The Doctor Is In

In last year's movie Safe, Julianne Moore plays a well-to-do homemaker stricken with environmental illness. She becomes allergic to the chemicals floating around her A not just to car exhaust, cleaning solutions, and pesticides sprayed on supermarket fruit, but to her new sofa, her husband's cologne, her own makeup. So sick, in fact, that the only solution is to mainline pure oxygen and inter herself in a stripped-down, porcelain-lined "safe" house, where she can purge her body of environmental poisons, or "unload." Then, when she's clean and feeling well again -- a scenario that never transpires in the film -- she can gradually reintroduce the chemicals of everyday life one by one, building up her tolerance. The problem is, as she begins to unload, she becomes increasingly sensitive, and her reactions become that much more significant.

Some of my friends and family members have fallen victim to a similar disease. It's called Dr. Atkins' Diet Revolution.

The Atkins Diet, which made a splash in the get-thin-quick Seventies, is enjoying a comeback. Based on the eating habits of Eskimos, it advises high-fat, high-protein foods over complex carbohydrates and simple sugars. In other words, consume no bread, pasta, potatoes, rice, corn, beans, sweets, or alcohol. Feast on meat and you'll lose a ton fast.

Sounds pretty unhealthy, given what we know about demon cholesterol. But medically speaking, some doctors say, it's sound. Carbohydrates stimulate the release of insulin, the hormone that allows us to store fat; an absence of this hormone in our bodies promotes the breakdown of fat, no matter how much of it we consume. And cardiologist Robert Atkins, M.D., prescribed the diet for his heart patients.

I've never been an advocate of fad diets. Invariably, some people misinterpret the instructions or take them too far, making themselves ill in the process. I also worry about the rebound effect, as dieters revert to old eating habits. Then there's the boredom factor -- without the wonderfully varied diet that's available to us, life loses some of its savor. But I dislike the Atkins Diet most because I am a carbohydrate queen, and the thought of giving up grain products is anathema. Not to mention literally impossible if I want to keep my job.

Still, unlike other one-note plans, the Atkins Diet has an interesting plus on its side. Ignore the bread basket, and you can easily follow the rules at a restaurant. Especially if that eatery is a steak house like the Palm Restaurant, where a huge slab of meat or fish on a plate -- and nothing else save for an herb garnish -- is the norm.

Located in Bay Harbor Islands just across the bridge from the Bal Harbour Shops, the Miami Palm is the fourteen-year-old branch of the New York Palm steak house, which opened in 1928. (Other cities in the dozen-restaurant chain include Las Vegas, Dallas, and Chicago.) Its reputation as a pricey power brokerage is well-earned -- a la carte steaks hover at the $26 mark, and lobsters (ranging from four to seven pounds apiece!) go for $17 per pound. Only those on expense accounts or with best-selling diet plans under their belts can afford to dine here. Dr. Atkins, no doubt, would be a regular.

Expectations based on that reputation can intimidate. Anticipating the Palm to be snooty, my girlfriends and I dressed up. Then I got lost, mistaking the Palms Restaurant & Lounge (9449 Collins Ave.) for the Palm. When I sent my miniskirted friends in to inquire, they came back flustered. "It's an old-age center," they protested. "We looked like hookers."

Fortunately, even hookers aren't denied directions, and we found the right place a few minutes later, feeling more appropriate as we valet-parked under the brightly illuminated dark green awning. But my companions got mad at me again when we entered the dining room. It wasn't because everyone was wearing jeans and casual shirts (they were). Or because the noise level could have registered on the Richter scale. It was because the patina on the oak floor was so slippery that we were virtually hydroplaning in our high heels, requiring restroom visits to be undertaken in pairs to avoid embarrassing pratfalls.

Food is the best way to buy forgiveness. I began patching things up with my friends by ordering a shrimp cocktail from the short list of appetizers. The shrimp, satisfyingly large and meaty but not particularly sweet, were better after being squirted with lemon and dunked in a zesty, horseradish-heavy cocktail sauce. But we found fault with the presentation: five peeled shrimp (at $11.75, that's more than $2.25 per shrimp) were laid out on a few limp leaves of lettuce. No-frills dining is part of the charm here, but this took it to extremes.

Clams casino was another starter that was more appealing in theory than in execution. A dozen of the shellfish were big but rubbery, flavored by an unholy amount of garlic. Finished under the broiler, each of the clams featured a strip of bacon that was singed in some places and raw in others. Clams oreganata, the only other hot appetizer aside from soup of the day, may have been a wiser choice.

What the Palm lacks on its appetizer roster it makes up for in salads. A list of nine includes a classic caesar or green salad, mozzarella Capri, and string bean and onion. We went with the house recommendation, the tasty if not exactly pretty Monday Night salad. Chopped pimientos, anchovies, tomatoes, and white onions were dressed simply in a touch of vinegar and oil, with a lemon squeeze adding a citric note. The real flavor enhancer was the anchovies, pungent and salty and hard to ignore. Anchovy fans (among whom I include myself) will surely enjoy this bold dish.

Shrimp such as those that were served as a cocktail fared better when breaded and deep-fried as an entree. Though the coating looked and tasted like store-bought bread crumbs, the shrimp themselves were delicious, butterflied and curled like rams' horns. The order comprised only seven shrimp but the number was misleading: One of these gigantic specimens alone was as rich as a lobster tail.

Swordfish is available grilled or blackened. We chose the latter, which was a high-quality success. Blackened on one side only (enabling it to be cooked all the way through without burning the seasonings), the steak was inches-thick, juice crackling through the aromatic, peppery exterior.

Filet mignon had also been blackened, though not intentionally. It was a nice medium pink in the middle, but the boneless beef had been charred on one side, ruining its mild taste. (A call for ketchup is always a bad sign with a $27 piece of meat. Sadly, the condiment could do nothing to soften the flesh, a little too tough and chewy.)

"Steak a la Stone," a charbroiled sirloin, was a more flavorful find. The strip steak was sliced into a dozen-plus pieces and arranged around a center of sauteed onions and pimiento. Our only quibble was the deep-red center of the meat: We'd asked for it to be cooked medium.

Too little fire also threatened to be the downfall of a cut of prime rib. A request for medium-rare was mistranslated into rare, allowing the middle of the beef to remain cold and fibrous. That point was practically moot, however, given the size of the hunk A our appetites didn't survive a breach of the perimeter. And that first frontier was delicious. Boneless and larded with juice-sealing fat, the browned edges of meat practically melted into a just-salty jus.

Veal piccata was a tender treat: four tremendous pieces of pounded veal resembling mutant butterfly wings. Dredged in flour and briefly sauteed, the meat cut like the butter with which it was dressed. The piccata sauce, tangy and lemony, was a light, unobtrusive pleasure.

In keeping with grand steak-house tradition, vegetable side dishes are a la carte and not cheap. But one order of vegetables -- hash browns, lyonnaise potatoes, or string beans, for instance -- can adequately serve a party of four. We tried creamed spinach, which was fabulous, a rich, fattening version Dr. Atkins would have loved. He wouldn't have recommended a half-and-half order of cottage fries and French-fried onion rings, however, and neither do I. The cottage fries, cut like very thin potato chips, were overdone and bitter on the tongue. Ditto for the shoestring onion rings, dipped in an oddly flavorless batter, then immersed in hot oil until they'd turned a greasy dark brown.

Dessert sounded unmanageable after the enormous meal, so we split a key lime pie that the server, efficient to the point of brusqueness, said had been made on the premises. We found the custard grainy with sugar, overwhelming the tart intentions of the key lime. One taste not only puckered us, it practically gave us cavities.

I disapprove of Dr. Atkins's method, but the insistence of my friends as to its merits has made me think about my own diet, which is far from exemplary. Prone to anemia, I could afford to add more red meat to my largely fish-and-pasta repertoire. The Palm, where starches and sweets are neglected serfs and protein is a beefy tyrant, was ideal for such an experiment. And a visit here, if you can stand the indifferent service (which can be as cool as a blood-rare steak if you aren't a regular), might further convince Atkins groupies in the process of cleaning their systems that there is indeed a "safe" space in a world of carbohydrates. But I'd still rather eat cake.


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