Puttin' on the Ritz

"Try some of the cold couscous," I urged TJ. "I don't like couscous," he said. "I know, but this couscous has lots of raisins and fresh mint," I nagged. He tasted it and concurred that this couscous could be enjoyed. Even better were the smoked and cured fishes. Tiny cured herring circlets (disguised as calamari) were wrapped around anchovies, tasting wonderfully fierce. "Have some of this smoked surgeon," I told TJ. "Surgeon?" "Oops, must have been thinking about the hypertension people." The sturgeon was pretty good, given it didn't come from Zabar's in New York. Best of all -- better even than Zabar's sturgeon, right up there with Russian smoked salmon -- were some luscious, fat-textured pink-white minirectangles with a strong smoke overlay. I guessed whitefish. I was wrong: They were eel fillets.

TJ scored big on his main course. He ordered seared ahi tuna and beurre blanc (a light melange of butter beaten with citrus juice). Although the tuna was cooked a few seconds longer than he liked, it was top quality, tasting like a perfect rare steak, minus fat and gristle. The beurre blanc was the real thing. The potatoes au gratin were as flawless, greaseless, and impersonal as you'd expect from a fine hotel kitchen. I ordered monkfish, known as "poor man's lobster." The dense, chewy white chunks didn't resemble any arthropod I've ever met, nor did the mild taste, although it carried a pleasant smoky hint of the grill. The chermoula sauce (a spicy Moroccan concoction made with minced tomatoes and hot pepper) was interesting but would have better suited a dark, fatty fish like mackerel. The porcini fettuccine amounted to a barely cooked, near-bare handful of unsauced brown noodles, colored but not much flavored by the precious mushrooms.

We returned to the buffets for the finale. The cheese choices were conservative: a firm brie, a mild bleu, and a salty, spongy Greek-style item, possibly Teleme. "Cheeses are too expensive; a hotel can't afford to serve any interesting ones," TJ observed. "Right," I said. "and if they put out a really ripe one, most hotel guests wouldn't touch it -- they'd probably run away if they smelled a good runny Chaource or Explorateur." Then we explored the desserts. There was a tart of canned peaches on a sweet crust, a tart of canned pear on a nutty crust, and another topped with formerly frozen berries and kiwis. The chocolate decadence cake was about as decadent as a Dubuque third-grader. We didn't try the flan or the fresh humongous strawberries. I liked the light ricotta cheesecake, but we both decided that none of these institutional sweets was really worth saving room for at the expense of the smoked eel.

We paid our bill. It was more than we expected but cheap for a vacation. We lingered in the Courtyard, perching on the rim of the fountain in the warm, now-empty space. Then we went back up to the lobby but still couldn't bring ourselves to leave. A Southeast Asian chantoosie was working on her Dinah Washington licks in the lounge, so we settled in for a nightcap. The first cognac on the list was a top-of-the-line Remy at $200 a shot. I settled for the bottom of the line and TJ had an Amstel. When the set ended the room filled with Barbara Bush clones in dark, flower-print dresses and chic taut-skinned blondes in dressy suits and name tags. We didn't recognize any of the names. We put on our hats and coats and went back out into the steamy San Francisco night.

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