Fashion plates at the Ritz: (above) honey- and sesame-glazed quail dressed to the nines with roasted baby beets, cider-braised turnips, and peppered white peaches; (below) steel-cut oat porridge gussied up with wild leeks, morel mushroom, and an indulgent slab of crisp pork belly

It can be lonely at the top. Time was that the tables at the Ritz-Carlton Dining Room and Seasons-two of the city’s most renowned luxury hotel restaurants-were coveted by foodies. But in recent years stylish new rivals such as Avenues (Peninsula) and NoMI (Park Hyatt) have pushed the envelope for hotel-restaurant menus, while hot-spot upstarts like Custom House (Blake Hotel) and David Burke’s Primehouse (The James) don’t resemble traditional hotel dining at all. With all the lively competition out there, I couldn’t help but wonder: has the world lost interest in the sedate Ritz and Seasons?

FOR THE PAST TWO YEARS , Bridgeport native Kevin Hickey somehow managed to oversee both the Ritz and Seasons, running back and forth across the street many times a day. (Four Seasons Hotels & Resorts manages both hotels.) In April, Hickey finally landed at Seasons, and his executive sous-chef, Mark Payne, moved to the top spot at the Ritz. Not surprisingly, the Euro-American menus of the two places are more similar to each other than they were during the glory days of the late nineties when Sarah Stegner put her own contemporary French stamp on the Ritz and Mark Baker did likewise at Seasons with contemporary American.

High above Water Tower place, the Rit z-Carlton Dining Room is as opulent and genteel as always, awash in warm wood paneling, crystal chandeliers, and plush booth and table seating. But the outdated room has no energy. On our weeknight visits, we practically had the room to ourselves; weekends brought a scattering of older diners celebrating birthdays and anniversaries. There’s no more live pianist on weekends, and the recorded music has all the charm of an elevator soundtrack.

After three meals at both places, I figured out that Payne’s style is clearly akin to Hickey’s; both emphasize organic and naturally raised food and their creations tend to include foams-too much of this quickly tiring gimmick. That said, Payne’s opening double-whammy amuses were consistently a high point of the meal: one time a scallop with balsamic vinegar on brioche and a shot glass of tomato water with tomato aspic and basil oil; another time a mascarpone and mushroom raviolo nestling with a bite of curried duck breast atop a tiny salad.

If you’re craving lobster, look into the soft semolina gnocchi, which gets a ladleful of fine lobster bisque poured over it, and a mound of delicate lobster seviche on the side for good measure. (Skip the butter-poached lobster with chanterelles, curry broth foam, and too-salty spinach ravioli; ours was neither succulent nor sweet.) On the other hand, we loved an arrangement of ricotta-stuffed zucchini blossoms served with toasted hazelnuts, organic watercress, and rolled-up paper-thin radish sheets flavored with aged sherry vinaigrette.

You don’t normally think of the Ritz for quirky dishes, but where else can you find an appetizer of steel-cut oat porridge used like risotto, full of wild leeks, tons of Oregon morels, and a sizable hunk of crisp pork belly? A separate section of the menu, curiously titled “rice and eggs,” offers shareable starters ranging from an ounce of osetra caviar ($232) to a delightful creation of tender wild Burgundy snails with poached porcini and a coddled organic chicken egg to mix in-it would have been perfect if one of the snails hadn’t been gritty.

I generally like my salmon in simple preparations, but chef Payne adds some real excitement to wild Alaskan salmon by preparing it confit style: baked in hot duck fat (which seals in flavor without making it greasy), topped by almond crumble, and set on braised veal cheek with a perfect amount of spring garlic foam. Our waiter recommended a fine 2000 Savigny-les-Beaunes Premier Cru Les Peuillets ($75, reasonable for this list) for the salmon, to excellent effect. Considerably more brawny is an upright cylinder of juicy Kurobuta pork tenderloin (named after the famous black hogs of Japan-think Kobe pork) with a rich triangle of braised veal shank in crispy brik pastry with braised baby artichoke barigoule. And a dry-aged prime rib eye of beef ($110 for two) is juicy and perfectly medium rare, with porcini, roasted cipolline (small white onions), a topnotch bordelaise, and Yukon gold potato purée. All told, a Ritzy hunk of meat.

A pre-dessert morsel of coconut panna cotta came with vanilla-poached pineapple inside, but it was impossible to get any utensils into the narrow glasses until we asked for smaller spoons. All was forgiven when I dug into a perfect chocolate soufflé and stole a bite of lemon meringue cake with Meyer lemon sorbet and limoncello gêlée off my wife’s plate. Bravo to Anthony Chavez, the executive pastry chef. And there were also superb cheeses from the lavish cheese cart-not to be missed.

You might consider trying one of the chef’s tasting menus paired with five wines. I did on one visit, and was treated to an organic honey- and sesame-glazed quail with peppered white peaches, roasted baby beets, and seared foie gras (sigh . . .) and a dessert of Provençal almond soufflé with roasted strawberries, fromage blanc sorbet, and fennel pollen praline. From the all-veggie menu, there’s pure pleasure in carnaroli risotto with English peas and white asparagus flavored with mint pesto, and a rich morel and knob onion tart with arugula, confit, lemon, and chervil butter sauce.

Compared with the adventuresome pairings at restaurants such as Avenues, Spiaggia, and Tru, the wines offered with the Ritz’s tasting menus were disappointing. Would it kill the place to serve different selections with the chef’s and the summer vegetable menus? There was so much crossover between the two that it just felt lazy. And for a dish as provocative as oyster martini with horseradish cream and beet sorbet on the chef’s menu, surely a wine director can come up with something more unusual than the overhyped Santa Margherita pinot grigio-as common as Campbell’s soup on supermarket shelves.

Seasons edges out the Ritz in the am biance category: huge picture windows and an engaging waitstaff lend a pleasant degree of energy to the opulent setting. On our visits, this dining room also attracted a few more diners than the Ritz did-even on weeknights-although here, too, patrons celebrating special occasions outnumbered those dining out for the sake of dining out. As for Kevin Hickey, he’s sticking close to what he did at the Ritz, with solid results.

The guy is into gelatins-even more than foams-and he outdoes Payne when it comes to Asian flavors. His amuses are ambitious and fully realized, such as long thin strips of cured ham wrapped around asparagus dressed up with dabs of white asparagus purée and little quivering rectangles of tomato water gelatin. That teaser certainly got me juiced for a delicious “surf and turf” appetizer: tartare of ahi tuna flavored with tamari soy gêlée and accompanied by wasabi sorbet alongside minced American Kobe beef with violet mustard, topped with a quail egg. Hickey also makes an intriguing risotto starter using the same organic carnaroli rice favored by Payne. This terrific dish is shot through with puréed green garlic fronds and deep purple, satisfyingly chewy snails cooked in Burgundy butter with anchovies, hazelnuts, and tarragon-a classic prep, the well-versed waiter said. He doesn’t sound quite as convincing, however, as he pours mint-flavored English pea bisque around two morsels of shredded phyllo-crusted langoustine tails and through a “froth” of young ginger and carrots. If you’re going to use foam, then call it foam.

Even under a cloak of chanterelle foam, Hickey’s butter-poached Maine lobster was better than Payne’s-sweet and tender-and it’s smartly partnered with fiddlehead ferns and fava bean purée. But my favorite entrée is the Alaskan halibut cooked with kaffir (lime leaves) and galangal-scented broth in a clay pot with Chinese sausage, forbidden black rice, and Thai basil. The presentation is cool, too: a server brings the pot to the diner and assembles the plate on a cart, all the while explaining how the fish is roasted and steamed. It’s a cooking method that does wonders for the thick piece of snowy halibut. The most creative meat dish was a magnificent rack of lamb with a merguez sausage, chickpea polenta, and a meaty, stewlike tagine sauce served in its own gravy boat. Our waiter suggested a 2003 M. Chapoutier Châteauneuf-du-Pape “La Bernardine” ($48) for it-one of several smart half-bottle recommendations he made.

Seasons’ five-course menu has its virtues, too: mine started with Maine lobster salad with shaved hearts of palm and pea tendrils flavored with truffle vinaigrette. It’s dining heresy to say so, I realize, but too much truffle on too many dishes becomes as tiresome as, say, foam. A huge halved sesame-seared diver scallop fared better with its miso-infused shiitake mushrooms, micro lemongrass, and a lovely bisque of coconut and young ginger poured over it. For the meat course, a serving of roasted veal tenderloin, porcini ravioli, and confit of tiny candied beets on a plate brushed with a little vitello tonnato sauce was nice enough.

A summery peach Tatin from the regular menu was easily the best dessert. Hot cooked peaches atop excellent pastry were surrounded by granola-like crunchy candied almond croquant, delicious white peach sorbet, and another gêlée: this time, muscat. The wine pairings at Seasons were more inventive than at the Ritz, but at both restaurants-on every visit-service fell apart at the end, with huge delays to get the bill. The good news is that the food coming out of both kitchens had more ups than downs, evidence that Mark Payne and Kevin Hickey have plenty of talent. The bad news: even though the food is still fine and you can dine in peace and quiet, the dining world seems to have moved on.

RITZ-CARLTON DINING ROOM The Ritz-Carlton Chicago, 160 East Pearson Street. Appetizers $16 to $24; entrées $38 to $42; desserts $12. Dinner Wednesday to Sunday. Reservations: 312-266-1000.

SEASONSFour Seasons Hotel, 120 East Delaware Place. Appetizers $14 to $26; entrées $32 to $46; desserts $10. Breakfast, lunch, and dinner daily. Reservations: 312-649-2349.

Photography: Jeff Kauck

 >> On Wine – September 2006