Fit for a Kingston

At this time last year, in addition to writing this column, I was a staff writer for a company that publishes Caribbean travel and tourism books. One great thing about working during the holidays: the gourmet edibles brought in by colleagues or sent by clients (the golden rum cakes in particular, the ones that are so popular on many of the islands). Somehow those cakes always seemed to find their way to my desk, and consequently to my waistline, willpower not being one of my strong suits.

So what if I'm five pounds lighter this year. Imagine my delight when I heard about the rich, dense rum cake being dished up at the new 90-seat French Caribbean restaurant Norma's on the Beach! Then imagine how my spirits sagged the night we went when I was told that the five-week-old eatery had temporarily run out the Appleton rum-laden delicacy it imports from Norma's flagship location in Jamaica. Bah humbug, for sure. Happily, a delicious dinner more than made up for the initial disappointment, right down to the slice of tart-tart key lime cheesecake I had for dessert. I still crave a slice of that rum cake. But going back to get it will be a pleasure. Which is more than I can say about my former job.

The sidewalk cafe-garden lounge-gallery on Lincoln Road Mall just east of Euclid, in the storefront previously occupied by the Lazy Lizard, is the third restaurant in the Norma empire, and the first to be established in Miami. After cooking in a prix fixe restaurant in Stockbridge, Massachusetts, in the late Seventies and styling food for Conde Nast photo shoots in the early Eighties, Jamaican-born chef-owner Norma Elise Shirley opened her first eatery, Norma, in New Kingston, which began receiving some national attention in its second year of operation. Her next venture, Norma at the Wharfhouse, located in Montego Bay, certainly impressed the critics: Bon Appetit will feature the restaurant, its proprietor, and its French-accented tropical fare in a six-page spread this winter.

The South Beach incarnation isn't owned by Norma, but rather by Delius Shirley and executive chef Cindy Hutson, both of whom have put in apprenticeship time with the restaurant's namesake -- Shirley as general manager and sometime line cook (and the founder's son); Hutson as sous chef. But every two weeks or so, Norma Shirley swings up to Miami and takes over the top spot in the kitchen, an arrangement that broadens the restaurant's appeal by varying the ever-changing repertoire of daily specials.

Menu offerings are limited to five appetizers and six entrees per day (plus a few specials), a paucity that makes it difficult to choose starters. We finally settled on a bowl -- or rather, a miniature cauldron -- of country-style pumpkin soup and an order of jerk chicken wings, both of which were listed on the blackboard. Soft, stewed chunks of coarsely textured West Indian pumpkin were delicious in a slightly sweet, creamless broth, with a sprinkle of thyme adding a distinctive Jamaican touch. That same flavor sparked the chicken, whose skin was just crisp enough and hardly greasy. Our only complaint about the wings was their price; for $5.95, four seemed a skimpy portion. Still, they were very tasty, especially when sprinkled with the wildly spicy pukka (Scotch bonnet) pepper sauce the proprietors import from the island. The sauce is for sale for $2.95 per bottle in what Delius Shirley calls the restaurant's "gallery" (read: indoor dining room), along with other items that range from Haitian candleholders to Mexican glassware to Kentian (an island near Australia) tabletop palms, stunted trees known for their peculiar and abrupt growing phases.

Along with our appetizers, we munched on garlic toast, complimentary two-finger-size strips cut from thick, almost sweet, fluffy white loaves. The pungency of the garlic was an admirable foil for a starter of smoked marlin, meaty slices cured in Jamaica over a pimiento-wood fire. In this process, the flesh never "cooks" completely, and retains a velvety patina reminiscent of sushi. The texture was chewy and tender in equal measures, the flavor intense, full, a sense-stealer. As with a plate of gravlax, the two slices of marlin were served with aggressive garnishes: white onion, tiny capers, curls of fresh cucumber, bitter Belgian endive, papaya salsa, and a dollop of mustard-laced mayonnaise.

I seriously considered the wisdom of following one lusty dish with another, then gave in to temptation and ordered the "baby lamb chops" anyway. Baby lamb, of course, is a redundancy, but in this case, the repetition couldn't have been closer to the truth: Three chops, complemented by a crust of feta cheese and herbs, were tender and meaty, but tiny -- in stark contrast to their seventeen-dollar price tag. A "nest" of callaloo (dasheen), dark green leaves favoring spinach in culinary nature, lent iron earthiness to the dish, while a heavily reduced jus allowed for a contrasting touch of fruity sweetness.

A less French, more Asian preparation of a pork tenderloin steak incorporated a strangely effective pairing of raisins and pomegranate seeds. The small, filet mignon-shape cut had been marinated in teriyaki, sake, and ginger, and retained its juiciness despite being fully cooked. A bite of scallion cleared a path through the sweet, surprisingly light glaze.

A far heartier entree was beggar's purse, offered as a special the night we visited. Similar in concept to the British pub favorite, shepherd's pie, the dish was a casserole that comprised layers of sauteed and sauced ground beef and butter-rich mashed potatoes, baked until the potatoes were just crisp. Sides of firm, pale green chayote squash, a scoop of bland red beans and rice, and wonderfully crunchy, grease-free fried plantains completed the bargain. (The same side dishes accompanied all main courses.)

Delius Shirley is particularly proud of his newly licensed full bar, which includes a selection of beers from around the world and a list of French, California, and Australian wines. But a more stimulating beverage easily overshadows the wine. Chef Hutson is one of three well-connected distributors who import the prized Jamaica Blue Mountain coffee into the United States, and is therefore able to sell it "closer to cost." Which means you pay eight dollars for a three-cup French press, the only way the restaurant will serve it. As a bargain, it's debatable; as a delight, it's undeniable.

Jonathan Eismann, chef-owner of Pacific Time down the block, said recently that he would welcome fine-dining competition on Lincoln Road. He's got it.

Side Dish
At my bridal shower, I received one of my all-time favorite cookbooks, Cooking in the Nude. The idea, I imagine, is to involve your mate in what is often a very sensual practice -- the preparation of food. And while my nosy neighbors can probably attest to the fact that I never use the book as it was intended to be used, I do leaf through it once in a while for...reference. Yeah, that's it. The culinary Kama Sutra. For those of you tempted to try this at home with your spouse or significant other, I have two words: Hot oil. Think about it.

Obviously my in-laws didn't receive this particular marital aid, or they might have happened upon this pleasure sooner. Now, after 36 years together, they're finally learning what they should have learned as newlyweds -- how to avoid stinging little spatters on sensitive, never-see-daylight flesh.

Naturally, I feel obligated to help in their endeavors, so I purchased them a class at Two Chefs, the brand-new cooking school owned by Jan Jorgenson (formerly of Janjo's) and Soren Bredahl (formerly of the original Food Among the Flowers and Dominique's). The pair offers demonstrations, hands-on classes including appearances by guest chefs, and a rent-a-chef service. Located at 8287 S. Dixie Hwy., the school doubles as a retail store, selling lux cookware lines, tableware, and homemade products such as balsamic syrup with cloves, tomato-mango ketchup, and tangerine marmalade. A call to 663-2100 yields a tasty schedule of classes and events, which are conducted, no doubt, in full dress. Grin and bare it.


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