Hotel restaurants have a lot in common with neglected children in wealthy families: Both have an excess of expensive toys and neither get the attention they need. That's why every time I have to eat in a hotel dining room, I'm psychologically ready for the worst: garish overstatement, high prices, and stiff, awkward service. Pavilion Restaurant, in the stunningly appointed Newport Center Four Seasons Hotel, provokes none of these objections and even wins you over with an ungainly style. OK, it does have ambitions you can almost feel pulling at your sleeve, but they aren't far from being realized. Overall, Pavilion is an operation with exciting potential.
In the last six months, the menu has been redesigned completely under the direction of a young woman chef, Esther Carpenter of Natchez, Miss., and the dining room has been infused with a more casual air (albeit one rich in oxygen, thanks to the dominating presence of dozens of potted plants the size of small aircraft). The staff is young and cheerful, and merely being greeted at the door is likely to put your most pressing anxieties to rest. (The hostess and maitre d' actually seemed glad to see us.)
Pavilion has the sort of architectural design--giant Doric columns as thick as redwoods, museum-like display cases of Limoges china and a post-modern earth-tone paint job--that makes you wonder what century you're supposed to be in. The menu is somewhat less ambiguous. It's late, late 20th.
There are three menus, one for each meal of the day, and all are beautifully composed. I'm still not sure where chef Carpenter's most impressive skills lie, but you would be hard pressed to find more appetizingly written menus. Try these on for size: breakfast, oatmeal brulee with brown sugar and cream; lunch, lobster and prosciutto sandwich with plum tomato and basil mayonnaise; dinner, grilled, stuffed veal chop with roasted pecan sauce. Maybe the menu is too well written, pursuit being the better part of pleasure. Some dishes don't cast quite the spell you are expecting.
Cornmeal-fried Coromandel oysters, a starter on the dinner menu, are a mild letdown. They look good enough, attractively perched on their little shells, golden brown, and glistening alongside a homemade tomato salsa, but they taste surprisingly bland, as if they had never been in sea water at all. Where is Coromandel, anyway, and why would somebody want to take a perfectly good oyster and roll it in cornmeal? Similarly, thin potato crepes with beluga caviar are too thin. By the time they have completed the long journey from the kitchen to the table they have lost all their heat.
Despite the unpolished edges, though, Carpenter's food tends to surprise and delight. An appetizer of roasted quail came as a thinly sliced galantine, stuffed with a forcemeat of minced chicken and wild mushrooms, finished with a glaze of black truffle sauce. At first I was a bit put out. "If I had wanted a galantine," I grumped, "then I would have ordered one." But then I tasted the delicate creation and thought, "who wants to bother boning a quail?"
That appetizer, incidentally, is starred on the menu, indicating "alternative cuisine," which features reduced levels of sodium, calories and cholesterol. If you are calorie conscious, you'll be happy to note that an appetizer and main course taken from these selections add up to less than 650 calories. They seem far weightier in substance, I might add.
Rice noodles with clams, mussels and garlic served in a natural broth has a clean refreshing flavor, with all the lightness of Japanese food. Field salad with Oriental vinaigrette has a nearly undetectable whiff of ginger and sesame oil in its nearly invisible dressing. Sauteed chicken breast with cracked black pepper is a triumph of simple flavors.
But Carpenter's heart is clearly in the heavier stuff. After training at the Culinary Institute, she apprenticed at Jacques Cagna, a two-star Paris restaurant, and was chef and owner at Esther's in New Orleans, a restaurant of considerable acclaim. She came to Pavilion six months ago.
Carpenter's excellent sauces and Southern roots surface in many dishes, and that is where her flavors are at their best. There is a wonderful concoction called consomme of wild mushroom and summer truffles, a dark, rich mysterious soup with an irresistible vitality. And don't even think about resisting the veal chop. She stuffs it with a mixture of goat cheese and homemade sausage, and the result is simply smashing.