In preparation for my assault on Atelier, the restaurant in the new Ritz-Carlton hotel on Central Park South, I called my uncle Frank, the family gastronome and a longtime devotee of the original Ritz, down on 46th Street. Uncle Frank pointed out that this was the city's third iteration of the Ritz (the first disappeared in 1951, the second -- also on Central Park South -- closed in 1998), so comparing the first establishment to the most recent one was a little like comparing the venerable old Gotham Book Mart to, say, the city's newest Barnes & Noble. Vichyssoise had been invented at the original Ritz, and he remembered first sampling it as a child, sitting on a stack of telephone books. The dining room was austere and unchanged over the years, and so were the waiters, who instead of getting fired just got pushed farther toward the back of the room. "It was an odd kind of ballet in the old days," said Uncle Frank, a little wistfully. "I don't think it's a ballet anymore."
Possibly not, but on the evening of one of my first visits to Atelier, the L.A. Lakers were staying at the Ritz. Autograph seekers were gathered on the sidewalks and numerous limousines idled outside the hotel door, one, I'd like to imagine, for each member of the team. Atelier sits around a crooked corner of the lobby, in a long, curtained room decorated in soft tones of blond wood and sea-foam green. The bar between the restaurant and the lobby is manned by Norman Bukofzer, who performed similar duties at the Ritz's second incarnation. When I asked if things felt different than before, he said no, not really. "The Ritz is still the Ritz," Norman replied. "What can I say?"
There's nothing overly ritzy about the summer menu. As composed by Gabriel Kreuther, formerly the chef de cuisine at Jean Georges, it's a mingling of fresh Greenmarket sensibilities and fancy Continental technique. Imagine my surprise, after a winter spent mainlining treacly foie gras dishes, when two nicely seared slabs of duck liver arrived resting on a healthful thatch of pea shoots, in a lightly refreshing, aromatic basil jus. The chilled green-tomato soup with peekytoe crab was a little bland, and my squeamish father-in-law thought the chunks of rabbit in his rabbit terrine (flavored with Riesling, in a jellied herb coulis) tasted a bit too much like chicken. But everyone at the table enjoyed an inventive appetizer of plump roasted langoustines laid over fresh watercress and a single poached egg, and the tuna-and-diver-scallop tartare had a cool, tangy flavor, thanks to a leavening of lemon zest and Osetra caviar.
Among the seafood entrées at Atelier, my favorite was the steamed loup de mer, which was sliced into soft, pillowy fillets and doused with a sweet sauce made of mustard and pink grapefruit juice. The chicken en cocotte was cooked to a steamy tandoori tenderness and served in a goat-yogurt emulsion. On the lunchtime menu, the grilled poussin (with a pile of spring vegetables and a slathering of mustard sauce) is cooked to crispy perfection. Uncle Frank would have probably enjoyed the rich crab risotto, although the roasted lobster I also sampled at lunch was a little mushy. If you're angling toward red meat, order the sweetly gamy Muscovy duck, or the lamb, which is encased in a pepper crust.
All sorts of frilly amuse-bouches and palate-cleansing intermezzos accompany these dishes, and if you're looking for elaborate wines, I counted more than 150 bottles on the list that cost $300 or more. There's a respectable cheese tray for dessert, and two varieties of soufflé (banana-pecan and citrus Grand Marnier) served in little cast-iron pots. Other desserts include a decent apple-and-blueberry crumble, a strangely satisfying chocolate fondant made with Rice Krispies and peanut-butter ice cream, and an elaborate citrus coupe, served in a tall martini glass with a little tuile, set like a sail, on its top. Choose just one, or do what we food critics sometimes do, and gobble them all down in a frenzied lather. After all, the Ritz is still the Ritz.
Atelier 50 Central Park South (212-521-6125). Lunch, Monday through Saturday, noon to 2 p.m.; dinner, Sunday through Thursday, 5:30 to 10 p.m., Friday and Saturday, till 11 p.m. Prix fixe $68. All major credit cards.