So watching the improvements in fine dining at downtown's Ritz-Carlton has been a refreshing change of pace. From the uninspired Riverview Room of the 1990s to the elegant but formal Century (from 2000 through last August) to the recently opened Muse, it's been onward and upward most of the way.
Which is not to say that the departed Century didn't have its charms, with one-of-a-kind decor that paid homage to its Terminal Tower location and an elegant menu inspired by precision and whimsy. Still, the vibe tended to be prim and the prices high; as a result, perhaps, it was never the busiest joint in town. Ultimately, management chose to reposition.
The upshot has been Muse, a snug, energetic, and comparatively less formal restaurant, boasting a modern sensibility that plays colorful abstract art against rich wood paneling and sleek, modern glassware against layers of white linens.
Certainly, dining here can still be pricey: Two of us plunked down nearly $100 for lunch, including tax, tip, and two $11 champagne cocktails -- and dinner and wine for three set us back more than $200. So except for well-heeled travelers and expense-account types, the restaurant probably still isn't poised to become an everyday stop. But with its good looks, welcoming ambiance, and inventive, seasonal fare, it is likely to evolve into a favored destination for celebratory lunches picked from a lineup of out-of-the-ordinary soups, salads, and sandwiches -- or, better still, for indulgent dinners assembled from the evening's "small-plate" offerings. (Incidentally, Muse also serves breakfast, including items such as baked apples, Scottish smoked salmon, and buttermilk pancakes; alas, early risers we're not, and the morning lineup has so far escaped our scrutiny.)
As the name implies, the small-plate concept revolves around modest portions of luxurious ingredients -- anything from Hudson Valley foie gras and Texas Wagyu beef to organic lettuces and chorizo-stuffed dates -- meant for mixing and matching to the heart's content. Thanks to their richness, two or three plates should satisfy most diners. In the face of so much temptation, though, restricting one's choices is apt to be a challenge; sharing nibbles 'round the table with agreeable companions is a smart way to proceed.
Executive chef Chad Ellis is the man behind the menu, and chef de cuisine Chris Rygalski oversees its execution. While always refined, some of their works recall homey midwestern traditions -- like the voluptuous potato, corn, and chicken chowder, piqued with bits of nitrate-free bacon, or the buttery, braised Wagyu beef short rib, with an earthy garnish of wild mushrooms. By contrast, others are more global in scope, including rare yellowfin tuna wrapped in imported Serrano ham, with saffron risotto and a dollop of tongue-tingling tomato marmalade.
Stuffed with spicy chorizo, wrapped in bacon, and punctuated by a rustic piquillo pepper sauce, plump and sticky Medjool dates play darkly delicious variations on a sweet and salty theme. On the other hand, a beautifully composed tian (a type of cylindrically stacked salad) of chilled Maine lobster, avocado, and preserved papaya, dabbed with coconut and vanilla bean emulsion, looks like art and tastes as brightly tropical as a piña colada on a San Juan beach.
At lunch, truffle-scented lobster "pot pie" made for a profoundly flavorful treat. But the standout was the Croque Monsieur, a French-style grilled sandwich of lean, imported Leoncini ham and aged Emmental cheese, on thick slices of egg-dipped Sally Lunn, a sweet, challah-like bread that was a standard in southern colonial kitchens. We ordered a half-portion, as part of a soup-and-sandwich "palette," a full-meal deal that included a few spoonfuls of silken kabocha squash soup, some freshly cut fries, a dab of couscous, and a tiny individual cheesecake, all neatly arranged on a large, compartmentalized porcelain platter.
(Desserts, incidentally, are well worth their calories. The province of pastry chef Elliott Callahan, the petitely apportioned options range from a heady cappuccino pot de crème to a crisp nougatine Napoleon stroked with lemon cream and marinated strawberries. To go with, be sure to try a pot of robust French-press coffee.)
Unfortunately, as uniformly fine as the food proved to be, our visits weren't entirely flawless. For that, blame goes to the service staff. Particularly during our weeknight dinner, their ministrations were so slow, inattentive, and amateurish that we had to double-check our valet claim ticket to be certain we were really at the Ritz. That includes the hostess who topped off our Pellegrino-filled glass with tap water; the server who practically prostrated himself across the table while setting our plates; and our waitress, who had a talent for disappearing at precisely the moments we needed her. But most vexing of all was the somnambulistic pacing that had us twiddling our thumbs for as much as 30 minutes between courses -- it took nearly three hours for us to slog through our meal.
Still, Muse's potential for perfection seems undeniable. And considering how far Ritz dining has already come, its promise looks first-rate.
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