Go all out at Top of the Pontch 

So many new restaurants are getting so much splash — why not Top of the Pontch? Is it because of its hotel location, which is usually not a good sign? Its high prices? The fact that it's not serving small plates? There was buzz before the place opened in September 2014, but almost none afterward.

The lack of attention can't be because of the food, which is out-of-this-world sublime. My companions and I agreed that almost every dish we ordered was way above stellar.

Maybe what's intimidating is ascending 25 floors to a fancy place downtown, rather than just dropping by a neighborhood spot. And yeah, the prices.

But for the big fling, you ought to try it.

For one thing, there's the view of sparkling Windsor and the river, surely the best in the city aside from the top of the Ren Cen. The view alone would be enough laurels for most restaurants to rest on. And if you weren't out to impress a date, you could always scrimp by sharing some dishes, as portions are large, the opposite of trends in ambitious restaurants these days. And they'll comp your valet parking.

But really, you wouldn't pick Top of the Pontch unless you were planning to go all out.

I was happy to see some of my high-end favorites on the menu: duck, scallops, a version of osso buco. And then a lowly pork belly was lifted to voluptuous heights and served with an acidic pickled pear for balance. There's a foamy sauce ("maple air") that's tangy and fruity.

Or start with the Spanish octopus, marinated in sangria. It is by far the most tender octopus I've ever eaten, with a texture like mushrooms. The saffron vinaigrette creates a luscious sauce (save some of your opening sourdough roll, which comes with excellent butter). The thin discs of chorizo and taro root chips are almost unnecessary, though they indeed create a happy contrast.

A smoked lobster bisque is velvety without being heavy and of course not fishy at all, with a bit of goat cheese. A roasted beet salad with espresso vinaigrette is mixed with feta and topped with a nest of crunchy flash-fried beet strands, created by dragging a beet through a Japanese spinner-slicer.

Most of the appetizers read more like main dishes than like starters: sweet potato and short rib; pasta with lobster, crab, bacon, and cabbage. (Given their generous size, this would be another way for the thrifty diner to navigate: Order just from the $13-$15 list instead of from the $36 entrées.)

But the entrées are as irresistible as the starters. My four scallops (most places give you three) melted in the mouth and came with a generous pitcher of lobster-corn emulsion that elevated that lowly vegetable to new heights. The side of risotto appeared to have soaked up quarts of butter and stock to become that rich.

A 1-pound lamb shank on a mammoth bone was smoky, cooked with a Ras el Hanout (Moroccan) spice blend and served with parsnips, sweet potato dumplings, and mushrooms cooked with chocolate and mint, very satisfying. Duck, that rich bird, is cooked with a sweet (but not too sweet) orange-curry demi-glace and served with bulgur and roasted squash. We asked for rare and got it.

The mild flesh of the monkfish, from European waters, has been described as "tight," which makes it somewhat lobster-like. Executive chef Justin Vaiciunas serves it with both a Spanish vinaigrette for tartness and a pumpkin-cider sauce on the side.

Our only disappointments were desserts. I usually scoff at restaurant-made s'mores — so silly. But I ordered the "deconstructed" here and it was lightweight fun: a tiny campfire burned on the plate next to a swirl of crumbs, a smear of chocolate, and blobs of cheesecake filling. A huge plate of frozen chocolate mousse was unsatisfying because the flavor was mild, though it improved if you could be patient enough to let it melt in the mouth.

Wines were exceptionally good. One night I was poured a different New Zealand sauvignon blanc than the one I ordered, but I loved it even if I did get "decadent tropical flavors with bright minerality" instead of "passion fruit, nectarine, and lime." A cabernet was even better, earthy and fruity, a lot going on but still smooth.

It should be said that the dishes are beautifully plated, and service is professional. And that the Top is not a place for vegetarians, unless they eat fish. Only one soup and two salads are flesh-free.

Decor at the Top is just plain silly. Model D wrote without irony that the intention was "Vegas-style." It's not tawdry or flashy, just excessive and occasionally ugly, with swirly white columns, oversized curtains, colored bubbling water columns, and unidentifiable glass sculptures. One Yelp review said, "Star Trek meets Little Mermaid meets Marie Antoinette." You'd be wise to focus on the view — and of course the food — instead.

More by Jane Slaughter

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