Normally, the Sunset Strip is the venue of choice for trendy restaurants and clubs. But lo and behold, a serious restaurant has just opened there in the new Sunset Millennium Plaza. And instead of hype, we have someone who can deliver: Florida chef Norman Van Aken, of Norman's in Coral Gables. He is, in fact, the first top-level chef from outside California to open a restaurant here in at least a decade.
Some new blood can only be positive for the L.A. food scene. And Norman's is something completely different. It's not familiar Mediterranean or California cuisine, or even straight-ahead American. For the first time, L.A. has the chance to experience the exuberant fusion of American, Caribbean and Latin American cuisines dubbed Nuevo Latino from the guy who pretty much invented the genre.
One of the country's best-known chefs and the author of several cookbooks, Van Aken is a real pro. Last weekend, the restaurant's first weekend open, it was running as smooth as butter ... or should I say cocoa butter.
Van Aken grew up in the Midwest but fell in love with food in Key West after he hitchhiked across the country in his teens. He's done everything -- busing tables, washing dishes, cooking in fish shacks, dives and fancy French restaurants.
Somewhere along the line, his affection for the tropics and respect for French cuisine fused into something delicious and entirely original.
That's what's on the menu at Norman's in Los Angeles (as well as at the original Norman's in Coral Gables and another in Orlando).
Everything sounds interesting, from a creamy conch chowder embroidered with the flavors of saffron and toasted coconut to a sea scallop and prawn ceviche drenched in lime juice and presented on a cloud of oyster panna cotta.
Crispy shrimp arrive standing up, curved like the horns of a mountain goat and stuffed with a beguiling yuca puree. Dipped in a habanero tartar salsa, they set your palate dancing. His signature "down island" French toast with curacao-scented foie gras may be too sweet for some tastes, though.
The parade of main courses includes rum- and pepper-painted fish (last week the fish was Hawaiian blue-nosed bass) and roasted pork "Havana" with a complex mole and a tower of toasted Haitian grits. His take on pad Thai is a stir-fry of shrimp and Asian vegetables tossed with squiggly Chinese noodles. A piece of black cod, stained dark from its sweet marinade, sits on top. I could have ordered almost anything from his menu and been happy.
Norman's is a comfortable place. And by that I mean the chairs, the heavy linens, the soft lighting and the soothing, earthy colors. It's quiet enough to talk there. The service is professional but relaxed. Plus, it has a view: the Sunset Strip, with Mel's Drive-in across the street lighted like a Hollywood set.
Norman's also has outdoor seating, which will get a workout when it opens for lunch in about a month.
How the restaurant will fare when Van Aken is in Florida is anybody's guess. He has, however, bought a condo here, which is a good sign.
Where: Sunset Millennium Plaza, 8570 Sunset Blvd., Los Angeles
When: Dinner, Monday through Thursday, 6:30-10 p.m.; Friday and Saturday, 6:30-10:30 p.m. Closed Sunday. Full bar. Parking in the Sunset Millennium garage, entrance off Alta Loma, $10
Cost: Appetizers, $11 to $18.50; main dishes, $29 to $39; desserts, $8 to $12. Tasting menu, $85
Info: (310) 657-2400; www.normans.com.