In the June 30 issue of the Wine Spectator, food writer John Mariani claimed that Miami's "overly hyped restaurant scene is deflating...fast." To prove his point, he cited the departures of some of our most noted chefs: Douglas Rodriguez (from Yuca), Kerry Simon (from Starfish), and Norman Van Aken (from a Mano). Van Aken, wrote Mariani, "has yet to resurface."
Given the general vagaries of the restaurant business, plus the fact that executive chefs are often nonproductively engaged in disagreements and power struggles with owners or investors, a fair amount of kitchen-shuffling inevitably takes place. No longer does one chef toil for years in a signature kitchen. These days young talent jumps from position to position as often as every six months, working up to executive chefdom and/or ownership. An innovator such as Van Aken, though, who has already achieved "chef de cuisine" status (however dubious that appellation might be), doesn't need to snatch at any job that comes along. Which doesn't necessarily mean he's taking a vacation.
Nationally recognized chefs fill their days (and their wallets) in a variety of ways, most of which don't include 80-hour weeks in someone else's restaurant. Obviously Mariani's research didn't lead him to New World Cuisine Productions, the culinary headquarters where Van Aken is testing recipes for his second cookbook; to local bookstores, where his just-released tropical fruit posters hang; or even to six-month-old Martha's Tropical Grille, the New World restaurant in Broward where Van Aken guided chef Scott Howard as he set up the kitchen. Mentorship, Van Aken has discovered, has its own rewards.
Diners shouldn't assume, however, that Martha's Tropical Grille, which occupies the remodeled second floor of Hollywood's American-Continental restaurant Martha's on the Intracoastal, is all about Van Aken. It's not. It's about George Zinkler, owner of both floors, who intended the leaf-pattern rug, sherbet-shade linens, birds-of-paradise table flowers, and cane-back chairs to produce a New World in unmistakable contrast to the old one downstairs. But mostly it's about his chef Howard, and what he's learned from Van Aken, and how he has taken that knowledge and created an eatery as different from Martha's first-floor, caviar-and-Chateaubriand dining room as a coconut palm is from an oak.
Zinkler discovered Howard at Gus' Grille in the Key Largo Bay Beach Resort, where Howard was executive chef. Before holding that position, Howard was an eager apprentice to Van Aken at a Mano, whose New World cuisine had impressed him so much that he gave up his executive chef position in Tampa to, as he puts it, "peel potatoes for $90 a day." Eventually Van Aken promoted him from prep to sous chef, placing him in charge of the amuse-gueules (rough translation: mouth pleasers), the customary free appetizers that were, at a Mano, a special foretaste of the culinary wonders to come.
The same philosophy of anticipation sets mouths watering at Martha's. On a recent evening, Howard's amuse-gueules was a delectable piece of salmon encrusted with black sesame seeds and bathed with "lemongrass water." Another waiter served us corn-and-cream-cheese muffins spiced with Scotch bonnet peppers, pumpkin bread with white raisins, and a fragrant, coarse-grained wheat bread from a proffered basket. Yet another waiter added to what was rapidly becoming a confusion of food and drink, uncorking a spicy 1991 Sterling merlot (priced reasonably at $28). This gave us little opportunity to scan the menu, which requires, as the a Mano menus did, some concentration. (A note about the wine: The menu, altered slightly from night to night, contains only a partial accounting of available vintages. Ask your server or the captain for the complete wine list, which is kept at the reservations desk.)
Though some of the waiter's explanations were overly thorough to the informed diner, one description caught our attention. The oysters, he said, were exceptionally good because the "muscle," which can make them tough, had been removed, leaving only the tender "belly." Out of the three appetizers that featured oysters, we chose two. The first, oysters, Asian vegetables, and soba noodles in a broth of lime, cilantro, and coconut milk, was aromatic and delicious. Three delicate oysters were backed by crisp snow peas and red peppers; a swirl of buckwheat pasta soaked up the citrus-scented soup. The second, spiced and seared shrimp with fried potato cakes and poached oysters in a truffle cream sauce, was a compact, stacked presentation, a single shrimp atop a white potato-and-onion pancake. Another grouping of three oysters, prepared in a mild, tasty cream sauce, was the pinnacle of the arrangement, the oysters' flavor melding with the spices of the shrimp to drench the potato-cake foundation. Not an overwhelmingly generous preparation, perhaps, but certainly a stunning one.
Three seemed to be the number of the evening. A trio of pounded alligator medallions was the most succulent version of this South Florida specialty I've had in recent memory. Dredged in flour, pan-fried, and dressed with a light cumin-sherry butter and a tangy slaw made from hearts of palm -- another South Florida harvest -- the alligator appetizer was a true treat.
Smoked rabbit loin, a "salad" plate served at room temperature, was an unusually enticing starter. Sliced into thick white coins, the pure-white rabbit was juicy despite its boneless cut and lack of fat. A sesame-honey mustard drizzled over the meat added an interesting complexity, as did tropical-fruit chutney, which was so vibrant that it practically exploded on the palate. An accompanying scoop of couscous provided the necessary plain backdrop.
One standout under the heading "New World paellas" was a soup-bowl of corn grits with lobster, shrimp, and lump crab meat. Though not as overwhelming as the restaurant's main plates -- at least in terms of size -- the combination of grain and seafood was both filling and fulfilling. Chunks of the sweet, buttery crustaceans dotted the creamy corn mixture, with a garnish of truffle oil providing an earthy splash. Slightly bitter shredded collard greens contributed color and contrast.
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The roast pork Havana entree was a study in plenitude. Blackened with a piquant mixture of spices, inch-thick slices of pork were cays in a sea of sherried black beans. A tropical-tuber hash comprising chunks of boniato, sweet potato, and yuca, was dense and slightly bland, a good foil for the intense pickled red onions that topped the pork. Crisp plantain chips curled as kings of the hill.
A spice-rubbed swordfish steak, also blackened, was laid on a smoky, chunky tomato sauce. I enjoy fish that has been cooked rare, but this steak was too underdone even for my taste. Having been visited again by the flame, the fish was brought back more to our liking, the meat flaky rather than chewy, white rather than crimson. A fire-blistered corn relish, sweet with jicama and tart with vinegar, topped the steak, while cayenne-seasoned fried onion rings, thin and just a bit greasy near the bottom of the pile, rounded out the dish.
One of the elements that drew me to a Mano was its wide-ranging menu, which promoted game along with more commonly appreciated Florida fishes. Patrons at Martha's Tropical Grille can be equally adventurous, wiping out a host of Disney characters all in the same evening. The venison entree, medallions as scarlet and tender as carpaccio and as rich as filet mignon, was the evening's finest preparation. Marinated with molasses and Tabasco sauce, the pungent meat was highlighted by a glaze of ancho chilies and currants. Grilled zucchini and summer squash and roasted red potatoes provided sturdy, basic flavors to this perfect plate.
After such a satisfying meal, dessert was a challenge A not only consuming one but choosing one. Pastry chef Ann Minty (who also worked with Howard at Gus' Grille) prepared a multilayered construction of chocolate with bananas that had been soaked in rum. It left us with little room for regret, though, enhanced as it was by the fabulous view from Martha's second-story windows: boats gliding on the Intracoastal at a no-wake pace, an eerily spotlighted mangrove stand so dense that it looked like a forest. The subtropical vista, well-appointed interior, and Van Aken-influenced talents of up-and-coming chef Scott Howard combine as evidence that Martha's Tropical Grille has the old-line Hollywood restaurant scene headed in a fascinating New World direction.