When the exalted French chef Alain Ducasse debuted his posh restaurant of the same name on Central Park South, amenities included a sommelier for the mineral water, a sealed wine list and a selection of fine fountain pens with which to sign the check. If George Costanza longed to be ensconced in velvet, AD/NY was the place to do it. Mr. Ducasse was forced to retrench when critics declared that these absurd extravagances "broke new ground in bad taste."
At the Ritz-Carlton St. Louis, the lavish coffee service would make Mr. Ducasse flush with envy. First, my guest was asked to choose a superpremium bean. The brew arrived percolating away in a fancy French-press contraption. Next, our waiter set before her a row of goodies to prink up the Jamaica Blue Mountain she had settled on. Square porcelain plates displayed coarse lumps of cane sugar and molasses-laced turbinado sugar, shaved white chocolate and a cloud of Chantilly cream. Lying at the ready was a pair of tiny silver tongs that looked as though they might be useful in performing LASIK surgery. Capitalist excess? Maybe. Ridiculous affectation? Perhaps. But just for one evening, we yearned to live the Costanza fantasy.
The waitstaff's comportment was as over-the-top as the coffee. Ritz-Carlton employees are drilled daily on the hotel chain's holy trinity of protocol: "The Credo," the three steps of service and the 20 basics. One of the three steps, for example, is to offer guests "a warm and sincere greeting." This imperative is taken so seriously that I was enthusiastically welcomed back when I returned from the ladies' room. Dining-room tasks were carried out with textbook precision. When crumbing the table, the server swept the crusty bits onto a tray lined with a napkin rather than brushing them onto the floor or into his cupped hand. Softened pats of butter stamped into four-leaf clovers were replaced before they could become flaccid. A napkin folded into a water-lily shape was placed beneath the soup bowl to catch drips. Most important, after inquiring whether our meal was satisfactory, our waiter did not interrupt us again.
Robert Whitehead, who became chef de cuisine at the Grill last August, shows the same finesse in preparing his New American cuisine. Consider garnishes for a moment. The natty twists Whitehead designs for each dish are a metaphor for his clever, persuasive cooking. It doesn't take much imagination to spear a ribeye with a sprig of shrubbery or to park a maraschino cherry atop a tube of cannoli. These feeble flourishes do little more than add a splotch of color to the plate. An ideal garnish underlines flavor notes, such as preserved lemon spiking a dish of oysters in lemon cream sauce. Whitehead trimmed his "rabbit two ways" with a self-garnish, if you will: a grilled cross-section of the rabbit's liver and a miniature kidney threaded on a slim skewer (the chef had presumably snacked on the kidney's missing mate). Two entrées were ornamented with Peking doilies, smaller versions of the snowflakes children make with scissors and folded construction paper. To create them, Whitehead uses aspic cutters to punch geometric shapes into wonton skins, which are then baked into crisp panes. Other embellishments included potato croquettes, deep-fried soba noodles and fernlike lavender fronds.
The rabbit dish was one of several lovely cold-weather entrées on Whitehead's seasonal menu. A little rabbit trivia is in order here. Medieval cooks considered coneys, as the adult animals were called, a delicacy. They were often served with the heads on (whether the ears were left intact we can only speculate). The Romans had a special fondness for rabbit because the Catholic Church did not consider unborn and newly born young to be meat, making it an allowable meal on holy days. When an Italian cook wanted to bag a rabbit, he would put a ferret on the case. Chef Whitehead, being a tad more civilized, buys farmed rabbits and presents them à la guillotine. For his rabbit two ways, he braised the haunch in a sauce of Cabernet, veal stock and rabbit stock. Then he sheathed the loin in an herb mousse stiffened with scraps of rabbit and chicken. He filled out the platter with tagliatelle, wide ribbons of house-made pasta, splashed with a bit of the reduction.
Pheasant was prepared saltimbocca-style. This game bird has pale, mild flesh, so it was an ideal substitute for veal in this recipe. Whitehead began with a skinless, boneless breast of pheasant, pounded it thin, rubbed it with sage and wrapped it in prosciutto cruda. Before sautéeing the breast, he dredged it in an egg wash into which he had whisked a handful of grated Parmigiano. Rack of lamb had been frenched -- that is, pared to expose the rib bones -- sliced into two double chops and roasted à point. My guest chose Cabernet-shallot sauce from a selection that included béarnaise, morel demiglace, green-peppercorn sauce and wild-mushroom cream sauce. A butternut-squash timbale, baked in a drum-shaped ring mold, was spiced with nutmeg and sweetened with maple syrup. A triangle of wild-mushroom polenta finished the presentation.
We spent more than we should have on a bottle of wine to accompany this wintry meal. The Ritz's extensive list contains so few wines under $30 that diners inevitably feel like skinflints when ordering an affordable bottle. It is ungracious for the restaurant to put diners in such a position. Even a customer traveling on business might have trouble explaining the $60 bottle of Syrah on next month's expense report.
The appetizer section of the menu is usually a chef's sandbox, the place where he brings new ingredients and techniques out to play. But the Ritz's conservative ambience and clientele limit Whitehead's experimentation. The gentrified fox-and-hound paintings in the dining room have been mothballed in favor of less fusty compositions. Nevertheless, the Grill retains the gloomy opulence of Statuary Hall, with fossilized patrons standing in for the marble and bronze busts. Whitehead must cater to elderly diners' notoriously dull palates while ravishing the thrill-seeking taste buds of the prime movers in the cigar bar next door. It's a tall order, but Whitehead pulls it off by building from a foundation of classics. In his hot-and-cold asparagus salad, peeled stalks were rolled in panko -- flaky Japanese breadcrumbs -- and then deep-fried. Chilled stalks slicked with mustard vinaigrette were a perfect temperature foil. As a means of unifying the dish, a thyme-tomato sauce was spooned over the plate. A retro shrimp-and-avocado cocktail, layered like a trifle into a funnel-shaped beer glass with a salted rim, was a surprise hit. A salad of roasted beets was strewn with chevrons of subtly smoky trout and julienned apples, the woodsy undertone of the beets lifted by the tingle of horseradish oil.
A few dishes never got to the point. Diners can select from a list of finfish and shellfish with a choice of sauces, including ponzu, beurre blanc, white wine-cream sauce and tomato-red pepper coulis. We chose a mango-mustard mojo to accompany pan-seared Maine diver scallops. Mojo is a bold vinaigrette made with herbs, garlic, lime juice and, in this case, mango purée. This emulsion was intended to complement the scallops' umami, the fifth primary taste (after sweet, salty, sour and bitter), which is said to derive from the same flavor molecule found in MSG. But the emulsion was no more than a neutral glaze, and the scallops had barely taken on any color in the pan. Thai lobster soup had the right stuff: reduced lobster stock, cream, red and green curry pastes, lemongrass, ginger and hunks of lobster meat. But the spices failed to announce their presence, and the soup tasted like the timid lobster bisques we've eaten in a dozen lesser restaurants.
The waiters at the Ritz perform a sort of confectionery lap dance to seduce diners into ordering dessert. Three or four servers sidle up to the table and waggle the tawdry eye-candy just out of reach. With chocolate domes glistening and curvaceous pears undulating before you, the only bauble missing is a pair of spangled tassels. The head waiter smartly snaps his little flashlight on and off, training the beam on each luscious morsel in turn. Who could resist this chorus line? We chose a strawberry shortcake with alternating layers of génoise and white-chocolate mousse; raspberry soufflé with a head of frothy sabayon; and a pear poached in Zinfandel, scented with cassis and piped full of sweetened mascarpone cheese and whipped cream. If only we'd had a nice pastrami on rye and a television set stashed under the table, the fantasy would have been complete.