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Spa cuisine. Its origin is fairly obvious. It comes from spas, like La Costa or Canyon Ranch where rich and famous people go to shed unwanted pounds. Pounds acquired from living the good life one-day-at-a-time too many.
You and I should have such problems.
You and I should be so rich.
But that's okay. (She said.) If the battle cry of the Eighties was, "Living well is the best revenge," maybe the axiom of the Nineties will be something a little more modest. Something greener. Something like, "Less is more."
That's exactly the philosophy behind the luxuriously Spartan regimes at popular spas. Eat less, pay more. Everyone wins with this formula. Spa owners can't collect the bucks fast enough. Well-heeled patrons feel virtuous and thinner.
Spa cuisine has been showing up with increasing frequency in local restaurants and resorts. What was once the province of the wealthy and well-known is now trickling down to the rest of us. Besides sounding glamorously minimalist, the concept of spa cuisine dovetails nicely with trends in heart-healthful eating. Syndicated doctors and famous surgeons are now menu consultants. Dietitians and nutritionists are a chef's newest best friends. Just think of the money saved on creme fraiche.
My first stop is the Chaparral Room at Marriott's Camelback Inn. In July, I receive a press release from this Scottsdale resort. The Chaparral Room, it announces, is now offering spa cuisine on its menu. Only the press release capitalizes "spa," as in the Spa at Camelback Inn. Included in the packet are several pages of recipes from the Spa. On a warm September evening, we gussy ourselves up and cruise down Lincoln Drive. We bring plenty of money with us. We know eating right won't come cheap at the Chaparral Room.
We arrive early since I've always heard it's healthier to eat before eight o'clock. No one else seems to care about such matters. The dining room is nearly empty.
Our captain introduces himself for what we hope won't be a three-hour meal. After ascertaining our lack of interest in alcohol, he presents us with menus. I can feel my cholesterol rise as he describes specials like lobster with lobster mousse and favorites like beef Wellington. We tell him we're interested in Spa cuisine. This seems to end the conversation and he departs.
A basket of table water crackers and a plate of butter is brought to our table. Since my dining accomplice and I are just pretending to be on restricted diets, we slather on the butter.
We peruse the menu, which doesn't take long. The Spa cuisine section is limited. Three entrees and three starters are offered. Calories and other pertinent information are listed below these Spa cuisine dishes. While fat and carbos may be lower than other items on the menu, prices sure aren't.
Our captain takes our order. Within minutes, complimentary appetizers are delivered. "This is honey-roasted ham with a tomatillo/corn/apple chutney," a young man tells us. "Is this in conflict with Spa cuisine?" I ask. "I have no idea," he shrugs. "You don't have to eat it."
But again, we do. The ham is salty, but the corn relish is very nice--fresh and full of lemon zest. I would suggest sodium-watchers skip it.
The floor is aggressively tended at this fancy territorial-style restaurant. Someone on the staff walks by our table every twenty seconds. Yet, somehow, such attentiveness avoids being oppressive. Our Spa cuisine salads have arrived. Bitter-tasting poppyseed bow-tie pasta encircles a mound of tomato-basil chutney. The look is clean and plain. The taste is boring.
The poached loin of lamb with assorted greens is prettier. In fact, a purple pansy has been plopped in the middle of the greens. I refrain from eating it. I like this dish, though I wish for more diversion. There is much rare lamb and too few leaves of radicchio and romaine. Plus, I'm tired of balsamic vinegar. The novelty of this trendy salad dressing has dissolved for me.
Lemon sorbet in lily-shaped glasses is served next. "Is this Spa-approved?" I quiz the young man who delivers it, just for the heck of it. "It's Haagen-Dazs," he says, hopefully. "So it's not," I confirm. He smiles politely. "I guess it's up to you."
Yeah, I guess so. Because I'll tell you, the Chapparal Room is certainly not monitoring what we're eating. Butter, ham, sorbet. Your choice is to eat or resist. Unfortunately, some real Spa guests may not be able to say no.
Two silver-domed plates are wheeled near our table. They are placed in front of us by two waiters. At a choreographed moment, our entrees are unveiled. Both are artful and stark presentations. Less, you see, is more.
I ask our captain to name the fish in my accomplice's grilled kebabs. There are at least three different swimmers on each skewer. Our captain seems caught off guard. "Salmon . . . ," I prompt. "Salmon," he stutters. "Salmon, um, salmon and, uh, grouper." "Grouper, and . . . ?" "Yes, salmon and grouper," he concludes and leaves us. The third fish is also very nice, whatever it is.
Capon stuffed with ricotta cheese and currants looks smaller than the fish kebabs. The plum sauce accompanying this castrated chicken is not as sweet as expected. It hints of lindenberry or cranberry. Steamed snow peas and baby carrots decorating the plate are crunchy and fresh.