5 Nov 2010

Gilt-edged Gastronomy

COME end of November, the critical mass will ease their collective bulk deep into The Savoy Grill’s banquettes. No doubt keen to conjure innovative descriptions of its imitation turtle shell walls and mohair, they will be strict in evaluating whether its fare is fitting for a hotel whose refurbishment cost the equivalent of £822k per bedroom.
The Savoy’s overhaul precedes several other major re-openings. These include Northumberland Avenue’s Corinthia Hotel (once The Metropole) which promises London its ‘finest speciality seafood restaurant’, Mayfair’s Four Seasons, redesigned to include ‘high-style’ dining facilities and a glass-walled rooftop spa, and the Marriott Renaissance which breathes new life into the previously derelict Midland Grand, gothic gateway to the continent.
While not immune to the fanfare, I wanted to pause to gain some context. It seemed fitting, therefore, to head to a venue whose success stems from sustaining tradition rather than adhering to fashion. So, via concierge site, ‘Top Treats’, I reserved a table at what is arguably the UK’s most ornate and influential dining room: the restaurant at The Ritz (pictured). Built by a Swiss wine waiter once told ‘you’ll never make anything of yourself in the hotel business’, 104 years after its completion, César Ritz’s surname is still used to lament other operators’ failures – “it’s hardly The Ritz.”
Mimicking upmarket Parisian flats and an arcade on the Rue de Rivoli, this was actually London’s first steel-framed building. Engineered by Sven Bylander who later built Selfridge’s, other progressive amenities included double glazing, a form of air conditioning and bathrooms fitted with heated towel rails.
My guests and I were the first sitters on a bright Saturday lunchtime. Almost 20ft above, the ceiling has been strengthened to support the network of chandeliers. Although the overall impression is antique, this was London’s first restaurant to offer certified organic meals in 2002. It is also the only business to have received a Royal Warrant for services to banqueting and catering.
The son of a Tyneside fisherman, Executive Chef, John Williams MBE went on to became Chairman of the Academy of Culinary Arts. At The Ritz, he has spent six years cultivating ‘palace style cooking.’ In collaboration with head sommelier, Thomas Sorcinelli, this would prove to be a standout meal.
With feather light curled Melba toast, then sweetly salty, shell shaped onion and bacon brioche came flutes of lime and sherbet scented house Champagne (blended by Jacquart). To mop its residue, tender white crabmeat was tightly rolled in fragrant apple, with a pretty stack of Charentais melon layered with cucumber.
This being a ‘surprise’ menu, Sorcinelli poured wine pairings well ahead of dishes, allowing guests to guess what they might be served next. With a fine truffled terrine of partridge, grouse and venison with baby leek, Sorcinelli selected Alsatian Grand Cru Gewurztraminer (‘05 ‘Kessler’, Schlumberger). This proved a lovely choice, first cleansing the richness of the dish with a grapefruit like acidity, bringing texture to the tile before leaving the sensation of steeped rose.
Pepped at the table with an earthy watercress sauce, a seared saline scallop from Holland and thickly cut, profoundly smoked British eel were complemented by a ruddy but silky strip of Alsatian bacon and a robustly earthy beetroot salad. Posing more of a challenge for wine, Sorcinelli selected an almost Chablis like St. Aubin (Oliver Leflaive ‘08). This provided a curl of refreshing minerality, acidity and a hint of camomile, overall accentuating the autumnal, surf and turf’s smoke and salt.
Although I had fallen out of love with the ubiquitous seabass, Williams’ pristinely filleted example with curry crisped skin caused me to reconsider. Bravely, it nudged an artichoke heart and exceptionally tender chicken leg meat marinated in gluttonous ras el hanout. With more fleshiness then the slender Burgundy, über Prosecco producer and Geox shoe manufacturer, Villa Sandi provided the next (still) match. Also ‘08, Marinali blended Chardonnay and Pinot Grigio to suggest butterscotch and ginger. These exotic flavours drew out more of the dishes subtle spicing while bevelling each mouthful with its fulsome texture.
Our fifth and final savoury course necessitated extra tables to support it: tall, pink veal cutlets, carved at table. This supple meat was arranged against generous mounds of frankly exquisite, spongiform meaty morels and rousingly green tasting cauliflower purée. Cooked lettuce proved a cosy touch. Aromatic mustard and bay leaf gravy finished the dish. Appealing to something primeval, the maître d’ offered gentelmen diners the bones. With such tender meat, Sorcinelli poured a rested Pauillac - the cigar, cedar and graphite scented Château Cordeillan-Bages ‘02  from a five acre vineyard tended by better-known brother, Lynch-Bages. As I savoured both wine and dish, I noticed that the salt cellar remained untouched.
Our pre-dessert of crêpes Suzette provided more tableside theatre. Pancakes were drawn from the flames like sleeping jellyfish, dripping with freshly made orange caramel. Folded as triangles, their central points aligned with the plate’s lion motif. Heard before he was seen, Sorcinelli arrived with a gently clinking trolley laden with no fewer than 16 glasses. Equating to four stickies each, these comprised mature, brawny muscat de Rivesaltes from winemaker/polemicist Michel Chapoutier, a light nectar from Sauternes (Château Villefranche), and what Sorcinelli described as ‘toys’ (unstoppably sippable) from Californian winery, Quady, whose motto is: ‘keeping it sweet since 1975’. His mission over, Sorcinelli bid farewell and almost pirouetted.
Crêpes entirely savoured, I sat back, believing we had reached the meal’s conclusion. But built under the theme of surprise, the meal continued to do so. Still to come were Williams’ signature desserts. Dutifully, we shared mouthfuls. The highlights: toffee apple and praline delice with gianduja sorbet, Port roasted figs with a mini cinnamon scented doughnut on a spun sugar tower, and date meringue, orange mouseline with vanilla shortbread. As if insufficient, a three tier tall tray of petit fours (‘mignardises’) landed, thankfully chased by a very strong espresso.
Presumably a great many people flock to this most extravagant property of the introverted Barclay brothers for an utter immersion in pomp. This includes the 420 guests a day who book, months in advance for the glitzy afternoon tea ritual, which actually runs from mid-morning to supper. Of this, Ritz’s right hand man, chef Auguste Escoffier once remarked: ‘How can one eat jam, cakes and pastries, and enjoy a dinner – the king of meals – an hour or two later?’ Although admittedly verging on excessive, today’s lunchtime feast proved that this grand dame was not resting on its gilt-edged laurels
I straightened my mandatory tie, mopped by brow and gently swayed from 150 Piccadily back to reality. Come the end of the month I might, alongside the critical glut, proceed to test dine The Savoy Grill. However, having so much to live up, I wondered whether I would come to the conclusion, ‘it’s hardly The Ritz...’
Saturday lunch at The Ritz was kindly arranged by Top Treats, the restaurant booking service provided by American Express and toptable. Providing access to exclusive offers and rewards at a bounty of restaurants nationwide until the year’s end, visit the Top Treats website for more information.
Read my interview on Top Treats HERE.
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