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SPA? HA!

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.

I must say, eating light has its rewards. When dessert time rolls round, I feel I deserve some. I fully expect to be tempted with Spa desserts. After all, the press packet includes recipes for some. But, no. "We've never had them," our waiter informs us. He tempts us with chocolate mousse and when we order it, he jokes, "Spa mousse." Indeed, luscious chocolate mousse tastes pretty good after a Spartan meal. So does a goblet full of fresh raspberries topped with a small, Spa-sized dollop of real whipped cream. I feel positively saintly.

But this virtue has come at a high cost. A crisp C-note, to be precise. More non-Spa treats come with our check to sweeten the blow: two little Mexican wedding cookies and a pair of chocolate-covered strawberries. I have plenty of room for these goodies, too. Gee, it's nice not to be so full. But I wonder how a real Spa guest, one who is concerned with every morsel eaten, would deal with this constant temptation.

Spa cuisine at the Chaparral Room now exists as a sort of token gesture toward guests who are watching their weight. Until a whole set of alternatives for Spa diners is developed, including appropriate offerings between courses, this effort is exactly as the wait staff perceives it.

A big joke.

Another July press release alerts me to the introduction of "Cuisine Naturelle" at Golden Swan in the Hyatt Regency resort in Scottsdale. In this case, dishes were selected and altered to meet International and American Heart Association guidelines. Aha! Spa cuisine? Perhaps.

It's my first visit to the north Scottsdale Hyatt. I immediately love the look of its elegant cactus-studded restaurant. It is Southwestern without being dopey about it. Lilac tablecloths and teal chairs are complemented by fresh flower arrangements on each table. On a pond visible through a wall of windows, a pair of black swans glides by, pausing only to pick at bugs on shore.

I feel much more at home here than at the Chapparal Room. It's not as stodgy. The staff isn't as nervous. Chilled Evian water fills our water goblets.

But I question this so-called Cuisine Naturelle. For one thing, no salads or appetizers are listed in this category. Also, where are the statistics on cholesterol and calories I've come to expect? Our waitress is very helpful. She explains that the four Cuisine Naturelle entrees were simply plucked from the existing menu. She helps us select an appetizer and salads which also conform to this healthier standard.

We munch on a whole sourdough bread round--with butter--and watch the swans. The dining room is empty for the moment; a party of forty is scheduled to arrive later.

The appetizer she recommends, Southwest carpaccio, is presented exactly like the lamb salad at the Chaparral Room. Red, razor-thin slices of Parmesan-sprinkled roast beef surround a pile of mixed greens. No flowers this time, just radicchio, Belgian endive and frilly oak-leaf lettuce. The rare beef is subtly spiced but it's so mushy it has to be scraped off the plate. American field salads are a bargain at $3.95. Radicchio, endive, oak leaf and Boston lettuce are dressed with a vinaigrette studded with mustard seed. Sun-dried tomatoes add color and flavor, but don't overpower the greens.

Suddenly, we're seated in the middle of a cocktail party. At 7 p.m. sharp, twenty or thirty people arrive and begin chatting and drinking three feet from our table. The switchover from solitude to social life is a shock.

"Intermezzo," a young man intones, placing black octagonal plates before us. "Our signature powdered sugar swan and grapefruit sorbet inside an orange rind." I love this. It reminds me of Christmas breakfast. But that's beside the point. You can see that things are no different at Golden Swan. There is no unified meal plan for people who are watching what they eat.

The noise grows louder. The hostess who seated us comes by to say she's sorry. The cocktail crowd edges closer. Just when I think someone will attempt to extinguish a cigarette at our table, the restaurant manager swoops us away to another table at the end of the dining room. He apologizes profusely for the trouble, but we decline a free bottle of wine.  

"I never thought they'd all show up at the same time," he confesses. No problem, I tell him, and mean it. Despite the inconvenience, I am enjoying myself. Golden Swan has treated me like a valued customer and that makes me feel good. Our entrees arrive. One glance assures me there's nothing austere about dinner this night. Maybe that's why the grams of fat and protein aren't listed on the menu. I'm not complaining, but then, I'm not on a restricted diet, either.

A pistachio-coated lamb chop tastes great. The pink meat is already sliced from the bone. Underneath the chop is a large, grilled Anaheim chile. Underneath that are savory white beans flavored with bacon and spinach. It is layer after layer of unique and complementary flavors. I'm happy, and I don't feel like I've given up anything.

Grilled swordfish with crayfish chili and mango salsa is similarly un-Spartan. The chili is made with lobster broth and butter in a complex process, our waitress informs us. Butter? Lobster broth? This is hardly deprivation. Mango salsa is delightful: sweet, yet tinged with onion and cilantro.

We are full after this meal. Still, when our waitress offers us dessert on the house, we accept. Fresh assorted berries (raspberries, blackberries and strawberries) with zabaglione sauce is lovely but not low calorie. Crumb- covered apple-rhubarb pie comes not as a slice, but as a round. It sits on a powdered sugar-covered plate crisscrossed with dark chocolate. It is nicely sour and sweet.

With tip, our check comes to $75. Of course, we are not charged for dessert, which cost $6.95 apiece. A complimentary after-dinner chocolate truffle seems too sweet, too much.

I don't have that virtuous, unsated feeling when I leave Golden Swan. No, I feel as I would after a regular dinner in a fine restaurant. Though we've paid less at the Hyatt, I'm afraid we've eaten more. And frankly, this equation of less is more is not in the spirit of spa cuisine.

When it comes right down to it, I'm still wary of the label "Cuisine Naturelle." If restaurants are going to profit by claiming to meet American Heart Association guidelines, they should lay out the numbers right on the menu. To choose to do otherwise is to look like the latest restaurant to have jumped on the lucrative healthy-eats bandwagon.

All aboard? Chaparral Room at Camelback Inn, 5402 East Lincoln, Scottsdale, 948-6644. Hours: 6 to 9 p.m., Sunday through Thursday; 6 to 10 p.m., Friday and Saturday.

Golden Swan, Hyatt Regency Scottsdale, 7500 East Doubletree Ranch Road, Scottsdale, 991-3388. Hours: 6 to 10 p.m., seven days a week.

chris: first two for lead restaurant. thx, kim

"Is this in conflict with Spa cuisine?" I ask. "I have no idea," he shrugs. "You don't have to eat it."

I'm tired of balsamic vinegar. The novelty of this trendy salad dressing has dissolved for me.

Just when I think someone will attempt to extinguish a cigarette at our table, the restaurant manager swoops us away to another table.

If restaurants are going to profit by claiming to meet American Heart Association guidelines, they should lay out the numbers right on the menu.


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