Something's Fishy at the Ritz

Friday night seafood buffet doesn't float this diner's boat.

Most Clevelanders associate the Riverview Room at the Ritz-Carlton with attentive service and flawless meals--it was, after all, a AAA Four Diamond Award recipient in years past. But after two recent visits, I've concluded that the restaurant may be resting on its laurels.

The Riverview Room is the hotel's only full-service restaurant, serving daily breakfast, lunch, and dinner; Sunday brunch; and, since March, a Friday night "Seafood Extravaganza" buffet. The kitchen also handles room-service requests and some food preparation for the afternoon teas held in a paneled "library" off the dining room.

With so many irons in the fire, it's no surprise that preparation and service sometimes falter. After all, many fine restaurants limit themselves to serving nothing more than dinner, six days a week, precisely so they can throw all their talents into doing that one thing.

Still, no matter how overextended the Riverview Room's staff and facilities may be, it remains the Ritz, and special-occasion guests, as well as travelers, have a right to expect the best from manager Matt Lowe, executive chef Jeff Weiss, and their kitchen staff of 30.

I admit things between the Ritz and me got off to a bad start when I called to make reservations for the Friday night prix fixe seafood buffet. I was put on hold and, after two minutes of thumb-twiddling, was greeted by a recorded message telling me to leave the date and time I wished to reserve and the number in my party. I was then assured that someone would get back to me within 24 hours to confirm my reservation "or suggest an alternative."

We've all had to jump through an occasional hoop to get into a restaurant. But I fear that giving potential customers what amounts to a 24-hour cooling-off period before confirming their reservations may well push them into the arms (or at least the chairs) of a competitor.

Fortunately, the 24-hour wait was apparently a worst-case scenario. The reservation clerk reached me within a few hours of my call, I got the date and time I had requested, and, on the appointed night, I strode into the Ritz with two hungry friends.

From the Riverview Room's sixth-floor picture windows, we could see the Cuyahoga River, the illuminated Detroit-Superior Bridge, and the lights of the western suburbs stretching out below. However, the outside view became much less interesting once we caught sight of the extravagant buffet tables inside. Glittering ice sculptures guarded salads and seafood goodies. Fresh flowers and cheery seasonal gourds filled the spaces between the serving pieces. In the center of the room, shiny chafing dishes held soups and hot appetizers. And on the white-linen-covered dessert table, ruby-glazed tarts and golden pastries sparkled like jewels.

Our server explained that once we had eaten our fill of appetizers at the buffet, we could choose from six listed entrees, which would be prepared in the kitchen and brought to us. Then we could trot back to the buffet for dessert.

Our first stop was the raw bar, where we sampled firm, sweet poached shrimp and my personal favorite--tangy, sea-scented oysters on the half-shell.

We considered trying the behemoth Alaskan king crab legs, but thought better of it: Here we were in our best bibs and tuckers, and there they were in their shells, sticking straight up out of the ice, as if their giant bodies might still be buried somewhere underneath. Wrestling with our food wasn't on our agenda that night, so we passed.

A nearby table held smoked salmon and scallops, a variety of seafood terrines, and a selection of sushi and sashimi. I enjoyed a piece of Sugata-Zushi, a large, mild-flavored shrimp mounted on a cylinder of seasoned rice and dabbed with a potent wasabi, and loved the sinus-exploding sensation it created.

Next to the raw bar, an assortment of cold salads awaited, including Caesar Salad, Mixed Field Greens Salad, and an oriental salad with raw shredded cabbage, greens, and salmon. Our favorite was a pasta salad with crisp, sweet carrots; zucchini; asparagus; mushrooms; and yellow squash in an herb-infused dressing. However, we puzzled over an odd pumpkin salad composed of mushy cubes of squash littered with tough-shelled, raw-tasting pumpkin seeds.

Raw-bar items and salads remain essentially the same from week to week, we were told, but the soup, hot appetizers, and entrees change each Friday. On this particular evening, the soup was a light lobster bisque. It had a slightly sweet aroma and a pleasantly silken texture, although its bland flavor only hinted that it was made from shellfish.

The evening's two "displayed appetizers" were steamed mussels in a smoked tomato broth and orecchiette pasta (cute "little ears") with roasted peppers and artichokes.

While we liked the delicate mussels, we were less fond of the orecchiette. The pasta was bathed in a pale cream sauce, and many of the artichoke pieces were fibrous and impossible to chew. (And don't you hate having to spit out your food at the Ritz?)

Our server had told us that the dish contained mussels, an ingredient not mentioned on the menu. I searched my pasta for any sign of the little critters, but finally decided they simply were not there. As it turned out, this was just the first time we suspected our server was misinforming us.

Our next stop was the crépe station, where we drooled over the delicious-looking crépes a floor cook was preparing. While we watched, he sauteed our choice of crabmeat, shrimp, or mushrooms (or better yet, all three), slid the mixture onto a quarter-folded, already-prepared crépe, and napped it with a mild, warm Mornay sauce.

The sweet, nutty seafood took well to the creamy Mornay. But our enthusiasm dimmed when we discovered that the crépes themselves, which had been stacked on a dish in anticipation of their call to duty, were icy-cold. Surely the cook could have taken 30 seconds to reheat the thin pancakes in the saute pan before piling on the topping.

After our first tour, nothing on the buffet was calling us back. Signaling our server that we were ready to order, we chose scallops, grouper, and a beef tenderloin as our entrees.

The modest-sized grouper filet was fresh tasting, although slightly dry. It rested simply but prettily on a pale-green relish of crisp jicama and chayote, with flecks of avocado, tomato, and sweet onions. While the relish was a creative touch, its flat taste failed to enhance the fish.

I fared even worse with my scallops: three tough, overcooked hombres. The menu said they were accompanied by "smoked tomato, basil, and crab salad" and a "potato basket," so when I spotted two mysterious, round, crabmeat-flecked objects on my plate, I assumed they were small smoked tomatoes. But when I jabbed one with my fork, I was horrified to see it disintegrate into a pulpy gel. Bravely, I took a nibble, only to find that the mysterious mass was freezing-cold and flavorless.

When summoned, our server insisted the little round objects were peppers. And frankly, maybe they were! In any case, I pushed the icy mush to the side, before it could chill my scallops further, and nibbled at what little was still worth eating. That certainly didn't include the "potato basket," which turned out to be a few strings of crunchy fried potato, shivering beneath the frigid tomato/pepper.

As it turned out, the beef was the best entree at the seafood buffet. Several tender medallions of medium-rare meat were accompanied by thick slices of mushrooms in a heady port jus. Regrettably, the beef was sitting on a pile of mealy fava and pigeon beans that simply couldn't hold their own against the tasty meat. A garnish of grilled leeks (which our server misidentified as roasted Belgian endive) made a much more suitable complement to the tenderloin.

Finally, we were ready to abandon ourselves to the dessert table, which held every imaginable permutation of chocolate mousse (in goblets, between layers of chocolate cake, and mounded into cunning little chocolate cups, for starters), as well as sliced fresh fruits, pastries, a beautifully glazed, russet-colored pear tart, and a light-textured cheesecake with a crunchy hazelnut-praline topping.

My very favorite, though, was a buttery bread pudding--very nearly a custard--which I covered with generous amounts of thick creme Anglaise. Let others have their chocolate, I thought gleefully. This was the best thing I had sampled all night. (But really, who goes to the Ritz for bread pudding?)

I was still licking creme Anglaise off my fingers when one of my companions suddenly interrupted to ask how much the buffet was costing us. With a bit of a shock, I realized I hadn't seen the prix fixe amount listed anywhere. It certainly wasn't on our menus; nor was it posted in the lobby. The mystery was solved when our bill finally appeared: a hefty $42 per person, plus beverages, tax, and tip.

In light of our disappointing experience, I made lunch reservations the following week to give the restaurant a second chance to show its stuff. I had to run the gauntlet again to secure a seat, but when I got there, reservations seemed unnecessary: The restaurant was nearly empty, and the hostess was happy to seat me.

My server charmed me by quickly fetching an assortment of crusty rolls, some with raisins and nuts and some scented with rosemary. After that, he became less attentive; in fact, I had to ask several times before I could get him to bring me a wine list.

As delighted as I had been with the very good bread, I was disappointed in my bowl of wild mushroom bisque. The thick, salty stuff would have been great spooned over a chicken breast, but as soup, it made good gravy.

Yet my entree, Sea Bass with Lemon Pasta, was delicious. A small, juicy filet of sea bass had been dipped in seasoned flour and pan-fried until it developed a paper-thin, crisp crust. Inside, the fish was all sweetness and light. In fact, if it had been any more succulent, it might have floated off the plate.

As if that weren't enough, the filet rested on a cloud of fat, fresh, housemade egg noodles, flavored with herbs and tiny specks of lemon zest. Both fish and pasta then received a dusting of parsley and a generous application of tangy lemon-caper butter, which turned what had been merely good into something wonderful.

"This may be it!" I cheered. "The kitchen may have turned out a perfectly prepared entree!"

But wait. As I was spooning up the superb sauce--catching every little flake of fish and scrap of noodle--I felt a sudden crunch and tasted the unmistakable, bitter flavor of lemon seed. When I looked closely, I found perhaps a half-dozen of the nasty little things, which presumably came along for the ride when the juice was added. Neither picking them out of the slippery sauce nor chomping them down with the noodles appealed to me, so the rest of my meal remained uneaten.

What a shame. Here was a dish so luscious, so satisfying ... and then someone in the kitchen goes and spoils it by overlooking a crucial detail like straining out lemon seeds. That silly oversight was the final disappointment.

Of course, if these were my complaints after eating at the fictitious Joe's Bar and Grill, we would all agree I got a pretty decent meal. "After all," we'd say, "what did you expect? It's only Joe's."

But this isn't Joe's; it's the Ritz, and my expectations of it are that much higher. Despite--or perhaps because of--its ritzy reputation, the sad truth is the Riverview Room leaves a lot to be desired.

The Riverview Room,
The Ritz-Carlton Hotel, 1515 West 3rd Street (Tower City), Cleveland. 216-623-1300.

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