By David Minsky
By Jen Mangham
By Bill Wisser
By Laine Doss
By Bill Wisser
By Dana De Greff
By Laine Doss
By Zachary Fagenson
In an Orlando Business Journal article published on August 11, the same day Norman Van Aken debuted his eponymous restaurant in the Ritz-Carlton Orlando, Grande Lakes, Van Aken is quoted: "Comparing our restaurant opening to that TV show is like comparing the Harvard Law School to the Circus Maximus." He is referring, of course, to the now-notorious Rocco's, star of the reality television series The Restaurant, where Van Aken and I were both guests on opening night. And journalist Bob Mervine seems to agree that there should be no parallel. "It's a safe bet there was a good deal less chaos -- and no fires -- leading up to the opening of Van Aken's second Florida restaurant," he writes.
Damn, but I wish I'd taken that bet. Not because I wish Van Aken ill, but because I've worked in and written about the industry far too long not to know that if something can happen, it will. True, so far there have been no grease fires put out with dishtowels, no ticketings and towings of diners' cars, no lawsuits from other Norman-appellated restaurants served on premises, and certainly no panicked celebrity chef launching f-bombs for the benefit of public entertainment (and to the detriment of professional reputation). Nothing sharp enough, on the surface, on the record, or even via the rumor mill, that critics can use to dislodge a single, viable throwing stone. For one thing, Van Aken is too polished not to rebound a cheap shot. For another, like any other well-seasoned restaurateur, if he is going to withstand some unpredictable, opening-week ambush, he's certainly not going to invite the press in to watch it sweep through.
Nevertheless, no matter how salted-to-taste you are, hits happen. And Norman's took its first (and admittedly, probably only) whap this past Sunday night while I was dining there with my husband and kids.
Yup, I said kids. I have no desire to take my two darlings, at their current, noncooperative ages, to Norman's in Coral Gables. Any restaurant in Orlando, family-fun capital of the first world, however, is fair game. Even when it doesn't have either a kids' menu or anything remotely similar to French fries. Part of me wanted to see how Van Aken and his staff would respond to the presence of those immature minors who will only eat something green if it's Play-Doh. (Graciously.) Another little temptation was the inherent test of my parenting skills: When I tell my offspring that they won't be allowed to watch Shrek for the zillionth time unless they put their napkins on their laps and pretend to be civilized, do they take me seriously? (Hardly.)
But most of me was really just being selfish. (Honestly.) It was mere coincidence that this Disney trip that we'd planned months ago coincided with the launch of Norman's. Once I digested that fact, though, I immediately started to plot a path from Mickey's concession stands to one of Van Aken's tables. After all, I needed for research purposes to assess how the city responsible for "It's a Small World" was responding to the cuisine of a New World. I needed for personal purposes to settle my motion sickness, prompted by the dizzying one-two punch of the Peter Pan and the Snow White Adventure rides, with creamy cracked conch chowder with saffron, toasted coconut, oranges, and a "cloud." I needed to erase the discomfort of hauling a double stroller around the Magic Kingdom with real-life, grown-up pampering.
Consolation for enduring a trio of the parks, we anticipated, would come in the form of the Ritz-Carlton itself, where we got an especially generous press rate for a room so we could flop on our stomachs after dining at Norman's. This six-week-old property is noteworthy for many reasons, including its breezeway that adjoins a J.W. Marriott that is easily the equivalent of the Ritz in luxury, but mainly because it is the first time in the chain's history that an independently owned restaurant was invited over an in-house property to be the premier dining venue. (The second will probably be the forthcoming R-C South Beach, where it is rumored that Wolfgang Puck has been invited to bring Spago.)
For Van Aken, who is on the brink of a dramatic brand expansion with this Norman's, the forthcoming Mundo in Merrick Park, and a fourth restaurant opening in Los Angeles at the end of the year, the Ritz seems a natural fit. Norman's and the hotel share a clientele who have as much cash as they do cachet.
In fact his face is all over it, with posters and signs and whatnot advertising the restaurant to such an extent that, while passing by yet another Van Aken portrait, my child asked, "Mommy, why is he everywhere?" To which I replied, "He's not. Yet." Still for all the influence brought to bear here by both proprietors and patrons, power, it seems, can still be elusive. Just ask Governor Pataki.
Perhaps we should have realized what was in store when the valets dropped a cooler while unloading our car and shattered some wine. We felt partially responsible, since the cooler doesn't close properly, but it was a bit disconcerting to be presented with a dripping-wet wine label along with our luggage. The valet confessed to breaking the bottle, and the hotel replaced it with an equivalently priced Greg Norman Estates Merlot. But when we checked the cooler later, we discovered that the staff had disposed of at least two other bottles that they failed to mention.