For this week’s column, I visit the Dining Room at the Ritz-Carlton Buckhead on its last night of operation. I know the AJC has covered this story well but, hey, I was there. It was a cool experience. And, considering how much it cost, my wife and I didn’t eat out anywhere else for a couple of weeks!
The meal began shortly past 7:30 p.m. with a small pickled melon ball floating in a shot glass filled with melon consomme. It ended four hours later with tiny butter cookies and nougats no larger than fingertips.
In between, as you might imagine, there was an orgy of things to eat and drink. Nine courses in all, with plenty of wine. It was the kind of meal where the appearance of a puffy chocolate souffle came as a funny surprise. “Another dessert?” we gasped.
Nobody wanted the meal to end, and so we lingered and lingered until we were the last table to leave the Dining Room at the Ritz-Carlton Buckhead on its last night of service after 25 years.
My wife and I joined friends with whom we had shared several splurgy Ritz-Carlton meals over the years. We decided we’d indulge in one last go-round together and, as luck would have it, the only evening we all could schedule was this one.
For that night, chef Arnaud Berthelier did away with the a la carte option and served only a “blind menu.” In other words, we were all in for the whole kaboodle.
We tried not to fill up on too much bacon brioche and country French bread as we waited for the first bites — raw oysters in a cloud of fennel foam shot through with pinprick bursts of diced green apple, then yellowtail sashimi draped alongside a thickly whipped sea urchin cream.
The portion sizes increased as the wine glasses began to proliferate. A frothy chanterelle soup with a salty back kick of smoked salmon segued into a grill-hatched lobe of foie gras with roasted figs. A rubber-sealed mason jar held “lobster preserve.” It was, oddly, hot. The servers popped the lids, which let out pressurized pfffffffffts, and poured russet bisque over the fragrant melange of lobster, tomato and basil.
The duo of veal loin and sweetbreads, served with cucumber pearls and glazed porcini mushrooms, seemed to signal the beginning of the end. But then, the staff cleared our plates and returned first with fresh place settings and then more food. Beef tenderloin stuffed with sea eel and served in a Japanese fish broth with slippery little mushrooms appeared before us and, amazingly, revived our flagging appetites. It was a masterful dish that presented its odd juxtaposition almost like a case study: Excellent, lean beef can indeed benefit from oceanic salinity. Bravo, chef.
Three desserts later, we all sat there in a food stupor, sipping grappa and watching the staff hug their regular customers goodbye as one table after another got up to leave.
“This has been my life, ” said manager Claude Guillaume as he stood near our table.
As soon as he made that comment, a thought popped into my head. This has been my life, too. Not this particular restaurant, but this ideal of dining. Let me explain.
Many in Atlanta have lamented the closing of the Dining Room because it signals an end to “fine dining” and Atlanta’s bid for a toehold on the world culinary map. The economy was to blame. This restaurant was a calling card to the jet set, and now it is gone. So the reasoning goes.
But, as I spoke with Guillaume that night, I began to see these events as more of a generational shift. He and I are about the same age, which puts us at the tail end of the baby boomers or, perhaps, vanguard of Generation X.
We saw an art of dining take form in America. Guillaume thought of Jean-Louis Palladin, the legendary French-born chef at the Watergate Hotel in Washington, whose idiosyncratic and meticulously plated cooking was hugely influential.
The late Palladin was one of the first to develop a network of local farmers and food artisans. Former Washington Post food critic Phyllis Richman says he introduced service flourishes, such as the pouring of soups and sauces tableside. But, she adds, Palladin was also a generous soul who opened dialogue with chefs throughout the country. He encouraged them to express their origins, their travels and their interests in their food.
I brought up Thomas Keller, who changed the tempo of modern dining at French Laundry in Yountville, Calif. Why should a meal stop at four or five courses, he asked. Why couldn’t diners sit down to nine, 10 or even 15 courses, each an ephemeral bite or two of an indelible flavor? At the French Laundry and, later, Per Se in New York, Keller lavished guests with a full evening’s entertainment — the meal as both dinner and the show.
Guillaume and I saw “fine dining” turn into epic meals eaten over many hours and accompanied by wine pairing. These meals were the works of chef-authors. This was the ideal of dining.
And now? Today’s diners want to hear more from the ingredients and less from the chef. They want more choices of smaller plates, and they want more power in putting their meals together.
I am so sad to see the Dining Room close, but I don’t think we’ve heard the last of “fine dining” in Atlanta. It will take a new form for a new generation.
When it does, Guillaume and I will be there, the old guard, telling war stories about the glorious excess of the golden age of American dining.