By David Minsky
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As far as clichés go, clearly it's the top of the entirely irksome ones when uttered to those of us left behind at the job site or homestead. Still, after four days at the Cheeca Lodge & Avanyu Spa in Islamorada, undertaking the strenuous duties of attending the first Cheeca Lodge Spa Food & Wine Festival and being massaged for hours on end, I see the usefulness of it in, say, trying to explain to my editors why I've missed each and every deadline this week. I don't just need a vacation from my vacation, I need electroshock treatment or, at the very least, a Brooklyn-accented Cher slapping my face and saying, "Snapoutofit." Quite simply, I can't perform up to my potential as a writer and critic when I'm this freakin' relaxed.
But hey, if the pigeon fits, I'll put it in a hole -- after I tuck into it, that is. The Cheeca Lodge may be the type of property to reduce any ambition to apathy, but the sipping and supping opportunities there have a way of recharging appropriate energies. In particular, Andy Niedenthal, executive chef of the fine-dining restaurant Atlantic Edge (81801 Overseas Hwy., Islamorada, 305-664-4651), put out a dish of squab (pigeon, for the less refined of us) during the final evening of the festival that was as effective at turning me on as a new battery plugged into a dead car. He plated the tender yet meaty bird over sautéed chard that had been enlivened with pancetta and brown sage butter, then topped it with delicate gnocchi. The earthy combination of flavors, underscoring the more dramatic robustness of the game bird, was as striking to the palate as the sunset, performing over the Atlantic Ocean and framed by the restaurant's picture windows, was to the cornea.
Unfortunately, the squab dish isn't on Niedenthal's current Atlantic Edge menu, but a morsel of his phenomenal skate wing that I sampled during the "grand tasting," held on the second evening, is not only available but worth its regular appetizer status. The lightly pan-fried wing, which separated into loose shreds at a mere push of the fork, was presented over garlic-whipped boniato and accented by toasted macadamia nuts, sesame oil, and key-lime brown butter. The brown butter, which appears on Niedenthal's menu with another starter made of seared sea scallops, vinegar, white truffle oil, and goat cheese mashed potatoes, is no doubt a favorite ingredient of this chef. But who can argue when it adds such subtle depth to a dish?
The spa people could, I guess. But there are plenty of diet-conscious entrées, such as grilled and marinated tofu or grilled chicken breast with buckwheat noodle salad, to satisfy the self-sacrificing. As for me, I can't leave Atlantic Edge without a dose of the coconut conch chowder, a creamy concoction that has little pools of butter floating on top of the broth, unless it's to consume it where it is also offered at the Ocean Terrace Grill, Cheeca's casual dining spot.
This breezy indoor-outdoor eatery works a bit harder to appease the Avanyu crowd, with an elegant salad-bar selection that changes daily. We were able to score several lovely composed, layered, and tossed salads, ranging from artichokes and olives to mozzarella Caprese to rice noodles interwoven with julienned cabbage, carrots, and scallions. Bowls of fresh mesclun greens and crisp romaine are constants, as are homemade-tasting vinaigrettes, Homestead-fresh vegetables, and juicy tropical fruits.
The Terrace Grill's menu does, fortunately, offer opportunities for us cheaters, including a fried green BLT sandwich that was dressed with a pleasantly rich garlic aioli. Wash that down with a Mango Pango, a frozen drink that courts tipsiness and brain freeze simultaneously, and life in the southern subtropics becomes rather hazily defined.
Lingering lunching is also available across the Overseas Highway at a competing resort's culinary venue, the Moorings' Beach Café at Morada Bay (81600 Overseas Hwy., Islamorada, 305-664-0604). I spent a good lost hour there idly munching the complimentary, freshly fried tricolor tortilla chips, dunked in impeccably fresh salsa that tasted more like gazpacho, before moving on to caper-flecked fish dip and an asparagus and heart of palm soup that was as smooth as Michael Jackson thinks he still is. I was also delighted with a blue crab-garnished pizza, but the just-pulled-from-the-water quality of the dolphin fillet I feasted on for a main course eclipsed it. Grilled with herbs, then tossed while still warm with a delicate vinaigrette and sliced onions and cucumbers, the dolphin was simply outstanding.
Indeed, incredible fish is the hallmark of the Keys in general and Islamorada in particular, which rightfully enough is known as the "sport-fishing capital of the world." Even the shacks and joints, like the décor-challenged Squid Row (81901 Overseas Hwy., Islamorada, 305-664-9865), take pride in serving the bounty of the seas as "à la minute" as possible. I followed the recommendation to stop in for a meal there from festival chef and local South Florida restaurateur Mark Militello, and I'm glad I had the opportunity to do so. Everything from a simple shrimp cocktail to the beer-battered clam strips to the conch "burger" -- kind of like a giant conch fritter flattened into a disk and slapped on a Kaiser roll -- was completely and utterly appealing. I especially admired a walnut-encrusted dolphin fillet, which was buttery and delicious, especially when featured with homemade tartar sauce and cole slaw as a special sandwich of the day.