Chefs Who Stick to Us

If I could sum up Miami in one word, it would be "transient." The good weather attracts drifters. Folks don't settle in Miami, they merely reside for a time. Some people are only here to party on South Beach before getting down to the serious business of making a living in another, colder state. Others use Miami as a way station while they assimilate to a new nation. The few who are natives often itch to leave, awaiting just the right professional opportunities.

Whatever the reason it sometimes seems as though everyone I know has either moved or is thinking about it. Which means I'm not just missing friends, I'm losing dining partners. Fortunately for those of us committed to this fluid city, a loyal corps of chef-restaurateurs has developed. So I'm able to console myself -- solo or with new companions -- at places such as Norman's, located on Almeria Avenue in Coral Gables, where the more things change, the more they stay the same, thank goodness.

Norman's chef-owner Norman Van Aken has won more awards than I have the space to list. He's got a James Beard under his belt. He's the author of several books on New World cuisine. He's the celebrity consulting chef for United Airlines, and he appears on the in-flight videos as well as on television-cooking and morning-news shows.

Yet despite his success, Van Aken remains faithful to his diners and the region that helped him develop his signature Caribbean-Asian-Latin dishes. Rather than take his fame to the level that, say, Wolfgang Puck or Emeril Lagasse has, Van Aken stays grounded. He has always insisted on owning only one restaurant, and on being on the premises as much as possible. When he's not in the kitchen, he's strolling around the place. Every time he approached our table, I would notice his eyes flick first to our plates, making sure all was right with his New World, before smiling at our faces.

So he won't be opening a new culinary palace in Vegas or Orlando or, God forbid, at Sawgrass Mills in Sunrise (where Puck's cafe is set to open). But that doesn't mean Norman's is in stasis. In fact Van Aken and his partner Marsha Sayet just launched the restaurant's latest features: an exquisite theater kitchen, framed by a flora and fauna bronzed-metal arch, and a cherry-wood-floor dining room that somehow manages to be intimate and cozy in spite of its 2500 square feet. Sandblasted glass doors separate this dining room from the main floor, where two wood-burning ovens spout flames so devilishly high it seems oxymoronic that such angelic fare comes out of them.

If you've dined at Norman's, you know his cuisine can be difficult to interpret, filled as it is with foreign phrases, and even harder to pronounce. But just find a familiar main ingredient and trust Van Aken and his chef de cuisine Rob Boone to make the oddest-sounding combinations taste the most exquisite. I sampled a caviar appetizer that had been paired with pickled ramps (wild leeks, which are in season right now); the woodsy flavor of the scallionlike ramps was ideal with the mellow, barely salty caviar. A main course of pan-roasted spiny lobster perched atop a paella comprised of olives, chorizo, slow-roasted chicken, and garbanzo beans was packed with delicate textural and aromatic contrasts. So was another entree of grilled breast of pheasant accompanied by the bird's dark meat stewed in a foie gras reduction.

I find it difficult to write about Norman's without sounding a trifle giddy, mainly because I'm such an enthusiastic fan. But I have to confess, I haven't been fond of the restaurant's dessert list for some time now. After such a complex meal, I find sweets like the Venezuelan milk chocolate and caramel timbale with banana Brazil-nut ice cream so over-the-top you might as well construct a circus tent over them. That's why I'm delighted with his latest offering of a plate of cheeses, seasonal fruits, and toasts. Not only can you choose from 30 varieties of cheeses gleaned from seven different countries, the price is a virtual bargain: $8 for three cheeses, $15 for five. When an appetizer can run you as much as $25 and an entree peaks at $35.50, a meal at Norman's is quite an investment.

Jonathan Eismann is another local restaurateur whom I consider a constant. Like Van Aken the award-winning chef who introduced Pacific Rim cuisine to South Florida via his 1993 eatery Pacific Time (located on Lincoln Road in South Beach), Eismann is never content to rest on his hard-earned laurels. In the past that meant trying to open a new eatery within the confines of the county, a feat he attempted a couple of times before finally succeeding with 1998's Pacific Time Next Door. Now he's on to something completely different, at least in Miami: Eismann, along with his sommelier and general manager Gill Alexander, has introduced Eiswein.

Eiswein, German for "ice wine," is a relatively rare commodity that, like port, is served after a hearty meal. To make this after-dinner alcohol, the vintners leave the grapes, both red and white varieties, to freeze on the vine, and only pick them at midnight after they have been solidly frozen for about three days. Then they crush the icy globes immediately to release a concentrated, highly sweet liquid, which then ferments for several months. The main problem arises when the first frost strikes only temporarily, and the weather improves. Should this happen, the ice wine is ruined.

I haven't heard about the 1998 harvest, but 1996 and 1997 were banner years for ice wine. The stuff was all over the place in Toronto, Canada, where I recently sampled several superior vintages from local wineries. I was thrilled to find a press release from Pacific Time awaiting me on my return home, advertising Eismann's pairing of Eiswein with appetizers and entrees, rather than the more standard desserts.

Money, along with weather, can also be a factor. The Forster Jesuitengarten Riesling Eiswein costs $30 for a 375-milliliter glass: That's about ten bucks per sip. Other brands are less expensive, but savoring a glass with every course can seriously inflate an already high bill.

Eismann's right, though, about Eiswein's lingering perfumes of pear and coconut; they go surprisingly well with his cinnamon-grilled squab, which was rubbed with peppercorns, layered over a subgum noodle pancake, and doused with a shiitake-port-sake sauce that rivals the wine for sweetness. And a slightly more syrupy zinfandel late harvest from Norman Vineyards complemented immensely the ginger-scallion pancake stuffed with Chinese duck, shiitake mushrooms, and wok-sauteed vegetables.

But those recommendations don't serve diners unless they know about them. I suggest offering a special degustation menu pairing the wines with the fare. That way the guesswork is taken out of the meal, and guests can be properly introduced to a wonderful new way to drink Eiswein in the dead heat of summer.

Unlike Norman Van Aken and Jonathan "Eiswein" Eismann, Donna Wynter may not be as familiar a name to Miamians. She soon will be. Born in Jamaica and trained, among other places, at the French Culinary Institute in New York, Wynter moved to Miami in 1987. She started her career here at the Hotel Intercontinental's Pavillon Grill before becoming executive chef at the Biltmore Hotel's Il Ristorante in 1992. She was again in charge when that eatery changed focus and became La Palme d'Or, which invites visiting Michelin-star chefs from France to cook once per month.

This past winter, however, Wynter lowered her profile and moved to the Biltmore's "little sister," the David William Hotel on Biltmore Way in Coral Gables. She opened her own gourmet store and restaurant called Donna's (not to be confused with Sweet Donna's, the country store and restaurant run by Pascal Oudin, another chef whom I admire), which is characterized by a cozy bar/reading room that entices diners to relax for a few moments before entering the dining room.

Donna's Continental bistro cuisine, a good step away from the fancy fare at La Palme d'Or, is simplified but not simple, with entree prices just slightly below the $20 mark. The menu offers a handful of dishes that rely on the purity of ingredients like Florida avocado and hearts of palm combined in a salad plate and dressed with ruby-red grapefruit vinaigrette, which preceded an entree of beautifully translucent sea bass. Fragrant starters such as the supple baby calamari, sauteed with lime, ancho chili, capers, and grilled heirloom tomatoes, also paved the way for slightly more complex main courses, including a juicy roasted veal chop that had been stuffed with mozzarella and risotto, then brushed with a pungent caponata sauce.

Walking into Donna's, decorated like a Williams-Sonoma store, was like coming across an old friend in the supermarket: one who has stayed put in Miami and changed our culinary world for the better.

Norman's
21 Almeria Ave, Coral Gables; 305-446-6767.

Pacific Time
915 Lincoln Rd, Miami Beach; 305-534-5979.

Donna's
700 Biltmore Way, Coral Gables; 305-445-7821.

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