I’m always looking for an excuse to go back to Norman’s, the elegant restaurant at the Ritz-Carlton. The restaurant, of course, is owned by celebrity chef Norman Van Aken, the father of New World cuisine. But like most celebrity chefs, Van Aken is the executive chef — for the actual day to day cooking he relies on a chef de cuisine, or director of culinary operations, as Van Aken calls the position. A few months ago Van Aken hired a new
DCO — voila! An excuse to return.
The new director of culinary operations is Brandon Benack, who spent a good deal of his professional career under another celebrity chef, Emeril Lagasse. Benack worked at Emeril’s Delmonico in New Orleans, becoming sous chef in 2002 before leaving to pursue a position as executive chef for another restaurant. He worked in Antigua at an exclusive resort, then returned to the states in 2002, becoming executive sous chef at Emeril’s Miami Beach and, eventually, the chef de cuisine.
Van Aken lured Benack to Orlando in April. Of course it is the role of any chef who cooks in a celebrity chef’s kitchen to cook in his or her style. Benack is carrying the Van Aken torch very well.
That can be seen in the execution of the yuca stuffed crispy shrimp, a Van Aken specialty. This appetizer features butterflied shrimp stuffed with mashed yuca spiked with scotch bonnet pepper. The shrimp are dipped in egg wash and dredged in panko and fried until crispy. They’re served with a dollop of scotch bonnet tartar salsa (Van Aken loves his scotch bonnets). When they’re done right, they’re delicious. And these were delicious. They were accompanied by a cilantro slaw.
My companion had the tortilla soup, which had blue corn tortilla chips with roasted chicken in a broth that was poured tableside. The broth had forward flavors of cilantro with hints of pepper in the background.
(We had also been favored with an amuse bouche of ceviche, hamachi tuna with roe and pineapple. One tasty tidbit.)
For my entree I chose the Rioja braised beef short rib, a hearty hunk of meat braised into tender submission, served atop garlic whipped boniato and garnished with red hot onion rings.
My friend’s spice rubbed roasted pork tenderloin was superb. The meat was tender and moist, served at medium-rare temperature, and accompanied by grits and a black bean and sweet corn salsa.
For dessert, the cafe con leche cake was crazy good, richly flavored and finished with chantilly cream. I also liked the “Havana” banana split, which was really nothing like a banana split of malt shop fame but rather had rhum-flamed bananas and chilies, served with a small scoop of vanilla bean ice cream. Closer to a bananas Foster, but in a league of its own.
Yusuf Yildiz, the dining room manager and sommelier extraordinaire, made the evening even more enjoyable by pairing the courses with wines that complemented the flavors of the food. Yildiz has also implemented a flight of ports for dinner’s end, a tasting of 10, 20, 30 and 40 year old ports that shows that getting older can be a wonderful thing.
The rest of Yildiz’ crew, the serving staff, is also first-rate. It’s wonderful to have professional servers who take pride in doing the job right.
The circular design of Norman’s elegant dining room allows the illusion of intimacy in the large space. I had never noticed jazz playing over the sound system before, or at least not jazz that was as manic as that playing the night I dined. It was a bit jarring for the ambience — something softer would be more appropriate.
But that was a minor thing. I really have only one major disappointment: I now have to wait for another excuse to come along before I can go back to visit.
Norman’s is at the Ritz-Carlton Grande Lakes Resort, 4012 Central Florida Parkway. It is open for dinner nightly. Here’s a link to Norman’s Web site. The phone number is 407-393-4333.