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[Closed] A brave new world on Sunset Strip

Florida chef Norman Van Aken brings his global palette to L.A. diners.

June 30, 2004|By S. Irene Virbila | Los Angeles Times Staff Writer
  • RINGSIDE SEATS: A chef's table sits at one end of the state-of-the-art kitchen at Norman's in West Hollywood.
RINGSIDE SEATS: A chef's table sits at one end of the state-of-the-art… (Carlos Chavez, Los Angeles…)

The rave was so uncharacteristic coming from Marco, my oldest Italian friend, that I put down the phone seriously wondering if he'd gone out of his mind. He'd just been to Norman's in Coral Gables and he couldn't say enough about Norman Van Aken's New World cooking. Now you have to understand that Marco is, if anything, a purist with an incredible instinct for what's authentic and true. He doesn't like many big deal restaurants. He'd rather hang out with the cooks in a little trattoria he's discovered in Sicily or Campania than suit up for a three-hour meal at a pretentious high-end restaurant. So when I heard the thrill in his voice when he talked about his meal at Norman's, I listened up. He's never steered me wrong.

That was some years ago when Norman's was already well established as a culinary destination. But South Florida never seemed to be on my itinerary. Now Norman's has come to Los Angeles, specifically to the new Sunset Millennium complex on Sunset Strip. Its debut is exciting because Van Aken is the first high profile chef from outside California to sign L.A.'s dance card in recent memory.

Norman's stands out on the trendy Strip for the very fact of its low-key sophisticated ambience. Designer Michael Guthrie has created a restaurant that's eye-catching and comfortable. The palette runs from blues and earthy greens to terra cotta and persimmon. Shirred silk lampshades hover overhead like giant upturned mushroom caps. Floor to ceiling windows inset with the occasional tinted glass panel offer unobstructed views of the state-of-the-art kitchen with a chef's table at one end.

The first thing to know about Van Aken's food is that it's refined. The menu's descriptions can suggest to the wary that the dishes will be over the top, because we've occasionally been subjected to exaggerated versions of the world cuisine Van Aken helped invent. But this is a guy who has tasted the real thing, who seems to have a boundless curiosity about food and the world. Maybe that comes from a Midwestern upbringing.


For The Record
Restaurant location -- A review of Norman's in the June 30 Food section gave the restaurant's location as Los Angeles. The restaurant is in West Hollywood.

But once the teenage Van Aken hitchhiked to Florida and landed in Key West, there was no going back. He stayed on, working in fish shacks and dives, little restaurants and later fancy ones. Along the way, he taught himself the fundamentals of French cuisine. Whatever he does with his palette of Latin and Caribbean ingredients is based on rigorous French technique. The exotic dances through his cooking with a light step.

Though his style has been widely copied, his signature dishes still taste fresh and interesting. I have the sense he could riff on a single ingredient for weeks at a time. Put him on Iron Chef and he'd vanquish any challenger with the sheer audacity of his ideas. Coupled with exacting execution, it's a killer combination. But Van Aken is still based in Florida and plans to spend only a week to 10 days a month at the Los Angeles restaurant. When he's on site, the kitchen rises to the occasion. The cooking has a crispness and focus that's absolutely seductive and the food on the plate looks and tastes newly minted.

Attention-getting

The seduction starts with the amuses. Van Aken might send out a "flan risotto." Say what? Say pearly grains of rice baked into a diminutive flan perfumed with a citrus vinaigrette studded with pieces of lemon flesh. It's followed by a sopa (griddled masa cake) the size of a 50-cent piece, tasting sublimely of corn and topped with crema fresca and an organic tomatillo sauce. They get your attention.

Don't miss his opulent, creamy, cracked-conch (Turks and Caicos Islands) chowder topped with coconut-suffused "cloud." The haunting flavors are a Technicolor dream of parrots, sea and palms. And, when you bite into Van Aken's yuca-stuffed shrimp, you can practically feel the beach sand beneath your feet. Two shrimp arrive, posed on the plate like giant shaggy sheep horns; inside, the surprising texture and taste of starchy yuca.

I wasn't a fan of his signature French toast with seared foie gras the first time I tasted it, but on a second try, I got past the sweetness and appreciated the way the griddled brioche toast and passion fruit caramel take the place of the syrupy fruit often paired with foie gras. A hint of Curacao on the seared liver heightens the contrast.

A couple of courses from a recent tasting menu floored everyone at my table. A few Tomales Bay oysters on the half shell topped with a generous spoonful of California osetra caviar, sweet against salt, were accompanied by a tiny glass of agua fresca tasting of kaffir lime and habanero -- the chile a light haze of heat that set off the rest of the flavors.

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