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Although Haitian-born, chef Ivan Dorvil's previous culinary experience has been everywhere but. His formal schooling was in Montreal, supplemented by some informal munching-his-way-around-Europe time. His previous executive chef jobs were at mid-Beach's Middle Eastern Oasis Café (back when it first opened, to raves, in the mid-1990s), and in a couple of South Beach's most upscale locations: On Time Café on Española Way and Nutmeg Café just around the corner from Lincoln Road. Dorvil cooked at the Delano as well.
His new Nuvo Kafe, opened late last year, brings all the above influences back to the chef/owner's roots in the Haitian community. In terms of upscale glamour, the North Miami minimal location exactly one car length from the bustle of West Dixie Highway couldn't be farther from South Beach -- sit at one of the sidewalk tables outside, and you're likely to find a truck bumper on your lap along with your napkin. Inside, though, the Caribbean-cool décor (Haitian folk-style art on the walls, burlap drapes, a faux-tiki roof over the bar) goes SoBe style one better -- by feeling friendly as well as chic.
The food, like Dorvil's background, is global, reflecting influences from the Middle East, Italy, Asia, and Greece, but with a big emphasis on down-home yet creative Caribbean dishes. Of the two featured soups, for instance, ginger pumpkin bisque, a velvety-smooth peppered purée whose sense of satisfying richness comes from complex spicing rather than cream (virtually all Nuvo's food is healthy as well as homemade), defines Nouvelle Haitian elegance. But at the table next to mine, a football tackle-sized guy was tucking into traditional pumpkin soup Haitian, chock full of meat, potatoes, veggies, and noodles -- a full meal in a bowl, for $4.
Among starters the $12 Nuvo platter is highly recommended; the two-bite mini-mofungu (golf ball-sized plaintain cups filled with savory ground beef or shellfish), light conch fritters (packed with big pieces of shellfish, and garnished with only faintly spicy jalapeño sauce), and coconut shrimp (butterflied, crumb-breaded, greaselessly fried, and topped with sweet coconut vinaigrette) all come à la carte, for $4.50-$5. But which of these delectable snacks could one possibly forgo? West Indies crabcake ($5) was two patties of real crab (good) rather than surimi, but rather heavily breaded (not so good); accompanying aioli made up for lack of any discernible garlic by a pleasantly pronounced citrus tang.
There are many normal meat, fish, and pasta entrées, but believe me, the $7 South Pacific grilled vegetable salad is a main dish. Tofu-haters should suspend disbelief and try it; Dorvil's four flavorful sesame-seared slices (with grilled squash, on a big bed of ginger/carrot-dressed California spinach) were a revelation.
And even dessert-haters must finish with Nuvo's signature Citadel raw fruit pie. Artfully stacked slices of juicy fresh mango, kiwi, and papaya provided sweetness without sugar, and a rich "crust" of what tasted like rolled grains, figs, and nut butter provided that soupçon of sin, so satisfying at meal's end, without the fats or guilt.