High Rollin'

I got my first taste of caviar-and-champagne life on my honeymoon. The hubby and I flew to a gorgeous Puerto Rican luxury beach resort for ten days to recover from the trauma of the marriage ceremony. When we arrived, we went from the plane straight to the chaise longues arranged artistically around the landscaped river pool and discovered that rummy pina coladas, served in coconut shells with fresh pineapple, were the perfect antidote for too many Jewish relatives botching the hora. Two of those babies and I could at least start to forget about falling off that slippery vinyl chair.

Only at dinnertime that evening we were faced with a new stress factor: All six of the on-site restaurants were so expensive that eating was going to cost us that cute little washer-and-dryer set we had our eye on. Was the shellfish paella worth line-drying our laundry?

Yes, we decided, it was. (Hey, it was our honeymoon.)
Fortunately, we found the house casino after dinner and got lucky at the blackjack table. After that it became a ritual: Invest heavily in dinner, then recoup the losses gambling. One habit to support another. And most times we wound up breaking even, making back enough money on cards to pay for our meal.

This reminiscence was prompted by a recent excursion to the lovely Sheraton Bal Harbour Beach Resort, whose restaurant patrons might just find themselves in need of a postprandial opportunity to make back some bucks.

Located across Collins Avenue from the Bal Harbour Shops, from the front the resort is undistinguishable from the neighboring high-rise condos. But behind that ordinary exterior lies a protected paradise that provides all the full-service requisites of extravagant vacationland -- right down to a winding river pool complete with a theme-park water slide and a rope bridge that stretches over sculpted waterfalls and streams loaded with Japanese carp. Inside, along with all the other amenities, the Sheraton sports two restaurants: Off the hotel lobby is the South American steak house al Carbon, and in a separate building somewhere amid the labyrinthine walkways (I couldn't possibly tell you exactly where, having had to stop various attendants for directions) is the resort's other eatery, Bal Harbour Beach House.

Having reviewed al Carbon early last year, I was aware of the hefty tab generated by a meal there. (A very good meal, mind you.) We figured that the Beach House, which was described to us over the phone as "casual," would present less of a challenge to our budget. Not so. A couple of frosty pina coladas later -- and the Beach House makes a delicious one, for which they'll charge you $6.00, or as much as $8.50 for a glass of wine -- we were asking whether the place has a casino.

I might not object too strenuously to paying $11 for a hamburger if it were prepared as ordered. But what was requested medium was delivered well-done, and accompanied by raw onions rather than the sauteed ones promised on the menu. The beef, however, was top quality and plenty tasty on a hard roll, augmented by mushrooms, barbecue sauce, and a layer of Swiss cheese. The French fries that came on the side were great too, crisp and grease-free.

The burger, which represents the comparatively economical end of the menu, is kept company under the "Snacks and Sandwiches" heading by chicken, fish, and club sandwiches. A caesar salad was probably the best bargain ($7), served traditionally plain or with meal-making blackened tuna or chicken ($13 and $10, respectively). The Beach House was out of tuna the night we visited, so we went with the poultry and were treated to a meaty breast sliced over a generous bowl of fresh romaine and crunchy croutons, with thick, Parmesan-heavy dressing providing a rich garnish. Other salads are found under "Salads and Appetizers," and they aren't as reasonably priced: Tomato, mozzarella, and portobello mushroom salad goes for $12, Florida shrimp salad for $15, and yellow ahi tuna salad for $17. Despite its grown-up price tag ($15), baby spinach salad was delightful, the soft greens strewn with tangerine sections and pieces of plum, the latter of which were somewhat like seedless red grapes in texture and size. The salad, which was dressed with a light, sesame-tasting vinaigrette, was greatly boosted by its star ingredient: succulent, gingery slices of roasted duck breast.

Similar in description to the ahi salad and identical in price, "warm salad of red snapper" was listed among the nine seafood and four meat entrees. A snapper fillet was cut into sections and layered over julienned squash surrounded by sliced cucumbers, shaved yams devoid of flavor, and halved plum tomatoes. The fish had a hard-to-chew crust of black and white sesame seeds and tasted none too fresh, while a peanut sauce drizzled over the salad was thin and salty with soy.

Southwest-style sea bass, on the other hand, was excellent ($19.95). Though it was actually sauteed, this skin-on fillet was so translucent and delicate that it seemed to have been steamed. The fish was perched on sections of lime-green chayote squash, simple and sweet, and a mound of sauteed baby spinach. A tangy (but not spicy) caramel-color tomatillo sauce completed the array of clean flavors.

The up-and-down nature of the meal continued with a main course of seafood risotto ($24.95). The huge portion of arborio rice was rife with squid, jumbo shrimp, scallops, and a couple of giant clams. Parmesan cheese was brought on the side -- a nice touch. But the risotto itself was so salty that it was inedible; we had to send it back.

A gazpacho con langosta starter ($7.95) was also terrible, though we kept this one, having no specific complaint other than the fact that we didn't like it. The puree of peppers, tomatoes, and cucumbers was too thick, stalky with celery, and served at room temperature rather than chilled. Its central ingredients, white beans and chunks of Florida lobster tail, were al dente (the beans) and tough (the lobster), and the blandness of both did nothing to unite the rest of the ingredients.

That said, a pair of appetizers was the highlight of the night. Billed on the menu as plural but appearing on the plate in the singular, a Beach House crabcake was moist and flavorful ($11.95). Shredded crab, red bell peppers, and onions had been formed into a fluffy patty and doused with a jalapeno tartar sauce; a frill of fried sweet potato matchsticks added crunch. Fried calamari was the other big winner, tender squid battered and deep-fried to a golden brown and served atop a puddle of tasty marinara sauce.

A duo of desserts countered those successes. A chocolate mousse timbale was grainy with undissolved sugar; not even a fresh berry sauce, chunky with strawberries and blueberries, could rescue it. The same sauce garnished "French toast," two very un-French toastlike cakes, griddled and sandwiching vanilla ice cream. These were warm but tough, as if they had been fried earlier and then reheated.

Service was solicitous and soothing. Outdoor and indoor bars provide drinking options, and a Key West attitude greets all manner of clientele in all manner of dress (and that includes bathing suits). I also loved the atmosphere -- a sophisticated blue-and-yellow nautical color scheme bounces off a cool tiled floor and fabulous ceiling fans shaped like hand-held feather fans from the Twenties. And if this resort didn't allow us to make up for expensive and iffy entrees at the blackjack tables, at least we left with the confidence that when we returned we'd be able to bet wisely on crabcakes, salads, and pina coladas and come away comfortably ahead.

Bal Harbour Beach House
(in the Bal Harbour Beach Resort) 9701 Collins Ave, Bal Harbour; 865-7511. Lunch and dinner daily from 11:00 a.m. to 11:00 p.m.


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