The house music is thumping in the lobby. The chandeliers above us begin pulsing like a circuit is about to blow. And some jet-set diner's toddler is on a tear, squealing with delight as he runs an obstacle course through the half-empty dining room, tugging furiously at the 22-foot-long white curtains that hang between the staid columns at its edge.
I'm also about to do a manager the courtesy of eating some crushed worms.
Welcome to Aqimero, the Ritz-Carlton's latest out-of-touch and bungled attempt to create a destination restaurant that matters to anyone other than its out-of-town expense-account guests.
Unfortunately, I doubt this surprisingly bland but not surprisingly expensive "Latin coastal grill" from out-of-town chef Richard Sandoval will come very close to meeting that grand ambition. From the space's pallid redesign to the modern Mex menu (with other Latin and Asian touches) that offers little of distinction for a city now in the full bloom of its real Mexican revolution, it's hard to see what that compelling draw might be.
Is it the service? The staff scores points for genuine friendly warmth, but it's lost in the slog of an unprompted opening spiel that lasted several minutes before we even had a question. And the server's dish insights were larded with so many oversold "amazing" descriptors it became almost comical how different the reality was.
The "crunchy shrimp chicharron" were a pile of rock shrimp whose tempura crusts were thoroughly soggied in chipotle aioli. The "house-ripened" wood-grilled avocado was yellow and woody (and not especially grilled). The "perfectly al dente" seafood risotto was as mushy as wallpaper paste.
Even Aqimero's most obvious asset - the grand setting - is a letdown, as unlikely as that may seem. After all, the soaring 142-foot dome of the old Girard Bank building that is now the Ritz-Carlton's lobby is one of most spectacular and historic public spaces in the city. And it makes a fine high-society lounge, as evidenced by the sea of corporate suits milling among the central hall's cushy furniture and illuminated bar, where the shelves are stocked with 60-plus mezcals that infuse a smoky Oaxacan edge into cocktails like the smoothie bar-esque carrot juice concoction called "Vibrant Visions."
But the Ritz has continually failed to create a coherent fine-dining space that takes advantage of the monumental architecture without being overwhelmed by it. The long-closed Grill was its best restaurant experience, but it was cloistered in a separate room. 10 Arts attempted the lobby again, trying to distinguish its zone with a blush of colors. But the frustratingly understated "neighborhood bistro" concept from New York superchef Eric Ripert so undershot the ambition this address begged for, it faded from relevance despite some talented chefs.
For Aqimero, the decor has gone monochrome again, with sheer white curtains and glass block dividers that make the dining room feel like, well, a banquet space.
If only the food provided the colorful personality you'd expect from a Latin concept. And Sandoval - the Mexico City native who made his name in New York with Savanna and Maya and who now runs 40 restaurant concepts around the globe - draws largely on the promise of Mexican flavors here with some international twists.
But the execution is uninspired. And who's going to come here for a poorly made $19 sushi roll that sags in the middle with only the scantiest evidence of lobster? I might come back for the black sticky rice roll stuffed with eel and foie gras, which was surprisingly great. But that kind of innovative cooking is a rarity here.
In a town that mastered Nuevo Latino cooking 15 years ago and that now has more great Mexican food than ever, Aqimero, instead of making a statement befitting its lofty perch, must step up its game.
The grilled flatbreads offered at the beginning of the meal are simultaneously stale and doughy. The standard tuna ceviche showed a kitchen with little control of the balance of its bright flavors, each bite a jagged jumble of sour leche de tigre juice, chili spice, and overly sweet chunks of sweet potatoes. The grilled octopus appeared not to have been grilled at all, with no evidence of char-grilled texture helping the mushy tubes that arrived in a black olive caramel and lemon vinaigrette that was achingly bitter.
There were a few appetizers I'd call inoffensive, aside from the prices, such as the guacamole topped with not very spicy "spicy" crab ($18) and the decent lobster tacos ($18) of minced crustacean over tortillas with black bean puree. The sweet corn soup would have been fine had I not gotten my hopes up for the huitlacoche vinaigrette and lobster dumplings - which had a fishy bounce. The so-so smoked swordfish dip made me wish I were eating the smoked marlin tacos at Alma de Cuba instead.
The entrées made only a moderately better impression. The seared scallops were startlingly oversalted. The Jidori chicken in adobo was not memorable. The N.Y. strip was certainly a big piece of meat, and I loved the crab- and fava-filled potatoes underneath. But this $42 cut lacked real complexity (despite its prime grade) and was also overcooked.
Aqimero's best entrées were simple cuts of fish slathered in adobo then cooked over the mesquite wood grill. I would have loved the "campfire-style" whole snapper whose butterflied-open flesh was basted in a pasilla-ancho-guajillo mayonnaise glaze, but this sharing dish simply appeared too tiny for two grown men to share. A grilled swordfish steak special was a more straightforward pleasure, the moist meat mingling a whiff of grill smoke with the pasilla savor of adobo.
Of course, this dish also arrived so strangely late - several minutes after the other entrées - that a manager removed it from the bill. A nice gesture, but unnecessary considering it was a favorite dish.
Then, despite our perfectly satisfying desserts, a tumble of glazed beignets that night (a nice follow to the tasty chocolate mousse "sphere" from my previous visit), the same manager returned with an additional offering of apology. A round of treacly sweet "crema de Mezcal" was set beside orange wedges and two unusual garnishes, a pile of ground grasshoppers and another of worms. As a purist, I only eat my chapulines whole, preferably on mini-tacos at Tequila's. But as I hoped not to offend this well-meaning fellow, there was no way around the worms. They were powdered with seasoning and, not surprisingly, tasted like spicy dirt. Ritz-Carlton dirt, mind you! But not the chaser my disappointment in Aqimero needed.
Next week, Craig LaBan reviews Nicholas Elmi's ITV.
AQIMERO (zero bells out of four)
Ritz-Carlton, 10 Avenue of the Arts, 215-523-8200; richardsandoval.com/aqimero
The Ritz-Carlton has swapped the pink hue of its uninspired 10 Arts bistro for the supposed sizzle of Richard Sandoval's Latin coastal grill. Unfortunately, after its white curtain revamp, the grand domed space is as pale and awkward as ever, better suited to the corporate cocktail scene at its center than the upscale restaurant tucked behind the lobby columns, where the Mexican-inspired flavors (plus a hint of Asian fusion) are unexciting and poorly executed, considering the prices.
MENU HIGHLIGHTS Foie gras and eel roll with black rice; lobster tacos; crab guacamole; grilled swordfish special; whole snapper for two; chocolate sphere.
IF YOU GO Breakfast daily, 6:30 a.m.-11 a.m. Lunch Monday through Friday, 11:30 a.m.-3 p.m. Dinner Sunday through Wednesday, 5-10 p.m.; Thursday through Saturday, until 11 p.m. Brunch Saturday and Sunday, 11 a.m.-3 p.m. Late-night menu until 2 a.m.
Dinner entrees, $22-$44.
All major cards.