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.

That sort of ill-timed service was typical. Things started badly when our waiter approached us for our order about a minute after we received our menus. We weren't ready, so he told us that he would check back, keeping his word by returning about ten minutes after we had placed our menus on the table. It took twice that long to get the check, despite the fact that at the time there were two waiters and a floor manager on hand, and only one other table occupied. (Incidentally there's a 19.17 percent service charge added to the bill. How'd they come up with that number?) And timing wasn't the only problem: There were unfilled water glasses, ignored requests for butter (our waiter finally deigned to comply, but when the logo-emblazoned butter discs arrived, they tasted stale and refrigerated), and a similarly unheeded appeal for more bread. After our second plea for rolls, the waiter explained that they were still soft from baking and needed time to harden. We convinced him that softness was quite acceptable, at which point he brought out hot, crusty rolls that were slightly burned on top (possibly a result of the kitchen crew frantically crisping them under an open flame).

Service at dinner wasn't much better: We waited patiently for plates upon which to place our shared appetizers, and suffered through lengthy intervals between courses. The rolls were even worse this time: old and chewy. I'm puzzled by the reluctance of so many restaurants to order fresh bread daily; instead, they often employ various rejuvenation tricks such as slow-heating in ovens, moistening in steamers, or zapping in microwaves. These "fixes" work only for a short period of time, and if you hold such a roll in your hand, you can sometimes feel it transform into its natural day-old state of decay, a sort of tactile version of the portrait of Dorian Gray. I was wondering what would compel a restaurant supposedly promoting healthy food to offer white-flour rolls in the first place when I spied a basket of dark-brown wheat rolls on another table. I requested the same, but these, too, had the texture of a loofa.

Bad bread aside, the food at dinner ranged from good to sensational. A starter of oysters steamed in a bamboo basket fell into the latter category, the intrinsic salinity of the four fat mollusks balanced by a sprinkling of plum wine and ginger vinaigrette. Minced carrots and peppers dotted the oysters, around which were scattered a smattering of marinated shiitake mushrooms. This dish exemplifies successful spa cuisine: as mouth-watering as it is waist-whittling, a mere 146 calories and two grams of fat.

Salmon carpaccio with squirts of wasabi creme fra”che was also a fresh, if not entirely agreeable, appetizer, but its accompaniments were less than stellar: too-thick "coconut-buckwheat blinis" without a coconuty taste, and a "mango salsa" that was not a salsa, but rather a confetti garnish of diced mango, tomato, yellow pepper, and red onion.

At 991 and 738 calories respectively, the Chinese barbecue strip steak and tea-smoked sugar cane chicken breast weigh in as the menu's two heftiest caloric main courses; perhaps not by coincidence, they're also the best things we tried. The fleshy chicken breast, tied by a tea leaf to a plank of sugar cane, arrived with crunchy water chestnuts and shiny, white, plastic-looking beech mushrooms, which mimic the delicate texture of enokis, all of it adrift in a thin, brothlike brown sauce. The chicken's bold, smoked-tea flavor combined with the cane's sweetness to produce a uniquely delicious taste.

The steak was also something special: a ten-ounce Angus strip soaked for 24 hours in a knock-your-socks-off marinade of honey, hoisin, Chinese chili, black-bean paste, sherry, curry, and four or five other ingredients. Grilled to bursting red perfection, the slices of beef were served over sesame-sauteed julienne vegetables and under a "jade sauce" of fresh herbs, roasted garlic, olive oil, and cayenne that provided a chimichurrilike kick.

Caribbean fish and fruit combos are commonplace in Florida. While I've never been partial to this particular union, the Atrium's grouper en papillote with mango and banana is culinarily correct in every sense: The medallions of fish were flaky and tender as a result of their steaming in parchment; the sweetness of the tropical fruits were tempered by the addition of clovelike spices and Myers's rum; and saffron rice was a fluffy and appropriate accompaniment (and noteworthy for being the only side of starch we encountered). I still didn't care much for the dish, but that's owing to my own personal prejudice.

I had no such negative preconceptions regarding a white-and-dark-chocolate trifle -- two intensely tasty puddings in a glass sans the traditional layer of sponge cake -- or the royal croquanti, four hefty wedges of rich chocolate ganache atop a mocha-flavored Rice Krispies wafer. No dietary information is listed for these desserts, but the sheer size of the latter treat leads me to believe that it contained as many calories as the contents of Rush Limbaugh's lunch box. It was very good, but I gladly would have forgone two of my wedges for an extra lunchtime ladle of crab and corn chowder.

The Atrium features a full bar, but its nonalcoholic selection of beverages lacks the sort of drinks you'd expect to find at a spa: ginseng sodas, fresh fruit juices, et cetera. Just another missed detail. Management needs to tend to the restaurant's numerous glitches, not only because St. John's promising cuisine deserves a better forum, but because nerve-wracking service undermines the monklike serenity of the Atrium's lovely setting. Maybe one of the masseurs can be recruited to help out in the dining room. They're not only trained in pampering guests, but they might also be able to work out some of the Atrium's kinks.

The Atrium
Doral Golf Resort and Spa, 8755 NW 36th St; 305-392-4899. Breakfast daily from 7:00 till 10:00 a.m., lunch from 11:30 a.m till 2:00 p.m., and dinner from 6:00 till 10:00 p.m.

Steamed oysters $9.50
Tea- smoked sugar cane chicken breast $18.00
Chinese barbecue strip steak $24.00
Caribbean grouper en papillote $22.00
Royal croquanti $6.00

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