Blame It on the Ritz

Photo by Amy TheligThis is how we do it in the OC: build fabulous restaurants and entertainment venues, allow them to achieve a fame that transcends our 789 square miles, then tear them down in the name of vanilla progress. It happened with Costa Mesa's Kona Lanes; it happened with Anaheim's original downtown. And now it just happened with the Dining Room at the Ritz-Carlton, Laguna Niguel.

This famed 20-year-old eatery—for years, Orange County's only AAA five-diamond restaurant—shuttered its doors this past Saturday as part of a long-planned renovation at the Ritz-Carlton that's expected to take about a year. But when all is sawed and dunned, the Dining Room won't return. Apparently, the folks running the seaside resort are copying their competition along PCH over at the St. Regis and Montage and electing to replace the Dining Room's stately, lengthy, costly eating experience for something The Orange County Register reported would be a “more casual eatery.”

Excuse me, Ritzers, but if I wanted casual, I'd lie out on the grass and grill. Truth is we needplaces like the Dining Room. It does wonders to the human soul to spend a small fortune to be babied during dinner, partake of edible heaven and emerge with one of the most satisfying nights you've enjoyed since a moonlit Laguna Beach date.

A charming woman and I made reservations a couple of days before the Dining Room's demise. A genteel Russian by the name of Nicolai pushed aside a table so she and I could sit together. Nicolai was an exemplary maitre d': omniscient with the menu, sporter of a sartorial style that nicely matched the Dining Room's Sun King-worthy décor, gently chiding us toward a more-expensive chardonnay—”You can really taste the sunshine in this one,” he exulted about a Napa Valley vintage, and you know what? Not only could you taste those UV rays, but you could also smellthem. When I excused myself to visit the men's room, he escorted me up to the door. And when I returned, he exclaimed, “Welcome back!” as if I had just returned from a tour of duty.

Everything on the menu beckoned—Colorado lamb loin, salads mixed with vinaigrettes that seemed stolen from Ganymede's cup, and a caviar cart worthy of the Romanovs. My companion and I wanted it all, so we requested the four-course vegetarian and five-course carnivore prix fixe menu. At first, however, nothing inspired. While her portobello-mushroom-roll appetizer was dusky and brilliant, my bouillabaisse was lukewarm—a limp lobster morsel barely doused with a pitiful tomato sauce. We had already committed about $300 to this meal—and this was it? I began sipping that sunny wine just a little bit longer to salve the wound in my wallet.

But Nicolai redeemed himself magnificently with my first course—a Dungeness crab cake situated between three slices of red peppers that looked like a marine Double-Decker. Even greater, however, was a small accompanying scoop of tomato sorbet. This was the best sub-zero snack I've ever licked—I kid you not. It wasn't so much sweet as it was zesty, and the tomato flavor I've maligned since childhood smacked the stubbornness out of my tongue with its fresh, juicy fervor. My companion scoffed at the sorbet, though: she was too busy gorging on a tomato stuffed with feta cheese and other veggie goodness.

The other courses soon rained down like Hurricane Frances. I next partook of roasted lobster accompanied by white beans and a subtle ginger-spiked butter cream; she nearly married me because of the creamy gnocchi paired with roasted chestnuts, Nat King Cole's favorite nut surprisingly soft. She sat out the next round but managed to fork off some bites from my third course, a halibut seared by God's skillet floating in an avocado-green, wasabi-infused sauce. And we split our main courses—a rosemary-and-pecan-crusted filet mignon for me and her phyllo croissant stuffed with mild potatoes, which she would've appreciated more of were it not for my sublime piece of meat.

After three desserts—a soufflé, a cheese tart and vodka-flavored Jell-O—mademoiselle and I rested with a radiant glow that stayed with us throughout the following day. Nicolai brought out the bill and a fountain pen. As I signed a month's worth of credit-card payments away for the grandest meal of my life, I felt as if I were completing a death certificate, not just for the Dining Room, but also for a part of Orange County and myself. Let the nouveau riche have their Aquas and Studios—bury my stomach at the Dining Room.

The Dining Room was once at The Ritz-Carlton, Laguna Niguel, 1 Ritz-Carlton Dr., Dana Point. Its phone number was (949) 242-2000, but call it now to yell at management. Dinner for two did go from $60 to $300, but it included a bottle of wine and was damn worth it.

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