Lavish layout, menu flexibility key to Ritz-Carlton’s fame

Lavish layout, menu flexibility key to Ritz-Carlton’s fame

Richard Martin

Lavish layout, menu flexibility key to Ritz-Carlton’s fame

LAGUNA NIGUEL, Calif. — Crowning a bluff that surveys a dramatic expanse of Southern California coastline, the luxurious Ritz-Carlton hotel helps prove that good taste and flexibility are winning attributes for high-priced hostelries.

The hotel’s food and beverage specialties, served up with unstinting concern for the gustatory gratification of a well-heeled clientele, are showcased in the Mediterranean-styled property’s posh, art-bedecked restaurants.

So, too, is the Ritz-Carlton’s famed responsiveness to guests’ gastronomic whims–a trait that has helped the hotel become one of the nation’s premier resort destinations.

“We are totally committed to serving our guests what they want at whatever time they want it,” says Henry Schielein, vice president and general manager. “If you want to have breakfast at our place at three in the afternoon,” he adds, “that’s when you’ll get it.”

No quirk of appetite is too quirky for the Ritz-Carlton to handle, says Schielein. Guests who hanker for a particular edible–however exotic it may be — will get it, he says, “if we have it in our kitchens, and, believe me, we have a large inventory.”

“We never say no; as long as we can do it, we do it,” says Christian Rassinoux, the resort’s executive chef. “We are very keen on pleasing the customer,” says the Swisstrained Rassinoux, who also cooked in Portugal, Kenya, South Africa, and Denmark before coming to Southern California.

Ralf Marhencke, the young head chef of the hotel’s top-of-the-line French restaurant, The Dining Room, explains how the philosophy of improvisation applies to his kitchen: “If somebody asked for a pizza, we’d make a pizza; when somebody asks for a bouillabaisse, we make it.”

Taste tailoring is the house rule, regardless of whether a set menu is geared to meet unusual taste preferences. “We do a lot of special menus and we go out of our way to make the customer happy,” Marhencke says.

Always saying yes to guests’ food predilections helps feed the coffers of the 5-year-old resort, flagship of the 11-property Ritz-Carlton chain of deluxe hotels and resorts, based in Atlanta. Food and beverage sales reportedly contribute nearly half of the total revenues of the Laguna Niguel hotel, even though its 393 rooms fetch daily rates ranging from $185 to $2,000 and post a year-around occupancy rate estimated at over 80 percent.

To meet the demands of room service, banquets, and five other dining concepts, Rassinoux’s 85 chefs, cooks, and helpers prepare as many as 60,000 meals a month. Menu pricing is aggressive, in keeping with the affluence of the lodgers who frequent the Ritz-Carlton and in accord with the hotel’s deluxe dining amenities and rigorous standards of food quality.

Guests who elect not to personalize their menus have ample variety to choose from, providing their wallets and purses are as well-provisioned as Rassinoux’s kitchens. Though the hotel’s 220-seat, all-day restaurant, The Cafe, is a lower-priced alternative to the Dining Room and Club Grill rooms, most of its lunch and dinner entrees are nonetheless priced in the $18 to $20 range.

The 78-seat Club Grill and Bar, patterned after the jockey-clubbish Annabelle’s of London, offers such specialties as mussels simmered in Chardonnay and cream with diced, cured ham and mushrooms ($10.50); linguini with smoked wild mushrooms and truffles ($17.50); whole, steamed Dungeness crab with deviled butter ($20.50); and a rack of lamb with a crust of mustard, lemon, and thyme ($44, for two).

In the 96-seat Dining Room, appetizers include the daily pates and terrines ($9); a tian of Louisiana crayfish and California artichoke in smoked tomato and lemon-basil coulis ($10.50); Maine lobster salad ($19); and Beluga caviar with blinis ($70). Entrees range from the $27 sauteed Pacific shrimp with garlic and coriander, or the similarly priced free-range chicken with gulf prawns in tarragon sauce, or sauteed filet of rabbit, to the $38 steamed Maine lobster.

Of course, prices in the Ritz-Carlton’s restaurants reflect the hotel’s costly maintenance of a lavish and rarefied ambience. “Dining is more than just eating the food that’s in front of you,” explains Schielein. “Naturally, we use the finest china, linen, silver, and crystal.”

The hotel also takes advantages of its richly appointed Lounge and Library rooms for alternatives to restaurant food service. The 98-seat Lounge, offering panoramic Pacific Ocean views, provides a spectacular setting for Continental breakfast, a luncheon buffet and cocktail-hour hors d’oeuvres.

Studded with period furnishings and collector books, the Library is home to the Ritz-Carlton’s popular afternoon tea, a $12 British-style repast ordered by up to 125 guests a day. “This year we are expanding tea into the Lounge because of the tremendous demand,” Schielein says.

Sunday brunch, $35, is another Ritz-Carlton signature meal, which the hotel limits to 350 guests in the face of overwhelming demand for reservations. “We could do 400 or 450 brunches, but we want to focus on service,” explains Rassinoux.

Indeed, service ranks with menu flexibility among the hotel’s priorities. “We make sure that everyone on our staff gets the proper training and that everyone follows our philosophy of 5-star service,” Rassinoux says.

In addition to high levels of pampering attentiveness, Schielein mandates a variety of environmental touches to help seduce guests’ appetites. Included among those touches are the annual transplantation of 300,000 flowering plants to accent the hotel’s stunning natural setting and romantic architecture. “We have 12 gardeners who do nothing but keep the place in bloom,” he says.

The hotel also insists on lavish floral arrangements imported from as far away as Hawaii and Holland. “People stop and touch the flowers because they think they’re fake — that’s how beautiful they are,” Schielein explains.

Other amenities that help “put you in the mood” for the Ritz-Carlton’s fine-dining offerings include the soothing strains of a grand piano and weekend greetings, played by a Mexican mariachi band, at the hotel’s entrance.

“All those things are costly,” Schielein says, “but when you’re here, you know you’ve arrived.”

PHOTO : The Ritz-Carlton, which is perched on a bluff overlooking the ocean.

PHOTO : A sample of cuisine from the Dining Room.

COPYRIGHT 1989 Reproduced with permission of the copyright holder. Further reproduction or distribution is prohibited without permission.

COPYRIGHT 2008 Gale, Cengage Learning