Norman’s, the upscale dining restaurant from one of Florida’s most celebrated chefs, Norman Van Aken, has opened in its new location at Dellagio Town Center in the Restaurant Row District after an absence of nearly four years. Its return immediately widens the field for anyone conducting a search for Best Restaurant of Central Florida.
Norman’s had previously been at the Ritz-Carlton Grande Lakes Orlando and in fact opened with the hotel in 2003. It was the first time the luxury hotel chain had partnered with an independent chef. (Here’s a fun bit of trivia: The Ritz-Carlton originally approached Wolfgang Puck to open a restaurant there, but Puck already had a restaurant at what was then Downtown Disney West Side and his noncompete clause with Walt Disney World prevented him from having another restaurant that close.)
When it opened, Norman’s was a second location for Van Aken’s popular Coral Gables restaurant (since closed) and was known originally as Norman’s at the Ritz-Carton. In 2019 the Ritz decided to end its relationship with Norman’s and the restaurant closed in September of that year. (The space is now occupied by Knife & Spoon, headed by another celebrity chef, John Tesar.)
Although Van Aken and his partner, Thomas D. Wood Jr., found a property to move to fairly quickly – selecting a vacated Bravo! Italian restaurant at the Dellagio – the soon-to-rear-its-ugly-head pandemic brought the process to a halt before it could begin.
But here it is. And as Norma (not Norman) Desmond sings in “Sunset Boulevard,” it’s as if we never said goodbye.
Yusuf Yildiz, who so masterfully commanded the front of the house at the former location, is back in place as maitre d’ and general manager. Even some of the serving staff who had found placeholder jobs the past few years have returned.
And it was comforting to see so many of the signature items that brought Van Aken recognition as the founder of New World Cuisine on the menu. (Carlos Robles, who had been sous chef at the old Norman’s, now serves as chef de cuisine.)
Following an amuse bouche of a polenta cake with coconut shavings, I selected the appetizer of yuca stuffed crispy shrimp, two large breaded and fried shrimp with a mashed yuca filling, sitting atop scotch bonnet tartar salsa and drizzled with a touch of sour orange mojo. There was just enough chili pepper to add some heat without making it too fiery.
My companion had the item known as My “Down Island” French Toast, griddled brioche topped with a medallion of seared curaçao-scented foie gras in passion fruit caramel and decorated with slivers of candied lime.
I was delighted to see the Rhum & Pepper Painted Grouper on the evening’s menu, a dish I first experienced – and fell in love with – at Van Aken’s restaurant A Mano on South Beach in the 1990s and then had again at the Coral Gable Norman’s in 2001. And at the Ritz, several times. There was no way I wasn’t ordering it here.
And it was as wonderful as always, a sizable piece of fish, sauced and painted as promised in the description, giving it a layer of spice, served with stuffed plantains and mango mojo.
My dinner guest chose the seared diver harvested sea scallops, with tortellinis filled with boniato and queso fresco, grilled zucchini and fermented black beans.
For dessert we shared the selection of fresh sorbets with fruit.
The main dining room has understated elegance. Tables are draped with white cloths over black and set with fine crystal and Folio Pirouette flatware. Each table has a muted light stand instead of a candle, and overhead are arrays of frosted white light globes. The gray walls are mostly bare – more as a work in progress than as a design statement, perhaps.
A three-thousand-bottle wine cellar separates the main dining room from the bar area. Outside is a very large patio with its own bar and a DJ to set a mood different from the elegance of the restaurant.
It shouldn’t be surprising that there would be two styles of restaurant under one banner – it could be seen as another example of fusion cuisine, a term Van Aken coined in 1989.
It’s a pity that all the delays in bringing us Norman’s 2.0 – or is it 3.8? – prevented it from being eligible for this year’s Michelin Guide. But I definitely see stars in its future.