The Dining Room

How the Ritz-Carlton saved civilization
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paulr@sfbg.com

Ritz sounds a lot like rich, and you might well catch a glimpse of some rich people as you make your way toward the Dining Room at the Ritz-Carlton, where you have taken care to make a reservation. You might see them, financiers and captains of industry with entourages of family, debouching from black Lincoln Town Cars in front of the hotel, a colonnaded fortress of marble that sits like the Parthenon on an outlier of Nob Hill. The rich are different from you and me, Scott Fitzgerald said, but they get hungry too, and they know a good spot when they find one.

When I last visited the Dining Room, about a decade ago, Sylvain Portay had just become chef, and the mâitre d' was Nick Peyton, pioneer of the cheese cart. Both are gone now, off to other ventures, but the cheese cart remains — reinforced by a champagne cart and a digestif cart — while the chef's toque came to rest three years ago on the head of Ron Siegel. His penultimate gig was at Masa's, and Masa's is probably the restaurant in the city that most neatly compares with the Dining Room. At both places, Siegel seems to have eased a certain Gallic haute rigueur and added notes of Asian whimsy without descending into chaos. The Dining Room at the Ritz-Carlton has long been, and remains, among the most formal and correct restaurants you will find in this city — also among the priciest. But it isn't stuffy, and the money spent, on the food and the enveloping experience, is money well spent.

Who among us could dislike a restaurant that sends bottles of fine champagne trundling from table to table on a wheeled apparatus laden with shaved ice? You know the wine is well chilled because you can see the bottles sweating as, one by one, they are lifted from the cart and presented to you, and if a glass of Henriot rosé ends up costing $22, then you will be glad you enjoyed your glass and didn't order a second.

You wouldn't really have had time to enjoy the refill, anyway, since the three-course à la carte menu ($74) is punctuated not only by a bread service but also by a sequence of dazzling amuses bouches, beginning perhaps with a creamed-spinach risole (a half-moon-shaped pastry pouch), continuing with a strip of crisp-fried Japanese butterfish presented on pickled daikon, and culminating in a divine sea urchin panna cotta, served like a bit of leftover sour cream in a martini glass and finished with a splash of extra-virgin olive oil infused with Tahitian vanilla.

Compared to these bright little dabs of flavor, flaring and vanishing like the glow of fireflies in the summer night, the first courses are large enough to last for several bites. A wild-mushroom soup required some assembly, with the puree poured from a glass teapot over a pair of lobster ravioli waiting at the bottom of the bowl. An heirloom tomato salad, meanwhile, consisted of several fat disks of blood-red tomato of that 11th-hour, beginning-to-split ripeness you sometimes find in the final minutes of farmers markets. Goat cheese, a familiar accoutrement to such salads, was well marbled here and jumbled among the mixed baby greens like strips of pork fat.

Since it is king salmon season for the first time in several years, one took delivery of the fish with some sense of greeting a long-lost acquaintance. (The three-course option gives you choice of starter, main dish, and dessert, but there are also several set multicourse menus, one of them vegetarian.) The salmon turned out to be a wonderfully crisped, medium-rare square of filet, presented on a green and yellow blanket of béarnaise sauce and English-pea puree, with some wild-mushroom dice and baby leeks enhancing the sense of rich earthiness.

Sea bream en papillote, by contrast, struck an ethereal note.

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