Seville Servile

Opting against three dishes that highlighted hake, a fish favored in the north of Spain, we ordered a grouper fillet in the hopes that it would be from local waters. We needn't have bothered. The grouper tasted about as fresh as if it had traveled the world (dead) before hitting our table. Grilled and sauced with a gelatinous parsley-garlic mess decorated with two anemic-looking spears of bone-white asparagus, the fish was irredeemably foul.

In restaurants where the food is absolutely inedible, I usually forgo dessert. But we were hungry -- and brave -- enough to try torrijas, slices of bread soaked in a combination of milk and white wine, then deep-fried. What we got was one single ice-cold slice, which rested on a sweet, milky substance. To put it as kindly as I can, this dessert would have been better served warm. As in hot off the griddle. As in prepared within, say, the past half-hour.

One of my guests remarked that our meal proved her theory: Spanish food stinks. Throughout her travels in that country, she said, she couldn't find a good meal anywhere. Having also visited Spain, I disagreed. You can find plenty of great food there A if you're willing to pay for it. When it came to Diego's, though, I had to concede she was right.

Side Dish
I generally avoid restaurant openings for one reason: While I can taste enough to tease my appetite, I can never eat enough to satisfy it. This was especially true at the launching party this past Saturday for Norman Van Aken's new restaurant Norman's (21 Almeria Ave., Coral Gables; 446-6767), where the food was so finely prepared that guests A hundreds of them A were literally shoving each other out of the way to get at it. I don't blame them, considering the savory qualities of the steak tartare, the yucca-stuffed jumbo shrimp, the bacalao fritters, the spinach tortilla, and the seared tea-marinated tuna, to name just a few.

Then again, I didn't expect anything less from Van Aken, the chef who coined the phrase New World cuisine. An innovator, he transformed the South Florida dining scene with his early work in Key West at Louie's Backyard, then revitalized South Beach at the original a Mano. Van Aken has written three cookbooks (two of them are to be published later this year), and authored the popular "Exotic Fruits Posters," framed copies of which hang in his new establishment (and in my kitchen). His partners in this latest venture, which opened to the public on Monday, are Marsha Sayet, an established caterer, and Carl Bruggemeier, a nationally successful restaurateur. Chef de cuisine Randy Zweiban and pastry chef Kevin Kopsick, both talented members of Van Aken's original a Mano team, are also aboard.

My biggest regret about Norman's is that it wouldn't be appropriate for me to review his restaurant: Van Aken and I have begun collaborating on a book project. (More on this at another time; suffice to say it's still in the early stages.)

So great are the pains I take to maintain my integrity that there was a bit of a hassle on Saturday at Norman's, of all places. When my name was accidentally left off the guest list of the opening, a $35-per-person charity benefit for Daily Bread Food Bank, I had to waste valuable nibbling time convincing the dork at the door that I was indeed the New Times food critic.

Anonymity can be such a drag. But at least it keeps me hungry.

Suggestions? Write me at New Times, P.O. Box 011591, Miami

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