If any culinary tradition deserves to be called distinctly American, it is the all-you-can-eat buffet. Sure, one could point out, the buffet originated in Europe, where it still flourishes in a variety of locales, including French train stations, German hotels and Swedish country houses.
Still, no one would dispute the notion that buffets have reached unprecedented heights of excess in the United States, as anyone who has ever indulged in some of Las Vegas' lavish spreads might attest.
Vegas buffets routinely offer hundreds of items. And the lines of patrons eager to pile their plates high often snake through the casino, clear to the front door.
Dana Point's Ritz-Carlton, in contrast, is careful to avoid anything garish. The luxury hotel recently began serving a Friday evening seafood buffet at the Terrace Restaurant, and it is an elegant affair.
Beneath crystal chandeliers, tables are covered with crisp linens and set with sterling and fine porcelain. Waiters rush over to pull out your chair. Busboys hover discreetly, the better to whisk away your plate the moment you have finished.
The food makes a grand display, with chilled seafood set out on glorious heaps of ice and artfully arranged platters snuggled up to hand-crafted food sculptures. While you ponder what to eat, a live steel band plays Caribbean music, directly behind the Boston clam chowder. Are your hands sticky? Never fear. That's a pile of lemon-scented hand towels in yonder silver chafing dish.
There's little doubt that executive chef Christian Rassinoux has pulled out all the stops for the hotel's newest extravaganza. If there is any fault, really, it is the form itself, not the effort. Put simply, some foods fare well on a buffet and others do not.
Like Gaul, or a traditional Swedish smorgasbord, this buffet can be divided into three parts; iced, cold and hot. My own strategy was circumscribed by the assignment, namely, to taste a little of everything. Happily, the casual diner is not required to stay the same palate-muddling course.
I'd advise starting with iced shellfish, then sampling the cold dishes and finishing with the hot stuff. But make every effort to save some room for dessert. For some, it's sure to be the best course of the evening. I'm referring to a mind-blowing chocolate buffet created by the hotel's gifted pastry chef, Patrick Lassaque. More on that later.
The iced section is my favorite. Until a few weeks ago, Rassinoux procured delicious Belon oysters from France. Their season is past, so now he's serving exquisitely fresh Fanny Bays from the Puget Sound, along with a terrific mignonette to drizzle on them. Paired with, say, a reasonably priced Sancerre by Lucien Crochet from the hotel's comprehensive wine list, the oysters taste even better. I would have been content to stop right there.
Instead, I went straight for the supply of fresh Dungeness crab, which is broken into large pieces, but not properly cracked. That needs to be remedied--Dungeness is a bother to shell, and even though the crab was delicious, few of us wanted to do the work.
The cold section has an impressive variety of choices. I could eat bushels of the thinly sliced house-smoked salmon, which has a dreamy texture and a sweet wood-smoke finish. Tender white and green asparagus are served chilled, and both come marinated in a tart vinaigrette.
The steamed artichoke was ordinary, despite a homemade lemon aioli for dipping. But I did go back for a second helping of Caesar salad, which a chef mixes to order.
A salad of yellow and red tomatoes, drizzled with aceto balsamico and sprinkled with imported Parmesan, tasted as fresh and flavorful as if it had come from a home garden.
There is a tray of sushi for Japanophiles, small pieces that acquit themselves reasonably well. One interesting cold item is a tropical langoustine salad, a refreshing mix of mango, cucumber and crustacean. Though I like the taste of Alaskan blue potato salad with Champagne vinaigrette, I find the idea of blue food, other than Maine blueberries, dauntingly bizarre.
Among the hot dishes, steamed Prince Edward Island mussels and Manila clams in a lemon grass fume are fine. But it's a rough ride after that. Scallops with raspberry sauce dry out in their chafing dish, causing the already sweet sauce to become overly reduced.
Otherwise appealing panko-crusted calamari are not improved by their time in a chafing dish, either. And penne with lobster sauce tastes like what it is--pasta from a steam table. I have no complaints about the firm and tender mahi-mahi with sage butter, though. And there's also a selection of good vegetables, such as carrots Vichy or authentic Provencal ratatouille. Keep in mind that menu items vary according to what is available seasonally.
Have you saved room for dessert? I hope so, because Lassaque's chocolate buffet is truly magnifique.
One of his most enticing creations is called white chocolate crunchy. It may sound like a Frenchified cheesecake, but the buttery crust gets its crunch from corn flakes, the filling is an ethereally light white chocolate mousse, and the top layer is made from raspberry puree. Wow!
There's more: chocolate marquise, a dense, ultra-creamy terrine splashed with various fruit sauces and topped with fresh whipped cream, or an exemplary chocolate eclair, which is made of light choux pastry, filled with a rich, eggy chocolate suspension, and streaked with a chocolate glaze. For a less indulgent finish, there's also an excellent chocolate sorbet.
Yes, this buffet is excessive. But over-the-top it most definitely is not.
The seafood buffet at the Terrace Restaurant is expensive: for adults, $42.50, for children under 12, $21.25.
The Terrace Restaurant at the Ritz-Carlton, 33533 Ritz-Carlton Drive, Dana Point. (949) 240-5008. Seafood buffet on Friday evenings only. 6-9 p.m. All major cards.