Ortanique Stays True
There is something unique about Ortanique on the Mile that becomes apparent as soon as one enters the warm, woody, orange-hued, citrus-and-flower-muraled room: It smells better than other restaurants. Even with the preponderance of open kitchens these days, many dining establishments exude the aromatic appeal of a hotel lobby. But here, seductively spicy scents — garlic? curry? jerk? — waft over the 225 seats, caress the olfactory senses, and can cause a critic to salivate while trying to enunciate his fake name to the hostess. Good, wholesome aromas and a potently flavorful, Caribbean-influenced "Cuisine of the Sun" have been Ortanique's trademarks since the place debuted a decade ago on Miracle Mile. Nothing else has changed much either, including the crowds piling in (even on a Tuesday evening) for the convivial vibe and familiar favorites.
Before Ortanique on the Mile, there was Norma's on the Beach, named for famed Jamaican chef Norma Shirley — the "Julia Child of the Caribbean"; mom to Ortanique's (and Norma's) co-owner, Delius Shirley; and mentor to his partner in life and both ventures, chef Cindy Hutson. The story goes that they nixed the name Norma's for their Gables branch because it sounded too much like the nearby Norman's. So Ortanique it was, a hybrid citrus fruit with an acronymic moniker: ORange + TANgerine + unIQUE. Norma's dropped from Lincoln Road shortly after Ortanique bloomed.
Dinner begins with crunchy slices of toasted garlic bread, although on one visit, these didn't arrive until just before appetizers were served — which took quite awhile. There was an even longer lag between starters and main courses. The waiter expressed regrets for the delay, told us the food would come "any minute," and explained pork takes longer to cook than tuna — a rationale that might have made more sense had we ordered tuna. Ten minutes later, a manager stopped by, also apologized, and confessed the meat had been overcooked and begun again from scratch. We were fine with that; honesty is always the best policy. Service and timing were spot-on when we returned for a second visit.
Fried calamari salad is enjoying its ten-year anniversary as an Ortanique appetizer. It still works just fine — well-seasoned cornmeal-breaded rings and tentacles tossed with field greens, diced tomato, and julienned carrots in balsamic vinaigrette. Rum-braised short ribs are also a sensible starter choice, comprising two succulent squares of beef blanketed by rich, smooth, booze-infused demi-glace, with bits of diced tomato and three little gnocchi bobbing in the sauce. The latter was to have been "truffled," but it's just as well the taste didn't come through — rum and truffle don't sound all that appealing together.
Another menu fixture, panko-crusted "West Indian" crab cake, arrived overly darkened on the bottom side, though the lumps of crab were spryly spiced with curry seasonings and brightened by bits of red pepper and scallion. Papaya-lime "coulis" (really a salsa) on top melds quite well, which is why tropical fruit-and-seafood pairings loomed so large in the '90s. The plate décor, however, feauturing crisscrossed squiggles of sorrel purée and balsamic glaze, recalls a lesser impulse of those times.
The wine list is a bulky, bookish, global affair that includes grape-growing regional maps. Markup seems to average about 2.5, but Tuesdays bring a half-price wine menu (perhaps the reason there's a robust crowd that evening). Waiters are apt to push the award-winning mojitos.
Half of the dozen entrées are seafood-based. One is a Mediterranean treatment of bluenose bass, whose large, mild, firmly textured flakes are roasted and served with cannellini beans, tomato-fennel concassé, and a sprinkle of lemon-pressed olive oil. Another is Bahamian black grouper boosted by marinating in teriyaki and sesame oil and then assertively caramelized from pan searing and splashed with a sauce brewed from Bacardi Limón and Ortanique liqueur. Julienned strings of chayote and carrot cap the fish; a dollop of sweet, citrus-infused boniato-plantain mash buttresses it from below.
"Maple Leaf Airline Duck Breast" seemingly refers to a bird being served aboard Maple Leaf Airlines. Maple Leaf, however, connotes the duck's farm of origin, and "airline" is the cut, which includes the wing joint. Ortanique's rendition flies high via moist flanks of meat in a sweet Amarena cherry glaze sky; sautéed baby bok choy and creamy polenta are savvy stewards assisting on the ride.
Pork tenderloin slices encrusted in cocoa and Blue Mountain coffee likewise soared with the smoke of mesquite and sweet, pungent spicing. The meat was smartly partnered with buttery pearls of Israeli couscous and mushrooms. We also liked a vegetarian roti entrée, one of the better meatless dishes we've run across in a while. It featured a saucy stew of curried vegetables, diced pineapple, and juicy macerated raisins; the whole thing overflowed from a large folded wrap.
The most refreshing dessert after such densely flavored cuisine is the deliriously delicious Blue Mountain coffee ice cream. Two scoops come laced with slivers of bittersweet chocolate; underneath is a crisp almond croquant. Rum cake is spotted with raisins and pecans, modestly sparked with spirit, and punctuated with a puff of freshly whipped cream.
Dinner here is slightly less expensive than at fine-dining venues, pricier than at neighborhood haunts (most apps are $12 to $18, most entrées $24 to $34). Ortanique leans toward the latter category, but the reputation and renown of Ms. Hutson understandably plays into the equation. And yet: While it is not unusual for an established restaurant such as Ortanique to stick to tried-and-true signatures, it is surprising a notable chef such as Cindy doesn't shake things up more from time to time — or allow executive sous chef Jean-Carlos Brigante to do so. The menu gets printed nightly, occasionally with freshly minted creations, more often with permutations of past popular ones, but surely there must be something new and exciting under the ever-expanding gastronomic sun that can be incorporated into the bill of fare. At the very least, somebody should update the restaurant's website, which excepting a current calendar of events is frozen in 2006.
That particular quibble aside, if you haven't yet dined here, you should.
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