It is something of a modus operandi around here for restaurateurs to open a dining establishment with an ambitious menu and then within weeks or months whittle it away to look like any other bill of fare. Sometimes this can be attributed to impatience for the more eclectic items to sell, but most often the hand is forced by a lack of sophistication among local diners. Canyon Ranch Grill is the latest to succumb to this dumbing down syndrome.
The restaurant is located in Canyon Ranch Miami Beach, on the expanded site of the former Carillon Hotel. The first Canyon was opened in Tucson, Arizona, in 1979. That town, you might remember, gained wide notice as a new-age-style spa retreat that promoted a contemporary "wellness lifestyle"; its eatery's menus and cookbooks were way ahead of America's nutritional consciousness curve (the mantra: moderation, not deprivation).
Our Ranch branch seemed poised to follow suit when Alex Asteinza, who had been seasoned at well-regarded New York City hotel restaurants, was tapped as executive chef. Asteinza's innovative spa cuisine offerings included seared watermelon with tomato salad topped with red wine vinegar syrup and basil seed; spinach-and-Napa-cabbage rolls with garbanzos and fennel pollen in smoked paprika broth; and lavender-stuffed quail with spätzle, green fig, and cipollini onions. All are gone, including Chef Asteinza, who two months ago was replaced by Rafael Diaz de Leon. What's left of Canyon's canon of cutting-edge foods are items such as herb-seared lamb chops with roasted plantains and apricot-mango relish. Even the décor bespeaks a fake organic nature — take away the wood-and-polished-stone-disk mobiles that form curtains around the space, and you're pretty much looking at a Marriot dining room with a pretty exhibition kitchen.
The downsized menu isn't de Leon's fault; in corporate hotels, chefs follow orders. Regrettably, one gets the feeling that the suits giving commands have little notion of where this Ranch has landed. How else to explain Canyon conceding a considerable portion of its menu sidebar to explain ceviche ("the citric acid 'cooks' the fish without actually applying heat!")? This is like a New York deli menu detailing what a hot dog is ("a mild 'sausage' that comes in a soft bun!").
Yet the single ceviche item comprises four Key West shrimp that, ironically, are cooked before getting tastily marinated in tart pomelo juice and plated with thin sticks of jícama, bird chili, and cilantro. Other, raw starters ending with the letter o include tiradito, carpaccio, and gazpacho. This is clean, calorically correct cuisine that is surely more healthful than anything ordered in a steak house — but it's likewise the sort of fare that can be found on nearly every menu in town. And, unbelievably, only one of 11 entrées is vegetarian: carrots, zucchini, and yellow squash shaved into thin, wide strands and tossed with basil and toasted pine nuts in "marinara sauce" (more like tomato broth). The good news: It's only 200 calories. The bad news: You might die of boredom.
Most patrons won't lament a lack of tofu and tempeh, but legumes and grains are in short supply too, and there are no açai or goji berries, no pomegranate or mangosteen, no green tea extracts or fennel pollen. No quinoa. This goes against Canyon's own history of emphasizing whole grains and healthful carbohydrates. If the Ranch's approach to lifestyle improvement were the same as its grill is toward diet, the cure for couch potatoes would be an edict to sit up straight and watch only public television.
Canyon's "philosophy" is to provide "seasonal" ingredients "with an emphasis on local, organic, and sustainable farming and fishing methods." Halibut can certainly be claimed as locally caught — if you live in Alaska. Scallops, blue crab, salmon, and tuna aren't exactly South Florida specialties either. We did flesh out one local fish, a five-ounce (standard portion here) rectangular fillet of grouper striped on top with crisp strips of duck prosciutto and bedded on a minced vegetable salsa dotted with earthy nubs of "corn truffle" (huitlacoche).
The calorie count and grams derived from carbs, protein, fat, and fiber accompany each entrée, as does a recommended wine for pairing (Calera, a California Pinot Noir, is matched with three of them). Two petite, dome-shaped crab cakes were composed largely of luscious lumps of crab, which is likely why this main course contains the most grams derived from fat (18). Snap pea purée on the side offered a refreshingly bright bite, as did two strands of oven-roasted rapini. Gentle meaty notes from a lean, marble-free tenderloin of grass-fed bison, which contains 76 percent less fat than beef, likewise stimulated healthy approval around the table. Also pleasing were accompaniments of sautéed kale and polenta poked with blue cheese, the latter the sole grain encountered.
Among starters, poblano pepper "stuffed with shrimp and goat cheese" brought a pair of peppers topped with pumpkin seeds and plumped with melted cheese that registered a slight crustacean flavor. Considering the $6 price, we didn't expect prawns, but a few minced pieces of shrimp would have been appreciated. Grilled caesar salad was a long, thin romaine heart mildly charred on the outer leaves; not sure how grilling lettuce improves taste, texture, or nutritional value. A petite poached quail egg set in a round of whole-wheat toast was perched on the side; there were no "white anchovies," as the menu promised, and little if any anchovy flavor in the roasted garlic dressing. Heirloom tomato salad translated to two wedges each of local red, yellow, and green heirlooms lined separately on a rectangular white plate and daintily dressed in vinegar, olive oil, basil, and Maldon sea salt. The smaller, darker, juicier green breed was exceptional.
Another thing that distinguishes this Canyon from others is that it serves alcoholic beverages. These include organic, bio-dynamic production wines and craft beers, as well as cocktails culled from organic liquors. (What, no organic after-dinner cigars?) We all know that booze does not enhance one's health, but few will argue its salubrious effect on profits — especially with triple wine markups, cocktails going for $15, and beers selling for $6 to $11. If you think a spa restaurant would have its own in-house water filtration system, think again.
The price is right concerning dinner: Most appetizers run $8 to $13; entrées range from $18 (vegetable ribbons) to $25 (lamb chops, bison tenderloin). The staff is extremely friendly, although the waiters' knowledge of menu ingredients suggests that after work, they head out for their idea of health food: a Whopper without cheese.
A pair of "Canyon Ranch signature" chocolate chip cookies satisfied in a Chips Ahoy sort of way. The seasonal fruit in "seasonal fruit bread pudding" was banana. "Honey roasted berries" brought raspberries, blueberries, and blackberries, probably from Chile or California (plenty of fresh Florida strawberries pack the shelves at Publix, but none appeared on the plate). Alongside the cooked berries was a petite pyramid of key lime pound cake. A tired tarragon sprig arose from it like a tattered flag of surrender.
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