Over a hundred years after its opening in 1906, The Ritz maintains its leading place amongst London hotels. The vision of Cesar Ritz, the Swiss hotelier, it has become synonymous with elegance, luxury and extravagance. A complete and sympathetic restoration from 1995 to 2005 brought the hotel back to its former glory, being abundantly evident in the public spaces and rooms. The vaulted Long Gallery opens on the right into the Art Deco Rivoli Bar, andon the left into the Palm Court, where the Ritz’ famous afternoon tea is served.
However, it is at the far end that the jewel in the crown lies. The Ritz Restaurant, designed in the Louis XVI style, is renowned as one of the most beautiful dining rooms in Europe, if not the world. Its high ceilings, French windows and mirrored walls give a wonderful sense of light and space. The richly coloured rococo décor includes the frescoed ceiling, gold statues of Neptune and Venus, painted murals and lavish drapes. This opulence is further emphasized by an array of chandeliers, linked by gilt bronzed garlands. Tables – there is seating for 100 – are generously sized and well spaced, with comfortably upholstered carved chairs.
Given such exquisite surroundings, it would not be surprising if everything else, including the food, proved an anti-climax. What is the case in many grand hotels is not, thankfully, true of the Ritz. Indeed, the meals produced here do full justice to the magnificence of the room.
Since 2004, the kitchens have been overseen by Executive Chef John Williams (Above), MBE. From humble beginnings, his culinary experience has included spells in some London’s finest hotels, including the Royal Garden, The Berkeley and Claridges, where he was maitre chef des cuisines for nine years before coming to the Ritz.
Whilst showing due respect to the hotel’s distinguished legacy of fine dining, John Williams has also appreciated the need to modernise aspects of the cuisine. In doing so, he has succeeded in producing a balanced repertoire that shows evolution, not revolution. His cooking combines classically based techniques with restrained creativity. There are no outlandish creations, no fusion dishes, no attempts at molecular, no smears, smudges or foams. The emphasis is on precise cooking to maximise the flavour of top quality ingredients; the careful balancing of flavours and textures; adopting combinations – some unfamiliar – which work; and beautiful presentation.
Balance can also be applied to the pricing of menus and their composition. John Williams is keen to make Ritz dining more financially accessible: the three course lunch and dinner du jour menus, at £39 and £48 respectively, help to achieve this.
The more expensive carte gives ample choice from eight starters, (including classic British pea and ham soup), sevenmains (including classic tournedos of beef), and seven desserts (including Crepes Suzette.). The Sonata six course tasting menu and vegetarian options are also available
Value for money is also important, as shown in the generous portions. There is also no stinting on luxury ingredients on the du jour menus, which might include smoked eel, beef, halibut, and even a Ritz classic, poached chicken demi-deuil.
fine-dining-guide had the pleasure of tasting dishes from the new Spring menu, with matching wines.
Over 90% of what is served in the restaurant is made from scratch, this being no less true of the excellent breads – olive, plain white, walnut and raisin – with crisp crusts and firm crumb. The onion and bacon brioche, in particular, was rich, soft and fully flavoured. How delightful, also, to see the near extinct Melba toast offered as an alternative!
An amuse bouche of dressed crab roll proved an exciting start to the meal. Utterly fresh white meat bound in mayonnaise filled a thin tube of fresh apple, the acidity of which, along with its puree, helped to offset the sweet richness of the crab. The spicing was gentle enough not to overwhelm the shellfish or fruit, whilst radish and thin squares of melon added texture and colour.
The first course was a highly innovative dish: soft discs of celeriac – the whole vegetable having been covered in a salt crust and baked in hay to enhance its mild, sweet taste – were paired with cubes of well flavoured pressed salted brisket. A bone marrow beignet gave richness, whereas wild mushrooms and truffle slices added a deep earthiness to this inspired combination. With the addition of a fried quail’s egg, this dish was also visually stunning. The spicy, floral notes of the accompanying Pinot Gris matched the food well. (Wine: 2007, Pinot Gris, Traditon, Hugel & Fils, Alsace, France.)
The next composite plate featured a large scallop, seared to give a caramelized crust and a sweet, translucent flesh, and smoked eel, with oily richness. These items were balanced by confit potatoes and baby beetroot, the whole dish being brought together by a watercress sauce that was mild enough to allow the other elements, including a crisp bacon rasher, to shine. The gentle acidity of the Sauvignon Blanc worked well as a foil to the sweet elements of this dish. (Wine: 2007, Sauvignon Blanc, Gravitas, Marlborough, New Zealand)
Wild salmon, asparagus and crayfish followed. The salmon had been briefly marinated in salt and citrus then cooked gently in a water bath for 24 hours. The result was a succulent medium rare fillet which burst with piscine goodness. Hollandaise partnered the salmon and the asparagus garnish well, although the crayfish and sauce Nantua were overwhelmed by the other ingredients. Again, the oaky, buttery Chardonnay proved an admirable partner to the food. (Wine: 2009, Chardonnay, Hamilton Russell, Walker Bay, South Africa)
A whole Bresse chicken, cooked en cocotte with truffles and morels, gave the opportunity for Gueridon service, which was expertly handled at this elevated grand hotel level. Sealed with pastry which was deftly removed, the cocotte was presented to both diners so the powerful aromas of bird and fungus could be appreciated. Then, the chicken was jointed with swift precision and served with an intensely reduced truffle jus and side dishes of new season’s peas, broad beans and baby carrots. Here, then, was an example of a relatively simple classic dish, without re-interpretation, just brilliantly executed to allow the deeply satisfying flavours to be enjoyed. The complex earthy, savoury notes of the silky, intense Pinot Noir matched the food perfectly. (Wine: 2008, Pinot Noir, Craggy Range, Temuta Road, Martinborough, New Zealand)
A pre dessert of meringue, pineapple sorbet and a brunoise of exotic fruit was suitably clean, light and refreshing, The dessert of “Pear Cigar” was a veritable tour de force of invention, skill and artistry, reflecting the excellent levels reached in the pastry section. Tiny cubes of caramelized poached pear were layered under a toasted brioche pain perdu which itself was topped by a delicately thin chocolate tube containing a rich parfait. All this was then surrounded by a chocolate cage, which has been “combed” into shape by hand. Eating this delectable confection was enhanced by drinking the Sauternes, with its apricot and honey notes. (Wine: 2007, Sauternes, Chateau Villefranche, Bordeaux, France)
Good coffee and well made petit fours ended an excellent meal, which, given the exquisite surroundings, also had an element of fantasy. Real enough, however, was the excellent service provided by Simone, the assistant sommelier who chose the wines, and Claudio, who attended our table. Both were helpful, well informed and friendly. Clearly Simon Girling, the restaurant manager, has a shaped an impressive team, professional, well drilled and formally suited. All this contributes to the memorable Ritz experience.
That John Williams was awarded an MBE acknowledges his services to gastronomy, and reflects the high esteem in which he is held by his peers. As Chairman of the British Academy of the Culinary Arts, he has been tireless in his promotion of the industry. At the same time, under his stewardship, the Ritz’s fortunes have been revived, with a wider demographic dining there than ever before. Public appreciation for his cooking is beyond doubt. It is now incumbent on the food guides, especially Michelin, to grant his restaurant the starred recognition it deserves.