the night we went when I was told that the five-week-old eatery had temporarily run out the Appleton rum-laden delicacy it imports from Norma's flagship location in Jamaica. Bah humbug, for sure. Happily, a delicious dinner more than made up for the initial disappointment, right down to the slice of tart-tart key lime cheesecake I had for dessert. I still crave a slice of that rum cake. But going back to get it will be a pleasure. Which is more than I can say about my former job.

The sidewalk cafe-garden lounge-gallery on Lincoln Road Mall just east of Euclid, in the storefront previously occupied by the Lazy Lizard, is the third restaurant in the Norma empire, and the first to be established in Miami. After cooking in a prix fixe restaurant in Stockbridge, Massachusetts, in the late Seventies and styling food for Conde Nast photo shoots in the early Eighties, Jamaican-born chef-owner Norma Elise Shirley opened her first eatery, Norma, in New Kingston, which began receiving some national attention in its second year of operation. Her next venture, Norma at the Wharfhouse, located in Montego Bay, certainly impressed the critics: Bon Appetit will feature the restaurant, its proprietor, and its French-accented tropical fare in a six-page spread this winter.

The South Beach incarnation isn't owned by Norma, but rather by Delius Shirley and executive chef Cindy Hutson, both of whom have put in apprenticeship time with the restaurant's namesake -- Shirley as general manager and sometime line cook (and the founder's son); Hutson as sous chef. But every two weeks or so, Norma Shirley swings up to Miami and takes over the top spot in the kitchen, an arrangement that broadens the restaurant's appeal by varying the ever-changing repertoire of daily specials.

Menu offerings are limited to five appetizers and six entrees per day (plus a few specials), a paucity that makes it difficult to choose starters. We finally settled on a bowl -- or rather, a miniature cauldron -- of country-style pumpkin soup and an order of jerk chicken wings, both of which were listed on the blackboard. Soft, stewed chunks of coarsely textured West Indian pumpkin were delicious in a slightly sweet, creamless broth, with a sprinkle of thyme adding a distinctive Jamaican touch. That same flavor sparked the chicken, whose skin was just crisp enough and hardly greasy. Our only complaint about the wings was their price; for $5.95, four seemed a skimpy portion. Still, they were very tasty, especially when sprinkled with the wildly spicy pukka (Scotch bonnet) pepper sauce the proprietors import from the island. The sauce is for sale for $2.95 per bottle in what Delius Shirley calls the restaurant's "gallery" (read: indoor dining room), along with other items that range from Haitian candleholders to Mexican glassware to Kentian (an island near Australia) tabletop palms, stunted trees known for their peculiar and abrupt growing phases.

Along with our appetizers, we munched on garlic toast, complimentary two-finger-size strips cut from thick, almost sweet, fluffy white loaves. The pungency of the garlic was an admirable foil for a starter of smoked marlin, meaty slices cured in Jamaica over a pimiento-wood fire. In this process, the flesh never "cooks" completely, and retains a velvety patina reminiscent of sushi. The texture was chewy and tender in equal measures, the flavor intense, full, a sense-stealer. As with a plate of gravlax, the two slices of marlin were served with aggressive garnishes: white onion, tiny capers, curls of fresh cucumber, bitter Belgian endive, papaya salsa, and a dollop of mustard-laced mayonnaise.

I seriously considered the wisdom of following one lusty dish with another, then gave in to temptation and ordered the "baby lamb chops" anyway. Baby lamb, of course, is a redundancy, but in this case, the repetition couldn't have been closer to the truth: Three chops, complemented by a crust of feta cheese and herbs, were tender and meaty, but tiny -- in stark contrast to their seventeen-dollar price tag. A "nest" of callaloo (dasheen), dark green leaves favoring spinach in culinary nature, lent iron earthiness to the dish, while a heavily reduced jus allowed for a contrasting touch of fruity sweetness.

A less French, more Asian preparation of a pork tenderloin steak incorporated a strangely effective pairing of raisins and pomegranate seeds. The small, filet mignon-shape cut had been marinated in teriyaki, sake, and ginger, and retained its juiciness despite being fully cooked. A bite of scallion cleared a path through the sweet, surprisingly light glaze.

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