Tom Waits, Anaïs Nin, and Martin Luther King Jr. This trio's quotations grace a column by the entrance to Norman's 180. These people have little to do with one another, but their words blend into a unifying philosophy of chef/owner Norman Van Aken's.
Colombian arepa, French onion soup, and Southern fried chicken. These are items served at Van Aken's latest Coral Gables restaurant. As with quotes, disparate foods from around the globe can come together in a single theme. Unfortunately, here they do not.
The handsome, spacious dining room of Norman's 180, which is located off the lobby of the Westin Colonnade, boasts a marble-topped wraparound bar and a lovely lounge area. Both flank an open, theater-style kitchen glistening in white tile. Earth tones, woods, and amber pendant lights lend warmth, as do shelves lined with spice-filled Mason jars and floor-to-ceiling racks of wine. Leathery upholstered seats and banquettes are incredibly comfortable.
On our first visit, when we dined early, the place was practically empty. Just the same, we were seated in the far corner of the room, separated from a bustling service station by only a curtain — easily the worst table in the restaurant. That makes as little sense as keeping the temperature a couple of notches below frigid, or printing all wine selections on the flip side of the food menu but neglecting to note the selection of beers, cocktails, nonalcoholic beverages, coffees, or teas. Or not having a manager stop by the table at least once to see how things are. Or not stationing someone by the door to say good night and thank you. That's too many kinks for a restaurant that opened more than three months ago.
While Norman is head honcho, co-chefs are son Justin Van Aken and Philip Bryant, the latter working with the elder Van Aken since 2005. "Globally inspired, seasonally wired," is their menu motto. The first part is true: This bill of fare is all over the map. Instead of doing a 360 and returning to his fine-dining roots, or starting from zero and redefining his cuisine altogether, Norman and team have combined the two notions and come up with a discombobulated 180 (also the address) — which means that a $39 main plate of rib eye steak mingles on the menu with an $8 small plate of crispy chicken wings.
This leads to some culinary conundrums, such as: An informal small-plates restaurant can get away without serving bread or an amuse-bouche, but it is generally expected that a $39 steak meal is preceded by one or the other. Not here.
We began with udon noodles tossed with shiitake mushrooms, crisp strips of house-made bacon, and XO sauce, which can make just about anything delicious. The small portion possessed stimulating flavors, but the smoky bacon bullied the other tastes. A Colombian arepa gratified with a filling of queso blanco, a crown of corn salsa, a dollop of lime-tinged crema, and a moat of smashed black beans. Three duck meatballs were extraordinarily tender owing to an infusion of pork fat that was echoed by slices of prosciutto-like coppa draped on top. Tomato ragú and onions caramelized with balsamic vinegar melded well with the spheres of coarsely chopped duck, as did a smidgen of soft polenta beneath. Other small plates were fish tacos, barbecue baby-back ribs, tuna tartare, and shrimp ceviche.
"Bowls" encompass Bahamian conch chowder, onion soup, and pozole verde — which was brown, not green, because of a dominance of shredded pork and chorizo. Bits of collard greens, tomatillos, and chilies pump extra savor and piquancy into the chili-like stew; hominy thickens it a bit; and a cap of crema mellows things out. "Trade route" pizza, one of two pies, brought a thin, charred crust adorned with mozzarella and ricotta cheeses, a sweet poke of chow-chow relish, and a triangle of cornmeal-crusted fried green tomato on each rectangular slice. Strange but tasty.
A sidebar to the right of the menu page proffers French-style cheese and charcuterie plates, the latter featuring pâté, head cheese, and pork rillettes made in-house with products from Palmetto Creek Farms in Florida. There are plenty of fairly priced wines (around double markup) for pairing — many bottles of white for under $40, a good number of reds below $50, about a dozen glasses for $11 or less.
Small plates, salads, pizzas, and bowls range in price from $8 to $14. This means you can assemble a meal here without spending an excessive amount of money — assuming you stay away from most main plates (and the $9 desserts). On one visit, there were just five entrées listed, and a quirkier quintet you won't often see: pad thai with grouper; Southern fried chicken; linguine with roasted pumpkin, pecorino, pancetta, and cream; a hamburger; and Key West yellowtail with rice and beans. Note the lack of steak, veal, pork, lamb, and duck. There's nothing wrong with that — especially if you're talking about a casual, small-plates restaurant — but it is unusual for an establishment that presumably caters to hotel guests as well as the public. On a subsequent weekend jaunt, a bone-in 22-ounce rib eye steak, pork tenderloin, and paella were added.
The three main plates we tried exhibited an unexpected lack of range. Key West yellowtail, an old Norman standard, came draped over a rice-and-red-beans congri that burst with highly seasoned flavor. Paella brought swordfish steak over a mound of luscious if overcooked Calasparra rice flecked with red peppers, onions, and a light pinch of Spanish saffron. The pork — a huge log of unsliced tenderloin — lay upon a one-note Thai fried rice sweetened with brown sugar and the same sweet Mongolian barbecue sauce in which the meat is glazed; there was nothing in it but snippets of onion. The yellowtail, garnished with a flimsy palm-hearts slaw, was pleasingly seasoned and pooled with orange-laced citrus sauce. The swordfish was pristinely fresh and moistly grilled, but three "local" mussels and clams apiece upon the Calasparra were tiny and desiccated. The pork was fantastically tender and well suited by the barbecue sauce; it came topped with one small spear (two or three bites) of softly grilled Japanese eggplant. In each case, the protein excelled and was plated with rice and little else.
A humongous "wig" burger comes with a toupee of ropa vieja, melted Swiss cheese, lettuce, tomato, cumin mayo, and "crispy yuca." It's a great hamburger, but the paper-thin slice of fried yuca was coated in grease-soaked cornmeal breading. We liked the spicy coleslaw alongside, though some might think a $16 burger warrants hand-cut fries as well.
Foods are presented in simple bistro style on plain white plates. A sprig of herb might pop up here or there, but there wasn't a microsprout or other such touch in sight. Vegetables are scarce too, but à la carte sides include cauliflower gratin, Brussels sprouts, and corn "off the cob." Main plates, excepting the low-end burger and high-end steak, run $19 to $32.
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Desserts were cool and delightful. Small, chewy, lightly salted squares of a pecan-caramel bar came perked by dark chocolate sorbet. And "sun pies" — two puffy lemon-orange cookies sandwiching a layer of sweet-cream ice-cream — were gussied up with passion-fruit curd and toasted coconut flakes.
We had to wait awhile for the check; our waiter disappeared for close to ten minutes during a busy night, and there was nobody covering. Service otherwise excelled. The staff is happy and clearly well trained. They know the menu too; earlier in the evening, the vanishing waiter had impressively recited a complete rundown of the beers.
Let's suppose one were to randomly select a group of frequent restaurant diners and invite them for a meal at Norman's 180 — but not let them know where they were dining. Most likely, there would be widespread agreement that the ambiance and service are wonderful and the food rather satisfying. But if you were to then inform them that they were seated in the newest restaurant from Norman Van Aken — the Beard-winning, cookbook-writing, television-appearing, restaurant-owning, original Mango Gang-ing father of acclaimed New World cuisine; the person responsible for pinning a signature South Florida cooking style on America's gastronomic map; and the most famous Miami-associated chef in the world — they would probably fall from their chairs in disbelief.
View our Norman's 180 slide show.