Angle of Descent
When they wheeled the machine out on its cart, eight feet tall at least, an antique gewgaw of brass nozzles and gauges, pumps and spouts, like something you'd find in an 18th-century laboratory, she hardly knew what it was. She'd simply asked for a cup of coffee. Three liveried waiters had rolled out the cart with its copper tower polished to the sheen of a newly minted coin and parked it beside her with flourishes of linen and the clinking of bone china on a silver tray, a gold-rimmed cup set on its saucer with a miniature spoon. Then the hiss and clouds of steam, as magnificent as a royal train.
Just for her. A small-town girl from Venus, Florida — no one special, really. As she sat beside the great machine, she thought that never in a lifetime of asking had so mundane a question received so elaborate an answer. My mother, June, at Madrid's Hotel Ritz, circa 1968.
That's the Ritz for you, isn't it? Some say it was César Ritz himself who coined the service dictum passed down through generations of waiters, valets, and bellhops: The customer is never wrong. César Ritz, impresario of lux, calme et volupté, the son of a Swiss shepherd who made his name a synonym for lavishness and pomp at the turn of the 20th Century and himself into the greatest hotelier ever. Ritz: The man who hired the legendary Auguste Escoffier to run his kitchens, the genius who trained the great Hungarian chef Charles Gundel, a wizard of hospitality who never forgot a name or face. Ritz, with his impeccable memory for the sauternes the Duke de M—— favored and the way the Countesse de P—— preferred her squab and the puddings beloved of little princes and princesses. Even today, people remark that Monsieur Ritz was a great man.
And today, the Ritz-Carlton carries on his legacy. Manalapan's Ritz-Carlton earned five stars from the Mobil Guide this year, and Travel & Leisure magazine named it one of the top 500 hotels in the world. The Manalapan Ritz was battered by a couple of hurricanes before it closed in 2006 for $60 million in renovations. When it reopened its grand glass doors last March, it had been fitted with a pink cobblestone drive, silk sofa slipcovers, and astonishing chandeliers as well as three new restaurants: Angle, Temple Orange, and Breeze, all of which are overseen by Executive Chef Ryan Artrim.
It was about the same time that the Ritz-Carlton worldwide "modernized" its service. It took the 20 rules that every Ritz chambermaid or food-runner kept on a laminated card in her pocket and honed them into 12 "service values" — a list not of standards but of personal affirmations. What a yawning distance stretches from the old rule "We are ladies and gentlemen serving ladies and gentlemen" to the new precept "I have the opportunity to continuously grow and learn"; what a leap from the quaint etiquette of "Never say Hello to a guest; choose more formal greetings such as Good Morning" to the New Age narcissism of "I am empowered to create unique, memorable, and personal experiences for our guests." The patriarchal baritone of the old Ritz reverberated beneath the never and the do not and the under no circumstances of its hoary old rules; every one of the Ritz's new service values begins in the first-person singular, with the capital letter I.
The Ritz-Carlton is trying to create a more informal mien to lure bejeaned and T-shirted dot-com millionaires, who are more likely than any duchess to book its suites these days. Such folk want to be served by equals, Ritz-Carlton spokespeople told the Wall Street Journal. They prefer to carry their own bags to rooms with wi-fi. They want a mini espresso-maker beside the bed, not some creaking copper contraption in the lobby. They want maids who will chuckle indulgently as they clean coke-dusted tabletops. They want Ritz-Carlton to wake up and smell the teen spirit.
We'd been politely refused a reservation at Angle, the Manalapan Ritz-Carlton's ritzy American-regional eatery, until 9 p.m. on a recent Saturday. When we arrived at the appointed late hour, only about two-thirds of the tables were occupied. The kitchen, under the direction of Chef David Mullen, we learned from our menus, was offering seasonal specials like homemade tagliatelle with slow-cooked rabbit and toasted pumpkin seeds. There was also squab and American caviar, and we could expect oysters and grilled pears, black truffle emulsions, and green tomato sofrito.
We could swallow these delicacies at an onyx-slab table with optical-illusional candelabra that seemed to have escaped from a Cocteau stage set. Star-shaped mirrors reflected a back-lit wall of wines. Velvet drapes hung in folds to the floor. But there was no way we'd catch our waiters in dinner jackets and ties. They wore khaki pants and brown vests with gold-colored nameplates. Their manners were as relaxed as their trousers and the trance-disco that issued from hidden speakers. As they reached awkwardly beneath our chins, gave us wine glasses smeared with their own fingerprints, and stumbled over the most basic menu explanations, I heard the ghost of César Ritz rattling his chains.
Angle apparently has not found its bent. The place can't have it both ways, with inept service and pricey gourmet food full of impressive-sounding ingredients. When I asked how they served their American hackleback caviar ($45 an ounce), my waiter looked at me blankly, as though I'd asked him the square root of pi.
Finally, he mumbled "the usual way."
I offered him a clue: "With toast points, maybe?"
Um, yeah, with toast points, he said. And chopped egg. And capers.
Capers with caviar!
It arrived nestled prettily in a crystal bowl of ice, with a mother-of-pearl spoon and an attractively arranged tray of buttered brioche and buckwheat pancakes. It was served with a half-dozen condiments, which included chopped egg, minced red onion, and minced chives. It did not include capers, thank God; but how often will you be glad your server is misinformed? In any case, the caviar rocked: mild, faintly nutty, spooned onto butter-infused brioche points, and topped with crème fraîche and a pinch of chives.
Capers did eventually come, with our beef tartare ($15), a pleasant concoction of melting, chopped tenderloin topped with layers of horseradish, crème fraîche, slices of pear, and celery. But for the overdose of horseradish, it was perfect. Lemon-thyme gnocchi ($15), tossed with black trumpet mushrooms, was a triumph except for the missing peekytoe crab that was advertised on the menu. The homemade tagliatelle with toasted pumpkin seeds and a rich sauce contained only the teensiest slivers of "slow cooked rabbit leg," so minuscule that they might have been any meat at all. Whether they were slow-cooked, fast-cooked, or painstakingly toasted over a small peat fire in the Everglades, who could tell? A squab-breast appetizer ($17; squab is pampered pigeon), sliced and served pink as carnelian, had an intense, deep flavor — think of dark-meat fowl with just a whisper of offal. Still, the squab was an island floating in an oversalted black-pepper oxtail consommé sprinkled with a few green lentils. Even the best dishes got it only 75 percent right.
Should you sup at Angle, try the starters (which could constitute a fine pre-theater snack before you hop across the street to Florida Stage). Because the entrées were lousy. The cod and sturgeon were flavorless, something their precious ingredients couldn't remedy. The pan-seared cod ($36) lolled in a broth of baby fennel, crosnes (twisty, potato-like roots of a plant in the mint family), and matsutake mushrooms; the kitchen could have kept the cod and sent out just the vegetables for twice the pleasure and half the price. The fillet of sturgeon, having long since relinquished its last drop of moisture, was overcooked; it was like a feeble diva elbowed aside by a rambunctious supporting cast of caviar, wild mushrooms, and a poached oyster, so that you almost pitied it. The Veal3 (veal cubed, or served three ways, $45) got at least one of its elements right: the seared loin was deliciously pink and juicy. But the "crispy veal cheeks" were awful — one fatty bite had a startlingly rancid tang, while the rest had the consistency and flavor of pot roast. The single braised rib had its delectable moments paired with cheddar grits, but then, you can't get cheddar grits wrong; it's their elemental nature to taste fantastic.
Angle's desserts, courtesy of Pastry Chef Jerome LeTeuff, saved us from despair. From the almond crunch-banana-chocolate ABC mousse ($12) to an imaginative apple tart ($11), they were pretty and playful and inspired. On our second visit, however, toward the end of our meal, our waiter delivered our "sweet degrees" ($13), with a salty caramel mousse, a lovely and complex strawberry sorbet, and a weird mango-chocolate soufflé — and then disappeared. So did the rest of the staff. We were left alone in a big, empty room. Had the staff gathered behind the velvet drapes to whisperingly recite their 12 new service values? As in, "I am always responsive to the expressed and unexpressed wishes and needs of our guests"?
Let me offer the following handy list of my diner's wishes and needs, expressed as a prayer dedicated to the memory of a great hotelier:
Monsieur Ritz, give me the strength to forgive my waiter
for not knowing whether my $50 steak is dry- or wet-aged, grilled or broiled.
Grant that my $200 bill be offered when I'm ready to leave,
not 20 annoying minutes later. And let my servers not abandon me
in a dark and empty room, at the end of a very expensive
and only partly delicious meal.
And lastly, forgive me for not knowing exactly what I want
until it's clear I'm not getting the half of it.
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