Strangest restaurant-review scenario ever. We're trying to turn in to the Westin Diplomat Resort for dinner at Aizia, and a uniformed guy surrounded by a slew of orange cones is frantically waving us away. "You can't come in here," he says, breathing hard. "Use the next entrance."
My girlfriend is in no hurry to back straight out into four fast lanes of traffic. She eases forward to turn the car around, and the guard goes bananas.
"No, no, no!" he's shouting. His barrel-shaped little figure is jumping up and down in the rearview.
What the hell? Security is locked down at the Westin like they're expecting Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's limo to haul in any minute, trailing a picket line and a hoard of paparazzi. When we pull up to the next entrance, a dozen girls in the skimpiest minidresses and spikiest heels imaginable are milling around the resort's glass doors.
"It has to be Bill Clinton," my spouse surmises.
The valet takes one look at us. "The hotel is booked."
"But we're here for dinner..."
"OK, I'll hold your car here until you're sure they'll let you in."
At the door, another uniform stops us. "Know what's going on here?"
"Um, no idea?"
"Talk to the man at the table."
"Hi, man at the table. We have a dinner reservation at Aizia."
Man at table looks grim. "Mumble mumble mumble," he says.
"Adultentertainmentindustryconvention." Pause. "You OK with that?"
Are we OK? With adult entertainment? "Oh, we love porn!" I gush.
Everybody looks relieved. I wonder how many unforewarned hotel guests have threatened to feed table guy and his minions to John Ashcroft, the American Family Association, and the doddering dragons at Women Against Pornography. "Hold on, then, and I'll page you an escort."
I've never been frog-marched by a uniformed guard to a restaurant before. There are a lot of gigantic ad boards all over the lobby of the Westin, shilling girl-on-girl action, new triple-X websites, and products reputed to keep sexy time going for as long as possible. Despite the best efforts of our escort, we get an eyeful.
And we can hardly believe our luck. We're seated at a table directly by the door, with a view of the entire interior of Aizia, plus a wedge of the lobby, where many incredible-looking people are schmoozing, boozing, and traipsing. The convention attendees come in all shapes, sizes, ages, colors, and degrees of sartorial weirdness. They range from bottle blonds wearing tiny, spangled dresses to ginormous sex-positive lesbians swanning around in voluminous party frocks, combat boots, and Pippi Longstocking striped knee-highs. There are little gay men with bunched biceps flitting between parties and snapping photos with their cell phones. "Dennis Rodman told me I was too hot to be legal," coos one guy to his gaggle of pals.
Yeah, Rodman is here, about 100 feet tall, hamming it up in flowing yellow; he looks like the Squash Blossom That Ate Hollywood. Every time he passes our table, he does a weird little dance, yards of yellow fabric swirling and flapping, like he's so tickled to find himself at a porn convention that he can hardly keep his big, happy feet on the ground.
Another adventitious turn: Completely out of character, tonight I'm wearing clear Kate Spade stilts with oversized plastic bows on the toe and a skin-tight summer dress displaying acres of cleavage. I look exactly like a retired second-tier porn star who's finally given herself permission to eat all the chocolate turtles she wants. I figure we'll be able to slip around the hotel after dinner and disappear into the throngs without a trace.
But first, of course, it is necessary to eat and drink.
Which, as usual, I'm looking forward to. Aizia replaced the highly regarded and more formal Satine at the Westin last year. The new chef, Craig Berkower, was chef de cuisine at Chef Allen's before this, and he's calling his menu "traditional Asian with contemporary flair." It emphatically is not Asian Fusion, he has told reporters. Curries, pad Thai, and satay genuflect to Thai tradition, as does a whole crispy snapper. There are lots of Japanese sushi rolls on the bill, roast duck, Mongolian beef, and spare ribs à la chinoise. Plus nouveau-Asian cocktails: Yuzo mojito, Sake-rita, and sakes infused with dates, mangoes, pears, and all the spices of the exotic Orient.
Décor: swank and chocolate-colored, plush seating around low cocktail tables for nibbling, a long bar backed by a wall of glowing bottles, and intimate spaces designed for canoodling.
Orchids. Candlelight. Porn Queens.
We pick over a dish of warm soybeans in their pods, sprinkled with ginger salt.
I really am going to pay attention to the food. I swear. But the table behind us is discussing the semiotics of cunnilingus in rigorously academic language. I overhear somebody referencing Bahktin's theory of the grotesque. Is this what our tenured university professors do with their sabbatical year off?
"I'll have the raw oysters," I tell our waitress. Aren't they the logical choice here?
The oysters are not "real Kumamotos," she explains. But they are from California. I've recently read that California Pacific oysters are edible in the summer because they're farmed to spawn later than our Easterners. So theoretically, they shouldn't be full of, you know, sperm. Which — pardon me, boys — doesn't always taste that great.
The oysters ($18 for a half dozen), it turns out, are mushy and spermy. They're really terrible, with a flavor and consistency that would turn even the most ardent swallower into a spitter. Chef Berkower's concoction of ponzu, chilies, and daikon doesn't make them any more palatable; it just adds a helping of slime and salt to the grayish spunk.
I turn my attention to my partner's Char Sui sugar-cured boneless ribs ($13) with Chinese barbecue sauce. These little morsels, we agree, are pretty good — a nice touch of crunch in the fat and a gooey, burnt sweetness in the mild sauce. They've been prettily served on a banana leaf. They don't remind me of anything I've ever seen in a bedroom, and I appreciate that.
Next up: A whole crispy fried snapper ($34), a bowl of "duck duck soup" ($16), and a side of braised Chinese eggplant with tofu ($9). The snapper looks beautiful, friendly. I love whole cooked fish — their cloudy eyeballs and their panko-coated tails. I like the way they seem to be swimming theatrically sideways on your plate, as if performing a hard-to-master trick. More and more, I prefer to look my food in the face before I eat it. Our waitress deftly removes flesh from bone, sprinkles generous handfuls of mint and Thai basil, and pours on the sauce. The snapper is fragrant and moist; the whole herb leaves are delicious. But this fish, like the duck duck soup I'm sharing with my nonspouse, is something I've had before, more authentically and way cheaper, at Thai and Vietnamese restaurants. Her soup, anyway, is a bland nonentity of duck meat strips in watery broth, definitely not too hot to be legal. And relatively flavorless compared to the punchy Thai tom yum gais and head-clearing Vietnamese phos we love and live for. You can dress your hotel food up in fancy duds — but anybody can throw a bag of frozen edamame into a pot, and we can order braised eggplant just as good as Aizia's, if not better, from the neighborhood Chinese takeout. I'd opt for the obscenely rich dish from China Dumpling in Boynton Beach before I'd drive two miles for the version at Aizia.
Even dessert, for which my nonspouse is always a complete pushover, left us feeling limp and unenamored. Chocolate banana spring rolls ($9) tasted like warmed-over baby food inside; the accompanying lemongrass ice cream would have been swell if it hadn't absorbed refrigerator odor, and the mango sauce... well, the whole dessert was a cliché, straight from the smudged and dog-eared pages of Pan-Asian-Fusion for Dummies. Certainly not anything you'd want to smear all over your girl-toy during a makeout session. This was a meal without any gastronomically redeeming qualities. Our dinner at Aizia was to fine dining what pornography is to literature. And it sure wouldn't take any court of law to tell the difference.