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Meal of the Century

Century at the Ritz-Carlton

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Century has food and style down cold. - WALTER  NOVAK

Dining out has long ceased to be all about food. Nowadays, an expensive spread in a high-class setting is apt to be as much about art, entertainment, and showmanship as it is about what's on the plate. This relatively new set of demands gives management plenty to worry about, of course, and in the final analysis, not too many area restaurants manage to weave all the strands together into a well-knit success. But when one does, like the new Ritz-Carlton's Century, it's worth taking notice.

Much has been written about the historical design of the 150-seat restaurant, lounge, and sushi bar on the Avenue at Tower City, and there is little need to rehash it all here. However, for those of you who've lost touch with all local doings in the past 10 months, suffice to say that the space takes its name and theme from the Twentieth Century Limited, the deluxe New York Central train that provided the fastest and most elegant Chicago-to-New York service available during the early 20th century. For the restaurant's accessories, architects raided the old Terminal Tower's basement treasure troves to rescue and recycle gorgeous art-deco grillwork, lighting fixtures, and the terminal's original train schedule, which now forms a backdrop for the crisply turned-out sushi bar. Meanwhile, decorators filled the space with moderne metal finishes, slick inlaid marble floors, and golden wood paneling.

While Saturday-night reservations have been much in demand, management has resisted the temptation to pack in a few extra seats here and there. Instead, the large white-and-gold-draped tables are well-spaced and sparely appointed with silvery beaded lamps and geometric vases, curved glass chargers with a distinctly Asian accent, and shapely, substantial flatware. Seating, in the cushy overstuffed armchairs or on the doeskin-soft banquettes, is comfortably embracing. And, with the corps of black-and-white-clad servers gliding by, it's not hard to pretend you have wandered into a dreamy, archetypal 1930s dining car.

But despite the Twentieth Century Limited's reputation for fine food, it's impossible to believe its wealthy patrons ate nearly as well as you can expect to at the Century. Take the simply prepared Chilean sea bass, for example. One night, it was an ethereally delicate filet with the creamy texture of warm custard, infused with the aroma and tang of fresh lemon, served in a lidded bamboo steamer on dill-tossed fennel, with a stalk of emerald rabe on the side. Excruciatingly light yet intensely flavorful, it was, I thought, the most delicious dish conceivable. Convinced that Executive Chef Regan Reik and his staff could never top it, I ordered up another version of the bass on my next visit. But the new contender -- a buttery sea bass steak on a bed of juicy golden beets, tricked out with a dilled salad of red and yellow pear tomatoes, ellipses of seeded cucumber, and a tangle of radish sprouts, all drizzled with herb-infused oils -- was, if anything, more extraordinary still. (Reik has since left the Century; the new executive chef is Ritz veteran Paul Carter.)

Likewise, an entrée of mahi mahi was grilled to succulent perfection, settled on a bed of buttery cooked carrot slices tossed with bits of fresh ginger and green poblano pepper, and topped with several translucent slices of sun-dried tomato. And a thick, finely textured filet of Angus beef, along with some tender fingerling potatoes and an earthy hash of sautéed shiitake mushrooms, splashed with a profoundly flavored aged balsamic reduction and a bit of chili oil, was as assertive and robust as the fish was dainty and precise.

The fact that entrée portions are not especially large should not be taken as a negative. Instead, it's a good excuse to eat more appetizers. Skip the flatfooted Sweet-Corn Clam Chowder: Its plentiful clams, corn, and potatoes only underscored a surprising lack of flavor. Feast, instead, on the fetching 14-piece sushi platter, attractively served with soy sauce, wasabi, and pickled ginger, on traditional Japanese-style pottery and accompanied by chopsticks. The flawless offerings included sweet, smoky grilled unagi (freshwater eel); fatty tuna belly; mild white fluke; hearty salmon; and crisp scampi -- all served nigirizushi style -- and a six-piece norimaki roll of rosy tuna.

We followed the sushi binge with another appetizer as a sort of informal second course. Grilled Chicken Yakitori -- six wooden skewers of sliced, marinated thigh meat, with as concentrated a flavor and as rich a texture as any piece of poultry could ever aspire to -- came to the table sizzling on its own sturdy, white clay hibachi, over live coals: "interactive food," our server rightly called it. The experience of tabletop grilling, in the middle of the Ritz no less, was novel, amusing, and more than a little whimsical. (For those who prefer a bit less exertion, however, the jumbo shrimp cocktail would make a divine alternative.)

The fanciful presentation continued into the dessert course. We were tempted by a playful assortment of exotic ice creams and sorbets served in miniature cones, which several of our urbane neighbors were unself-consciously licking at nearby tables. But instead, we succumbed to what may be the avatar of upscale ice cream desserts: the Century's banana split. Served in an enormous swirled glass compote, loaded with rich Tahitian-vanilla ice cream and slices of sweet caramelized banana, then lavished with crunchy pecan pralines, pieces of fresh strawberry, mango, kiwi, pineapple, and more banana, and topped with dense whipped cream and a soaring spire of crisp puff pastry, the dish was as exuberant in taste as it was in style.

A bit more restrained but still childishly delicious was the Hazelnut Royale: a tidy little pyramid of lush chocolate-hazelnut mousse on a crunchy base that reminded us of Kit-Kat bars. Sided by a scoop of decadent white-chocolate ice cream, topped with a spun-sugar "hazelnut" and a slender chocolate wafer, and served on a square white platter dusted with cocoa powder and powdered sugar, the dish was a piece of edible art.

Still, they couldn't hold a flame to the Vahlrona Chocolate Fondue for absolute indulgence. The two-person dessert included bite-sized, muffin-like blueberry cakes, hemispheres of cream cheese, and rectangles of marshmallow, as well as sweet strawberries, blueberries, blackberries, red raspberries, and chunks of juicy, ripe pineapple, all set for swirling through a pot of thick, warm, bittersweet chocolate.

The Ritz's staff has a reputation for polish and poise, so we were surprised at the inexperienced young man who was our server on our first visit. Asked to recommend an "oaky" chardonnay (Century has an impressive wine list of fairly priced selections), he offered a suggestion, only to backpedal once we had placed our order. Well, he finally allowed, maybe it wasn't actually oaky; it was, however, the only one he had tasted and knew that he liked! (The wine was OK if not especially oaky; to be fair, he did offer to replace it if it didn't suit our tastes.) Happily, on our second visit, the service, like the food, was stylish and sophisticated, but not a bit stuffy.

The Century's charm lasted all the way through the presentation of the evening's check, which was accompanied by a capacious hurricane glass sprouting a bouquet of shocking-pink cotton candy. Lovely to look at and pretty good for a surreptitious nibble, too, while fishing around for those fifty-dollar bills, the confection sent us home with a sweet taste in our mouths and recollections of childhood. The circus. The county fair. The Ritz. Who would have thought that such an otherwise decorous institution would come to find itself in such lighthearted company?

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