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Crème de la Crème

Cliff House dining soars

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Perhaps you've seen the billboards around town, wrenching the English language as advertisements do: "Luxury Becomes a Landmark." "Dining Becomes a Destiny." Such pretentious hyperbole has kept me away from the Cliff House until this assignment. I can't say much about destiny, but the dining was divine.

It began thusly: a cordial welcome, an elegant dining room, cabinets displaying wine along one wall, stained glass framing the inner alcove (where, in front of the fireplace later that evening, a proposal of marriage would occur), a beautifully appointed table, lace clothes over damask table linens, comfortably upholstered armchairs. The maitre d' proffered the extensive wine list, bound in a tapestry-covered book. The beeswax candle was lit. Impeccable so far.

We began with one appetizer, one soup, one salad, tough choices all. Passing over the white truffle risotto with wild mushroom broth, and the duck prosciutto with melon chutney, we chose the seared sea scallops. They were perfectly cooked -- lightly crusted on the outside, meltingly soft inside, -- and served with delicate dribbles of aged sherry vinegar and bits of black pepper crisps. It was a stunning balance of soft and crisp, sweet and sour. The chowder of Yukon Gold potatoes, Maui onions and smoked Rocky Mountain trout displayed the same balance of flavors, an alchemy wherein each ingredient enhances and deepens the taste of the others.

I cannot say the same about our salad selection. "The Cliff House version of the traditional Caesar salad," as the menu proclaims, favors the use of whole rather than torn Romaine leaves. The lettuce was too cold for the dressing to coat it, and the only anchovy flavor I could taste was in the whole fillet draping one leaf rather than infusing the entire salad. It was a Caesar for people who don't like Caesar salad.

That culinary lapse was more than made up for by our entrees. We could have happily selected any of the eight featured that night and eaten well. We narrowed it down to three: trout, salmon and lamb.

Trout, too often a blandly-prepared fish, fairly sang in this pan-fried version of rainbow trout, stuffed with blue crab and accompanied by grilled apples and toasted-pecan butter. The North Atlantic salmon was the pan-roasted gamefish of the day and was served in a sophisticated fashion with a five onion marmalade and chipotle buerre blanc. And then there was the lamb.

I used to play a game of sorts with foodie friends from long ago: comparing our five best meals of all time, the where and when, the soup to nuts. The roasted loin of lamb at the Cliff House has catapulted to the top of my list. Delicate medallions grilled perfectly, draped with a leek and tomato compote, a dollop of pesto on the side: Food cannot get any better. Color, flavor, texture, aroma, all were woven together seamlessly.

We had as much trouble selecting wines as we did entrees. The Reserve List has some wines I would kill to taste, with Wine Spectator ratings of 97, 98 and 100, and priced accordingly ("So, what'll it be this month, the mortgage or that bottle of L'Hermitage?").

One wine disappointment: Wines by the glass are very limited, and half-bottles are missing entirely from the list.

The desserts change daily, and though the delicate, chocolate-dipped cannoli that alighted on a nearby table was tempting, we decided to pass until our lunchtime visit.

The Cliff House lunch menu is as appealing and successful as its evening counterpart. There are three appetizers (the lobster dumplings with red-pepper coulis and the grilled shrimp with blood-orange vinaigrette were outstanding), two soups (a daily special and the potato, onion and trout chowder that is offered at night), an array of nine salads, and lighter preparations, sort of lunchtime echoes of the evening entrees. There are no nighttime vegetarian options; the lunch menu offers a white-bean cassoulette.

One salad demonstrates the transcendence that occurs when simplicity meets excellent, fresh ingredients: tomatoes, truffle oil, aged balsamic vinegar and shaved cheese. It's the secret Tuscan peasants have kept for centuries. Now we yuppies can share; don't pass it up.

Lunch ended with three desserts: vanilla crme brulee, a chocolate Bavarian and a lovely presentation of pound cake and fresh berries. Nothing as yummy as that cannoli had appeared, but that's the risk you run with changing specials.

Executive chef Craig Hartman has done a masterful job in the kitchen; I would expect no less from a Culinary Institute of America alumnus who has won accolades from Conde Nast and Travel and Leisure. And I expect that in time (a short time, I hope), he will see that the front of the house matches the excellence provided by the back. The only flaw at the Cliff House is the service.

Our dinner waiter confused being our service person with being our pal. He regaled us with his artistic aspirations despite our evident disinterest. His intrusiveness made us uncomfortable. He should take a cue from the busboy. Silent as a ghost, a shadow would appear, and the water glasses were refilled, dishes whisked away. No back-slapping repartee.

But which is worse: the superficiality of a waiter who proclaims every dish "Fabulous!" as he pats you on the back, or a waiter who brings the luncheon appetizer and entree together with a casual "Sorry about that" tossed over his shoulder? For what one pays, for the elegance of the setting and the impeccable effect of the food, this is not the sort of service one expects.

Perhaps the problem is the 20 percent gratuity automatically added to the check. This accomplishes two things: it prevents the waitstaff from getting stiffed by stingy people, which is a good thing, but it precludes their getting any feedback about their service which is a bad thing.

Chef Hartman, then, has a few challenges ahead: to build a business not only among travelers staying at the hotel, but among locals (his prix fixe multicourse Chef's Tasting Menu is a terrific introduction to the range and style of his dishes), and to teach his waitstaff that his dictum, "Service without pretension," starts with service.

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