Feeding in FLAH-rida: Ago, Cafe Boulud, Norman’s

My friends mock the way I say Florida.

“FLAH-rida,” they tease when I tell them where I’m going for the holidays.

“How do you say it?” I protest.

And then they correctly pronounce it: “Floor-IH-dah.”

After much examination, we’ve determined that mine is the case of the New York Jew pronouncing words through a Long Island filter. This make sense because I lived on Long Island until I was 11. Then we moved to FLAH-rida. There we eat ARE-enges (as opposed to ore-anges) and call the summer heat HARR-ible (as opposed to hore-ible.)

We also eat many meals when I visit and that’s the segue we need to get us to the subject of our post. I was in Florida for four nights this Thanksgiving and in my time there I ate three meals I’d like to tell you about. Meal One took place at Ago in the Shore Club:

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That’s the inside of the hotel: it’s very zen.

The other meals were at Cafe Boulud in West Palm Beach: (which I’ve written about before, but two times is a charm)

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And, finally (and most interestingly) Norman’s—called, by The New York Times, “the best restaurant in South Florida.”

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Are you ready to delve into the swampy marshes of my food writing? Press ahead!

This first review comes with a warning.

If you are squeamish and afraid of insects, do not look any further. For our meal at Ago will leave you disgusted. But, then again, it left us slightly disgusted so maybe it’s only fair?

My first experience with Ago actually happened several years ago in Los Angeles. I was doing an internship at a law firm and my parents came to visit. They took my brother (who was also working out there) and I out to this bastion of celebrity coolness hoping we’d spot someone. (This is my parents M.O. when it comes to dining out.) We spotted no one but the food was fairly decent. (Years later they went without me and got a picture with Elton John. My brother says I’m a celebrity jinx.)

So on Thursday, when everything was closed for Thanksgiving, mom and dad suggested we drive down to Miami to eat at Ago. We could cruise past the beach and take in the South Beach scene. Nothing like wearing a collared shirt and khaki pants in the back of a car driven by your parents listening to Easy Listening on their Satellite radio with the windows open to make you feel cool in South Beach! But I’m not complaining. I’ve never been cool so why start now?

The food at Ago was mildly decent and way too expensive.

The best thing was the view. You can see pretty people sitting at the pool and the beautiful beach behind them:

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For our meal, mom and I shared a beet salad that was surprisingly lacking in flavor:

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And then a seafood pasta that tasted fine enough but not something I’d go back for:

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But to be fair, I wasn’t really concentrating on the food. I was concentrating on the bugs. Little tiny black maggots were infesting our table and the table next to ours. Do you see the little black dots on this table?

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Those are bugs. So are the little black dots in my water:

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I suppose it’s not their fault that insects decided to invade that day (they had little Off candles burning) but it certainly made the meal less than enjoyable. That didn’t stop me, though, from ordering dessert:

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If we’re going to get eaten by bugs, we may as well be eating Tiramasu while that happens.

And that’s my review of Ago. It’s not really a review, it’s just a slight stringing together of words because I don’t have any strong feelings to share. It left me ambivalent and itchy. I don’t want to go back.

Let’s move on!

*****

Now unlike Ago, Cafe Boulud doesn’t inspire apathy: it inspires enthusiasm. Look, I’m even posting a smaller version of the title shot again.

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I think Cafe Boulud may be one of my favorite South Florida restaurants. I realize there’s one in New York, but the South Florida location–in West Palm Beach–is so beautiful, so bright and happy and quaint, that I associate it completely with its surroundings. The tables have autumnal flowers in bright brown glass vases. If you sit outside, you face a courtyard with a fountain and you watch rich people walk their foofy dogs past you. The restaurant is actually in a hotel, and the moment you pull up you know you’re somewhere special. It feels secluded, private, sacred. It inspires calm and comfort. Plus the food is awesome.

Look at this crazy vibrant carrot soup!

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Look at this masterful bread pudding with chocolate chunks!

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Ok, I’m leaving something out. I had a cobb salad that was just ok…Gasp!

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But I don’t blame Cafe Boulud. I blame myself. This is the ur-Cobb Salad: there can be no Cobb Salad greater than this one. The perfect blend and arrangement of ingredients, the perfect proportion of dressing. My slightly unenthused reaction is mostly based on the fact that I probably just don’t like Cobb Salad. I’m the perpetrator, not the victim!

So Cafe Boulud, I still love you. I want to return to you again and again. Only next time I won’t order the Cobb salad.

****

Norman Van Aken is, according to the Mobil Travel Guide, “the father of Florida’s new Caribbean cuisine.” The winner of tons and tons of awards, his restaurant, Norman’s, was a 2005 James Beard nominee for “Best Restaurant.” My parents and I ate there on Friday.

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When evaluating a restaurant, there is the food and then there’s the everything else. Let’s start with the everything else.

Norman’s is located in an obscure spot in a weird area of Coral Gables. This required an hour long drive from Boca to get there. When we called for directions, the man who answered said he would fax them to us. We used the faxed directions to get there, but we didn’t see the road it told us to turn on. We went for a long while and finally I decided to call and ask for help.

“Where are you now?” asked the woman when I told her our predicament.

“We’re on,” and I told her the street names. There was a long silence.

“Where are you?” I asked. “Can you tell us where to find you?”

“Tell me where you are, sir,” she said again.

“I just told you!”

“And what’s the problem?”

“We need directions. Can’t you tell us how to get there?”

My parents rarely see me get angry, and this woman–who, I should say, had a heavy accent so maybe she didn’t speak English well–was really riling me up. Finally she informed us that we had passed Norman’s a few streets back and that it’s behind a bank. We made a U-turn, found the secret street we missed earlier, and handed off our car to the valet.

Once inside, the place had a desolate air. Sure, some tables were filled, but mostly the room was quiet and lifeless. This was especially troubling for a Friday night.

But on the bright side, the smell in the air was wonderful. A wood-burning oven glowed in the back and waves of garlic and bread and meat washed over me, making my mouth water and restoring my enthusiasm.

And so then we move on to the food. Our waiter, who was very eager (but occasionally invasive) suggested that we do the “Signature Dishes” menu, which you can see here:

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This made the most sense to me since this was my first time here. (Mom and dad had eaten this menu at the Orlando venue, but were happy to try it again.) So our order went in and we sat and soaked in the rather quiet atmosphere.

Maybe I was so aware of the lack of buzz because that’s what my parents savor when they eat out: excitement, action, noise and revelry. I just like food and I was excited when our first dish came out: Creamy Cracked Conch Chowder with Saffron, Toasted Coconut, Oranges and a “Cloud.”

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That cloud is made of whipped coconut milk, and its tropical sweetness helped make this dish a true knockout. All the combinations of flavors were electric: the sweet, the savory, the salty, the briny. A thrilling beginning, if I do say.

Then came a Yuca Stuffed Crispy Shrimp with Sour Orange Mojo and Habanero Tartar Salsa.

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I actually thought this was just ok, but maybe I was spoiled by the soup.

After that, I convinced dad to pay the $15 supplement for us to share one of Norman’s signature dishes: “My Down Island French Toast” with Curacao Scented Foie Gras, Griddled Brioche, Passion Fruit Caramel and Gingery Candied Lime Zest.

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Our waiter told us this was his favorite thing on the menu and I can understand why. The exotic combination of passion fruit and foie gras is unlike any you’ve probably experienced. It’s a lovely melding of worlds: the heavy rich fattyness of the foie and then the bright spiky aggressiveness of the passion fruit. And the brioche toast is the perfect vehicle.

Boy, this is the longest post ever. And it’s 2:36… better hurry…

Next was a Pan-Cooked Fillet of Key West Yellowtail on a “Belly” of Mashed Potatoes with Grilled Asparagus Spears and Citrus Butter.

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This doesn’t stand out to me as anything special, but maybe I didn’t appreciate its subtlety?

Luckily, the next dish had nothing subtle about it:

Pork “Havana” with “21st Century” Mole, Golden Haitian Grits, Black Bean Salsa and Spanish Sherry Wine Reduction.

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The black bean salsa was hot as blazes and dad and I gasped for air while mom ate demurely, unmoved by the heat.

“Hot food is good for you,” I assured dad. “Martha Stewart says so.”

“Why’s that?”

“Because…” I stammered. “It makes you sweat and you get rid of oxidants.”

Dad gave me a look and I shut up.

Mom arranged it so for dessert we all didn’t have the banana split. “We had that last time,” she told the waiter, “and it was just ok.”

So he brought one banana split, which dad had.

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As you can see, it’s deconstructed and served with beignets.

I had the straight-up beignets with huckleberry compote and a gelatinous coffee thing:

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Tasty, tasty.

Mom had the most decadent dessert: “the best chocolate cake you’ll ever have in your life,” bragged the waiter.

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Well, I don’t know about best but it was certainly rich and racy. And I always love it when chocolate’s paired with raspberries.

At this point, our bellies fit to burst, they brought us an All American post-dinner treat:

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That’s right, a blurry brownie with caramel corn on top. If you weren’t going to hell before, you are now.

Looking back on our meal now, I see both the innovation and excitement that makes for Norman’s success but also some of the flaws that are holding it back. Perhaps it’s because we ordered a signature dishes menu, but something about it felt kind of “paint by numbers” with the exception of the soup and the foie gras. I’d much prefer a smaller menu with constantly updated, seasonal options. (To be fair, there is a monthly menu which Norman devises thematically. This month’s menu was dedicated to Katrina victims and focused solely on the food of New Orleans: hence the beignets.)

But the combination of the hit and miss tasting menu, the rude hostess, and the dead energy in the room (plus the overeager waiter) makes me think Norman’s needs to be reinvigorated. Maybe a new design? More light? Better staff? Better location?

I’m not sure. But Norman is certainly talented and I’m very glad I got to experience his food for the first time on my four-night trip to Flah-rida.

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