If you were eating at fine South Florida restaurants in the late 1980s and early '90s, you don't need an introduction to chefs Allen Susser, Norman Van Aken, Douglas Rodriguez or Mark Militello. As members of the Mango Gang, they redefined what it meant to be a chef in South Florida by using fresh local ingredients in ways that reflected the region's melting pot of cultures.
I was reminded of those bold flavors — Latin, Caribbean, Asian — when I glanced at the Ortanique on the Mile menu, with its emphasis on fresh seafood and dishes such as roasted Caribbean pumpkin soup and West Indian Cornish game hen.
I'm not sure how long chef Cindy Hutson has been making these dishes, but as her restaurant heads toward its 15th anniversary in July, they taste entirely new.
There's yuzu ponzu octopus tiradito ($17), in which expertly sliced octopus is plated with napa cabbage, serrano chili, and red and yellow peppers tossed in sesame-ginger vinaigrette. The freshest cobia ceviche ($16) mixes the firm, textured fish with red onions, Holland peppers, ginger and mango. Caicos Islands conch and corn fritters ($16) with scallions, Holland and Scotch bonnet pepper, red onion, Carib beer and roasted pepper seem light on conch, heavy on batter.
Jerk-rubbed foie gras ($33) is an outrageous combination of foie gras served over a warm salad of mache and duck confit with burnt orange marmalade and Grand Mariner drizzle. The addition of crispy potato sticks adds a novel texture, which for some reason reminded me of a Cuban frita. It's delightful.
That baked Brie ($12) salad is made with baby greens, toasted almonds, julienne Granny Smith apples and an interesting lavender-honey drizzle. Lemon-roasted garlic Caesar salad ($10) gets a crispy addition with lemon-sizzled wontons. Norma's Terrace Salad ($13) combines braised hearts of palm, mango, orange segments, cucumber, feta cheese, candied pecans and passion fruit vinaigrette with mixed greens.
Seafood is a good choice at Ortanique. Pan-sauteed local black grouper ($36) is marinated in teriyaki and sesame oil and served with an orange liqueur and Bacardi limon sauce. It's topped with steamed seasoned chayote and carrots and served with a sweet citrus-plantain-boniato mash. A whole crispy snapper ($38) makes for a dramatic presentation, and the dish pretty much lives up to its billing. Not all of it was as crispy as we'd hoped. Likewise, jerked double pork chop ($32) wasn't quite as tender as we'd hoped, but each bite was as jerk-flavored as the last. West Indian-style bouillabaisse ($46) shows Hutson at her best: a classic dish featuring flavors she knows well. In this case, jasmine rice in a red Thai curry broth is filled with diver scallops, Key West shrimp, mussels, clams, mahi mahi and salmon.
Dessert matches the savory side of the menu, with dishes such as Ortanique tres leches ($9), topped with chantilly cream, mango coulis and fresh mango. Sticky toffee pudding ($9) is an outstanding riff on the classic, served with vanilla bean ice cream and toffee butter sauce.
Service is incredible at Ortanique, and I suspect that's a good part of the reason for the restaurant's success and loyal customer base. From the warm welcome at the front door to the black-shirted wait and bus staff, everyone seems to be happy to be working here.
I'm sure the orange and yellow color scheme felt fresh 15 years ago, but it's starting to feel tired, especially the seemingly endless plaques heralding the restaurant's success. The anniversary seems like a good excuse to do some serious editing.
Hutson's business and life partner is Delius Shirley, whose late mother, Norma Shirley, is often referred to as the Julia Child of Jamaica. Together, Hutson and Shirley opened Norma's on the Beach in Miami Beach in 1994. Five years later, they left for Coral Gables. They operate another Ortanique on Grand Cayman Island and the Restaurant at the Dunmore on Harbour Island, Bahamas.
Next up is another restaurant in downtown Miami. Tentatively called Zest, it will take up 3,500 square feet in the Southeast Financial Center.
278 Miracle Mile, Coral Gables
Cost: Expensive-very expensive
Hours: Lunch weekdays, dinner daily
Credit cards: All major
Bar: Full service
Sound level: Conversational
Outside smoking: Yes
For kids: Highchairs, boosters, menu
Wheelchair accessible: Yes
Parking: Meters and nearby valet