Cheeky Cheeca

Jeremy Eaton

So what exactly did the "First Annual Cheeca Lodge & Spa Food & Wine Festival February 2003," held over the course of three evenings in the infamously laissez-faire Florida Keys community and attended by chefs from other resorts and spas around the country, offer the consumer? Aside from a wordy moniker, that is? Stone crabs, natch. A chance for a blatantly sensual massage or two. Conversation opps with wine folk such as Mike Benziger, the eldest of the seven Benziger kids (and one brother-in-law) who operate the Benziger Family Winery. And more versions of hashed and mashed foodstuffs than I've seen in Fort Lauderdale's multitude of British pubs.

I suppose it could have been a lack of menu coordination that resulted in an awful lot of diced spuds garnishing the plates, including the creamer potato salad that partnered the stone crabs during the first evening's "Wine & Stone Crab Feast" and the chive-potato hash that enhanced Equinox Resort chef Mary Nearn's coriander-crusted scallops during the second evening's "Gala Tasting." Or it could have been coincidence of a remarkable kind, given that only about seven chefs contributed, that there was such a range of creamed starches, from Nearn's sweet corn sauce napping the aforementioned scallops, to the boniato that Atlantic's Edge (the fine-dining restaurant at Cheeca) executive chef Andy Niedenthal paired with his delectable skate wing, to the whipped taters under Mark Militello's beautifully prepared seared sea scallops and oxtail confit. Certainly it couldn't be the spa food wave of the future -- diet trends these days are all about the real estate-inspired mantra of protein, protein, protein.

Or could it be? After all, Nearn developed the spa cuisine at Avanyu Spa, the facility at Equinox. Avanyu is also now open at Cheeca Lodge, which was recently acquired by Equinox's parent company of Rock Resorts. Some spa-inspired dishes are available on the menu at the casual dining spot, Ocean Terrace Grill, where a fresh salad bar buffet is laid out every day for lunch -- though personally I think the grill's coconut conch chowder, a creamy confection of buttery broth, perfectly sautéed vegetables, and tender nuggets of conch, is a much better caloric investment.

In actuality, however, the Spa Food & Wine Festival wasn't nearly "spa" enough, at least not in the stereotypical sense. Not all of the chefs involved were technically from resorts per se, though the three South Florida chefs -- Jonathan Eismann, Mark Militello, and Dawn Sieber -- were obvious and thoughtful choices. Especially Sieber, former executive chef of Atlantic's Edge, whose restaurant Kaiyo neighbors Cheeca Lodge immediately to the south. And if we stretch things a bit, we can conclude that Eismann, with Pacific Time, and Militello, representing Mark's Las Olas, come from resort destinations, even if the customers at those two restaurants tend more to indulge in nightlife gossip and equipage than Pritikin prose and posturing.

The atmosphere was also more Keys-like than spa-ish. No incense or aromatherapy candles were burned; instead torches were lit on the lodge's beach for the crab fete and artificial light was brought in for the Gala Tasting tent, which was constructed over two of the tennis courts, no less. No one dined in the anonymous elegance of a bathrobe and a mud masque, or came to the table wrapped in the same seaweed one might find on a plate, but there were quite a few feet with rubber flip-flops on them, more suited to catching hermit crabs with a peanut butter-baited trap than traipsing along the sand with the likes of a world-class winemaker.

Even the music that accompanied the events of the first two evenings was hardly the New Age string and synthesizer arrangements that play background to those Swedish rubdowns in Avanyu. Instead the harmonies were provided by local musicians, who strummed and finger-picked such a welcome assortment of acoustic folk-rock that Jonathan Eismann's wife Nia was aglow. Or maybe that was just the result of the halogen light that seemed permanently aimed at her during the Gala Tasting. Still, "When's the last time on South Beach you heard Joni Mitchell?" she wanted to know. Good point -- which is why we tired-of-techno (or-never-really-liked-it-in-the-first-place) Miami urbanites escape to the Buffet-ed realm as often as possible.

But the Crab Feast and the Gala Tasting both exhibited one of the most important aspects of a food-wine festival -- they showed off a sense of place. Stone crabs, also called "Keys gold" and served at tables that had been set up oceanside, pretty much spoke for themselves; in the Gala Tasting tent, the musicians were joined by regional artists. Between each food or wine table was a colorful exhibit that sated visually starved senses and added an attractive element to the festival experience.

Perhaps even more enticing was the scheduling of the festival events, which also reflected an ingrained Keys-induced relaxation. The three dinnertime do's started at 6:00 each night and concluded no later than 10:00 p.m. No auxiliary seminars or tastings were arranged for the daytime, leaving those of us who had come for the entire week to enjoy the tranquilizing benefits of an all-inclusive result: kayaking, tennis, chip-'n'-putt golf on the property's nine-hole course, and, most important, the frozen Mango Pango or piña colada cocktails with a float of Meyer's rum. Niedenthal, who was in charge of the fest, indicated during the Gala Tasting that he will be expanding the program in the future, but I have no doubt he'll keep Islamorada from becoming the frenzy that Aspen can often be. Not because U.S. 1 couldn't handle more traffic than its one lane currently allows, but because it's just not the Keys way.

Nor was the "Grande Finale" dinner, however. Served in the upscale comfort of Atlantic's Edge and hosted by Mike Benziger, the five courses were overwhelming in terms of portion size and a bit heavy on the palate for the weather. The dinner started with Eismann's citrus-cured wild salmon, a variation on a theme of the tidbit he'd served at the tasting the night before, and was followed by scallops and roasted Millbrook Farms fallow deer. Niedenthal's mid-dinner course of squab, which I actually thought the premier dish of the entire festival, was accompanied by an exceptional sauté of chopped chard, pancetta, fluffy gnocchi, and a brown-sage butter.

The dishes were individually sumptuous, but nothing about them said South Florida. Whether that's because the chefs were allowed to choose for themselves what to serve or had to purvey their own materials, we can only guess. Maybe it was intentional, especially since the first night had offered up such area gems like mango cocktail sauce and key lime cheesecake with tropical fruit salsa. But I would have expected some attempt with local products à la the previous two evenings, given that the festival had not been widely advertised in the national sense. In fact the festival didn't sell out, and resort guests were reminded that tickets were available every day via voice-mail messages -- it was clearly intended for regional diners, tourists, or residents notwithstanding.

The nonappearance of Key West pink shrimp and tropical fruit influences during the concluding meal aside, the finale menu also failed to list the proper vintages for the wines that were being poured, a misstep noticed by Benziger himself. But for everything that went wrong -- and it really wasn't much -- so many more things went right. Beautiful touches included hand-signed menus at every place setting, negating the necessity of approaching chefs for autographs, and postprandial opportunities to hang out with the chefs and wine experts themselves, who showed less of an inclination to escape than I've seen at other festivals. In fact folks like Eismann and Militello publicly debated their evening plans -- Mile Marker 88? Squid Row? Cheeca's own Curt Gowdy Lounge? -- and neither seemed to mind the entourage that could have developed. And hey, any element that can lubricate a celebrity chef is a festival's gain. A point goes to Cheeca.

But first-year festivals are like weddings. They may happen once or they might occur over and over again -- it is the whole of the event and not the minutiae that makes it memorable to the guest. The wedding cake might fall, the bride might trip, the father of the groom might get drunk. The marriage, in the end, is what stands. If the past few days were any indication, the Cheeca Lodge & Spa Food & Wine Festival is a match made in Islamorada.

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