I ate there by myself on the 10th for dinner; I had just flown in from San Jose, CA and it was raining pretty hard, which had caused all the planes to be delayed accordingly.
I called the Dining Room to see if it would be okay to dine by myself and everything was a go. When I got there, it was pretty empty. Maybe 5 two-toppers and a family that left early. The waiter made me feel okay about dining alone and he let me choose from several tables that were set up for solos.
I ordered a screwdriver to relax, and then got the menu and the massive winelist (Wine Spec. gave them the Grand Award). There was a Chefs menu with 8 courses, a tasting menu with 6 courses, a vegetarian menu, and then a couple of pages of appetizers, salads, main courses, and supplements. I decided to go with the Chefs menu ($98) and the wine pairing to go with it ($68). I initially wanted to get a half bottle, but couldn't find an interesting one to go with several of the dishes. When I asked for a copy of the menu so I could follow along with dishes, the waiter asked me with a big smile, "You must be in the business?...ordering the chefs menu, and asking for a copy of the menu"
I replied, "um, business?" Feeling stupid for a second, then realizing he meant restaurant/chef/critic. Then I said, "oh! no. I just like to eat!"
1st course was a small cup of asparagus soup with a lobster cake. Nice green color. Clean tasting, well made with a chicken stock. The lobster cake was a half dollar size, with big chunks of flavorful meat. This was paired with a (I forget the vintage) Chateau Nozay (Sancerre). The flintiness paired well with the lobster cake.
2nd course was sauteed duckliver with black mission figs, and por wine reduction, toasted brioche. This was my favorite dish. I wonder why they just didn't use foie gras. I would have liked a thicker piece so there would have been a crispy outside and molten inside, but still good. This was paired with a Sauternes (2000 I think) Chateau Roumieu-Lacoste.
Around this time, one of the waiters asked if I wanted some reading material so I wouldn't look so bored (I was okay just looking around and relaxing) but I acquiesced to a Newsweek. The room was pretty empty.
3rd course was a Seared diver scallop with forbidden black rice, tomato coulis, petite cucumber and almond salad. This dish was soso. The scallop was meaty, tender and nicely seared on the outside. The forbidden black rice base seemed superfluous. The tomato coulis added some nice acidity. This was paired with a pinot gris, Trimbeaugh (beaux, bo, bough, not sure of the spelling)
4th course was a sauteed halibut, shellfish broth with prawn and clam over saffron potato puree and rouille. By this time I was starting to get full and there were several courses to go! Also the wine was starting to have a stronger effect on me as well. The fillet was a decent size, 2/3rds the size of what you'd get as a main course. The halibut was cooked well but the shellfish broth was slightly overpowering. I didn't/couldn't taste or smell any saffron. I forget the wine pairing for this dish.
5th was a Potato ravioli with braised oxtail, local green garlic and roasted tomato. This was another interesting dish. There were two raviolis and about two tablespoons oxtail. I didn't really get how the ravioli and oxtail were supposed to match together. I would have preferred just to have a dollop of the oxtail and forgo the raviolis. The oxtail was juicy and tender. I usually don't see oxtail (or offal) regularly outside of Chinese cooking much so I was surprised and pleased. The wine pairing was a 2001 or 2002 Hangon (something like this) California Pinot Noir. Bright cherry bouquet, silky mouth feel and tight, integrated finish.
At this time I was nearly at my limit foodwise and wine-wise. I told the waiter to stop the wine pairings until the dessert course. He smiled, and said that the pinot noir would pair well with the next dish. I replied that I was thinking along the same lines.
Next course was Pan seared Guinea Hen with duck liver, sauteed minutina, Anson mills polenta and spring vegetable salad. This was probably the same size as the a la carte version and I had to will my way to finish this. The half (or third) of guinea hen was seared crisp on the outside, with the meat very juicy and tender. Easily my second favorite dish. The polenta and duck liver I thought were extraneous, and didn't add to the harmony of the dish. The spring vegetables (baby carrots and such) added nice color and texture to the dish.
Usually a cheese course would come after, but I had to tell the waiter to skip it since I was really full, but I wanted to taste the dessert. I opted out of the dessert wine pairing as well.
Dessert was a cool lemon souffle, with creme fraiche on top, with some carved/shaved (kind of) sugar decorations. The lemon souffle's sweetness had a nice contrast with the creme fraiche. It was also small enough for me to finish.
By this time I was laboring and wanted to go my room so I could undress and rest on my bed. My past experiences with a chef's menu or tasting menu with many courses, were that each course was small enough to give you a nice taste but left you wanting more. At the end, you would be at the "satisfied" point. But at the RitzCarlton Dining Room in Chicago, head chef Sarah Stegner really wants you to eat. The waiter confirmed this and added that patrons sometimes even COMPLAINED that there wasn't enough to eat on the chefs menu. Wow.
I had a couple cups of coffee (didn't seem strong enough) to relax before paying. They nicely subtracted $8 for the cheese course I didn't have, and reduced my wine pairing to $49 (which was the cost to pair wines for the 6 course menu).
Throughout service was efficient, very professional, but not snobby at all. There were a few hiccups, such as splashing the ice water a bit when refilling to get on my hands and table but that was the most severe.
If I was ever in Chicago again, I would probably go there again to try some of the other dishes I saw on the menu. Or I would go for the 6 course menu instead. I learned my lesson. =)
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