What's not to like about a restaurant that requires you to ride an elevator to a rooftop dining room?
There we were, in the lobby of the Miami Culinary Institute in downtown Miami, where a charming woman corralled us into a car and set us on our way up eight stories to the roof. Talk about anticipation.
Up top, we realized all the fuss about the 15-month-old Tuyo is first and foremost about the view. Miami's landmark buildings — the Arsht Center and the Freedom Tower, among them — have never looked better from this vantage point.
For other diners, chef Norman Van Aken is the draw. He's credited with introducing the concept of "fusion" to our culinary vocabulary back in 1988. His so-called New World Cuisine combines Latin, Caribbean, Asian, African and American flavors, and he's the author of five cookbooks, including the recent "My Key West Kitchen: Recipes and Stories" with his son and fellow chef Justin Van Aken.
Along with being director of restaurants at the Miami Culinary Institute, he owns Norman's at the Ritz-Carlton in Orlando. I loved the Norman's in Coral Gables, which closed in 2007 after a 12-year run. I can still smell the wood-burning oven. I loved his Mundo in the Gables' Merrick Park and even the short-lived Norman's 180.
I thought I'd learned to manage my expectations, but Tuyo was, well, fair.
The 80-seat dining room is cold, gray and beige. During the holidays, there wasn't a single decoration in sight, though I suppose the stylish fireplace did lend the atmosphere a certain cheer.
While the restaurant is attached to the school, I'm told the staff are all professionals. Unfortunately, the tone of the service was so uneven, I didn't know if I was in a coffee shop or a fine-dining restaurant. A food runner presented each dish with an earnest recitation of ingredients and techniques, while our waitress veered between excessively social and missing in action.
The menu changes monthly, since Van Aken uses both the school's organic garden and farmers across South Florida. This month's first plates, for instance, include hogfish ceviche ($13) with roasted onions, calabaza, radish and lime; steak tartare montadito salad with manchego vinaigrette, tomato salsa and quail egg ($16); and the chef's classic My Down Island French toast with foie gras, candied lime zest and passion fruit caramel ($15 half/$30 full). (More on that later.)
Entrees on the current menu start at $32 and run to $44 for Mongolian barbecued veal chop with Asian greens and Thai fried rice. Tuyo is a very expensive restaurant.
Dinner starts with very good bread, made in-house and available in the coffee shop on the main floor. The amuse-bouche the night we dined was a vegetable pincho with peanut sauce. It tasted like a cutting-board scrap. The sauce was too sweet.
We decided to go for the tasting menu ($85 per person), but keep in mind that many dishes will have changed since then. The best thing we tasted was Brazilian creamy cracked conch chowder with saffron, coconut, orange and star anise. It sums up Van Aken's fusion approach with its mash-up of Caribbean and Brazilian flavors. Like everything here, presentation was beyond reproach.
What wasn't so good, however, was the second course: yuca-stuffed crispy shrimp with sour orange mojo and pickled Scotch bonnet tartar salsa ($14 a la carte). The shrimp was oily and cold, and there was way too much tartar on the plate. We thought our next course would be Van Aken's French toast, but we didn't read the fine print to see that it's only available as a $15 supplement. I wish the wait staff had mentioned that fact, because we would have gladly been upsold.
Back in the 1980s, yellowtail snapper and mashed potatoes might have seemed unique, but it's a combination I'm not fond of. Quite frankly, I don't get all this mushy country-club texture. And then, to plate it with spinach? An even bigger affront, however, was Pork Havana with 21st Century Mole ($34). The pork so tough it couldn't be helped by the smoky plantain cream or the sherry reduction. Had I not been reviewing, I would have sent the dish back.
Van Aken finished his tasting menu with the Chocolate Goddess Bar, a multilayer chocolate, old-fashioned delight that's both creamy and crunchy with the addition of hazelnuts. Hazelnuts are a classic pastry ingredient, but I prefer mine in savory dishes.
While it's nice to see Van Aken cooking again in South Florida, I'm not sure the view is worth the price.
jtanasychuk@SouthFlorida.com or 954-356-4632. Read his blog at SouthFlorida.com/sup and follow him on Twitter at @FloridaEats.
Miami Dade College, 415 NE Second Ave., Miami