Fine dining is a series of combinations of tastes, textures, the feel of the room, and the quality of service. If any one factor is off, it affects how you react to all the others. Of course, if the food is extraordinary, it's a lot easier to forgive an uninformed waiter or a noisy dishwasher, but when all the pieces fall into place... that's when an evening becomes unforgettable.
For ten years, one good combination has been the Peabody Hotel's reputation for service and the quality of their two restaurants, Dux and Capriccio. Dux is the more formal of the two and the only Mobil Four-Star rated restaurant in town. I've seen listings that "suggest" jackets, but I saw just as many casual diners as not when I was there.
Yes, the ducks still parade twice a day (11 and 5), and Peabody chefs have actually disqualified themselves from national competitions if the ingredients include duck. Sort of like Disney chefs refusing to cook... maybe that's not a good example.
A neat, orchid-bedecked lobby with a small bar leads into the dining room, marble and muted maroon and taupe walls decorated with batik depictions of mallards and swans (ugly ducklings, I suppose). It's a comfortable room, tasteful yet removed from the formal atmosphere one would associate with jacketed waiters and silver serving trays (of which there are plenty - wait until you see the synchronized lid removal).
I was rather surprised at the brevity of the menu. The offerings do change seasonally perhaps summer is the short season. An alternative to deciding is a chef's choice of four courses, which that night included soup, a fish course, tenderloin and dessert, for $65 a person. I chose to forgo the steak, and we ordered ala carte.
Combinations came into play with the chilled cucumber-yogurt soup ($14), garnished with dill and thin julienne of mint. The menu said it came with taboule, but there was a round island of couscous in the middle which our waiter insisted was taboule, even without any evidence of parsley or tomato. Definitions change, I suppose. My crab salad, very fresh pieces of crab served atop a marinated tomato confit and lovely sunflower sprouts, was liberally laced with a very tart lemon dressing which did an unfortunate job of hiding the taste of the crab ($16).
The lamb sirloin ($28), a tender round of meat, sat atop a bland mixture of eggplant, tomato and pine nuts which neither subtracted nor enhanced the taste. A moist, perfectly cooked cross-section of Atlantic salmon, topped with jewel-like salmon roe, was revealed under my domed lid ($24). The saltwater taste of the roe made the fish seem even fresher. It was served with savory sautéd artichoke and a Merlot wine reduction that I can only call magnificent. But back to combinations: perfect taken separately, the sauce was so overwhelming that unless I ate the salmon by itself I could barely taste it. My partner kept leaning over and dipping her lamb into the sauce, and that's where it should have been.
Frankly, I've been more impressed with the quality and variety of food at Capriccio, right next door. I'd hate to think that Dux was nesting on its laurels.