Twenty-two years ago, Cindy Hutson burst onto the Miami dining scene with Norma’s, a hole in the wall on Lincoln Road when Lincoln Road allowed that sort of thing. Named for the mother of Hutson’s life partner, Norma’s was an instant smash — an infusion of Caribbean flavor and tropical colors into a dining scene that needed a shot of something spicy.
The Jersey girl is all grown up now, head of a mini-dining conglomerate that has had flagship Ortanique on the Mile, a popular Coral Gables spot, for 18 years, as well as ventures in Harbour Island and Grand Cayman and her latest island project, Zest at the Cliff in Negril, Jamaica.
Now she’s tackling the plaza of the foreboding towers of the Southeast Financial Center in gentrifying downtown with Zest Miami, a 200-seat monster that’s about four times the size of Ortanique (and the Zest Market next door). After the usual array of permitting delays and construction issues, Zest opened the weekend of the South Beach Wine and Food Festival in February and has been steadily building clientele.
Cuisine here is unmistakably Hutson, a mix of ethnic foods with a tropical flair that she tries to keep as simple and clean as possible. She has pulled off the feat of featuring almost nothing at Zest that’s on the menu at Ortanique — passionate regulars at the neighborhood-oriented Ortanique threaten to boycott when a favorite dish is discontinued there, so Zest is Hutson’s venue to try new things.
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And yet one of the best things at Zest isn’t new at all. Norma’s Terrace salad has been featured at all Hutson’s restaurants in honor of Norma Shirley, Hutson’s partner Delius Shirley’s Jamaican mother, touted as the Julia Child of the Caribbean. She died in 2010, but her bright and fresh salad lives on, with fresh grapefruit, papaya and oranges (mango and avocado coming as their season begins), cucumber curls, butter lettuce, feta cheese and Caribbean spiced pecans, dressed with a nicely balanced passionfruit vinaigrette. At lunch, this salad with jerk chicken, shrimp or salmon is a big draw.
Each day there’s a margherita flatbread and a special flatbread, and staff invents the little pizza on the spot. You might get truffled shortrib with butter bean, porchetta with grilled pineapple and brie, coffee-crusted brisket with cherry chipotle drizzle, cilantro pumpkin seed pesto with chicken, neat little thin-crust pies with fresh and surprising ingredients on top.
Each day, as well, there’s a special fritter. There’s Jamaican jerk pork sausage, ackee and saltfish, Cuban-style bacalao, chorizo. On our visit the fritters happened to be conch, but there was still a surprise: beautifully airy, meat-filled fritters, made light with plenty of Red Stripe beer added to the batter. Bits of red and yellow pepper and Scotch bonnet (Hutson’s “trinity”) add zip.
A calamari appetizer, actually sliced cuttlefish steak, is seasoned with salt and fresh roasted black pepper (Hutson roasts and grinds all her aromatics), pan seared in olive oil and tossed with flash-fried blistered shishito peppers. Preserved orange sauce, Asian black vinegar and garlic build a thick sauce that complements the fish. A trio of fried starters included two hits and a miss: Fried bay scallops with cherrywood-smoked tomato Creole sauce, fresh corn on the cob and grits was spot on, the scallops hot and savory and the grits warm and homey. Jerk chicken drumettes were lean and meaty, with crispy skin and a cooling pink peppercorn ranch with blue cheese. But a soft-shell crab special was unremarkable for $22, scant crab for the money.
The fish formula here often matches fresh, nicely cooked fish with a thickish, sweetish sauce. Snapper rundown is a traditional Jamaican dish, the delicate fish bubbled with homemade coconut cream flavored with fresh thyme, red and yellow pepper and Scotch bonnet. Cobia, a dish invented by Zest chef du cuisine Mike Fischetti, was a special at Ortanique. It features a mango mustarda sauce on top of coconut Scotch bonnet risotto, creamy and warm.
Curried octopus is one of Zest’s top sellers. Naturally salty Spanish octopus is braised in chicken stock with seeds of allspice, cumin, coriander, foenegreek, turmeric plus garlic, ginger and scallion. House-toasted and ground spices go into fresh coconut cream to make the sauce, which is served on top of a rice pilau with raisins and cashews (jackfruit coming soon). The octopus is tender and plentiful.
Most impressive dish is the gigantic pork tomahawk. Sourced from the Carolinas, the 15-ounce chop has a gigantic tomahawk bone and deep, rich flavor (order it medium). It’s served with delectable yuca cakes, the cassava braised to softness with citrus zest, garlic, cumin, coriander and sea salt, then chopped and sautéed with orange juice and onions. The cakes are then formed and fried to crispy. Underneath the chop is richly flavored sauteed escarole. A majestic, richly satisfying plate.
Perfectly cooked homemade pappardelle gets a wakeup call with jerk chicken, in what Hutson calls a renovation of her popular brown stew chicken dish at Ortanique. The white wine and chicken stock-based sauce features tamarind, roasted and brined allspice berries and jerk flavors of ginger, scallion, allspice, Scotch bonnet and cinnamon. Strips of chicken breast, marinated overnight in more jerk seasoning, are mingled with the lush noodles into a dish that’s full of flavor and big enough to share.
To finish, Making Whoopie — little sandwiches of red velvet cake and white chocolate frosting and a chocolate ganache dipping sauce — was more of a looker than an eater, a perfectly composed dessert with minimal flavor. But to the rescue, there’s a bread pudding each day — guava cream cheese, cinnamon bun, cinnamon toast crunch and more. Our Heath bar bread pudding, served with ice cream, had all the depth and decadence a bread pudding should.
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If you go
Place: Zest Miami.
Address: 200 S. Biscayne Blvd., Miami.
Rating: ☆ ☆ ☆ (Very Good)
Contact: 305-374-9378; zestmiami.com; @ZestMiami.
Hours: Lunch 11:30 a.m. to 3 p.m. Monday through Friday; dinner 5:30-10 p.m. Monday-Wednesday, till 11 p.m. Thursday-Saturday. Sunday brunch 11:30 a.m. to 3 p.m.
Prices: Appetizers, flatbreads and salads $12-$32 (foie gras); entrees $24-$55; desserts $8-$9.
FYI: Reservations suggested; $25 corkage; noise level low; outdoor plaza with live music some nights; valet $7 with validation for dinner; also metered street or garage parking; all major credit cards and Prime Card.