If there's one thing the six-month-old Westin Diplomat Resort & Spa offers, it's a dizzying number of choices. First, you must decide between pulling into the valet station or self-parking in the lot across the street, then taking the second-story pedestrian bridge over to the hotel. Then you have to register for any of the 1060 rooms. Next, after a brief struggle with those impossible Lycra torture devices they call bathing suits, you can either wade in the upper-level, foot-deep pool with the Lucite bottom (if you're not wearing a thong, that is) or dive into the lower-level river-style pool directly under it (if you don't mind viewing all of someone who is wearing a thong).
Even more troubling, when it comes to dining, you can go upscale at Prime, a steak house where contemporary Southern chef Marvin Woods practices his craft, or indulge in velvety cuisine at Satine, the supper club where Caribbean-fusion chef Donna Wynter drives the action. During the day or evening, an indoor café offers an eclectic range of bistro fare. Under normal circumstances, I might have hemmed and hawed between Woods and Wynter, both of whom I've followed for years at their respective Miami ventures. But during my recent visit, my gut feeling -- or maybe it was the sun, shining for the first time in, what, a month? -- led me outside to the oceanside deck, where Splash Poolside Grille and Bar hums from lunchtime till sunset.
Granted, my instincts don't always pull me along the straight and narrow. For example, I wasn't exactly a guest at the Diplomat. I sneaked in to see a friend who was staying there for the weekend, and I brought an entourage of kids, relatives, and friends with me. I wasn't even subtle when I pushed in a stroller filled with beach toys in full view of the legions of door-minding employees and lounging security guards, none of whom asked for my room number but many of whom wished me a sincere, "Welcome to the Diplomat."
For another thing, I'm not sure how interested I was in the food -- at least not until I viewed the limited but well-rounded menu, which included a number of attractive, tropical-sounding dishes such as chicken pita with fresh fruit salsa, chips with black bean relish, and whole wheat pasta and artichoke salad. But first things first. After I stuffed my reluctant son into his swim diaper and my impatient daughter into her bikini, tugged on their hats, greased them up with sunscreen, retrieved their hats from the cement, fought with both of them to get inflatable vests on their squirmy little bodies so they wouldn't sink like my grandmother's matzo balls, tried one final time with their hats, then immediately removed the accessories and took them to the overly air-conditioned bathroom before performing the whole routine all over again, I really just wanted a piña colada. And I wanted it "quick like a bunny," as I told the server, forgetting to change out of mommy lingo, though to the waitress's credit, she didn't take offense, clearly understanding my need for crushed ice and coconut milk mixed with 180-proof alcohol at that point.
Of course, given that these bathing-suit-clad cocktail waitresses had to hop between lounge chairs with trays of drinks in their hands without tripping over the minefield of little ones that surrounded us, my cutesy-poo request became nearly impossible to fulfill. It was a good 20 minutes before our first round of frozen umbrella drinks showed up, with an hour lapsing between ordering and receiving food; the servers were a little confused by our desire to eat on the lounge chairs rather than at the umbrella-shaded tables that bordered the ocean. You try to keep six kids in chairs.
Fortunately, we'd ordered our drinks, which eventually showed up, with floaters of Meyer's rum, giving some rather weak rumrunners and coladas and a specialty drink called "Splash" some much-needed kick. Indeed, I always anticipate that a frozen drink won't have the right ratios, particularly in popular resort venues where bartenders brew them up by the blender-ful. And after the initial wait, we asked for doubles of everything so we wouldn't run out so quickly. Too bad there's not much you can do to forestall well-meaning but short-falling fare.
Splash's menu intentions are gourmet but misleading. For instance, spicy ahi ceviche was flavorful with lime juice and red onions but hardly zesty with implied chili pepper piquancy. Nor were we sure it was ahi, given that the texture and color of the fish chunks looked more like grouper. The cilantro pico de gallo that dressed it was also somewhat off the mark, since it seemed to contain mostly black beans.
A bowl of tomato gazpacho reflected the same disingenuousness. Not only was the "spicy pepper broth," as it was described, bland as butter; it tasted more like celery and salt than it did like tomatoes. A grouper club served "open-faced on multi-grain bread" was indeed grouper. But it was hardly a club, served on a roll (top and bottom) with side dishes of tartar sauce and guacamole. Though the fish had about as little flavor as the eight-foot strip of beach adjoining the Diplomat had width, at least both the fillet and the roll were fresh.
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Splash's menu has two categories: "Food for the Body" and "Food for the Soul." I'd suggest adding a third -- "Food for the Gulls." We would have been happy to toss them the avocado egg rolls. Although the skins on the pair of rolls were greaseless and crisp, they were the only redeeming quality. The avocado-red pepper filling was just strange, a mushy contrast to the wrapper, and a cashew-soy dipping sauce simply overwhelmed the avocado inside.
It's probably best to stick with the simple items, even when the menu description sounds a bit more sophisticated. A grilled hot dog, for example, was not served with the billed "spicy mustard and three-onion chutney" but with ramekins of ordinary yellow mustard and plain old pickle relish. The hot dog, however, was a long, plump treat, better-tasting than the average poolside version. A "big cheeseburger" also proved to be thicker than the norm, with nice, grilled, juicy flavor, though the meat was far too well done for a request of medium. Neither burger nor dog come with side dishes, but an extra six bucks will get you a basket of both French fries and onion rings of good, honest, comfort-food character (though a claim of "homemade ketchup" certainly raised suspicions).
For the most value for money, check out the pizza Margherita, a tasty round of crisp crust layered with marinara sauce, perfectly melted mozzarella cheese, and rounds of Roma tomatoes. The menu also notes that fresh basil is on the pizza, but your kids, unless they're ordering off the "Kids Club" menu (think "grilled orange cheese sandwich"), will be relieved that the so-called green stuff is missing.
Dessert is a possibility only if gleaned off the wee ones' list -- they have choices of key lime pie or vanilla ice cream -- and entertainment, via a face-painting poolside clown named Daisy, is far more viable if you're under the age of, say, six. But even if the food isn't up to gastronomic par, it's safe to play the diplomat here, where the setting is so beautiful and the pool so refreshing that lunching poolside seems to be the only alternative.