A First Look at 1921 by Norman Van Aken

Book group trumps all. That’s my blanket rule. Yet last Wednesday evening, I ditched my ladies and their discussion of Louise Erdrich’s LaRose for a jaunt to Mount Dora because I’d been invited to sample the foods of 1921 by Norman Van Aken, a new restaurant by one of my favorite Orlando chefs. Good call, Rona.

 Artsy doors to the private dining room at 1921 by Norman Van Aken

Artsy doors to the private dining room at 1921 by Norman Van Aken

This was quite the meal. Here’s what you’ll find 1921 by Norman Van Aken – well, sort of. The menu changes daily, so this is an idea of what you’ll find.

 Our eat-your-heart-out menu for the 1921 by Norman Van Aken media dinner

Our eat-your-heart-out menu for the 1921 by Norman Van Aken media dinner

1921 by Norman Van Aken is what we might call a New Floridian restaurant. The namesake chef, the founder of New World Cuisine, here takes the various native and imported flavors available in the Sunshine State and recreates them into creative fare.

 Chilled crab cocktail "Revival Style"

Chilled crab cocktail "Revival Style"

 Heirloom tomatoes with radicchio, watermelon, avocado and crumbled cotija cheese 

Heirloom tomatoes with radicchio, watermelon, avocado and crumbled cotija cheese 

Freshness trumps all. To demonstrate, let me share with you what General Manager and Wine Director Scott Geisler told me: Every day, dayboat line fisherman from the Atlantic and Gulf coasts text over photos of their latest catches. The chefs select the fish they want and find them at the door later the same day. “They’re often unusual, less popular but fantastic fish like barrelfish and wreckfish,” he says. I’d try any fish prepared in that kitchen and was quite pleased with the more-familiar red snapper pictured below. The coconut curry sauce was rich and creamy, then the charred pineapple gave a lively jolt.

 Roasted Florida red snapper in coconut curry with conch fritters and charred pineapple

Roasted Florida red snapper in coconut curry with conch fritters and charred pineapple

The photos here show you what I ate during book group night, minus, among other treats, a spectacular steak covered with onion slivers that I somehow remained unphotographed. I’d visited for appetizers and cocktails a few days earlier and had these items. We were especially enchanted with the Your Scotch Grandma cocktail – note the 1921 stenciled onto the foam. Negronis and two other adult beverages are on tap.

 Your Scotch Grandma

Your Scotch Grandma

 Flounder ceviche in passionfruit juice with torched sweet potato

Flounder ceviche in passionfruit juice with torched sweet potato

“1921 by Norman Van Aken is taking a new look at the culinary traditions of Florida,” Geisler says.

 Smoky maduro plantain flatbred with cave-aged cheddar and pork jowl bacon

Smoky maduro plantain flatbred with cave-aged cheddar and pork jowl bacon

Here’s what Chef Norman says about 1921 by Norman Van Aken. Please forgive the lousy video quality. I taped this in a dark (if beautiful) dining room and tried to edit it, but I am brand new at video editing and apparently need a tutor.

Chef Norman is involved in all sorts of enterprises, including the formal Norman’s at Orlando’s Ritz-Carlton Grande Lakes, so let’s be sure to recognize 1921’s chef de cuisine, Camilo Velasco. He’s the one recreating the wheel nightly in the restaurant’s open kitchen.

 "Kora Town" fried Cornish game hen with cola collards and mac 'n' cheese

"Kora Town" fried Cornish game hen with cola collards and mac 'n' cheese

 Here's the mac 'n' cheese

Here's the mac 'n' cheese

The decor is noteworthy too. 1921 by Norman Van Aken is located in a sprawling, multiroom building that has served as a home, hospital and shelter for unwed mothers since its birth in 1921 (no coincidence). It was most recently a tea room decorated with a whole lot of white lace and Christian knick-knacks. Now you’ll find a warm, classy space with a mix of one-of-a-kind furnishings and accessories. Many are on loan from the Modernism Museum across the street. Chef Norman owns the restaurant with the museum’s owners, so those décor touches are all in the family.

 I really liked this cauliflower and egg dish during my independent visit to the bar

I really liked this cauliflower and egg dish during my independent visit to the bar

Mount Dora is a trek from Orlando, 45 minutes from most parts, it seems. But this is what’s known in the trade as a destination restaurant. In other words, it’s worth choosing as your destination for an evening. Reserve a table, hop in the car, enjoy a meal … and then report back. I’d love to hear what you think.

 I should be banned from taking food photos. This "rhum & pepper painted" pork belly with lime-marinated mangoes was carmelized and meaty and fruity and ... just so good. Not a good likeness, though.

I should be banned from taking food photos. This "rhum & pepper painted" pork belly with lime-marinated mangoes was carmelized and meaty and fruity and ... just so good. Not a good likeness, though.

And now, I have to hear what my book group gals thought about the twists toward the end of LaRose. I’ll never get that discussion back. Good thing the food was worth the sacrifice.

Rona.