Puttin' on the Ritz

The Terrace at the Ritz-Carlton
600 Stockton (at California), 296-7465. "Seafood Celebration": Fridays 5:30 to 9:30 p.m. through Sept. 12. Paid hotel parking; on-street difficult. Muni California Street cable car, bus lines 1, 30, 45. Reservations recommended. The restaurant is wheelchair accessible.

I'd been working too hard for too long, looking at the insides of too many cheap dives, getting around in a dented heap built the year Bogie died. I needed a drink, I needed a lot of health insurance, I needed a vacation, I needed a home in the country. I also needed a smaller car, a bigger dishwasher, and a newer freezer. What I had was a hat, a coat, and a gun. Scratch the gun; Philip Marlowe had one thing I didn't have. I told my cat "Farewell, my lovely," put on my hat and coat, and caught the Muni to the Ritz.

Of the list of needs, the need I needed most was a vacation, but I didn't have the time or the money. Then I heard that the Terrace at the Ritz-Carlton was holding a "Seafood Celebration" every Friday evening. They'd feed you all the seafood you could eat for $42 if you were an adult, $25 if you weren't, free if you were under 5. Not cheap once you hit kindergarten, but a bargain anyway. When I called to reserve, the lady asked me if I was coming to celebrate something. "Yeah, seafood," I said. I already knew what the food would be like, but this time I didn't want any surprises. I wanted to get the hell away, and the Ritz was as far away as I could get.

The Ritz sits in a massive converted high school atop the Stockton Tunnel. The best and worst thing about first-class hotels is that they all exist in a single plane -- call it the Comfort Zone, as free from geographic coordinates as from the meanness of daily life. Their architecture and decor may differ, but once you step through their doors, only the prevailing language of the lobby tells you whether you're in San Francisco, Sao Paulo, or Singapore. Hard and serious travelers may scorn them as the insulated hide-outs of moneyed folks seeking future conversation fare rather than alien realities. But at some weary midpoint of the journey, reverse snobbery falters, and the nationless pleasure dome starts to look like a refuge from the exotic exigencies of your Pension Rosita, your Hotel Patel. Even if you can't afford a room, the luxury of the lounges and loos, the familiar detached competence of the dining rooms, still provide a break as you slog from one culture shock to the next -- a getaway from your getaway.

We found our way to the elevators and discovered that we hadn't gotten in on the ground floor. The lobby is on four, the Terrace Room is on two. We descended and wandered until we found the Courtyard, an urban garden protected on three sides by the hotel and on the fourth by a low windbreak. It was a moist, warm San Francisco night, but as we ambled past the lighted fountain, it felt like a warm, moist night somewhere else. A dressy party was just starting, identified by a standing card as the American Society of Hypertension. Given the ambience, I didn't think I'd catch it.

We entered the Terrace Room and were seated side by side on a cozy banquette. The walls are pale green, decorated with tasteful sconces and portraits of other people's ancestors. An aging piano player discreetly plinked out pop standards. Our fellow diners were only slightly dressed up, the men's sport jackets hanging on the backs of their chairs, the women in neat pantsuits, the blondes in tight new face lifts. The menu offers a la carte items, but with the prix fixe Seafood Celebration you can indulge in buffet starters, cheeses, and sweets besides your choice of a main-course fish. You can have your fish grilled, sauteed, or steamed; sauced with beurre blanc, chermoula, or salsa; served with rice pilaf, porcini pasta, or au gratin potatoes. After requesting the wine list from a smiling busboy speeding by, I discovered that the mediocre preprandial chardonnay I was sipping had already set us back $8.50. Bottles were more than triple retail. I settled on a tenth, a decent Joseph Phelps chard for $19. TJ stuck with tap Anchor Steam at $5 a pop.

A familiar-looking face, with round brown eyes and a thick brown mustache, was presiding over the appetizers at the white-tented chef station. I was sure I'd seen him before somewhere. His name is Ron Baldwin, the waitress told me, a roaming free-lance chef. I still couldn't place him. Maybe he was the next guy on the pier last Fourth of July. He was friendly and proud of his food, offering Manila clams and mussels mariniere, fresh pasta, and a "San Francisco chowder" made with tomatoes, potatoes, corn, and shellfish, no cream. There were plenty of chilled selections, too. Over time we tried some of everything, except the three green salads. We could eat salad at home.

Returning to our table we discovered that the energetic red-haired busboy (resembling a swift and rufous young Jean Gabin) had plumped and refolded the pink linen napkins we'd left crumpled on the table. We decided he must be a management trainee rotating through the hotel jobs. We tasted our buffet bounty. The chowder was low in salt but, once we salted it, came alive. The chilled prawns and Alaskan king crab legs were about normal for a hotel buffet, well-cooked but lacking some indefinable vividness. The Malpeque oysters with their skimpy gray meat were just OK. The mosaic vegetable pátes were pretty but bland, like most of their ilk. But the pasta, herbed fettuccine with nuggets of rock shrimp, was fresh-flavored and delightful. Mussels mariniere were tender and juicy, in a good sauce, although the tiny Manila clams were, inevitably, tough.

"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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