By Laine Doss
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This week, the news is big. Really, truly huge. So titanic that it is, for lack of a better word, on par with el mundo.
On second thought, make that MUNDO. While the former means the world, the latter spells Norman Van Aken's officially announced new restaurant, due to open this fall in the Village at Merrick Park complex (read: shopping mall) in Coral Gables.
For the food media, it's been at least a year but probably more like eighteen months of trying to divine Van Aken's much-whispered-about intentions concerning the twenty-acre site at the merge of Ponce de Leon Boulevard and San Lorenzo, which will comprise Miami's first Nordstrom and second Neiman Marcus department stores as retail anchors; 115 additional boutique-style shops and restaurants; 110,000 square feet of office space; 120 luxury rental apartments; and on-site parking for nearly 4000 cars. Gossip, speculation, and rumor are the fodder of my business, to be sure, but that stuff has about as much gastronomic staying power as a bowl of Froot Loops. After the initial rush, you realize there's really not all that much to go on.
4251 Salzedo St.
Coral Gables, FL 33146
Region: Coral Gables/South Miami
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But Van Aken has not only finally poured us some whole milk, he's slicing in a banana to make this a complete New World breakfast. Contrary to previous imaginings, he won't be moving his eponymous Norman's from its Almeria Avenue moorings. Instead he'll be unveiling a pet project, MUNDO, a market and café "experience that will let folks come in two to three times a week," he defines.
Van Aken's announcement isn't startling simply because he's an internationally ranked Miami chef who is launching a long-anticipated adjutant venue. Indeed he has achieved, via his seven-year-old namesake Norman's, just about all the culinary goals available. He's won pretty much every award, from the James Beard to the Ivy; been featured in the most notable consumer food-travel-lifestyle magazines and newspapers, ranging from Gourmet to Conde Nast Traveler to the New York Times; and contributed to top television cooking shows on major networks as well as specialty cable stations like the Food Network and the Discovery Channel. His fourth cookbook, New World Cuisine: Latin America and the Caribbean, is due from the publisher momentarily. Regardless, if the Village at Merrick Park is destined to be the Bal Harbour Shops of Coral Gables, Van Aken is running the risk of having MUNDO become the next Max's Place, open and shut before you blink.
Nor is he setting out to step into MUNDO out of boredom or to lever himself out of a far-too-comfortable rut. He's had plenty of previous opportunities to do just that. Jerry Smalley, executive vice president of the Rouse Company, the corporation that is developing the Village and enticed Van Aken to be the dining heavyweight, notes, "That Norman Van Aken would choose Merrick Park for his second location is notable. For the last seven years Chef Van Aken has been approached to open several new restaurants in cities all over the world. Sealing the deal with Norman Van Aken is quite a coup for us."
No doubt. And one wonders just how such a planetary presence was purveyed. One insinuation: free rent for a year. Or an incentive: complete build up, build out, and contractor control. In fact Van Aken has already hired Northern California architect Michael Guthrie, who devised the look for the renowned Tra Vigne in Napa Valley, and kitchen designer Mark Stech-Novak, who formulated the dramatic cooking spaces at Jean-Georges, Le Cirque, and Ducasse. "[He's] the kitchen designer I've always wanted," Van Aken confirms. "He is extremely creative and psyched to work with me."
But the fact remains that Norman's could be the Nobu of the New World. And Van Aken has always demurred, insisting one destination restaurant was plenty for him. While he's consulted on South Beach projects like Van Dome, a disaster of a supper club on Washington Avenue, installed his protégés like Rob Boone behind the stoves at Bambu, and dabbled in expanding Norman's (now it's open for lunch, now it's not), he's consistently turned down offers to open in celebrity-chef enclaves such as Las Vegas. He explains: "I have never felt the right thing had come along that would pull me in two directions, with the brief exception of Astor Place. MUNDO has been brewing in my brain for almost seven years now.... Even having a glass of wine and a nosh can be a very dicey proposition in our city. Jesus. When Janet [Van Aken] and I get a day or an evening out it's nigh impossible to find a place comparable to the vast offerings in [another] city of comparable size. Enough complaining about what is!"
That is, time to do something about it. Those of us who are married -- to restaurants or to people -- know a lot about that seven-year itch. So here's to taking a bamboo backscratcher to it, which we will be able to do daily from around 11:00 a.m. till 10:00 p.m. Van Aken is dreaming up a variety of dining opps: a 175-seat interior dining room that will overlook a glassed-in theater kitchen; a landscaped outdoor patio that "will seat another 75 very, very comfortably"; the "Mercado at MUNDO," a diverse, New World-y market where home-replacement meals will be accessible; and "a raw/sashimi/ceviche bar. I'm not saying sushi because we will not offer traditional sushi. It will be a component but I'm sick of everyone offering [it] outside of specifically sushi restaurants. This is a bit of a conundrum but suffice it to say I'm going to create a few dishes that will define my love of sushi," he adds.