A vivid bowl of butternut squash risotto discloses several fundamental insights into Arnaud Berthelier, the new chef in the Dining Room at the Ritz-Carlton Buckhead. First off, the man -- and his staff -- can throw down on some rice. The risotto, offered as a first course on a tasting menu, possesses the ephemeral quality few restaurants ever achieve with this Italian cornerstone: Each plump grain is at once distinct and without a trace of chalkiness, yet creamily melded with the whole.
Then there's the cagey sense of flavoring that Berthelier wields. Squash puree tints the risotto an apricot hue and proffers only a fleeting sense of sweetness. Thumbnail-size bay scallops add poignant salinity (rendering parmesan unnecessary), while microspheres of melon pop with juicy playfulness. A couple of scattered chunks of lardon -- thick bacon -- contribute smoky, wintry warmth. It's comforting, sure, yet also sneakily inventive.
But what's most telling about the new blood in the kitchen is what's not included. No lemongrass, edamame, Chinese five spice, salmon tataki or green tea emulsions -- in this or any other dish on the chef's tasting menu. Ladies and gentlemen, the fusion-loving Frenchmen have left the building.
Not that Berthelier's two predecessors, Bruno Menard and Joël Antunes before him, failed to translate their East-West proclivities into understated elegance on the plate. But after eight years of Asian overtones, the Dining Room indeed seems ready to have its Gallic maestro shepherd the tenor of the restaurant's cuisine to new vistas.
For Atlanta foodies, the advent of a new Dining Room chef is always cause for much suspense and speculation. A new recruit has an intimidating amount to live up to: The restaurant has, for numerous years, been awarded the Five Star rating from the Mobil Travel Guide -- one of 14 in the nation to hold such an honor. Menard departed in June to helm a fine dining venture in Japan, and during the international search for his replacement, the kitchen was run by Daniel Porubiansky, a protégé of Menard and Guenter Seeger, the Dining Room's first superstar chef.
Berthelier, who started in September, was promoted from within. After five years at the Ritz-Carlton in Naples, Fla., Berthelier most recently worked for the company's property in Sharm El Sheikh, Egypt. Sadly, his Atlanta menu offers no Egyptian influences, though I do hope at some point to taste a glimpse of what he might have learned of the foods from that part of the world.
Berthelier often filters his culinary lens through the sun-dappled cuisines of Mediterranean Europe -- an influence derived from his time in Monte Carlo at Le Louis XV, owned by world-renowned chef Alain Ducasse. But his winter offerings also draw liberally from northern Italian and New American sensibilities. On paper, none of the ingredients he favors jump out as too eccentric or alien. It's in the shrewd composition and combinations where Berthelier sizzles.
Take the foie gras preparation. In his hands, the warhorse of the luxury meal feels, if not fresh, then freshly reconsidered. He thinly encrusts the foie with pain d'epices -- French gingerbread -- and sets it atop aromatic quince poached in red wine. Surrounding the centerpiece are circles of blanched celeriac (celery root) that look like wanton wrappers awaiting attention. Dolloped in the center of each circle is gingery butternut squash froth. The ensemble evokes holiday gusto with an adult, uncontrived demeanor.
Fish and meat receive equal space on his menu, but for wow factor I'm more drawn to his techniques with meat. Butter-poached sturgeon is textbook correct -- seared tawny outside, supple inside -- and nicely accompanied by baby chanterelles, a teaspoon of caviar, and garlic-chive froth punchy enough to stand up to the assertive fish.
But I walk away from the table longing for another bite of his venison loin poached in glühwein (literally "glow wine," or German mulled wine). A superbly subtle chocolate sauce provokes the infused spice in the meat, and foie gras-stuffed endive in turn accents the faint bitterness in the chocolate. Kobe short rib, revved by a shockingly astute red pepper-date chutney, roams my memory with equal persistence.
I don't know what it is about the Dining Room and pistachio. Maybe a secret code gets passed to each successor, but every chef whose food I've eaten here has worked some wonder with it. In Berthelier's case, he serves veal tenderloin crusted with pistachio on the chef's tasting menu. The singular nuttiness gently accents the milky veal. Underneath is a sepia-toned brushstroke of caramel that plays sweet-and-sour with braised endive.
Only rarely in my two visits do I ever try something that slumps flat. A dull plate of tepid frog legs with snail ravioli comes to mind, as does skate paired with browned butter, grilled pineapple and red pepper reduction. Too many cloying accents.
Desserts are riding a rough patch, though pastry help has recently arrived in the form of Erin Mooney, who crafted sweets in two critically applauded restaurants in Chicago. For now, you might get lucky with sublime panna cotta with sauteed cherries and pistachio cake, or go home disappointed after an awkward, starchy take on apple pie. Coffee tart? Thrillingly complex. Roasted pear with financier (almond cake)? Monotonous.
Much has been made of Berthelier's sweet riff on pesto -- basil gélee with lemon cream, pine nut tuile and olive oil ice cream. I worked as a pastry chef in the '90s when herbaceous sweets were all the rage, so I have a nostalgic fondness for this type of dessert. But I concede: It's a curious contrivance.
Not to state the obvious, but dinner at the Ritz-Carlton requires a financial investment. The cost for the base three-course meal with various amuse-bouches is $88 per person. If, for you, special occasion translates as trusting someone to make the important decisions for the evening, consider splurging on the chef's seven-course tasting menu, at $108 per person. And while you're at it, order the so-worth-it wine pairing, an additional $70 per person.
In fact, you might want to select the wine pairing just to enjoy the company of the sommelier, 24-year-old Chantelle Grilhot. Y'all, I'm just gonna be blunt: She's hot. The kind of hot universally appreciated by most everyone who comes in contact with her. Not only is she fine, she knows her wine. (There's a song in there somewhere.) Challenge her. Ask her questions. Learn from her. An educational experience is rarely as gracious or sensuous.
Grilhot is but one facet of the extraordinary team that makes dining at the Ritz such an indelible event. Full disclosure: I've been made here, so my objectivity about service is compromised. I can tell you that the staff turnover rate is incredibly low, and I remember being generously pampered even when I was anonymous. I drift from conversation with dinnermates to eagle-eye the room, and every table seems to receive the same close, kind attention.
If you're nervous about this being a stuffy experience, breathe easy: Underneath the professional exterior, this group is a bunch of characters. There's Claude Guillaume, maitre d', who greets customers in his lilting accent with a papa bear handshake. Maggie Sinatra, who's been with the Ritz since Seeger's days, puts customers at ease with her quiet humor. Doss Posey, who previously worked at Joël and Seeger's, roams the country-club room with an impish smile. Just what's on his mind, I wonder.
Berthelier occasionally steps out from the kitchen to approach customers. He seems a bit awkward as he shyly inquires about your favorite courses. Perhaps he's someone who prefers to express his personality through his food rather than by conversation.
And why not? His warmly disarming cooking, which I trust will only gain confidence as he grows comfortable in his new post, already speaks volumes.
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