Given a choice, many of us would rather eat library paste than some reduced-calorie dish that pretends to be food. No wonder diets fail. We’re starving for real taste.
Few master the art of eating wisely and well. We hope that’s about to change. Now that the season of holiday excess has presented the cold, hard fact of our warm and squishy overfed bodies, it’s time to begin exploring in earnest the concept of heavyweight taste from lightweight meals.
Each month, this new column will spotlight a different inventive, highly personal approach to the combination of diet and healthful living that flourishes in this city of the professionally slim and beautiful. We’ll learn culinary techniques and recipes from master chefs, food writers and accomplished home cooks, and glimpse the personalities behind the ideas. For those who measure their fat grams or bust their sugar spoons to stay employable, dieting is a lifestyle. For the rest of us, living light has to fit around the way we actually live, which rarely accommodates fussy preparations or restrictive menus.
We want to be gratified, not deprived. And luckily, that’s exactly the idea behind some of the more forward-thinking spa menus today. One of the newest proponents of the idea is somewhat of a surprise -- Joachim Splichal, the chef who built an empire satisfying indulgent tastes at his Patina Group restaurants. With his wife, Christine, he’s built Kinara, a combination day spa, restaurant and gift shop in a two-story building on Robertson Boulevard north of Melrose Avenue in West Hollywood.
“People have come to be realistic about their food,” Christine Splichal said. “There are too many fad diets. As soon as you are off of them, they don’t work.”
The couple, along with their skin-care specialist partner, Olga Lorencin, have developed a menu that seems so indulgent, the label “spa food” hardly fits. The generous portions of fresh vegetables, soups and organic, lean meats challenge hearty appetites. The breakfast, lunch, snack and tea menus read like a dieter’s wish list: brioche with marmalade, Humboldt Fog goat cheese with a roasted baby beet salad, tartine of prosciutto, sliced pear, black pepper and ricotta, and -- gasp! -- chocolate cake, panna cotta, cookies and French macaroons.
The sweets represent Christine Splichal’s belief that life, and food, aren’t about constant restraint. As the fourth generation of a French bakers’ family, she considers dessert not just an occasional reward, but a birthright. It’s no hardship, however, to eat every bite of the artfully composed salads, or the entrees amplified by intense, light dressings and sauces. The full flavor of the free-range chicken, wild salmon and ahi tuna could stand alone, but they’re complemented by fresh, organic produce used in simple, but uncommon ways.
The chef’s frothy tomato juice is fast becoming a spa signature. Using a method borrowed from his grandmother, Joachim Splichal strains through a cloth the flavorful water from vegetables or fruits such as tomatoes, cucumbers, strawberries or watermelons, then blends it into fresh juices. The result is nothing like a depressing diet staple, it’s more like a frappe.
“In the old days, there were no chinois,” he said. “All the sauces went through the cheesecloth.”
The chef also learned how to coax flavor out of nonfattening food when he spent part of the 1990s consulting and testing 400 recipes for the cookbook and spa menu at Canyon Ranch Resort Health Spa in Tucson. For Kinara, he’s advanced, and relaxed, the concepts formulated there. His spa menu avoids butter and cream and trades them for the first-pressed olive oil (he prefers the Italian brand Ardoino).
He’s assisted by his 22-year-old chef de cuisine, Elizabeth Mendez, a former sous-chef at Moomba. She adds low-calorie flavor to a warm goat cheese tartine with her “lemon curd” -- blanched, julienned strips of lemon peel. Mendez scrapes the pith from the peeled rind and immerses the rind in a pan of cool water. She brings the water to a boil, then quickly drains the strips and submerges them in cool water. After repeating the process three times, she stores the rind in fresh lemon juice. Though it’s used as a garnish, the lemon peel adds a flavor boost, particularly when it’s paired with paper-thin red onions marinated for a day in red wine vinegar, olive oil, salt and pepper.
Caramelized onions also add flavor to a simple smoked salmon tea sandwich. Using less than a tablespoon of olive oil for one thinly sliced onion, Mendez sautes the onion over low heat for 45 minutes to an hour. When it has browned, she deglazes the pan with a splash of lemon juice or balsamic vinegar. Another sandwich gets intriguing complexity with a celery root remoulade combined with Fuji apples.
“A lot of the cooking is rustic,” Splichal said. “It’s very easy going.”
Some of the most appealing dishes are among the simplest. Eliminate one slice of bread from a sandwich and you have an open-faced, French-style tartine that reveals the beauty of the ingredients -- pink Scottish smoked salmon, sprigs of fresh dill and a bit of creme fraiche, or prosciutto with pears and ricotta cheese. (Splichal slices his salad and sandwich garnishes with a $20 mandoline to achieve an even thinness.)
The vivid yellow color of the kabocha soup (flavored with a vanilla bean) radiates in an earthy stoneware bowl set on a straw place mat. The artful swirl of olive oil glistens like a holographic decoration. Nice big, heavy plates add a visual heft to the food.
“It’s the style that we cook for ourselves,” Splichal said. “This is food you can eat everyday.”
Splichal and Mendez incorporate a changing list of fresh ingredients. In the fall, a sandwich may be garnished with a crunchy salad of micro-thin slices fennel and tomato. This season’s “creamy” persimmon sorbet may give way to mango in the summer.
Their emphasis on organic food, the inclusion of wine and occasional sweets reflects a trend that is slowly creeping into spa menus, said Susie Ellis, vice president of industry development for Spa Finder, a leading spa travel service. “In the last five years or so, I’ve seen a little bit more of an idea that some indulgence is fine,” she said.
The concept of health, exercise and nutrition is getting less rigid and intense (witness the spread of gentle yoga and Pilates). At the Tucson spa Miraval, chef Cary Neff emphasizes fresh ingredients, aromatic herbs, vegetables and the occasional touch of chocolate. Three years ago at Canyon Ranch, the allowable fat content per meal was increased from 4 or 5 grams to 10.
Splichal and Lorencin skipped listing fat grams or calories, mostly because diners tend to focus on the calories, not the ingredients. Plus, not everything on the menu is meant to be low in calories or fat. They like to say they take a holistic approach, feeding the stomach, the skin and the soul. Some ingredients, such as salmon, berries and dark, leafy vegetables, will be menu mainstays because Lorencin believes in their efficacy for skin. Though food is healthful, the chefs don’t hype its good-for-you aspect.
“I wasn’t even conscious that the menu was light,” said Cliff Rothman, a writer and recent Kinara diner. “It just looked like a good menu.”
Looks matter, of course, especially in light dishes. For example, a salad of tabbouleh isn’t merely scooped onto a plate; it’s neatly pressed into a ring mold, surrounded with a rich array of greens and herbs, and in a striking departure for most versions of the Middle Eastern salad of bulgur wheat, parsley and olive oil, served warm.
The lesson: If you made such a dish at home, you’d never gulp it standing at the sink, but sit down, savor it and leave the table satisfied.