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The World According to Norman

For more than a decade, as the rest of Miami's "Mango Gang" of chefs (Douglas Rodriguez, Mark Militello, and Allen Susser) parlayed their Hispanic-influenced New World cuisine into restaurant empires and product marketing, Norman Van Aken resisted such expansion. While he did write several cookbooks in those years, Norman's in...
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For more than a decade, as the rest of Miami's "Mango Gang" of chefs (Douglas Rodriguez, Mark Militello, and Allen Susser) parlayed their Hispanic-influenced New World cuisine into restaurant empires and product marketing, Norman Van Aken resisted such expansion. While he did write several cookbooks in those years, Norman's in Coral Gables remained the only venue where diners could sample Van Aken's creations prepared under the master's control.

Hence a second Van Aken outlet, Mundo, scheduled to open at the Village of Merrick Park in early spring 2003, was eagerly anticipated. Finally unveiled in late January 2004 (the Gables surely has the world's slowest, pickiest building-permit bureaucracy), it has been worth the wait.

If it's any consolation, the wait was even longer for Van Aken himself than for diners. Mundo, he says, has been in the works for seven or eight years, ever since he awoke from a dream -- right, one of those common hunger dreams we all have. But instead of running to the kitchen at 3:00 a.m. to throw together a desperation-driven English muffin/ketchup pizza, Van Aken says he "wrote down images of a mythical place that was like an amalgam of Key West, New Orleans 100 years ago, Barcelona, etc.... It would allow me to create dishes that hailed from some of my very favorite real places but not feel tied to any particular tradition." Flavors, he points out, "don't need passports."

To accommodate his culinary vision, Van Aken created an extensive menu inspired by the French brasserie and Spanish tapas bar -- small plates dominate, although some few full-size entrées are available. Among the plates without passports is sushi nuevo. Originally Japanese, sushi these days is virtually a child of the world. But most cultural variations involve little more than substituting one ingredient for another inside the same basic rice cylinder. Replace fresh salmon with smoked, and voilà -- bagel roll. In contrast, Mundo's maki was definitely a "don't try this at home" pro chef's creation, made with a slightly sweet but basically savory rice "ice cream" whipped up in an aerator to the texture of a dense foam. The sushi, which featured local yellowtail, was accompanied not by classic sushi's simple dip of soy sauce and mix-it-yourself wasabi, but by an airier foam infused with Japanese nori seaweed. Ingenious.

In fact many of the dishes feature espumas, but unlike the inventions of Spain's Ferrán Adria (like foie gras foam), whose main purpose seems to be shock, Mundo's are accessible. They tease but taste good, while also messing with your mind just a bit. Especially recommended is espárragos en tempura, crisp, batter-coated asparagus served with an olive oil and roasted garlic foam similar to aioli but fluffier. (Any liquefied food with sufficient protein, including eggs and mayonnaise, can be aerated into an espuma.)

Steak tartare was outstanding, the raw beef not finely ground but left slightly chunky for more interesting texture. Spicing was a bit hotter than usual, leaving a pleasant tingly aftertaste that was cleverly countered by a refreshing tomato/cilantro salsa on toast rounds.

Even if fancified versions of beloved classics aren't normally to your liking, don't hesitate to try Mundo's Cuban sandwich. The ham was good quality, the pork was among the best I've had in town, and the upgrades -- Gouda cheese and key lime mustard -- were improvements on the standard -- honest.

Rhum-painted grouper was the only transfer from Norman's I noticed on the menu. But fans of Norman's signature roast pork Havana will be pleased with Mundo's equally succulent and juicy maple-cured, spice-rubbed pork chop. On the side were three elegant little rolls of sliced sweet potato, each stuffed with a different complementary flavor: currant, almond, and blue cheese.

To mop up whatever you order, a basket of roti cooked in Mundo's wood oven is three dollars. Is the warm puffy flatbread, with a bowl of good green olive oil and balsamic vinegar for dunking, worth the extra bucks? Yes.

The two desserts I sampled were also fabulous: guava cream cheese bread pudding and toffee walnut bars. Espresso foam and a brilliant drizzle of lemon made the latter seem like fun kid food all grown up. Unfortunately pastry chef Pamela Michels departed Mundo shortly after my last visit. Here's hoping that her replacement's work will meld as seamlessly with Van Aken's vision as that of Mundo's chef de cuisine, Gerdy Rodriguez (formerly from the late-lamented La Broche, whose Ferrán Adria-inspired New Catalan cuisine was perhaps a bit too cutting edge for Miami).

As well as a sit-down restaurant -- an expansive, stylish space that features a communal table big enough for the whole office gang, plus a long liquor/food bar that makes dining out very comfortable for singles -- Mundo has a limited but growing take-out market. Prepared foods I've tried include ham painted with a tangy/sweet guava and black pepper glaze (only $8.50 per pound), an uncomplicated but perfect smoky charred corn salad ($4.50), and a Nicaraguan salad ($6) of shredded cabbage, avocado, and fresh beets that'll make you forget you've hated beets since you were a kid. And if vatapa, a Brazilian seafood stew ($7.50 per quart) -- enriched by coconut milk and nut butter, enlivened by citrus -- is on the changing take-out menu, don't miss it.

In comparing Norman's and Mundo, I'd say there's one area where the new venture could use work. The service lacked polish, even though it was very friendly on all three of my visits (dinner, lunch, and take-out from the market). At dinner, for instance, two of us ordered eight items. Two were delivered simultaneously -- perfect. But before we even got to the point where we were ready to swap plates, a third item arrived. When a fourth immediately followed, I asked our waiter to please hold off on the rest till we finished what was on the table. Two more dishes appeared. I again asked for the parade of food to slow down. At that point dishes were literally overlapping each other to fit on the table. Within minutes the final two dishes crash-landed.

When I objected, our waiter merely shrugged helplessly and said the chef had insisted that the food was ready, so it had to be brought out regardless of diners' requests. True, the menu makes clear that Mundo's food is meant for sharing. Eight dishes at once is reasonable for six or eight diners, but at a table for two overloaded with food, soups cool and foams melt down.

So do tempers. That's the antithesis of the intended spirit at Mundo -- casual and convivial. (Bringing out food as it's ready makes perfect sense, but if the policy has no provision for servers to pace orders, diners are advised to retain their menus and order what they want when they want it.)

Additionally, service at both sit-down meals went beyond attentive to intrusive. To clarify: Attentiveness is when a server unobtrusively keeps an eye out for diners looking around as though they want something, or for empty dishes that need clearing. Intrusiveness is when waiters break into an intense conversation to ask how you're enjoying the meal, and when busers repeatedly try to remove dishes that still contain considerable food. When Norman Van Aken is the chef in charge, diners want not only to finish every last morsel, but to lick the plate.

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