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.
The brief brownout that occurred shortly before we went downstairs for dinner didn't really concern us, either, even when I noticed that the cold faucets weren't working but the hot water was still running. This is Florida, and we are Floridians. We're used to strange electrical surges on particularly hot days when too many air conditioners are draining the resources of energy.
Nor did my husband take me seriously when I started fanning myself once we were seated in the stunningly designed dining room. Shaped like a turret, the multifaceted, geometrically shaped room features 45-foot ceilings, and the walls are lined with enormous windows that at the moment were showcasing a properly majestic sunset. The baronial wine racks, which hold 1000 bottles, are the centerpieces of the room, framing a wait station like a sort of free-form gazebo.
Perhaps the warm, cozy feeling I was getting was from the managers, maitre d's, and chefs, many of whom I recognized from the Coral Gables property and who were in Orlando for the startup. They were so genuinely welcoming, not just to my family but to every diner who walked through the wrought-iron doors. Or maybe it was from the steam, rising from the plates of penne pasta the kitchen so kindly put together for my children, who were behaving well enough -- using knives, not fingers, to butter their bread, for example -- to put a blush of motherly pride in my cheeks.
Then again, I thought, the balminess I was perceiving could be caused by the menu, which features nearly every signature item that Van Aken has created over the past decade, causing serious indecision for me: The down-island French toast with Curaçao-scented foie gras or the yuca-stuffed crispy shrimp with sour orange mojo? The pan-cooked fillet of Key West yellowtail on a "belly" of garlicky mashed potatoes or the Mongolian barbecued, marinated, and grilled veal chop with Chinese eggplant? When they're all your favorites, it's hard to choose just one. And due to the fact that the kids were already getting a mite restless, the $75 five-course tasting menu (plus $50 for a wine flight) was unfortunately out of the question.
But even I can't dwell in caviar-induced denial when the lights go off and come back on in much dimmer mode, and the waiter brings us a complimentary starter after we've already had an amuse of blinis with crème fraîche (and jam for the kids) and a vibrant appetizer of slow-cooked, Asian-flavored pork belly with pineapple confit and tomato marmalade instead of main courses, and my husband has taken the children out for an educational tour of the lobby, and I've hit the bathroom with them twice, and we've polished off the Mulderbosch Sauvignon Blanc that the sommelier agreed is a great match for Van Aken's flavors, and still the entrées haven't appeared. Finally the waiter confessed: The lights hadn't been turned down for atmosphere. Turns out that we were dining in virtual reality. Apparently the power had been disrupted in the entire quadrant of Orlando, and the hotel's emergency generators, which had blinked on almost immediately, could only supply lights and limited air conditioning. As a result, everything else, including the water pumps, was "inactive," according to Raul Salcido, executive assistant manager of the rooms division of the Ritz, who noted in a form letter to hotel guests that "Progress Energy [was] working diligently to restore ... a damaged transformer in the city."
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Thus the difficulty the chefs were having getting out our entrées, along with all the other patrons' courses. At this point, we decided to leave. I'd stretched the limits of both a husband's and a toddler's patience, and certainly the chefs and waiters could benefit from having one less table to cover. Then handily, along with the check the waiter presented our entrées, wrapped to go. He'd offered to try to have them delivered via room service, but the elevators were out and the staff in that kitchen had their own incomplete orders to fill. "I sincerely apologize," the waiter said. "I hope this won't be a reflection on the restaurant."
But of course it is -- a brilliant one. The first week of a restaurant's existence is fraught with tension, which doesn't help when unpreventable events do occur. That's the reality of restaurateuring, and I'd have gladly collected on that so-called "safe bet."
Or half of it, anyway. Surely a blackout would have made a better episode of The Restaurant than a fire. (Too bad New York didn't comply better with the timing of its own multihour siege.) Still, Van Aken and Mervine were also both correct. Norman's is not Rocco's, where a glitch, whether staged by television producers or an act of nature, causes everybody from chef-proprietor to dishwasher to flip out. Here, despite the blackout, the perfectly trained staff exhibited such unflappable professionalism you would never have guessed anything had gone wrong.
In the end the first half of the meal (and the Ritz-Carlton experience) was gorgeous enough to instate faith. And I have a funny feeling that until my children have lost interest in the Kingdom -- about fifteen more years, I'd figure -- I'll have plenty more opportunities to witness the magic at Norman's. Both near Disney World and, come December, Disneyland.