5 Jan 2009

Thinking Silver, Drinking Gold

I SHOULD have been in Aspen, Colorado. My services as a sommelier were originally required for a private new year’s eve shebang. I would have travelled with an almost empty case, in eager expectation of carrying home gargantuan gratuities. There was a time when the average house price topped $6 million in that former silver mining camp turned skiers playground. Unfortunately, the draining credit crunch rendered me obsolete.
What would I do to salve the pain of broken promise? All too often, my Hogmanay experience has been an impoverishly organised, miserable scenario spent with a sweating cast of too many of the wrong characters. As regular readers will know, I would gladly hibernate within the pampering acme of London’s hotels. Impressive old piles with clubby lounges, intimate bars, palatial dining rooms and gracious service. Almost at the last minute, ‘lastminute.com’ drew my attention to The Ritz’s ‘Rivoli Bar’. An ideal venue to gesture goodbye to hectic ’08
Named after the boutique-lined Rue de Rivoli in Paris, which in turn takes its title from Napoleon’s victorious battle, the latest incarnation is inspired by the interior of an Orient Express Pullman coach. Years ago, I had a bumpy lunch aboard one of these gleaming trains in the Yorkshire Dales. There is a likeness in the grand, banded blend of camphor and satinwood, pearlescent Lalique plates, glowing alabaster vases and domes brushed in gold leaf (of which, more later). A few of the deeply cushioned chairs are incongruously swathed in leopard print. The Ritz lion is impressed everywhere.
This has always been a grippingly expensive venue. That much is predictable. Mineral water will leave you gasping at £5.50, although I discovered complimentary bottles and glasses in the cloakroom, should you feel defiant. The price of an espresso will invigorate more than the caffeine (£6). The most basic, but almost regally wrapped Champagne will render you giddy (£70). For those endowed with particularly obese wallets, the signature César Ritz cocktail, named in honour of the hotel’s founder and featuring a blend of cognac dating from 1802, weighs in at £120. Distilling can be thrilling...
In contrast, a venue like the nearby 5th Floor’ at the top of ‘Simpson’s’ (now ‘Waterstones’) has all the glamour of a sixth form common room but stridently charges a surprising £2 for a glass of what may well be the acqua di commune. At least The Ritz doesn’t make pretend to be something it is not.
Our evening included three courses of canapés, a bottle of Ritz Champagne and a midnight cocktail. I must say that although elfin-sized, the nibbles were excellent. The highlights: warm brioche croûte with densely perfumed wild mushroom and specks of Périgord truffle, and a croustade of runny, golden-yoked boiled quail’s egg. To follow, an elevated, polished silver disc of ‘mignardises’ (chocolates painted with gold, pastry sandwiches, lubricious jellies and fibrous nougat).
Just before midnight a full brass band (of 25 players) trumpeted their way from the the tea time, Palm Court into the Belle Époque dining room. As clock hands married at midnight, a Scotch piper, who has been in the role for ten years cut the air with ‘Auld Langs Ayne’. It was amusing to see the bow ties try to sing along past verse one. Meanwhile, copper coloured fireworks detonated in Green Park.
Back in the bar, amongst wisps of party popper phosphorus, an illuminated line of well-timed cocktails looked more fetching than 50 customers in Colorado. They contained the ‘Ritz 100, launched in ‘06 to mark the ‘…100th year as the finest hotel in the world.’ Little lily pads of gold leaf decadently decorated this rich, mesmerising collage of 42 Below, Grand Marnier, Peach Liqueur, bubbles, brown sugar and bitters.
Financially - and only financially - we were probably the poorest guests in the building. But sipping Champagne saucers laced with beautiful, but tasteless 24 carat flakes (which believe it or not have an e-number – 175) we felt wealthy for a while.
As others departed, I took the opportunity to tipsily (but gently) tinkle the keys of the grand piano.
If I could only learn to extinguish my writing ambitions, instead installing myself amongst office furniture, I might afford to come here more often...
Rivoli Bar’ at The Ritz - 150 Piccadilly, London, W1J. T. 020 7493 8181
Nearest Tube: Green Park
Rivoli Bar on Urbanspoon

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