THE ghosts of diners gone hovered through Toscana last Saturday afternoon. 'It's what it's going to look like in September 1997,' said my lunch companion, as five or more staff looked busy between two tables, four people, and the notes of Bach's Violin Concerto. The last word in nouveau genteel dining, the restaurant attracted two more tables by 2 pm: one pair of young women and, the other, four women and a baby. But even the silver-spoon kid, for whom McDon-ald's could invent the caviar burger, could not exorcise the emptiness. Is it the food which makes Toscana the best Saturday afternoon hideaway in the territory? Is it the prices? Is it the lack of hype and hi-concept? Is it the padded walls blackened by the dust which collected in the air-conditioning ducts while the Ritz-Carlton chalked up the longest opening delay in Hong Kong history? Is it that the chairs are Alice-in-Wonderland, big enough to make you feel like a foot-swinging nine-year-old? It can't be the food, which is exquisite, that is keeping people away. Even the buffet, which is the design weakspot, is a triumph of quality over concept. A dozen or so caviar-strewn, pesto-drizzled platters bear everything from designer lett-uce and smoked salmon to lobster and penne pasta with sun-dried tomatoes. It doesn't get many marks for originality, but buffets rarely do. On taste, however, it is difficult to compile a top 10 tastebud test in order of preference with any sense of fair play. Lettuce is lettuce and no one is going to go gaga over slices of avocado and marinated vegetables, but would you choose the ratatouille with pine nuts over the penne pasta with pesto and sun-dried tomatoes? What about the smoked salmon? Or the lobster? As seductive as it all looks, basic truths cannot be avoided. No matter how upmarket you go, serving yourself, as opposed to being served, is too eat-as-much-as-you-can vulgar to fit comfortably here. Even if Hong Kong has turned the buffet into an art form, the modern origins of the buffet are in feeding large numbers of cold, tired and hungry people quickly. Toscana could say its buffet is reminiscent of the more noble 19th-century Russian tradition, where tables were kept stocked around the clock for hungry visitors and where wealthy show-offs kept the caviar flowing. But this isn't Cossacks vodka bar, the restaurant claims no other Russian roots, and there's no escaping the terr-itory's pile-'em-high preferences. With a luscious menu, which easily echoes the buffet table's mouth-watering qualities without the indignity of queuing for food, the restaurant offers daily specials, as well as a variety of three or four-course lunch and dinner options. The praise began with the six-star bread basket, including focaccio, onion bread and grissini. The pumpkin soup was thick, sweet and highly praised. The pasta with squid ink was equally successful, although it didn't taste as inky as it looked. Most votes went to the rack of lamb with artichoke cream, black truffle and olive oil. The combination lifts basic, bloody, red-meat machismo into an age where real men eat olive oil and are proud of it. A dessert trolley would have been more in keeping with Toscana's temperament, but the restaurant has gone for the buffet idea here as well. So, up again for a look at the desserts, which are predictably and deliciously chocolate-laden. Exercising extreme restraint, we picked tiramisu and strawberries. The tiramisu was judged to be missing alcohol, and the strawberries were, well, strawberries. It's easy to blame the $908 bill for two or the $75 glasses of house wine for the scarcity of business. But the best answers to questions about the loneliness of the Toscana diner on a Saturday afternoon are found in two places: in a comparison with similar restaurants around town and by looking at lunchtimes during the week. On the same Saturday, Nicholini's at the Conrad served 11 people at an average cheque of $325. Grissini at the Grand Hyatt served 30 to 40, with an average cheque of $300. During the week, these numbers soar. Toscana serves lunch to between 55 and 60 people during the week. Nicholini's is packed and just try to walk in to Grissini without a reservation. Business people, quite obviously, don't dine lavishly on Saturday afternoons, at Toscana or anywhere else, which must account for the rare peace and quiet. It is a bean counter's nightmare, and who knows what the place will look like in September 1997, but with such an unexpected opportunity for privacy, who's complaining? Toscana Ritz-Carlton Hotel, 3 Connaught Road, Central. Tel: 2877-6666. Reservations: recommended. Mobile phones: officially allowed. Value: * * * * Overall: * * * Hours: lunch noon-3pm, dinner 7pm-11pm. Closed Sunday.