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Pure Romance

September 02, 2001|S. IRENE VIRBILA

Hotel restaurants are usually dull--suitable for business meetings or guests too incurious to venture out. There are exceptions, of course. Lespinasse at the St. Regis Hotel in New York immediately comes to mind, or Masa's in the Hotel Vintage Court in San Francisco. These are not just great hotel restaurants but great restaurants, period.

Most hotel dining rooms serve up safe, predictable food with just enough bells and whistles to justify the price. Despite the handsome dining rooms and waiter-heavy staff, the experience usually is more form than content. Hotel chefs, like cruise ship cooks, tend to be competent and well-trained, but spend so long in the system that they are drained of any originality and passion.

Yet every once in a while someone who's cooking his heart out comes up through the system. The customers may not care. There may not be that many customers at all. All that matters is cooking and cooking well. And that's how it is with Craig Strong at the Ritz-Carlton Huntington.

Strong has been chef at The Grill for just nine months and, judging by the relatively empty dining room, it seems not many people have had the itch to revisit the Ritz lately. Each meal I've had has been so well-crafted and so delicious that it seems a shame this extremely capable young chef doesn't have a full house every night.

The Grill (not to be confused with The Grill on the Alley in Beverly Hills) is a beautiful setting, with its burnished wood walls inset with antique framed ship models, wall sconces and ladylike banquettes. But the real treasure here is the outdoor terrace just large enough for a handful of tables. Lit by old-fashioned carriage lanterns and framed by a marble balustrade, it looks out on the moonlit garden with the glitter of the city lights at the horizon. Hushed and quiet, it's as romantic as you could wish.

And the food, well, that's also pure romance. The menu carries a whiff of the Mediterranean with its touches of France and Spain, but it's far from the same dishes seen all over town. On a first visit, I'm entranced by the sauteed monkfish with calamari and white beans with romesco sauce. What a terrific combination, especially since Strong cooks the beans so that they drink up every bit of the mingled juices of fish and squid. Romesco--that distinctive Catalan sauce of almonds and garlic pounded together with dried and fresh sweet red peppers, tomatoes and olive oil--is the perfect complement. Strong's eggplant and tomato terrine, served chilled, has a seductive depth of flavor. It's pure Provence, and it's paired with a dollop of brandade that isn't just a rustic, garlicky salt cod puree. This achieves a wonderful balance and texture.

While everyone at my table is smiling at this serendipitous discovery (who expected this kind of cooking at the Ritz?), I sneak a bite of my neighbor's seared foie gras: heaven. It's a gorgeous piece of duck liver, its sweet, fatty richness set off by a sprinkling of fleur de sel, the mineral-laden sea salt from Brittany. The plate is garnished with a streak of vanilla sauce. Its exotic taste and the refreshing salad of thinly sliced Asian pears deliver a one-two-three punch. Another night I swoon over the terrine of rabbit and foie gras, a rough-hewn mosaic of unctuous liver set with blocks of pale rabbit meat. Finally, somebody who knows how to make a proper pate and isn't afraid to season it.

We're feeling a little giddy now. Gorgeous night, romantic terrace, wonderful food and waiters with impeccable timing unobtrusively taking good care of us. At The Grill, you can order either the three-course menu, which has lots of choices, or take the chef's five-course tasting menu for $10 more. If you don't feel like eating that much and one or more of the dishes from the tasting menu catches your eye, you can choose any of those as well, so it's a flexible system.

When I see crayfish with fideus in a bouillabaisse sauce one night, I commandeer that as part of my three-course menu. You don't see fideos here very often, and this is the best I've had outside Barcelona. Small wonder, for it turns out the chef worked at the Ritz Carlton's Hotel Arts in Barcelona for a couple of years. It's basically a thin pasta cooked as if it were risotto--toasted and then stirred with small increments of highly flavored consomme, in this case seafood, until the noodles are al dente. The tender, bite-sized crayfish are fabulous. Strong also makes one of the best duck breasts I've had recently. Ribboned with fat, it really tastes like duck, not just some neutral red meat.

This is hotel food? I keep thinking. It has too much soul.

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