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Ritz-Carlton Dining Room

Ritz Dining Room offers more than fancy cooking.

Traditionally, hotel dining rooms have suffered a bad rap for overpriced, fancy but soulless institutional cooking. The Dining Room at the Ritz-Carlton, however, is one of the best high-end restaurants in The City. Run almost like an independent — except that it’s subsidized by the hotel — the Dining Room offers a $68 three-course menu with lots of choices, augmented by little surprises sent out by the kitchen.

Recently, after seven successful years, Sylvain Portay left the Dining Room and Ron Siegel moved over from Masa’s to succeed him. Siegel became an international celebrity a few years ago by defeating the “Iron Chef” on Japanese, and then American, television. Now he offers Japanese-inspired dishes on the Dining Room menu and weaves Japanese ingredients into non-Asian dishes as well. Though you’ll find plenty of western luxury items like caviar and foie gras, Siegel does some fairly austere presentations featuring Japanese luxury ingredients like coveted matsutake mushrooms and toro, the rich foie gras-like belly meat of the highest-grade yellowfin tuna.

Another pleasure of dining here is putting yourself in the hands of Ritz-Carlton’s brilliant sommelier, Stephan Lacroix. Given today’s global cooking and the ascendancy of the tasting menu, having the right glass of wine can complete a dish, or underscore its main theme. During the meal I had recently, Lacroix played the wine list like a master, hitting all the right notes. Just figure in that the wine bill will be equal in price to the food, although LaCroix’s strength is finding moderately priced wines that taste like a million bucks when paired with certain dishes.

So, go ahead and choose a glass of champagne from the champagne cart, like the beautiful rosé champagne from Gosset, the oldest champagne house in France. That night, it mirrored the tiny glass of chilled pink watermelon and lemon verbena soup that started the meal. A New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc, which tasted just like grapefruit, went uncannily well with an amuse of warm shrimp, shaved fennel and a citrusy sake gelee. It also worked with a divine convergence of molded cream and sea urchin roe called a sea urchin panna cotta.

The choice of Gruner Veltliner, a floral, dry Austrian white, to accompany thick slices of giant squid in celery-scented broth seemed inevitable after one taste. And somehow a tobacco-y Cote Roti, a red Rhône, worked brilliantly with a thick, crisp-skinned hunk of Atlantic snapper on a lobster ravioli.

A glorious cheese cart has been a Dining Room signature since the restaurant opened, and maitre d’ Mario Nocifera continues the tradition with an evolving world-beat selection. I can never pass it up. Of course, I still have dessert, like warm flourless chocolate cake paired with candy cap mushroom ice cream, which tastes like maple syrup; or a warm apple beignet over a poached apple with apple sorbet and a spritzy buckleberry soda on the side. Don’t think the meal ends here. No fewer than eleven different tiny sweets — petites fours, meringues, tartlettes, jellies — appear on a silver tray. How can you pass them up?

The Dining Room tables are set with soft linens, fabulous white china with textured rims, and the thinnest crystal which makes every wine taste better. You settle into large upholstered chairs amidst heavily draped tall French windows, lots of polished wood and thick carpeting. The tables are placed far enough apart for intimate conversation. This is a grown-up restaurant, one where the graceful formal dance of food and service never misses a beat. You pay for it, but the performance lives up to the price of admission.

Ritz-Carlton Dining Room

600 Stockton St. (at California). (415) 296-7465. Open 6 p.m. to 9:30 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday.


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