Norman Van Aken says he has taken some teasing for opening his latest restaurant in Miami’s artsy and trendy Wynwood neighborhood. “Some people are surprised,” Van Aken says. “They say, ‘What are you doing hanging out with the hipsters?’ ”
With Three, I say Van Aken is exactly where he should be and doing precisely what he should be doing. He is a Florida culinary legend, a man of pots, pans and letters who is eager to pass down knowledge to a younger generation. He is also 66, old enough for Medicare and Social Security, and he knows he needs to keep pushing forward to keep his artistic and creative juices flowing. In a way, when Van Aken decided to return to the restaurant game in South Florida, Wynwood was the only logical choice for a chef of his stature. Van Aken is drawing energy from the environment around him while attempting to elevate and enlighten the palates of a younger crowd whose default dining position is to grab a taco or ramen from a food stand.
Three, which opened in November 2017, is part of a triple food-and-drink playground and laboratory that Van Aken created with partners Susan Buckley and Candace Walsh. The restaurant is on the ground floor of the Wynwood Arcade, a mural-covered building converted from former warehouses. Next door is Van Aken’s new cooking school, which opens later this month. The top level is a rooftop lounge with bar bites called No. 3 Social. Restaurant devotees who fondly remember the original Norman’s in Coral Gables (1995-2007) and old-timers who remember when Van Aken cooked at Louie’s Backyard in Key West in the late 1980s will want to beat a path to his latest venture, which features multicourse tasting menus and dining for grownups.
The opening bread course alone — warm, fresh-baked wheat rolls served with creamy Vermont butter spiked with cumin, a sprinkle of sea salt and a hint of maple syrup — was enough to make me want to sit at rapt attention for hours. Which I did.
Three is haute and hip, but not haughty. It demands time, money and commitment. It is worthwhile, despite some growing pains and hiccups. I was dazzled by a parade of colorful, mostly tasty and sometimes overly busy dishes. The multicourse tasting menu ($60 per person for three courses, $90 for five courses with dessert) changes often and offers classic Van Aken hits such as conch chowder with coconut milk and new wrinkles such as cannelloni with braised jerked oxtail.
Good bites abounded. Spice-rubbed Key West pink shrimp sat on a ragout of corn with pickled tomatillos, topped with popped sorghum that looked like popcorn. Delicate squid with chorizo, lentils and cauliflower danced in a sea of foam. Some dishes that I enjoyed are already gone, including pristine hamachi tiradito with a bracing, bright-yellow aji pepper leche de tigre; and Spanish Calasparra rice with mushrooms, Manchego cheese and a sweet sherry-vinegar gastrique. Unexpected treats arrived at the start and finish, an amuse-bouche of yucca and a petit-fours plate with candied fruit, dark chocolate and a scattering of cocoa nibs.
There was one major flub. A grilled strip-loin steak looked pretty, served with a quail egg, but it was chewy and inedible. It was the lone discordant note from an otherwise exquisite meal, and the house’s response was baffling. Instead of apologizing or removing the steak’s $15 surcharge from my check (higher than the $10 amount listed on the daily menu) or offering an after-dinner drink at the rooftop lounge, I was encouraged to leave an online review about my experience. Oh, I’ll write a review, all right.
“Bizarre,” Van Aken said when I recounted the episode in a follow-up interview. “That was out of line.”
Van Aken is known as the godfather of New World Cuisine, one of the original Mango Gang stars who put Florida fusion cuisine on the map a generation ago with a blend of local ingredients and Caribbean and South American flavors. Van Aken and Norman’s were showered with praise and awards, including a James Beard Award. He has written a memoir and five cookbooks and contributes a weekly food segment to WLRN radio, the local NPR affiliate.
He has lived in South Florida since the 1990s, but his restaurant focus has been in Central Florida for the past decade. He is chef-partner of Norman’s at the Ritz-Carlton Orlando, and in 2016 he opened 1921, a restaurant in Mount Dora that is tied to a modern art museum. He also spent time working with Miami Dade College culinary students at the school’s Tuyo restaurant.
Now, he is back with a multilevel vengeance. Van Aken, chef de cuisine Miguel Massens, a Cuban-American raised in Miami who worked for Thomas Keller at the French Laundry in Napa and Daniel Boulud in New York, and pastry chef Mame Sow, from Senegal, are expanding the boundaries of Van Aken’s New World fusion cuisine by folding in elements of Europe (Massens also worked in Spain) and Africa. Wine pairings ($35 for three courses, $45 for five) are interesting and offbeat, a selection tailored to orders that in my case included white wines from Santorini in Greece, Spain and France.
Van Aken says he knows he’s taking a risk asking more from diners in a fast-casual world of gadgets and short attention spans, but he’s “relieved” that the multicourse concept has been well received thus far.
“No TVs, no distractions,” Van Aken says. “People can come here to dine, have a conversation, have fun.”
The fun begins with figuring out which glass opening between the murals is the entrance (it’s in the alley), and continues with a trip through the tropical-colored, splashed walls of the dining room, with green banquettes, blue upholstered chairs and walls painted with a lattice of red lines, sky-blue rectangles and green leaves. My group opted to sit in a quiet back corner and not along the chef’s counter overlooking the hectic, open kitchen. The energy in the diverse room was good. Van Aken says he is seeing a mix of older faces from Norman’s and younger newcomers.
We ordered cocktails and were amused by the cryptic words we found printed on Bernardaud china in front of us.“His art consisted of stopping women in the street and asking them to sleep with him,” one read. Another read, “Even today, after all these years, his words haunt me. I can’t remember a thing about him, yet he’s still sitting at my table.” Van Aken explained they are excerpts from “The Pig” by the French artist and writer Sophie Calle. In these trepidation-filled, post-Weinstein times, I wonder if all diners will take this literary amuse-bouche from the 1960s Oulipo movement in the right spirit.
Aw, what the heck. It’s Wynwood. Boundaries are meant to be pushed.
It is no stretch to say that South Florida is a better place when Van Aken is operating a top-caliber restaurant here.
50 NW 24th St., Miami
305-748-4540 or ThreeWynwood.com
Cuisine: Haute global
Cost: Expensive to very expensive. Three-course tasting menu costs $60 per person, five courses with dessert $90. Wine pairings $35 for three courses or $45 for five
Hours: Dinner 5:30-10 p.m. Tuesday-Wednesday, 5:30-11 p.m. Thursday, 5:30-11:30 p.m. Friday-Saturday, 5:30-9 p.m. Sunday. Sunday brunch 11 a.m.-3 p.m. starting Jan. 14. Closed Mondays
Reservations: Yes, online and by phone
Credit cards: All major
Bar: Full bar with specialty cocktails and interesting wine list.
Sound level: Can get noisy when crowded
Wheelchair access: Ground level
Parking: Metered street or valet