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Norman Van Aken Celebrates Five Years of Fine Dining in Orlando at Anniversary Dinner with Dean Fearing

Norman's Norman's, the fine dining restaurant at the Ritz-Carlton Grande Lakes Resort in Orlando, celebrated its fifth anniversary Sunday with a lavish five-course meal co-cooked by Dean Fearing. Fearing, who, like Van Aken, is a James Beard Foundation award-winner, rose to fame as the chef of the estimable Mansion on Turtle Creek in Dallas. He now has his own restaurant, Fearing's, at the Ritz-Carlton Dallas.

Van Aken, of course, was one of the innovators of New World Cuisine, also known as Floribbean, that caused a culinary sensation in the late '80s. Van Aken and others, including Mark Militello, recognized that Florida didn't really have a cuisine of its own, so they co-opted the cooking techniques of the islands and adapted them to Florida's ingredients.

Saturday's sold-out dinner filled the posh restaurant with regulars who paid as much as $250 per person for the special occasion. The evening began with a champagne reception with tapas, including wonderful ceviche served in spoons and doughy pot stickers.

Guests were seated at 10-top tables that circled the marble-floored room. The first course was a chilled salad of red and yellow beets garnished with a dollop of apple wasabi sorbet, toasted pistachios and a bit of paddlefish caviar, which gave the beets a delightful little pop. The salad was accompanied by a Portuguese white wine, a 2005 Quinta Do Feital Alvarino "Dorado."

WineDean's barbecued shrimp taco was next, a fresh flour tortilla rolled more taquito style and served with mango-pickled onion salad. A 2007 Melville Estate viognier, which had a wonderfully fruity nose and complex tastes of peaches and apricots in the mouth. A delightful little sipping wine, with or without food.

The fish course featured a salmon fillet rolled with lapsang souchong, a black, smoked tea, sitting atop creamy Yukon Gold potatoes and topped with three pearl onions and crispy wafer fashioned out of salmon skin, which people either loved or hated (it had a nice salty taste). Patz & Hall's 2005 Pisoni Vineyard pinot noir from Santa Lucia Highlands in California was the accompanying wine. It was chosen, we were told, because the sauce with the fish was made with pinot noir. I didn't quite taste the connection, but I loved the wine nonetheless.

But the best wine came with the meat course, a buffalo tenderloin crusted with maple and black pepper. The meat was surprisingly tender -- grass-fed, we were told -- and the plate included jalapeno grits and a wonderful taquito filled with butternut squash.

Two wines, both made with syrah grapes, were offered with the meat course, a 2006 French Crozes-Hermitage Silene from Domaine Jean-Louis Chave, and a 2005 Domaine Serene Rockblock from Seven Hills Vineyard in Oregon's Walla Walla Valley. The French wine was fine, but the Oregon Rockblock, so named because the vines grow in rocky soil, blew it away. The Oregon wine had rounder notes with tastes of black cherries and currants. 

The meal ended with stylized "s'mores" fashioned out of crushed graham crackers topped with brandied chocolate ganache and toasted marshmallow. A Spanish dessert wine, a 2004 Bodegas Olivares Dulce Monastrell, was offered, but I preferred to stick with the Rockblock.

It's wonderful to have a restaurant of Norman's quality as part of Orlando's fine dining scene. Here's to many more years of innovative cooking.

Visit  Norman's for information.