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Apr 12, 2007 07:29 AM

Norman's Review Coral Gables 4/9/07

Why isn't this restaurant busier?

My husband was called down to Miami on business this week. I had decided to join him for a few days, having tired of NY/NJ's continuing cold. Somehow, in reading through some guide books I came across Norman's and posted here before I left whether or not it was still worth giving it a try. Based on the two people who responded, Frodneser and Netmover, that was enough to push me over the edge into making the decision to give it a try.

Monday night I gave them a call, only about 1/2 hour before we were going to come over and asked if they had a table, not even thinking we'd be lucky enough. But they said come on over, no problem. Since we were staying in Kendell, this was an easy drive. We arrived about 8pm, got a spot right in front of the building.

We entered and found the place, well, empty pretty much. Only about 4 other tables were taken that we could see. This concerned us although, it was a Monday night. But, on the other hand, here it was a holiday week, and spring break to boot. It just should have been busier we thought. But, ok, whatever.

We were warmly greeted, seated and given our menus and the wine list. My husband was a bit concerned at first, because although he is an adventurous eater, he does have some peculiar limitations, such as no seafood, does not like eating meat on the bone and gets very turned off by fatty meats too. So, the one steak was a strip steak (not his favorite), the veal was a chop (bone!) and the rest of the menu was loads of seafood. Ummm, this was going to be tricky for him. For me - everything on the menu sounded like a jewel and was tricky for other reasons - I wanted all of it.

The room is very cozy, very hispanic in feel, with dim lighting (maybe a bit too dark, it was a little difficult to read the menu). It is also much larger than it first appears - there is a second floor and a couple of back rooms too. There were too very large kiva type ovens, we wondered if they ever use them?

As we looked over the menu, we we given wonderful herbed rolls, I believe they were Portuguese style, quite delicious. Excellent, high quality butter on the table but we opted to use the olive oil they provided instead.

After much debating back and forth for me, I finally chose the Cream Cracked Conch Chowder with Saffron, Clam & Mussell Liquer, Citrus Reduction, and Coconut "Cloud" as my appetizer and the Shrimp Veracruz with Herbed Gnocci. My husband chose the Mushroom Soup with Buttered Marrow Almond Toast and the Mongolian BBQ Veal Chop with Ginger Soy Scented Chines Eggplant and Thai Fried Rice.

First of all, my Conch Chowder was a revelation. They brought it to me in stages. A bowl of just the conch and various vegetables was placed before me. The soup was then ladeled in, sending up the scent of all the seafood and liquer/citrus/saffron and then the "cloud" was gently placed on top separately, which slowly melded itself into the soup. This dish tasted like the ocean in the best possible sense of the word, when the ocean was clean and pristine. This may well be the best soup I've ever eaten - If I had to pick a food for my least meal, I think this may well have to be one of the dishes. Just remarkable.

My husband's mushroom soup was extremely good too. Sometimes the mushroom flavor gets lost in these soups because of other ingredients they use in them - not this one. If my conch chowder was the ocean, this was the forest floor - but not dirt :-) Wonderful. I didn't get to taste his toast, but he was very happy with it.

My shrimp dish was excellent - perfect melding of flavors. The shrimp were perfectly cooked and the gnocchi were soft pillows of herbed perfection. There were stewed tomatoes, capers and olives in the dish - none of which overwhelmed the other.

My husband's veal chop was cooked exactly as veal should be, I did taste this and it was a very good piece of veal and the sauce was great. It was funny how he did not know how to tackle it, since he isn't used to dealing with bones. But, he did quite a good job - as he demolished it like a pro. The thai rice was very tasty as was the eggplant. This was one of the few dishes were they strayed from the latino/hispanic flavorings they are known for, and it worked very well.

I had a glass of Cloudy Bay Savignon Blanc with my meal - it did NOT work with the conch chowder, wasn't terrible, but I did ask what they would have paired with it (it was on their tasting menu) and they said a Reisling would have been better - which make sense. However, the SB did go great with the Shrimp Veracruz. My husband did not have any wine with his meal.

We split a cheese plate for desert - a Roaring 40's Blue (it's the only one I remember the name of), a sheep's cheese with truffles, a soft goat and a semi-soft goat. We ordered a glass of Muscat to share (we're not big drinkers at all, both of us take some medications which prevent us from being too indulgent ). The cheese plate was very nicely presented, some warm toast with fruit in it, homemade crackers that were kind of like grown-up Cheeze-It's for lack of a better way to describe them, guava paste (I'm pretty sure that was what it was) - very basic which is how we like our cheese plates.

The meal came out to just under $160 with tip and tax, which we though was a pretty fair price considering the quality of what we received. The food was excellent, the service was great as well. We were made to feel very welcomed and if we are ever back down there, we'd make a point of going back. I know that this restaurant used to be quite the hot spot years back, and I guess according to some, as fallen out of favor over the years. I for one, don't quite understand why this is, is it because it isn't in a "sexy" part of town? I guess these things happen sometimes. But, the restaurant is still there, has somehow managed to continue to remain open so they are apparently doing something right still. My recommendation is, if you haven't been there, go; and if you have but haven't been in a while, go again.

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  1. Thanks for the great review. Now I want to drive over from Tampa just to eat there. I am not sure if you watch No Reservations on the Travel Channel but there is a wonderful Keys episode with Anthony Bourdain and Norman hanging out and cooking together.

    1 Reply
    1. re: rhnault

      I do, but I missed that one. I'll have to keep my eyes open for it again :-)

    2. The sense among locals has been that Norman Van Aken was no longer very personally invested in the place, combined with a tendency to flock to the hot new place rather than the old standards (which Norman's has become). It is a little bit out of the flow of Coral Gables (by only a couple blocks) but the Gables generally is a restaurant mecca, and Norman's was certainly for a long time a "destination" place.

      Great review. I'm glad you enjoyed it, and inspired enough to head back soon (It's probably been about a year since I've been).

      6 Replies
      1. re: Frodnesor

        This just reflects the very fickle nature of the Miami dining crowd. Norman;s is still a great experience, but he is not hip. Restaurants with bad food and poor service on SoBe are packed and Norman struggles. I think part of the reason he also has fallen out of favor is the trainwreck that was Mundo at Merrick Park.

        1. re: phneale

          What ever happened with Mundo? It took forever to open, we went once and it was packed (ate at the bar) and the food was excellent, and then poof! It was gone in the middle of the night.

          1. re: Frodnesor

            Trainwreck. I did the same as you and loved it. Apparently all the time it took ate up all the money, plus staff and landlord problems.

          2. re: phneale

            I guess it's no different than any other major city. I'm from NY originally, although I live in NJ now. Here too, you have restaurants that have been in existence for many years that locals tend to 'dis on a regular basis. One that pops into mind immediately is Mesa Grill. Naysayers love to bash Bobby Flay, calling Mesa tired and a has-been. However, it's still packed nearly every night and I for one, enjoy the food and find his restaurants in general, very enjoyable (although I will admit that the Mesa Grill in Las Vegas is superior to the NYC branch).

            I don't care about "hip" - I was trying to stay away from South Beach as much as possible the short time I was there. I only had 3 nights to do my dining. I did wind up at Emeril's the first night but I admit that was completely by choice because a) we had very little time to do research (his business trip was very last minute) and b) it was Easter evening and we had trouble securing reservations at many other places that we did want to try. We knew we'd be happy with Emeril's having been at many of his other restaurants and we were not disappointed, in fact, we had quite the excellent meal there which I'll be posting my review of soon (we're still debating if Norman's or Emeril's was our favorite). Our last night, I can't even mention because it was completely un chow-worthy (we had to meet friends in Davie and it was one of those times where the friends, were more important than the food).

            Anyway, I digressed too much. The point is that no matter where you go, if you go off the beaten path and don't care about being trendy, you're always bond to find someplace wonderful. Who cares if the neighborhood is a bit off the beaten path, or even on the "wrong" side of town? Good food is worth seeking out :-)

            1. re: sivyaleah

              nice run down sivy...thanx!

              stormin Norman isn't hip? since when did that become a prerequisite to good chow...well not long ago right here in the MIA. It is kind of disgraceful, no?

              Everyone is always trying hard to keep up with the latest and greatest hipsters down here in the bottom. Ba-hum-bug!

              Mundo was a train wreck because it was poorly designed operationally and couldn't figure out what it was conceptually. There were food stations spread out all over the cavernous space making the food delivery coordination "mission impossible". The main euro line was out of place here in america, no one was accustomed to passing their plates past other chefs who were cooking in order to get them to the expo, as oppsed to just putting them up on the line in an american style set up and having the expo come get them. Then there was Normans multi concept approach which featured a market, what he called "chiqueteo" dining (tapas), then you were supposed to move on to entrees which came from the four corners of his "mundo" or should I say restaurant, none of which arrived at the same time. So you were supposed to go from informal tapa dining to formal entree dining in one setting, only the entrees didn't show up together? No one, not even Norman could pull off that "train wreck"! BTW, it was good...when it worked, which was not for long.

              If anyone needs to reinvent themselves ala Madonna, I'm sorry to say, it's Norman Van Aken. I'll be surprised if he's still there this time next year...and that's pretty flippin' sad seeing how he is one of THE best chefs this town has ever had.

              1. re: netmover

                I had no idea there was such a mess in the back of the house at Mundo. We just ate at the bar and ordered several tapas and they were great. What a bummer when they closed.

                I think at some point Norman will re-emerge down in Key West again.

        2. Thanks to netmover for the rest of the story on Mundo. I also did not realize what an operational trainwreck it was. How is his Orlando place doing? I sort of like the fact he is being forced to focus on just two places. There is still nothing like his "Down Island French Toast" which is the foie appetizer. It will be my last meal on death row :)

          3 Replies
          1. re: phneale

            In Orlando, Norman's is still among the city's top-ranked restaurants, in large part because they replicated the kind of food experience and -- I think -- an even nicer ambiance than Miami.
            Located at the Grande Lakes Resort as the signature restaurant in our only Ritz Carlton, Norman's has no trouble filling up every night with hotel guests and groups.
            However, Norman's has never been able to attract the local crowd. There is a negative service attitude toward locals that is palpable. Perhaps many locals are less adventursome, or we tip less than the expense account crowd. Not sure why, but despite it's high standards and ranking, so few people who live here ever mention or recommend it.
            Norman has been gracious and available to the chef community locally, but he's seldom visible here. The last time we spoke, about a year ago, he and his wife -- who is also a chef -- indicated they were very focused on a new restaurant in Key West. My sense was then that they were beginning a different phase of life that would be more in tune with his time in the Keys and a more casual setting.


            1. re: Bob Mervine

              Norman's is by far the BEST restaurant in Miami. It is amazing that as good as the food is, the service is wonderful and the setting is beautiful, how often does that happen? Unfortunatly, Miami is full of phonies and wannabes that would prefer to been seen and act like jerks than go to a culinary oasis. In NYC, chere I lived for 20 years, the only expensive restaurants that survived over the years were they ones with great food and service as it should be.

              1. re: DaveInMiami

                I don't think the community is entirely to blame by any means for Norman's closing. Norman was not heavily personally involved in the Coral Gables location for quite a long time before it finally closed, and the rumor always was that he wanted to start up something new in Key West where he started (and which he's now doing). The Gables location was also always a bit troublesome, somewhat out of the way and off the main drag from the heart of Gables traffic (not that this kind of place typically gets by on foot traffic, but still). Also the facilities were old and limited.

                Actually, some of the most popular places these days and the hardest tables to get - sometimes to my chagrin - also happen to have some of the best food - Michaels' Genuine, Michy's, Sardinia, for instance. Are people going because these places are trendy and "hot" or because they have good food? I don't know, but either way they're getting support. I think the days of bashing Miami for lack of culinary sophistication may be waning.

          2. I ate several times at normans and thought the food was good but was not worth the price considering the portion.On lincoln road another high class and expensive restaurant just closed called pacific time.When will the owners of "half the portion for twice the price" type of restaurants realize that no matter how much money people have in miami they wont feel compelled to overspend at restaurants they dont feel they are getting value at.I wonder how long devito's that just opened on ocean drive will stay open with their $325 "flight" of 3 wagyu steaks,$12 vegetable sides,$22 fried calamari app. etc.Does anyone else feel this way about the overpricing of restaurants in relation to the portions they serve?

            2 Replies
            1. re: travlnmike

              We had no complaints about the portion sizes. I don't know, maybe it has to do with what you are accustomed to? We travel quite a bit and are from the NY area where those prices are quite normal for this type of restaurant. I took myself out for lunch the other week, a neighborhood french bistro and before I knew it racked up a $40 lunch for 3 courses, and that was without wine! So, the $160 we spent for our dinner was well within a range we expect for such a fine dinner.

              We're glad we were able to appreciate this restaurant from such a suburb chef, even tho he wasn't actually there, before it's demise.

              1. re: sivyaleah

                Not the first time I've heard complaints about portion size / price at Norman's, this is far from an isolated complaint. The bigger issue from a local's perspective - and this, interestingly enough, applies to both Norman's and Pacific Time - is that the places sort of got stuck in time. They were excellent and innovative when they first opened, but after a few years really became quite formulaic and didn't really seem to change. So they might be a place you'd take someone from out of town who has never been before, but there wasn't much to lure the locals back regularly. In contrast, I've found the places that I do find myself returning to change at least some of their menu pretty regularly - Timo, Talula.