Sunday, April 14, 2013

1MB Travels: Miami / Orlando: Tuyo & Norman's by Chef Van Aken

On a recent trip to Miami, I read that Chef Norman Van Aken - described by Charlie Trotter as "...the Walt Whitman of American cuisine" - is not only known for celebrating Latin, Caribbean, Asian, African and America flavors, he is the only Floridian to have been inducted into the James Beard Foundation's Who's Who of Beverage and Food in America.  And he had a restaurant that was somewhat on my way to the airport - so I had to make a pit stop before returning to LA.

Most people think of glamorous South Beach when visiting Miami - and there are lots of sexy restaurants and good food to be had there - but there is a hidden gem in downtown Miami. Tuyo, an elegant yet relaxed dining room poised atop the Miami Culinary Institute, put me at ease immediately with its serene, seafoam green & cream color scheme, great view...
And world class service - hearing that I literally had an hour and a half on my way to the airport, and needed to bring my luggage with me, the hostess immediately offered to make arrangements.  Though they did not have a coat check or storage at the restaurant, she went above and beyond by arranging with the security desk in the building lobby to lock up my bags in their closet, while I enjoy my dinner.  And they made sure the security guard was there to greet me by name and be ready to take my bags when I arrived!
Knowing I was dining on my own, and self-professed as food obsessed, my lovely server Robert also offered me a copy of Chef Van Aken's latest cookbook to read up on his background and inspiration for his dishes, while I waited for my orders to arrive.

After two lovely amuse bouches of house cured ham with pickled radish toast, and smoked flounder croqueta, I was excited to try the  Brazilian Creamy Cracked Conch Chowder with Saffron, Coconut, Orange and Star Anise ($14)- such an original and delicious combination of ingredients, that to me seemed to combine Latin, Spanish and Southeast Asian influences!  The presentation was beautiful as well, with bright, sunny colors befitting the state, laying in wait for the saffron coconut chowder to be poured over it at the table.  I've never tasted anything like it before and fell in love with it right away.

Then of course came the dish featuring the ingredient I can never leave an out-of-state-trip without: foie. My "Down Island" French Toast with Curacao Scented Foie Gras, Griddled Brioche, Gingery Candied Lime Zest and Savory Passionfruit Caramel ($15 half / $30 full).  I went for the full size, obviously!  It was a gorgeous stack of foie on brioche on foie on brioche action, each precious piece of fatty duck liver marinated overnight in curacao liquor so that the sweet orange scent was RIGHT in the foie itself, versus how people usually do it with sweet toppings.  Then to balance this out and not overwhelm, there are subtly sweet pieces of passionfruit with skillfully restrained salted caramel sauce, garnished with shreds of gingery candied lime zest.  From the description you'd think it's sugar and flavor overload, but everything was perfectly in balance - count my tastebuds intrigued!

With a ticking clock at my heels, I went for one more starter plate versus the full on entree: Pan Roasted Veal Sweetbreads with Plantains in "Temptation" Sauce, Marcona Almonds and Tiny Mustard Greens ($13) Loved this as well- another example of perfect balance, this time in textures.

Hope to be able to come back next time I have occasion to be in Miami so I can check out the rest of the menu!


Another trip brought me to Orlando, not a city that is exactly well known for fine dining - in fact, just the opposite.  But I was thrilled to hear that Chef Van Aken's original restaurant would be a short drive from my hotel, and made a point to stop by.  Perhaps to overcompensate somewhat apologetically for the city, or because of its location in the top of the line Ritz Carlton hotel - the dining room at Norman's felt much more formal and grand than its Miami sister restaurant.  Again in a rush, I opted for the less formal bar - I often prefer pulling up to the counter anyways, as the bartender always is entertaining and has great stories to share whether about the food or the city, and it's less formal and intimidating especially for people dining solo.

Tim was super helpful in helping me pick a starter that was sort of unique to the Orlando location and more unusual. Marin Miyagi Oysters, sour orange granita, horseradish foam ($12) - though I'm usually a purist with oysters, I don't think I'd ever seen sour orange nor granita used with oysters before, and because I already knew I liked Chef Van Aken's style, curiosity won over familiarity - and I'm glad it did!  The granita was light and cooling, adding a bit of sweet acidity to compliment the salinity in the natural brine, while the horseradish, in foam form was made light enough to be perfectly in balance with the sea water, sour orange and oyster flavors.

With that great kickoff, I knew in my head that I should try other new plates to experience more of Chef Van Aken's menu, but I just couldn't get the Brazilian Creamy Cracked Conch Chowder ($18 here) out of my head.  And not having any place to have anything like it in California as far as I'm aware, I had to have it again.  Plus Tim agreed that that was a signature, only at Norman's type of dish.  The execution at Norman's was again fantastic, though quite a bit saltier than Tuyo's.
The My "Down Island" French Toast ($29 here) was just as good the second time, though the proportions of foie to brioche weren't as balanced as Tuyo's.

Bartender Tim was so good to me - hearing my exasperation with the foie ban back home, he plus-ed up my foie experience at Norman's with a complimentary glass of Sauternes!!!!

All in all, both locations were stellar in terms of innovative food and outstanding service.  Would definitely recommend either restaurant to those visiting Miami/Orlando - and I will definitely like to go back next time I'm in town!

On a 7 point scale:
Flavor - 6 bites  
Presentation - 6 bites
Originality - 6 bites
Ambience -  6 stars
Service - 6.5 stars
Overall experience - 6 bites
Price - $$$ (3 bite marks)
Probability of return visit - 100% 


Rooftop of Miami Culinary Institute

Miami Dade College
415 N.E. Second Ave., Downtown Miami, FL 33132
Ph: 305.237.3200

Norman's at the Ritz Carlton

The Ritz-Carlton Orlando, Grande Lakes, 4012 Central Florida Parkway, Orlando, Fl 32837
Ph: 407.393.4333


Tuyo on UrbanspoonNorman's on Urbanspoon

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