By Zachary Fagenson
By Bill Citara
By Laine Doss
By Laine Doss
By Carina Ost
By Valeria Nekhim
By Hannah Sentenac
By Carina Ost
I am sitting in the "relaxation lounge" at the Boutique Spa in the Ritz-Carlton Coconut Grove, quaffing iced, lime-infused spring water, staring at displays of heirloom zebra and brandywine tomatoes, and wondering just what the hell I've gotten myself into this time.
Next door my new acquaintances, aesthetician Joana and reflexologist Marlene, are preparing a room for the spa's signature "tandem" procedure, a facial/massage and pedicure/massage performed simultaneously. The theme of this treatment? Olive oil and tomatoes, various concoctions of which are to be scrubbed, rubbed, and pounded into me. Downstairs in Bizcaya Grill, my long-time friend chef Willis Loughhead is preparing a tasting menu. The theme of this luncheon? You guessed it -- olive oil and tomatoes, numerous preparations of which are to be fed to me.
The point of all this is to introduce the upcoming Olive Oil and Tomato Festival, which officially launches August 13 and runs through the 24th. Just a few weeks ago, I publicly whined about restaurants that weren't running interesting summer specials. Apparently, complain and ye shall be received. Bizcaya chef Loughhead and Ritz-Carlton Coconut Grove chef Roberto Holz decided to celebrate the season with the southern European fruits of summer, along the lines of their vaunted white asparagus festival they hosted in the early spring, by offering a three-course, prix-fixe, wine-matched menu featuring olives, olive oil, and tomatoes in every dish (and a shot of the featured olive oil alongside).
It turned out to be an even larger job than the difficult-to-purvey anemic vegetable had required. First they had to winnow down the specialty olive oils they wanted to use from a possible 28 to a final 7, most of which spring from single estates in the Mediterranean. Then they sourced the most flavorful (not to mention ugliest) heirloom tomatoes they could find, most of which hail from California (our season being over for the moment). Next they drafted Bizcaya's certified sommelier Ania Zawieja and experimented with wine pairings, sipping the oils directly before the vinos in order to distinguish the most direct palate-pleasers possible. Finally, bill of fare typeset and dates announced, the spa was recruited to adapt its menu to reflect the same comestibles. Thus before you tuck into one of Loughhead's first courses -- say, the trio of heirloom tomato salad, yellow tomato sorbet with octopus carpaccio, and micro basil salad served with Laudemio Extra Virgin Olive Oil, Marchesi de' Frescobaldi, Italy, 2002 -- and sip Zawieja's lean, crisp match of San Gregorio, Fiano di Avellino, Italy, 2001, you can indulge in a "soothing tomato wrap" and an "olive oil body glow polish." After all, why just eat the stuff when you can also wear it?
The idea shouldn't be too hard for me to take in; I often wind up wearing what I eat even when I don't intend to. The problem is, I would so much rather eat food, even spa food, than slather it on my body. I can dine in the most elegant restaurants in the world and not for a second feel out of place. But when it comes to spa sophistication, I am much more "ma" than "maven." Offer me a quilted robe that wraps twice around my body and I'll still keep my undies on under it. Show me a massage table and I'll lie down on it the wrong way. To even have a treatment as basic as a manicure, I'd have to stop playing guitar, forget my flute, and forgo gardening. And I won't even let my dermatologist see me without makeup on.
In short, I have the feet of a farmer, the hands of an arthritic old man, and the soul of a skeptic. When it comes to a spa, these are not qualities one brings to the table.
Nevertheless, here I am, vulnerable in a way I haven't been since childbirth, callused feet out for inspection, pores open for probing. Were it not for the aroma of freshly sliced tomatoes, I'd bolt. But predictably the smell of food, even if I'm not going to be eating it just yet, keeps me in place.
I decide being forthright is the best way to cope with the embarrassment of any potential faux pas that I am about to make. "I'm a pedicure virgin," I tell Marlene on the way into the chamber. She peers at the chipped blue polish on my toes that I haven't bothered to remove. "Who put that on?" A friend, I tell her, who was fed up with my refusal to pay attention to my footsies. In my pal's honor, we decide at the end of the treatment that I will opt for a hot, bright polish, perhaps a beefsteak tomato red. Going against nature -- but hoping to win my five-year-old daughter's approval, at least -- I choose a pink instead, called something like "Santiago Sangría." The fact that it is named after a drink comprised mostly of wine seems to me a good omen.
In fact the ladies are so gentle and nice I'm even persuaded to ditch my bra -- "I used to work at Mandalay Bay in Las Vegas, I've seen more naked women than you can imagine," Marlene assures me -- and slip under the covers with just a hint of recovered insouciance. Which I then immediately ruin by asking, "Am I facing the right way?"