Tuyo: Miami culinary icon Norman Van Aken stays true to his New World vision
After a brief elevator ride to the top floor of the new Miami Culinary Institute, diners entering Tuyo are instantly captivated by the sweeping view afforded by dramatically framed floor-to-ceiling windows. The breathtaking vista brings the illuminated Freedom Tower and American Airlines Arena front and center, with Biscayne Bay to the right and city lights glittering in the background: Tuyo in the sky with diamonds.
Panorama aside, the 60-seat dining room is lovely. Linen-draped tables are formally set with gorgeous Rosenthal show plates, and comfortably cushioned chairs sit on a recycled wood-grain floor. Small lights recessed into a modern wave-inspired ceiling mimic the celestial dots outside.
The star inside is executive chef Norman Van Aken, aided and abetted by Jeffrey Brana as chef de cuisine. Travis Starwalt is sous chef, Max Santiago is the pastry chef, and sommelier Sarah Brownell rounds out the team. But Norman is the foreman — and the draw, man. After all, he is the only chef from Florida inducted into the James Beard Foundation's Who's Who of Food and Beverage in America, and his groundbreaking Norman's, which debuted in 1995 in Coral Gables, was arguably the most important and influential Miami restaurant of its time. Van Aken remains chef/owner of Norman's at the Ritz-Carlton Orlando and director of restaurants at the Miami Culinary Institute. His last project, Norman's 180, was short-lived and his presence there even shorter, which makes Tuyo something of a comeback project. During our visits, Van Aken was in the kitchen, which right off the bat is an improvement.
Randy Newman once wrote a self-mocking song about past-their-prime performers. "Each record that I'm making sounds like a record that I've made," he laments, "just not as good." Yet if Van Aken's food doesn't possess the wow factor it once did, it isn't because it's "not as good," but because so much new and exciting cuisine has come down the pike since his peak.
Tuyo's charred cobia ceviche surely looks and tastes up-to-date with its bright, petite bursts of papaya, pickled cucumber, basil, and Asian spices. And oyster pan stew with black trumpet mushrooms and a Béarnaise base plugs right into the current enchantment with twists on American comfort food. But excepting a more pronounced nod to local produce, this bill of fare could have been culled from the chef's original repertoire. For better or worse, it is not, as the menu description claims, "trailblazing."
Yet there is something admirable about Van Aken remaining true to his New World cuisine roots rather than focusing on foams and other food fads. And it is a tribute to the chef that he was so conceptually ahead of the curve that nearly two decades later, his cuisine remains distinctive.
One reason might be because nobody else has ever really picked up the New World baton. Cindy Hutson of Ortanique has long been spinning Caribbean cuisine, and Douglas Rodriguez remains the daddy of Nuevo Latino at De Rodriguez Cuba, but the slew of new South Florida chefs has mostly ignored the southern part of this hemisphere in favor of Asia, Europe, and the Mediterranean.
Diners at Tuyo start with an amuse-bouche — or at least some diners do. On one visit, we were not among the chosen, nor was the table adjacent to ours. At least we were granted one fresh, soft, warm ciabatta roll apiece. On a return trip, our rolls were plated and replenished upon request. But we'll get to service the way the servers got to us: later.
As with a savvy veteran singer, Van Aken's playlist is a compilation of past hits interspersed with newer creations. The concise compilation comprises "first plates" such as conch chowder "Brazilian"-style; a salad of local lettuces with heirloom tomato, avocado, roasted beets, pepitas, blue cheese, and sherry dressing; and anywhere from four to six appetizers (the menu changes daily).
Certain menu descriptions encompass concepts so grandiose they would make even Newt Gingrich blush. For instance: "My Down Island French toast, with curaçao-scented foie gras, grilled brioche, gingery candied lime zest, and a savory passionfruit caramel." That dish, pulled from the chef's old bag of tricks, flaunts flavors that remain bold and complex and, as is occasionally Van Aken's wont, are reliant on a number of seemingly incongruent ingredients working in tandem to produce something bigger than its parts.
A newer creation — tuna and tomato tartare — doesn't fare as well. The tuna gets tossed with tomato salsa that overwhelms the finer attributes of the fish. "Crisp potatoes," also known as potato sticks, are tossed on top for texture, and a "Joël Robuchon-inspired mollet egg" is cooked sous vide so that ideally the white is firm but the yolk is runny — except our egg was slightly overcooked, so it ran nowhere. The "whole" in this case was smaller than its parts.
The aforementioned cobia ceviche presents a semisuccessful marriage. Think of it as a Russell Brand-Katy Perry coupling. The smoke of the charred fish, with the sweet and vinegary flavors, leads to an initially exciting matchup — but it's ultimately too pickled and clashing.
That oyster stew, a sassy take on the traditional (and boring) shellfish-in-milk rendition, was awesome. Béarnaise (thinned by liquid from the oysters) replaces the milk, which is one big, rich improvement right there. The black trumpets add a nice, earthy textural element to the briny, barely simmered, juice-swelled Fanny Bays.
A main course of grilled pompano also shows Van Aken isn't just resting on his laurels. The delicious, full-flavored fish was crisp-skinned and adorned with hedgehog mushrooms, fresh palm hearts, cashews, and herbs in a scintillating caramelized Vietnamese fish sauce.
Chicken mofongo is a more Van Aken-esque medley of black beans, sweet-plantain fufu, and sugarcane moonshine chutney — a lively support for a juicy, tender Lake Meadow bird.
Many diners in the crowded room seemed to be ordering another old signature: rhum-and-pepper-painted golden tilefish. (The clientele, incidentally, was mostly of the age group more likely to be seen at a Randy Newman concert than a Cee Lo show.) The moist, mild, grouper-like fillet came cooked just right and thickly glazed with sweet mango-habanero mojo — the sweetness echoed by a boniato/caramelized plantain mash stuffed into a poblano pepper. It was satisfying if a bit too sweet, and we yearned for another texture besides soft.
A veal chop ($44) brings another sweet glaze, this one a Mongolian barbecue glaze of lavender honey, hoisin, soy sauce, and cloves. Softly cooked skinny black Chinese eggplant leans on the chop, which was moist thanks to an abundance of fat in and around the meat. A molded disk of middling "Thai fried rice" likewise accompanies the veal — a presentation that's too China Grill-ish. Tuyo's trio of talented chefs should have come up with a more compelling combo.
"'Fallen' bittersweet chocolate soufflé" is a fraudulent if tasty little dessert composed of three small, flat squares of chocolate cake, each chilled and stuck onto an equally cold plate. A trio of creamy mousse-like chocolate crémeux and chocolate crostini are the best parts of the composition; white powdery puffs that look like clumps of confectioner's sugar are pellets of "olive oil dust" that add a salty touch. Presumably the moist, almost undercooked nature of the cake is what affords it the "soufflé" label, but this is like selling someone a "grounded plane" that turns out to be a car.
A disk of rich pumpkin cheesecake gets presented with graham streusel, cranberry compote, and a trio of "torched marshmallow" sticks that are supposed to lend a "s'mores" aspect but are cold and plastic-like. It's not a bad idea to invest in artisanal cheese selections, thoughtfully plated with whole-wheat fruit bread, candied pecans, muscadine jam, and membrillo.
The host who escorted us on the elevator ride up to the restaurant gave a very brief rundown on Tuyo, including the fact that the venue is located in a fine culinary school — but with a smiling assurance that professionals would be serving our meals. I would rather have taken my chances with students. A weeknight evening brought lackluster service. And a busy weekend dinner was marred by all manner of negligence: The serving and removing of plates took way too long, water glasses remained unfilled throughout, another group's dishes were mistakenly brought to our table, and amuse-bouches were inadvertently taken to diners after they'd finished dessert (or, as mentioned earlier, not brought to others at all).
The average cost of a starter is $17, and that of an entrée is $34; desserts are $10. That's too expensive for such shoddy service. And the pricing is also too high for there to be as many selections on the small menu that are "not as good" as Van Aken can be.
That said, he remains a local culinary icon. If you are one of the many longtime fans of his New World fusion or have never tried it, Tuyo is the only place to do so.
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