Friday, 13 November 2006

Written 10/17/06

Friday the 13th, we slept in a little (7:30 a.m., such luxury), then had our usual Friday morning breakfast of puff pastry smothered in creamed chicken before battening down the house and setting off by car for Amelia Island, a barrier island off the Florida coast between Jacksonville and the Georgia border, where we had reservations for the weekend at the Ritz-Carlton. This was our seventh consecutive annual visit. We went there to celebrate our anniversary (5 September) in 2000 because they were billed as having a very good restaurant, and we liked it so much we've gone back every year since. Initially, the draw was the restaurant and the novelty of staying at a ritzy (to coin a term) resort, but in 2002, David impulsively signed us up for a joint golf lesson at the adjacent course—neither of us had ever so much as held a club—and the rest, as they say, is history. Now, we divide our time there between the restaurant and the golf course, usually getting in about 45 holes in a three-day weekend. We now usually put it off until October, when the weather is less hot.

Our luggage included more clothes than we usually pack for a week (because each golf outfit is really only good for one wearing, if the weather is hot); our golf bags, shoes, hats, etc.; and a cardboard box containing three gallons of Publix brand bottled drinking water. The tap water at the hotel, which is right on the beach, tastes strongly of sulfur, and there's no point in paying resort prices for small bottles of designer water.

The three-and-a-half-hour drive went quickly, as we took turns driving, read, chatted, and sang along with a selection of our favorite "variétés françaises" CD's—in this case Françoise Hardy's greatest hits from the 60's and 70's, some Yves Montand, and a great collection from the vocal quartet Pow Wow. In addition to their original songs and French standards, Pow Wow do wonderful French renditions of The Lion Sleeps Tonight (you know, "A-wee-ma-way, a-wee-ma-way . . ."), Zombie Jamboree, and, of all things, Ode to Billie Joe (ingeniously transposed into a French location and context). We got there in time to check in, change into golfing clothes, and have lunch at the hotel's "lesser" restaurant before our 2:00 p.m.tee time.

Ritz strawberriesBecause we've been there so many times, our travel agent was able to get us a special package for regulars that included free breakfast (at the elaborate buffet that usually costs $22 a head), a free in-room movie, and some other perks. One of them was delivered to the room as we were unpacking—a plate of huge strawberries artfully enrobed in white and dark chocolate to look as though they were dressed in little tuxedos. The plate was garnished with a rose, a chocolate cup filled with sugar-dusted chocolate-covered almonds, and a heap of chocolate mini-morsels.

Lunch boded well. I ordered the day's soup-and-sandwich-in-a-bento-box special, which was half a pulled-pork sandwich with garlic mayo, melted pepperjack cheese, and ginger-rhubarb marmalade; a cup of broccoli-beer-cheddar soup (better than it sounds); home-made potato chips; and a small herb salad (including several kinds of sprouts and a few marigold petals) with sherry vinaigrette—all excellent. David had the always-on-the-menu bento-box lunch, which substituted a crab cake with tropical fruit salsa for the sandwich and Amelia Island clam chowder for the broccoli soup.  The chowder is cream based and very good despite being rather heavier on the sage than I would make it.  Both were served not in the little disposable bento boxes I expected but in beautiful red and black lacquered wooden ones.

The Ritz-Carlton is the sort of place where, when you pull into the porte-cochère on arrival, you just mention to the liveried throng who leap to open your car door and help with the luggage that you have a 2 p.m. tee time across the street, and when you stroll down to the pro shop after lunch, you find your clubs already there, loaded on a cart.  We spent a little time warming up on the driving range, then played our 18 holes.  We both played pretty badly, but it's always fun nevertheless.  When you get back to the pro shop at the end, you just mention to a different liveried throng that you'll be playing "off site" the next day, and your clubs magically find their way back to the hotel luggage room, ready to be loaded into the trunk for you on the morrow.

We finished up about 6:30 p.m., leaving just time to clean up, change, and complete our unpacking before our 8:00 p.m. dinner reservation.  The Ritz-Carlton people pride themselves on the excellent restaurants in their hotels, and in seven years, we've seen this one through several incarnations with different chefs, styles, and whatnot. Well, we're here to tell you, this one is the best, by a large margin. It's hard to overstate how excited we are about this new chef!

The restaurant had just reopened three weeks earlier, after an eight-week closure for renovation, as "Salt," whose publicity promised "simple ingredients from the earth and the sea, perfectly seasoned."  Sure enough, the menu seemed to feature mostly steaks (beef, bison, wild boar, duck, lamb), mashed potatoes, asparagus—this didn't look promising; only the appetizers looked interesting.

The name of the new chef, Jordi Vallès, didn't mean anything to me.  But, as we often do in a new restaurant, we ordered the six-course "chef's surprise" tasting menu to see what the guy could do.  As we ordered, though, I started to feel like one of those people I make fun of in restaurants who make all kinds of finicky special requests and send things back all the time—no avocado for me because I'm allergic, no cucumber or melon for David, and I'd forgotten that they routinely pour that awful Italian bottled water with the disagreeable oily mouth feel (as though it had polyethylene glycol in it).  Did they have any other kind of still bottled water?  Everyone was very accommodating.  The waitress rummaged in the kitchen and came up with a different (and I suspect more expensive) bottled water, which was perfectly good and which they poured for me for the rest of that evening and the next, at no charge.

They offered three breads while we waited:  cheese buns, each baked around a little chunk of gruyère; thick slices of crusty, chewy black-olive bread; and oval, aromatic rosemary buns (replacing the wonderful garlic-and-mushroom scones of last year).  I tried the olive bread, and it was much better than last year's (which was already darn good), which was outstanding with the with the extra-salty Breton-style butter I was delighted to find on the table.  I got hooked on butter like that in Brittany during the 2005 sabbatical, and I've missed it ever since.  David had the cheese bread and pronounced it unchanged from last year. (They ran out of cheese bread later in the evening, and the mushroom and garlic scones reappeared to replace it.)

The regular amuse-bouche was a dab of tuna tartare on a slice of cucumber (sided with a miniature baby radish, terrific with the salty butter), so they brought David a different one:  a small glass of cold buffalo-mozarella soup.  (Throughout my descriptions, I'll try to avoid overusing the words "tiny," "miniature," "minute," "eensy," etc.  Just take it as read throughout that every course we were served was very, very small and made of up very, very, very small components.)

Ritz crabRitz foie grasFirst course:  a timbale of marinated "peekytoe" crab (Cancer irroratus) topped with avocado cream and mango coulis and accompanied by a miniature pepper-cress canoli.  Since I couldn't eat the avocado, they brought me instead an oval slice of excellent cold foie gras with bits of sauterne jelly and little one-inch toast rounds and a small salad of sprouts.   David pronounced the crab excellent, better than last year's version, and the foie gras was the equal of any we've had in France (where it's practically the national dish) except that at Au Trou Gascon, which is in a class by itself.  Well, yeah, this guy can cook.

Ritz bean soupSecond course:  White "Tarbais" bean soup.  We were brought deep plates holding small molded cylinders of tiny whole white beans (each one long and thin, like a giant grain of rice) held together with a brown matrix that turned out to be puréed Spanish sausage, topped with fragile carrot froth, and surrounded by a drizzle of green herb-infused oil.  At the table, the waiter poured warm, smooth white bean soup around the cylinder, floating the oil into scattered droplets.  We took simultaneous first bites, looked at each other, and simultaneously said "Wow!"  You'd better believe this guy can cook!  David stared at his spoon, saying "There's a whole cassoulet in there!  How does he do that?"

Third course:  Very good Dover sole from Brittany with a truffled Napa-cabbage stuffing and an excellent smoked-cheese risotto, both served on a plate artistically marked with a broad black brush-stroke of something we never identified.

Ritz lollipopEntremet:  A whimsical, house-made frozen lollipop of raspberry frozen yogurt, served standing in a wine flute full of cookie crumbs!  The little dish at the right lower right in the photo is coarse, grey sea salt from the Ile de Ré (and so labelled).  Its presence on every table was rather ironic in that the chef seasoned so skillfully, and on the salty side, that it was never needed.

Fourth course:  Thin slices of rare roast rack of lamb laid over sautéed Swiss chard and a purée of chickpeas seasoned with cumin.  Garnished with whole chickpeas and another infused oil.  Yum.

Ritz brebisFifth course:  A small square of an absolutely outstanding British sheep's milk cheese called "Berkswell," served with a little heap of minute cubes of quince paste, a paper-thin slice of crisp toast, and a streak of thick red-wine reduction.  Another wow!

Sixth course:  Two little free-standing cylinders of orange-flavored crême brulée, each topped with a quenelle of rather alcoholic chocolate mousse, in turn topped with bits of pomegranate granité.  Garnish of spearmint sprouts and pomegranate seeds.

Mignardises: Miniature blueberry almond cakes and house-made raspberry marshmallows.

We were impressed.  Two courses out of six were in that special category above "outstanding" that we call "knock your socks off."  Everything was so good that I found myself struggling to get that last bit of delicious sauce out of the hollows in the uneven surfaces of some of the handblown glass plates (I should have saved a little bread for the purpose).  We were also impressed with the portion size.  In Europe, it's possible to eat an 8- to 10-course meal and still walk afterwards, because the portions are kept concommitantly small, but U.S. chefs can't quite bring themselves to do that—they must be worried that someone will feel shortchanged.  Even when they start out small, they make the main meat course too large, and they inevitably finish up with a dessert bigger than your head.  Vallès is the first chef we've encountered in the U.S. who sticks with European portion sizes, with the result that after an amuse bouche and six courses, I got back to the room still able to force down one of the tuxedoed strawberries. Here's hoping others will follow the trend.