Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Last Flight: The Dining Room at The Ritz Carlton, Buckhead

Sadly The Dining Room at the Ritz Carlton, Buckhead has closed. Too "fancy" for modern times? Too "old fashioned" for today's foodies? Perhaps, these elegant ocean liners of fine dining just can't compete in an age of jet travel and noisy bistros. Who knows? But, the memories are treasures to savor. And I'm so glad I can say that I was there. From Guenter to Joel to Bruno to Arnaud. Once even dining with Julia.... I was there.

An evening spent at The Dining Room at The Ritz Carlton, Buckhead is the kind of rarified culinary experience where chances are you won’t be saying, “Oh, I just had something like that last night.” That is unless of course you just flew in from Paris, where a new definition of Mediterranean cuisine is being forged as assertive young chefs venture across the Sea to borrow flavors from North Africa and the Middle East. Witness the elevation of legumes in Dining Room Chef Arnaud Berthelier’s Black Truffle Studded Loup de Mer with a Chick Pea-Clam Froth. And odds are when the parade of dishes in the six to seven courses of the Tasting Menu begin to arrive, it won’t prompt a response, “I’ve made something like this before.” Unless a table side presentation of Roasted Lobster with artisinal hand rolled pasta with a lobster Bolognese fragrant with preserved lemon, basil and Medjool dates is a specialty you like to whip up on weekends.

Yes, this is something very special and should be approached with the giddiness of expectation that there will be several I-never-would-have-thought-of that discoveries and just as many delightful I-had-no-idea surprises tonight. The Jerusalem Artichoke Soup promised a shaving of truffles, but generously delivered a complete shingling of jet black truffles to ooh and ah over before even lifting a spoon.

Perhaps that’s why the doorway to this elegant yet cozy restaurant on the second floor of the hotel (best approached by climbing the grand staircase in Cinderella fashion) allows just a small peek into the plush world of soon to experienced pleasures as you’re greeted by the reigning diplomat of the Dining Room, Maitre D’ Claude Guillaume. Tall and handsome with the formality of a footman tempered by a wink of “delighted to see you”
he welcomes my guest and me and motions for us to cross the threshold. Entering the room it feels as if you’ve begun a journey and you just know this must be First Class Cabin. Taking in the d├ęcor while being escorted to an alcove banquette, covered in posh club-meets-modern greens, it’s time to really check things out. Look at all of the interesting people already on board; they’re chatting and sipping and laughing with the waiters guiding their tour. Then what better way to prepare for take-off than to be settled in for the evening and immediately asked if you’d care for a glass of Champagne? Did they think my dress was couture and these were real diamond earrings? Oh, this was going to be a great flight.

The Dining Room at the Ritz Carlton Buckhead is in its twenty first year of winning awards and securing the highest ratings a restaurant can garner including the Five Star from the Mobile Travel Guide and AAA Five Diamond Award. Three highly rated chefs have led the culinary team here through the years, Guenter Seeger, Joel Antunes and Bruno Menard. And with Menard’s departure in June for an opportunity in Japan the speculation of who would be next to break gourmet ground at the Dining Room was fueled by a three month long international search for candidates. Talk about a reality show search for excellence and ingenuity.

After preparing an 11 course audition meal that wowed the search committee with its fragrance, flavor infusions and use of spices, French born, Arnaud Berthelier, won the right to wear the top toque at the Ritz Buckhead and so began his continental shift away from the Asian influences introduced by Antunes and emphasized even more by Menard. The Dining Room’s menu now, while not completely turning its attention away from Asia, leans decidedly toward the cuisines that ring the Mediterranean region.
Three dishes that capture the new style of The Dining Room with Berthelier’s bold combinations of flavors and textures, often many on one plate include the
Four Story Hill Veal Breast, grapefruit, fennel and Black Truffles,
Silverstone Ranch Lamb Loin Garam Masala Crust, Sweet Potato Licorice Puree, Pear Polenta, Lemon Milk Froth and Grouper in Yuzu Juice stuffed with Tomato Confit, Lemon and basil, Basil Yuzu reduction and Lemon paparadelle pasta.
One interesting note on the pasta, I’ve never seen it presented this way. A long ribbon of yellow pasta (the lemon) with green zebra stripes (the basil) was rolled into a coil resembling a fruit roll up. I didn’t want to cut into the tight coil because I wanted the sensuous mouth feel of the paparadelle, so I took my fork and unwound the whole thing ending up with the long flat noodle of my dreams. Dipped into the citrusy Yuzu juice and capturing the bursts of tomato confit with a bite of glistening grouper the paparadelle easily won in the aforementioned delightful I-had-no-idea surprises category.

A Ritz-Carlton veteran, most recently Berthelier was executive chef at the Ritz-Carlton at a seaside resort in Egypt and he was chef for The Dining Room’s at both the Ritz-Carlton Naples and St. Thomas. Before that his culinary resume was built in Europe by working in eight one-, two- and three-star Michelin restaurants including Alain Ducasse’s le LouisXV in Monte Carlo and Le Saveurs in London working along side Joel Antunes. Who knew then they’d both end up with a second matching resume entry, Chef of the Dining Room at the Ritz-Carlton, Buckhead??

Another element in the evolution of The Dining Room as Berthelier joins the team, is an emphasis on more table side service. Don’t expect flaming desserts but, the art of table side presentation from carving meats to presenting foamed sauces in front of the guest sets the Dining Room a part from other restaurants as well. “It went away because people didn’t care but it’s back,” says Guillaume whose European hotel school training included skills in tableside service which he teaches to the wait staff, “It’s just like a painting. We add the frame at the table. It’s an elegant way to present food, not just delivering a plate to a guest.” Meant as a selection for two to enjoy, the Lobster with Garganelli pasta, for instance, arrives table side on a rolling cart in a glass covered bowl. The waiter then removes the lid and the fragrance of the lobster Bolognese and preserved lemons precedes the pleasure of watching him divide the delicious spoonfuls of pasta and succulent lobster onto the plates which finally arrive in front of you. Anticipation is part of pleasure, too.
And look out, here comes another cart! Cheese carts, dessert carts, and isn’t that a bottle of some amazing Bordeaux and a crystal decanter being wheeled over to that table for two we really can’t see in the back of the room? “When I first came here I found this beautiful French Christofle silver cheese cart was not being used.” Guillaume says he polished it up, sprayed WD 40 on the wheels and today it proudly presents The Dining Room’s ever changing selections for the cheese course. So, I would say that the service is definitely formal but it’s not stuffy, because the waiters seem to be part well, waiter and part psychologist. They have to know who’s in a good mood. Oh did you see that woman over there just opened up a birthday present and it was a diamond and sapphire bracelet!! They have to know when to lie low. Oh, I think that CEO is here to tell the other guy he’s firing a whole division tomorrow. But, for me, I just wanted them to be efficient and a bit entertaining. This is a three hour cruise, you know. When discussing the new emphasis on table side service our waiter joked that, “We bring a fish tank into the dining room and then Claude will throw in a line to catch your dinner.” I’ve always enjoyed eating out in fancy places with great food as long as you don’t have to behave yourself! And the Dining Room feels like it can be that kind of place. I’m not talking rock star misbehavior but, it is nice to know the Dining Room staff is aware most guests are there to have fun with all of this fabulous food and wine; there’s no need for so much decorum you’re afraid to ask “Now, what is this again?”

One member of the Dining Room team who clearly loves to entertain guests by sharing interesting stories about far away places, the mysteries of nature and family secrets is the lovely and very young ( she’s 24) Sommelier Chantelle Grilhot. We first meet upon that initial champagne pouring welcome with the presentation of a Cremant Grand Cru Libert 1995, “It’s 100 percent chardonnay grapes.” she whispers with a knowing smile as she does when introducing each of the wines selected for the Tasting Menu. When you finish a course and you see her coming with another bottle, you know this will be a liquid clue as to what dish the chef is delivering next. “I take you now to the Loire Valley of France with a Vouvray 2004.” She talks about the limestone influence and mineral nuances and I look forward to pairing this with the Ahi Tuna with Jicama, Watermelon and Jalapeno Gelee.
Later Chantelle is back “We go now to South America to the country of Brazil” and surprisingly this is the dark opulent red wine Miolo, Quinta do Seival with the aroma of chocolate covered cherries that will go beautifully with the Lobster Garganelli.

Now the Dining Room experience is not for the faint of heart- there’s a carpaccio of foie gras nestled next to broiled squab- and I can’t help but think that these slices of raw liver remind me of something a coroner deals with for toxicology tests. And if you’re flight of feet and like to dash and dine this is not your place, either. No wonder there’s a small decorative pillow tucked behind me on the banquette- it’s for lumbar support! This is dining for the long haul. That said, make sure your dining companions are ready to converse for at least two, often three or even four hours and enjoy it. I never knew the charming story of how my friend met her husband, even though I’d known them for two years.
On our fourth or was it fifth course my friend observed, “You’ve got to tell people to pace themselves.” In all honesty the waiter did warn us! And just when you think the flight is about to end and dessert arrives you learn that this is a slow descent because the waiter announces “Ladies, please enjoy your pre-dessert. We present three small tastes of Kenyan Coffee Tart, Tahitian Bean Ice Cream, and Chocolate Gelee with Chocolate Souffle.” Meanwhile, the room is really buzzing now and we overhear a snippet of conversation of two young women with their aunts or perhaps a wedding planner, “Will you be responsible for your bridesmaids’ hair and makeup?” I think the answer was yes. I was distracted by the arrival of the main dessert, a “Citrus Composition” of Naval Orange Sabayon, Mardarine Sorbet with a very unusual and totally memorable Satsuma and Orange Blossom Salad. Yes, then there was a table side tea service followed by a selection of hand made confections and we felt we had become part of this canvas which was anything but a still-life. The only thing missing, which we didn’t miss was a table hopping chef. No, he waits until the flight has landed. On departure we walked to the door where adorable Chef Arnaud Berthelier with a puckish smile in a tres moderne short sleeved chef’s jacket, quietly asked us how we enjoyed dinner and said good-bye. Still aloft from the experience of an exhilarating culinary journey, we rode the elevator down and returned to Earth.


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