Clarification: Although his name is on the title and he is still listed on the restaurant's website, Norman Van Aken is no longer associated with Norman's 180.A couple of weeks ago I talked about the rash of restaurants using numbers as part of their names. Often these numbers coincide with the establishment’s address. That’s the case for Norman’s 180, which is at 180 Aragon Ave. in Coral Gables. But the 180 might also indicate a completely new direction for owner Norman Van Aken.
In Central Florida, of course, we’re familiar with the celebrity chef’s restaurant Norman’s at the Ritz-Carlton. One of the area’s best restaurants, Norman’s is also one of the poshest, a fine dining experience, to be sure.
Norman’s 180 is also in a hotel, the Westin Colonnade, but rather than serve as the hotelier’s top-of-the-line, dinner-only venue, Norman’s 180 goes the three-meal route, and in a decidedly more casual way from Norman’s in Orlando. Like I said: a 180 degree turn.
Both Norman’s 180 and Norman’s at the Ritz-Carlton Grande Lakes are under the supervision of Brandon Benack, Van Aken’s corporate director of culinary operations. When I visited the Coral Gables restaurant in April, Benack was commanding the kitchen, which is in full view of the dining room.
The menu, too, goes in a different direction, although one or two signature dishes, such as Van Aken’s yuca stuffed shrimp, may be found. But mostly the food is as casual as the atmosphere: house-smoked baby back ribs; “wig” burger; broiled oysters; and jerk marinated organic chicken breast. But while the offerings are a bit more low-key, the quality is just as high-toned as the fine dining venue.
My guest and I started with the broiled oysters, big plumpers on the half shell that were topped with lots of manchego cheese and meaty bits of smoked bacon. Delicious, though honestly I would have been happy with just the cheese and bacon.
The duck meatballs appetizer was hearty enough to be an entree. It featured three substantial spheres sitting in a nest of polenta and topped with coppa (cured pork). A tomato ragu and balsamic caramelized onions rounded out the dish.
I also sampled the in-house charcuterie plate, which was nothing short of outstanding. It was a studyin pig, including pate and wonderfully fatty rillettes, served with buttered toast, pickled red onions and creole mustard.
I don’t know what made think I needed to try the Chi Town pizza, but I did, and I enjoyed the thin crust and topping of sausage, mozzarella and crimini mushrooms.
For my entree I chose the baby back ribs, a generous slab of tender meat slathered with what Benack calls “sweet heat” barbecue sauce and served with an even more delicious mac and cheese side.
My companion had the jerk marinated organic chicken breast, an airline breast (on the bone with wing attached), served atop rice infused with coconut and accompanied by charred pineapple salsa. Juicy and loaded with spicy good flavors.
Norman’s 180 occupies a large corner space and features a wrap-around patio for outdoor dining. Inside, the dining room is more tavern-like, with an ample bar up front. Dark woods and comfortable booth seating, apothecary jars on the walls and clusters of amber light fixtures are included in the decor. But the kitchen is the dominant mood-setter.
It should also be noted that the price point for Norman’s 180 is quite reasonable. The appetizers range from $8 to $16 for the charcuterie (which would have been ample enough to serve as the complete meal). Main plates are $14 to $32.
Anyone familiar with Van Aken’s other restaurants will want to check out 180.
Norman’s 180 is at 180 Aragon Ave., Coral Gables. It is open daily for breakfast, lunch and dinner. Here is a link to the Norman’s 180 website. The phone number is 305-529-5180.