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One friend of mine quit his job as a waiter in this dining room because, he said, "the customers are too old and the tips were too stingy." But our server that night was an unflappable twelve-year Raphael veteran named Kathy who denied the charge. "The customers come in all ages, sizes and hues and are all good tippers," she said.
Kathy had just placed the day's featured salad in front of the ravenous Bob, who had dispensed with the pear in record time. The beautifully appointed plate boasted a rustic construction of grilled asparagus stalks resting atop a mound of chopped tomato, goat cheese and toasted hazelnuts, splashed with an earthy tarragon vinaigrette.
That salad could have worked as a complete meal for Bob. "I'm full," he said when the rest of his dinner arrived. "But maybe just a tiny, tiny bite," he said, contemplating the thick "T-bone" of grilled pork. It turned out to be as tender and juicy as any traditional beef steak, blanketed with another strip of that paper-thin prosciutto and a shiny layer of melted fontina. He ate the whole thing.
In a moment of lightheadedness, I had waved off the roasted halibut with lobster-flecked basmati rice and ordered the day's vegetarian special. (These dishes are almost always vegan-friendly, free of cheese or cream.) The bowl of thick, squat rigatoni noodles in a mahogany herbed broth was heaped with roasted tomatoes, chewy morels, crunchy pine nuts and fresh spinach.
I was weight-conscious at that dinner because a few nights earlier, I had indulged in an appetizer of plump, golden, pan-seared scallops doused with a gingery cream sauce scented with coconut and kaffir lime. Bob, my friend Lisa and I were sharing a private dining room (the better for intimate gossiping), and after the scallops, we moved on to chef Hahn's red-pepper crêpes wrapped around delicately spiced pork, cool mango and chile-fired cream.
Lisa added a salad of pale green curls of endive, glistening slices of grapefruit, sprinklings of shaved onion and tendrils of artfully sliced spinach with toasted walnuts under a squeeze of citrus vinaigrette. But her main event was a fillet of juicy, expertly grilled salmon lolling atop a bed of soft polenta and bedecked with a clutter of green asparagus tips. I had chosen the one dish that never varies on the Raphael's constantly changing menu: the rack of New Zealand lamb. Hahn and hotel manager Cynthia Savage retired the dish once for a six-month trial period and were met with violent opposition from its fans -- and I understand why, having experienced these tiny, luscious chops. The lamb stays the same, but Hahn now changes the accompaniments: a white truffle barley risotto one week, a truffle Alfredo the next.
Bob was relieved to see that the beef-tenderloin fillet was a constant, too, though its mode of preparation may be haute cuisine one night (drizzled with a pungent porcini sauce and served with creamy layered dauphine potatoes baked with black truffles), more plebian (topped with a layer of melted gorgonzola) the next.
Like the entrees, the dessert selection is limited. I was happy to find that the ice-cold, slightly crunchy chocolate terrine is a regular offering, as is the pile of profiteroles -- airy hollow balls of choux pastry stuffed with espresso ice cream. Alas, I was disappointed in a crème brûlée flavored with vanilla bean and lavender; it was startlingly rubbery under its glossy burnt-sugar crust.