September 1, 2011
A Culinary Smack-Down at The Ritz-Carlton Buckhead!
Sommelier and chef vie for the prize title and you are the ultimate taster and judge
By Nancy Staab
- Portrait by Jonathan Orazco
It’s a major prize fight when sophisticated sommelier Linda Torres Alarcon squares off against master chef Todd Richards this fall at The Café at The Ritz-Carlton, Buckhead. The arena: the legendary kitchen, illustrious wine cellars and haute-cozy café spaces of the storied hotel. The winner, well YOU, as the ultimate arbiter, eater/imbiber and judge of who delivers the ultimate five-course experience.
The notoriously persnickety national food critic and Esquire magazine writer John Mariani recently checked out The Ritz-Carlton Buckhead’s brand new culinary team and was spilling effusive compliments that were as frothy as the bourbon maple syrup cream atop chef Richard’s foie gras French toast. So who are we to quibble with his judgment? Trust us. Book your table NOW and put yourself in the hands of these food and wine mavericks. (And if you are lucky, the clever piano player will be tickling the ivories the night of your visit: everything from Cole Porter to Nivana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit” rendered as down-temp lounge music…(genius).
Here’s the set up: Call the Ritz reservation line (404.240.7035) and specifically request The Food and Wine Championship Bout any Thursday, Friday or Saturday evening through fall and beginning Sept. 8. Then come hungry because you are about to be pleasantly assaulted with culinary and oenophile delights by two true heavyweights in the gourmand category. Just call it a one-two cluinary punch. You, the diners, will decide whether the sommelier or the chef will set the agenda for the night. Then the opponent (chef or sommelier) must follow suit, nimbly cooking up or pouring expert pairings in an impromptu manner based on what the competitor is bringing out of the kitchen or cellar at a given moment. The good-natured competition is not only entertaining, with the amiable Linda Alarcón and Todd Richards making regular visits tableside to talk up their tastings (and perhaps even bribe diners with an extra amuse bouche or take-away splits of Prosecco!), but the rivalry clearly brings out the best in these seasoned pros. And pros they are. Richards made his name at the five-diamond The Oakroom at the Seelbach Hotel in Louisville, KY, before coming to Atlanta and was also featured on Iron Chef America, while Alarcón served as wine director at several Concentrics restaurants in town prior to her Ritz post and recently completed level two of the Court of Masters Sommelier Program.
We won’t reveal who won the bout on the night of our visit, but let’s just say the culinary experience was as pleasant as the ultra-close deliberations were painful. Who will win the night of your visit: the silky-tongued Alcarón with her enticing wine lore and perfect pours or the earthy cooking of the expert Richards, whose sensual dishes (he’s not averse to decadent ingredients like truffles and foie gras) are deeply soul-satisfying and layered without being overly-fussy.
Below are some amateur snaps we took of the various dishes from our sample Food and Wine Bout, but please note that the custom menu and pours will vary each night. Nevertheless, we are still dreaming about the luscious veal porterhouse with Saskatoon berry reduction and a side of cream style corn with chanterelles; while Richards’ braised mustard greens (which hail from a 200-year-old family recipe archived between the pages of his Auntie Mae’s Bible) and the perfectly crispy fleshed striped Bass demonstrate chef Richards’ way with simplicity as well as richness and complexity. We did not capture any shots of the diverse wines we tasted, which ranged from a crisp Schramsberg Brut Rose (the first American Rose to be served at the White House for a dinner with the Chinese Premiere under President Nixon’s administration in the ’70s, says Alcarón. Who knew Nixon was such a wine snob?) to a super concentrated, Spanish old vine Grenache called Atteca—but all the quaffs were memorable. The evening culminated with a lush port-like Monastrell Dulce from Bodegas Olivares which bravely matched Richards’ silky foie gras French Toast confection.
Call 404.240.7035 to reserve seats for the Thurs-Sat. night, fall Food and Wine Championship Bout at The Ritz-Carlton, Buckhead, beginning Sept. 8. Seating is limited, the four-course food and wine menu is custom each night, and the cost is $89 per person excluding taxes and gratuities. And don’t be surprised if the ultra-competitive chef and sommelier sneak in a fifth course or sip to secure your vote!
Compressed Watermelon Salad with candied peanuts, balsamic granito, micro basil, olive oil.
Served with a Shramsbert Brut Rose, North Coast, California
Black truffle grits with mushroom ragut, muscadine cider reduction.
Served with Joseph Drouhin, Pinot Noir, "Vero" Burgundy, France
Veal Porterhouse with cream corn, Saskatoon berry reduction, pickled chanterelle
Served with Bodegas Ateca, Garnacha, "Atteca Old Vines," Aragon, Spain
Foie Gras with huckleberry, French toast, breakfast radish, Nobel bourbon barrel-aged maple, whipped cream, chocolate
Served with Bodegas Olivares, Monastrell Dulce, Jumilla, Spain