When Cindy Hutson opened Ortanique in Coral Gables in July 1999, Miracle Mile was lined with bridal boutiques and little else. "There was the Coral Gables cafeteria, John Martin's, and us," Hutson recalls.
Hutson and her business and life partner, Delius Shirley, really had no intention of opening a restaurant in Coral Gables at the time but received a call that would change the trajectory of their careers. "We had Norma's on the Beach on Lincoln Road, and the City of Coral Gables reached out and said they wanted to funk up Miracle Mile and wanted us to open a concept."
When a space became available next door to Actors' Playhouse, Hutson knew it was her next project. "Barbara Stein was really ramping up the programming," Hutson says of the executive-producing director, "so what better place to be than next to the theater?"
Twenty years later, Hutson and Shirley head numerous projects — including Zest in downtown Miami and Negril, Jamaica; Redbones in Kingston, Jamaica; and culinary ambassador duties at the Miami Cancer Institute — but their baby continues to be Ortanique.
Maintaining a successful restaurant for 20 years requires vigilance, though. Hutson says there's a fine line between staying true to what made a restaurant successful and moving forward with the times. A few years ago, the chef updated Ortanique's menu but took away some dishes relished by regulars. "Some guests came in for our pork chops and found that we stopped serving them," Hutson says. "They were irate."
To make customers happy, she reintroduced some original dishes as "neighborhood favorites." To keep herself challenged, she changes up many menu items regularly based on what's fresh and local. "Say my fish guy gets in 80 pounds of triggerfish. I'll prepare it with a Dominican-style sauce. When that fish runs out, I'll go on to the next."
Hutson says cooking that way is a continual challenge both for herself and the line cooks at the restaurant. "I'll teach them a totally different recipe from one night to the next. It's difficult, but then again, my really good line cooks love it."
Known for her trademark "cuisine of the sun," Hutson has a style of cooking that remains based in the Caribbean, but she also draws inspiration from nearly everywhere else on the planet. "It got to the point that food writers termed this a Caribbean restaurant. It has that soul, but any day there could be food that's Korean, Mediterranean, or Mexican."
The common denominator seems to be seasonal ingredients. "I try to keep things fresh and maintain the culture and heritage of the people who make up Ortanique and the people of Coral Gables," she says.
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Though the restaurant's 20th anniversary has officially passed, Hutson is celebrating its anniversary through October with a series of "20 for 20" specials.
During happy hour, two bar bites and a glass of wine, sangria, or the mixology drink of the day cost $20. At dinner, guests can choose any item (except tenderloin and bouillabaisse) from the "neighborhood favorites" section plus a glass of wine, sangria, or cocktail of the night for $20. At lunch, diners can get an appetizer, an entrée from a menu of the day, and either dessert or a glass of wine or sangria for $20. In addition, Hutson's cookbook, From the Tip of My Tongue, is available for $20. All specials have restrictions on sharing and are dine-in only. The offers are good seven days a week.
After 20 years at Ortanique, Hutson and Shirley are going strong and already planning the next step. In 2020, the partners will consult on the menu for a new Wynwood brewery, La Tropicale, slated to open in March. For the duo, creating the menu for a brewery was a dream. "Delius loves the craft-beer scene," Hutson says. "I just told him not to drink all the beer and leave some for the customers."
Ortanique on the Mile. 278 Miracle Mile, Coral Gables; 305-446-7710; cindyhutsoncuisine.com.