Inspired Dining: Muse

I step off the elevator on a Friday night, cross the lobby and survey the scene. Candles in art glass holders glow on every table and flames blaze in the fireplace. Polished woodwork gleams, the linens are immaculate, and stunning flower arrangements along with artwork by local painters add splashes of color to the room. Soft jazz music provides a soundtrack for quiet conversations. Cushioned chairs beckon, and I just know that close at hand there’s a bottle of Russian River Pinot Noir waiting to be uncorked. This is Muse.

It is an oasis of calm and comfort on the Ritz-Carlton’s sixth floor. The corporate credo is red carpet treatment and “It would be my pleasure” is the staff’s standard response to all requests. Beautifully presented plates of creative, contemporary and well-executed food enhance the VIP experience. For the price of a meal, every diner gets to feel like somebody special.

This intimate restaurant opened in September 2006, replacing Century. It has taken time — and a few missteps — for the kitchen to find its footing. Credit for the current state of equilibrium goes to chef de cuisine Timothy Maxin, who arrived this spring, and his culinary partners chef de partie Constantine Vourliotis and pastry chef Roger Smith.

Their tightly focused seasonal a la carte dinner menus change four times a year and are both inventive and approachable. The selections have enough variety to please everyone from steak-and-potato traditionalists to gastronomic adventurers in search of couli and foam. My recent fork-and-spoon tour of Muse’s summer lineup (unfortunately, now retired to make way for the fall menu) was fantastic from starters to the sweet finish, with the exception of stale rolls in the breadbasket.

My trip began with ahi tuna carpaccio ($15). It’s a dish with a sense of humor. The garnet cube in the center of the plate looks like fish but is actually watermelon. Slices of tuna, thin and delicate as flower petals, are arranged underneath. The combination of textures and tastes was just right.

I can say the same about the vegetable spring roll ($12). A tangy miso and sesame vinaigrette sets off the crunchy filling of napa cabbage and julienned daikon, cucumber and zucchini.

Next stop: baby arugala salad ($11). In this excellent preparation, the peppery greens are tossed with candy-licous truffled pecans, mounded atop rings of coddled spiced pear and coated with a date shallot dressing. I didn’t stop until every morsel was gone.

The entrees can be customized by choosing a sauce — there are three options for meat and chicken, three for seafood.

I went with a colorful saffron fennel puree on butter-poached halibut ($28). The fish was fresh, nicely seasoned and cooked to a moist, flaky turn. I, again, qualified for membership in the clean plate club.

My dinner partner selected Madeira and citrus-braised veal short ribs with Vidalia onion marmalade ($28). Although the meat could have been more tender, it was loaded with big flavor from the simmering liquid.

Maxin gets every ingredient to give up its goodness, and even the accompanying cauliflower puree was noteworthy, satiny smooth with an irresistible earthy, mustard-like sweetness.

We shared side orders of baby vegetables blanched and splashed with lemon oil ($8), a rich, hearty version of potatoes Lyonnaise featuring fingerlings, tomatoes and leeks ($6) and a decadent mac and cheese made with twisted little “sticks” of trofie pasta and truffled mascarpone cream ($8). That last is a welcome holdover from the previous chef, along with the bacon-wrapped dates stuffed with chorizo ($13).

An unusual but amazing crème brûlée ($8) wrapped up the meal. The custard is spiked with lemony yuzu, surrounded by a tangy rhubarb “soup” and garnished with a dollop of fromage blanc sorbet —a sort of frozen cheesecake. I also dipped into a “Snickers” parfait. It’s a deft and elegant partnering of milk chocolate, salty caramel and peanut butter ($8).

Maxin’s menu now features wild game and fall produce from area farmers, including butternut squash bisque and apple fritter with cinnamon oil ($8); endive and pear salad with brie, pecans and an apple cider vinaigrette ($9); and Madeira and citrus-braised veal short rib ($28). Maxin is excited about it, and I have ample evidence that the rest of us should be, too.

As he ushered us out, the maître d’ said, “Have a lovely evening.”That’s exactly what we’d just had at Muse.

Muse, The Ritz-Carlton, 1515 W. Third St., (216) 902-5255, Mon-Sat 7 - 11 a.m., 11:30 a.m. - 2 p.m. & 5:30 - 10 p.m., Sun 7 a.m. - 2 p.m.
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