Norman Van Aken does a 180 in the Gables

Norman Van Aken doesn't shy from the challenge of launching a new restaurant. Norman's 180 (180 Aragon Ave.) is slated to debut at the Westin Colonnade in Coral Gables by the end of 2009, punctuating the chef's two-and-a-half-year absence from the South Florida restaurant scene. Since 2003, he has kept a watchful eye on his flagship Norman's (4012 Central Florida Pkwy.; 407-393-4333) at the Ritz-Carlton Orlando.

"[It's] exciting. I think that is where most people expect me to have my 'main stage,' and so to return is a bit like coming back to that energy and opportunity," Van Aken explains. "I am grateful and happy for the chance to share my passion for cooking and serving once again."

Van Aken closed his well-known place on Almeria Avenue in 2007, citing "greater opportunities... in hotels." Now he's trying something new with 180, a concept he describes as "broadly American." The menu will be a simple expression of ethnic diversity through small plates, salads, pizzas, bowls, sides, and sweets. He is adamant he won't abandon his Latin-Caribbean base. "They will recognize me," says Van Aken, who lives in Key West. "I will be there cooking along with our team. We are creating 180 to have a concept that complements Norman's, not duplicates it."

Interestingly, 180 is housed in a building where Van Aken at one point contemplated settling the original Norman's. The space will be an expression of his new enthusiasm. "When we go out on the road, I rarely hit the 'four-star' places any longer," Van Aken says. "I look for more simple and 'village' expressions... roadside joints, street stalls, taquerias, lunch counters — places where you smell smoke and spices as you park the car. My evolution is a kind of stripping away to what I find more honest, essential, and what I care most deeply about."

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Jackie Sayet