Best Island Fares
When I heard Norma's on the Beach was planning a sequel in Coral Gables, I wasn't excited about the prospect of two solid Caribbean restaurants in town; I was upset. Let me explain. I've been a huge fan of the funky Lincoln Road eatery since it opened. Even when I'm not hungry I've been known to stop in for a glass of wine and a basket of garlic bread. Occasionally I call to ask when the next shipment of smoked marlin is arriving from Montego Bay. I beg not to be told how much butter is in the jerk chicken pasta and I fantasize about the dense and potent rum cake. And I'm a little sentimental about the place. It was four years ago that my husband proposed to me at one of their outdoor tables.
But I was worried when I found out owner Delius Shirley and executive chef Cindy Hutson were expanding. I feared the original restaurant would suffer, as so many do, when young restaurateurs try to replicate their success.
When some Jamaican friends came to town, however, we decided to give the new incarnation a try. While Shirley and Hutson did import most of the creative dishes to the new location, they left the name behind, maybe to avoid confusion with their new neighbor, Norman. So instead of Norma's, the new place is called Ortanique on the Mile. It may not be a great name for a restaurant, but it is a delicious fruit. The ortanique is a delicate hybrid, a combination of an orange and a tangerine, which, like Cindy Hutson's cooking, is an improvement on the elements from which it originated.
From my first step inside, I was swept away by the gorgeous décor, which is elegant in an islandy kind of way. The place is filled with brightly painted wooden fretwork frames, cheerful tropical murals, and a collection of whimsical oil colors. Twinkling strings of lights create a twilight effect at all hours, and lemon-color mosquito netting creates privacy and warmth in the 225-seat space. Somehow the place manages to feel festive without ever getting loud.
Like Norma's the menu is described as Caribbean, but that doesn't mean every dish is spiced with jerk seasoning, hot peppers, and lime juice. Rather the dishes are made from the best local and imported ingredients and are liberally inspired by island traditions (especially those of Shirley's mother and the original restaurant's namesake, Norma, a celebrity chef who is known as the Julia Child of the Caribbean).
Of course there is a wide selection of seafood dishes such as conch or snapper ceviche, curried crabcakes, grilled salmon, bouillabaisse, and yellowtail snapper escovitche. But the less traditional choices are just as delectable, like the filet mignon au poivre, an ostrich burger and, on special recently, an excellent vegetarian lasagna.
A perfect starter to whet the appetite is the endive salad. A generous mix of baby herbs, lettuces, and chunks of Belgian endive is studded with juicy diced tomatoes, papaya, and crumbled goat cheese, and doused with a mellow balsamic and tamarind dressing. Another salad offered at lunch didn't work quite as well. It consisted of young greens, including basil, topped with tomatoes and roasted peppers as well as a large melted disk of mozzarella and strips of portobello mushroom. Almost as an afterthought a small pile of tender, spicy chicken was placed at the side. Although it all tasted fine, the cheese, with its brown edges and glossy surface, looked unappetizingly like a fried egg and lent a greasy sheen to the whole dish.
For those who want a more traditional appetizer, the pumpkin bisque is a standout. The amber-color soup is rich and creamy without the thick, unpleasant heft that often accompanies artificially thickened soups. Here the weight of the calabaza gives the desired texture while a restrained hand in the kitchen adds the subtle blend of spices and a dash of sherry that delivers a refined finish.
A new dish to add to my list of the ones I crave is a simply perfect tuna tataki. It consists of ruby red, nearly translucent slabs of fish fanned out on a plate and drizzled with a potent squirt of liquid wasabi sauce. As a garnish, and one not to be pushed aside, is a mound of flying-fish roe permeated with the same pale green wasabi glow. Combined with the sweet and tangy mango-papaya relish, this elegant starter is better than any I've tasted in the best sushi houses.
It's easy to fill up on the many substantial and delicious starters, but don't. My favorite entrée is the jerk chicken pasta. Perfected from years on the menu at Norma's, the pasta is made with a firm penne coated in a light cream sauce, which melds the seemingly disparate flavors from the spicy strips of pepper, thyme seasoned chicken breast, sautéed shiitake mushrooms, roasted garlic, sun-dried tomatoes, and scallion. Also superb is the coriander and cumin-crusted mahi-mahi (dolphin). One of my favorite fish, this tender, white meat handles the blatant pushiness of the spices with the mellow ease a country Jamaican might use with a New Yorker.
The roti stuffed with potatoes, peas, pumpkin, chickpeas, and carrots is one of the few overt nods to the vegetarian class. When I tried it I found the wrapping, a simple fried flatbread, a bit dry. But with an extra dose of the tasty curry sauce, it might equal the meatier options.
As for meat, the steak au poivre may sound out of place, but it should be at the top of your list. The filets are served red in the middle and charred outside. They rest on top of buttery mashed potatoes surrounded by a divine mushroom, garlic, and port wine sauce. Beware, the portions are large. You may want to consider sharing. The kitchen is happy to plate the dishes for two for a small additional charge (three dollars), a good option if you want to save room for the fanciful and decadent desserts.
One that can't help but pique your curiosity is the chocolate mango tower stuffed with mango mousse, meringue, and sponge cake. It sounds as though it would be too much. And I would say it is, but it's worth ordering for the foundation: The entire creation is built on a dense, utterly rich brownie, which would be a shame to miss. A simpler and I think better dessert is the crème brûlée, which holds large chunks of fresh oranges accented with fresh coconut shavings, flecks of vanilla, and coconut cream sauce. For the ultimate, skip the froufrou altogether and consider a simple scoop of Blue Mountain coffee ice cream. When it is available, you'll find the slivers of dark chocolate and the smoky sweet flavor of coffee to be the best around.
Ortanique's great food, reasonable prices, and wonderful setting arrived in the nick of time. While writing this review, I found out, sadly, that Norma's has served its last meal. The ever-rising rents and convoluted rules of South Beach forced them to close it up, explained Shirley. The talented kitchen staff, including Mary Rohan, will all move to the new location, and I guess I'll be leaving the Beach more often.
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