The Spirit Of Christmas Present
Art of the Meal
The Ritz-Carlton's Dining Room is our choice for enabling the fantasy of a perfect holiday dinner, one in which sumptuous surroundings cosset you, like a gem in the satin folds of a Faberge egg. It's a leisurely repast that begins as you walk through the lobby, as Christmasy as the set of The Nutcracker Suite. No matter what your station in life, the Ritz staff knows how to put you at ease, and whether it's your first visit or 70th, you're going to feel as though you belong. One look at this gorgeous, intimate dining room — crystal chandeliers, silk plaid tablecloths, gold-filigreed china, delicately rendered Asian scenes on the walls — and you breathe a sigh of relief. Nothing bad could ever happen here. Not in this crowd of contented murmurers.
The Buckhead Dining Room's environment and near-maternal service are so much a part of the experience that to some, the food may seem secondary. That would be missing the point — sort of like Ebeneezer waking up the next day and ordering the boy to fetch the smallest goose in the window. New General Manager Claude Guillaume, whom many diners know from his years of expert experience at Seeger's, understands that every move he and his staff make, every placement of linen and crystal, further serve the enjoyment of Chef Bruno Menard's cuisine.
Like the decor, Menard's dishes are an innovative mix of European and Asian influences within a classic context. The regular four-course dinner ($68) and eight-course tasting menu ($82; matching wines for an additional $48 per person) change daily, with close attention to seasonal ingredients, so a winter menu will likely differ greatly from the dishes we sampled. Still, some seem timeless, like appetizers of warm, poached quail egg atop mashed potatoes, with Beluga caviar and langoustine dressing. Or icy Permaquid oysters, nestled in their ginger and olive-spiked liquor.
Warm-weather flavors prevailed in nutty diver scallops (so named because they are hand-harvested by divers) on limpid zucchini "spaghetti" with orange-dill sauce. And if it's opulence you're after, the Maine lobster claw with minced vegetables and ginger-Vouvray wine sauce would be at home in Tiffany's window. Both are delivered at the perfect rare-centered, just-above-room-temperature level of doneness that maximizes the taste of these superb ingredients. But we also luxuriated in the fall flavors of coffee-coated lamb loin with caramelized sweet potato puree — as warm and richly textured as a tobacco-brown suede jacket.
Under no circumstances should you miss the Dining Room's cheese course — these thin slices of cow's and goat's milk cheeses are like shafts of light through slatted windows, a kind of literal oral history of the parts of the world they represent: France's boldly flavorful and salt-spiked Roquefort, subtle Comte and Virginia's creamy Everona.
Desserts are appropriately indulgent, including a Cuban chocolate tart with chocolate sorbet that will leave you breathless. However, it is typical of the Ritz that just when you think you couldn't possibly eat another bite, you find yourself straining to examine the little petit-fours cart of post-dessert treats that Menard shamelessly offers. You won't be able to resist just one — or maybe two — little somethings, if only for their exotic promise: hand-made marshmallows, or tiny pots of jasmine tea-scented creme.
Dinner at the Ritz may not offer electrifying revelations, or push the envelope of your culinary experience. Neither is it likely to solely edify. At its best, the Dining Room is comforting and familiar, while expanding your knowledge of the world at large. Sort of like your favorite family holiday dinners.
Krista Reese is Georgia Trend's restaurant critic.