The Culinary Wizardry of Cindy Hutson Infuses Ortanique

What surprised us most about Ortanique was, well, everything. It’s not what we expected from a restaurant with a reputation for haute Caribbean cuisine.

First, the appearance. The interior looks almost Arabic, as in the Arabian Nights, with billowy curtains, pillars, and raised, canopied seating areas that can be made private with a veil of drapery. The green and white Cuban tile floor looks positively Persian, and adding a theatrical touch, one wall is the actual curved side of the round entrance plaza of the Miracle Theatre next door. It also has a warm feeling, with Tuscan-orange walls above dark wood wainscoting, complimented by the yellow of the curtains and the electric “candles” on white tablecloth settings. Elegant, romantic and exotic all at the same time.

More surprising is the food. It is not just good, it’s great. The tastes are creative and refreshing, with a flavor palette born of the Caribbean and then expanded to what Chef Cindy Hutson calls “the cuisine of the sun” – basically any place she fancies with a healthy dose of solar energy. The West Indian Style Bouillabaisse uses a red Thai coconut curry for its broth, for example, while the jerked chicken is cooked with penne pasta and sun-dried tomatoes. When you taste these, you will forgive Hutson any culinary whim.

Of course, having started her cooking career using the recipes of her boyfriend’s mother (famed Jamaican chef Norma Shirley), the spices of the Caribbean underlie virtually every dish. From Hutson’s pan seared fish with scotch bonnet and Jamaican allspice, to the mussels steamed with Red Stripe beer instead of white wine, her island roots show through. And when Ortanique does a dish that is pure Caribbean, they are unsurpassed. Their West Indian Cornish game hen, marinated in jerk sauce and topped with Jamaica brown stew sauce, is simply delicious, with its deep flavor blend of onion, scallion, garlic, brown sugar, caramel, ginger, thyme, paprika, and chili powder, served with classic Jamaican peas and rice, and sautéed broccolini.

Chef Hutson has been on Miracle Mile adjacent to the Miracle Theatre for 20 years now, lured to that location by the city (which owns the property) from her restaurant Norma’s on the Beach (Miami Beach, that is). Clearly Hutson is doing something right to have survived – and thrived – for so long in a city that can be brutal on restaurants. That something is a cuisine entirely her own, the essence of a chef-driven restaurant.

Half of the dinner menu at Ortanique is devoted to dishes “that my customers would kill me if I removed,” things like her jerked chicken, Cornish game hen and bouillabaisse. There are a few killer appetizers in this column, too, led by a flavorful “West Indian Curried Fresh Jumbo Lump Crab Cake,” that is dramatically enhanced by a mango papaya salsa. And then there is Norma’s Terrace Salad, a show stopping tumble of cucumber curls, orange segments, hearts of palm, feta cheese, gourmet greens, Caribbean caramelized pecans, and julienne of mango, with a passion fruit vinaigrette. A real cuisine of the sun.

The other half of the menu is given to new dishes, or more esoteric crowd pleasers that are on rotation. We tried two of these and both were exceptional: A coffee-cocoa crusted salmon with chipotle agave glaze, atop creamy corn polenta with sautéed baby bok choy on the side; and an Angus beef churrasco steak, with mojo yucca mash, broccolini and mango chimichurri. Both were exceptionally good (especially for $32 and $31, respectively).

For dessert we ducked the sticky toffee pudding and went instead for the bread pudding of the day and the peanut butter bomb, the former a raspberry delight and the latter recommended by our waiter Jo-Jo, who has been on staff for 10 years. “It is the bomb,” he said, and rightfully so: Peanut butter mousse covered in chocolate ganache atop an Oreo cookie crust. We didn’t know what part of the Caribbean it came from, and we didn’t care.