Clean Cuisine, Messy Service

Traditionally spas have served as tranquil retreats where the well-to-do go to shed a few pounds while being pampered with facials and massages. The pampering part was, and is, pleasant, but the dieting used to be somewhat torturous, given that spas had a reputation for offering what was pejoratively termed "rabbit food": a lettuce leaf, a few carrot sticks, a scoop of cottage cheese as a treat. In recent years spas have expanded their parameters to include intensive programs in health education, and workshops in exercise, nutrition, stress management, and image-building. And those bland, skimpy meals have given way to bigger, bolder flavors, a development attributable to more humane nutritional guidelines and a demand for better-tasting low-fat food.

The Spa at the Doral resort, located on a huge expanse of land just east of Miami Springs, began serving low-calorie meals in 1987, and since that time has undergone a number of makeovers. The most pronounced change took place in 1994 when new management revamped the spa restaurant's menu and renamed the place The Atrium. The most recent change occurred late last year with the hiring of chef Christopher St. John and the decision to introduce a few non-spa food items. (Spa dishes get less than 25 percent of their calories from fat and are designated on the menu by calorie/gram counts.)

Situated on the Doral's ground floor, the Atrium is a majestic space, with walls and lofty pillars made from locally excavated limestone, floor-to-ceiling windows that look out on to an aqua-blue swimming pool, and a grand staircase that spirals upward to the spa's swanky salons. The dining area's neutral tones are complemented by pastel-color linens and a bright floral motif on the restaurant's 80 chairs, but it's a dizzyingly high skylight that dominates the room, defines the space, and diverts filtered sunlight onto dainty white orchids that sit atop each table. At lunchtime, that is. In the evening the mood is more refined, as candles flicker and a pianist plinks classical and romantic standards.

St. John took a circuitous route to his current job, having spent several years in Europe as a runway model for top designers like Gianni Versace. In 1989 he traded in those struts and turns for the culinary world's cuts and burns, training at Le Cordon Bleu in Paris and then serving apprenticeships in L.A. restaurants before returning to his native Florida to run the kitchen at Biscotties, an Italian-style bistro in Jacksonville. From there he came to the Atrium, where he refers to his food as "clean cuisine." His approach jibes with contemporary spa philosophy: Use fresh ingredients, carefully portion the components of each meal so that calorie counts and nutritional balance can be controlled, and prepare dishes with low-fat cooking techniques such as stir-frying, steaming, poaching, grilling, and roasting.

Lunch at the Atrium features soups, salads, sandwiches, and "chef specialties" composed (mostly) of seafood. It's a less elegant and totally different menu than is offered at dinner, though the prices are about the same. The crab and corn chowder that started our lunch, for instance, cost $5.50; soup at dinner is $6. Maybe the extra 50 cents buys you a bigger portion at night, because the chowder came served in one of those shallow bowls that so many restaurants use nowadays. Here is a nifty experiment you can try the next time you're served soup in one of these bowls: Request an empty soup cup, then carefully pour the soup from the bowl into the cup. (By the way, this probably won't thrill your waiter.) You will discover that the two hold an equal amount of liquid, which in the case of our chowder means half of a shallow bowl, or half a cup. That the soup was lukewarm didn't help matters. On the plus side it did possess a velvety texture, and its sumptuous corn flavor was complemented by flecks of fresh corn kernels, potato, crabmeat, and bacon.

The rest of the lunch items, including a duck tostada salad, were portioned more generously, though, not to be perverse, the salad suffered as a result of having too many ingredients. The menu promised a "crisp homemade" corn tortilla topped with shredded duck, mashed pinto beans, cabbage and papaya slaw, avocado and tomato salsa, and cheese. The mash, the slaw, and the salsa were indistinguishable from one another; and despite the plethora of sprightly ingredients, as well as the disconcerting presence of traces of raw garlic, the overall flavor was surprisingly dreary. A dressing, perhaps citrus-based, might have heightened the flavors. As for the poor tortilla, it never had a chance to remain crisp under that wet load. A grilled lemon-chicken sandwich in Navajo bread (akin to a fried pita round) turned out to be a better choice: The moist chicken breast, marinated radishes and peppers, and mild roasted garlic-yogurt dressing formed a satisfying alliance of slightly tart tastes.

A duo of disappointing entrees followed: Shrimp sate featured a pleasantly piquant peanut and hoisin sauce, but its eight skewered crustaceans were overcooked; linguini Montecatini with oven-roasted tomatoes, spinach, olive oil, and garlic lacked pizzazz. I guess a person can take solace in knowing that after polishing off the modest portion of pasta, he has ingested only, according to the menu, 330 calories and five grams of fat. Then again, the menu also claims that the dish comes with Reggiano parmesan cheese, but our waiter insisted otherwise. (The waitstaff's knowledge of the food was marginal at best.) He humored us by bringing some anyway, but by the time it arrived the pasta had lost whatever hint of heat it might have once had.

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