Restaurant Review - Room at the top

Lapping up the luxury at the Ritz-Carlton Buckhead's Dining Room

It's my first visit to the Ritz-Carlton Buckhead. As we walk into the pristine lobby, I fight the urge to stand as tall as I can and model a vacant, pretentious expression on my face. I'm a pro in temples of gastronomy, but fancy hotels intimidate me.
We proceed to the crowded, sepia-toned lounge, where attractive couples clink drinks and make meaningful eye contact with one another. We swerve around the corner and ascend a carpeted staircase. At the top of the stairs is the entrance to the Dining Room. As I scan the wall of awards, the maître d' greets us with a genuinely welcoming smile that melts my apprehension. I settle into my chair at the table, ready to be seduced by stellar food and service for the next several hours.

The Dining Room has been through several major changes recently, the most notable being the appointment of chef Bruno Menard, who arrived in August of last year. Menard was the outcome of an international search to find a replacement for previous chef Joel Antunes, who left to open Joel in the Piazza at Paces building in Vinings.

When Menard came on board last summer, the restaurant also closed briefly for renovation and redecoration. Having never dined here before the redo, I can't tell you what exactly they changed. I can tell you that the space looks like the country club where you imagined the rich kids in your high school ate dinner every night. The lighting is glamorous and the wood panels gleam, but the chartreuse silk wall treatment, the mismatched tartan and floral prints, and the hunting scene portraits are too retro for their own good. To my eyes, this place looks seriously dated.

Focus your gaze on the table instead, because the food is stunning. Menard's haute French aesthetic is augmented by sublime Asian touches that enliven his creations rather than confuse them. Diners choose from a three-course prix-fixe menu ($68 per person), or put themselves in Menard's hands with the nightly changing five-course tasting menu ($82 per person, with unusual, subtle wine pairings by master sommelier Michael McNeill for an additional $48 per person).

My first meal begins with a palate teasing amuse-bouche of lobster tartare robed in a frothy asparagus emulsion, a tango of sweet and earthy flavors that continues into an appetizer of bass and vegetable cannelloni. This dish is served with a smooth green gazpacho and a refreshing, silky tomato sorbet that sings of summer. Another night, an opulent appetizer of foie gras arrives sprinkled with intensely crunchy bits of Jordan almond, a jarring but delicious collision of textures.

A veal rack with spaghetti squash offered as a main course on the tasting menu is impeccably cooked, but seems too sedate after the captivating starters. The sweetbreads offer more intrigue. Crispy and caramelized, they are paired with zesty chorizo and gently supported by a red bell pepper-tomato sauce. Lamb loin is crusted with ground coffee beans, which imparts a pleasant bitterness offset by a sweet potato puree. The puree is sprinkled with edamame, a clever textural and cultural contrast.

Vegetarians take note: This is the place to come for a celebratory meal. The night I dine with my meat-free friends, their meal includes an exquisite dish of small, sauteed chanterelles, parsley and softly poached egg; ginger-lemon risotto (who knew Asian flavors would marry so well with an Italian staple?); and wonderful gnocchi, sauteed with a summery jumble of vegetables. Vegetarian options aren't standard on the menu, so be sure to let them know your predilection when you make reservations. They'll hook you up." As much as I enjoy most of the savory dishes, it's the cheese and desserts that utterly win my heart. The cheese selection (an additional $15 per person) is one of the best in the city, a diverse and accessible mix of French selections that well-informed servers help you choose. I'm so happy to find that most of them are at their peak ripeness, ready to be eaten with a spoon. Who needs bread?

Every dessert wows me. An apricot is poached in delicate lavender syrup, placed on pain de genes (a variation of brioche French toast) and served with an aromatic ginger-vanilla sorbet. A dense Cuban chocolate tart has a quirky chocolate Rice Krispy treat jutting from its top. Perhaps my favorite is a chocolate and pistachio feuilletee, a light-as-air puff pastry creation layered with pistachio pastry cream and completed with a neat row of macerated cherries and a small, bracing scoop of lemon ice cream. The creations are nothing less than tiny essays on taste. But wait ... it's not over. Before the check comes, the mignardise cart we've seen roaming around the room all night finally rolls over to our table. It's filled with a selection of whimsical sweets, including chocolate lollipops, strawberries rolled in vanilla sugar, and homemade marshmallows. Yummy.

Menard's sumptuous creations are supported by the best service I have ever had in this city. Every server we encounter — and there is an army of them — is both reverential and good humored. One's water glass here is never half-full nor half-empty. It is always just right. The maitre d', Claude Guillaume, recently joined the staff after several years at Seeger's. Claude is the man. Warm, knowledgeable, paternal and with a charming, self-effacing humor, he's the standard-bearer for service in Atlanta.

Between Guillaume's capable staff and Menard's imaginative, luxurious cuisine, I just might learn to love the hunting club look.