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BY NEAL MARTIN | JUNE 24, 2022
Norfolk crab with espuma of almond, peeled green grapes with crab meat in apple, fennel and grape
Dover sole “Véronique” with peeled green grape jelly
Veal sweetbread with Parmesan and truffle sauce
Anjou Pigeon à la Presse with white asparagus
Wild strawberry and white chocolate with lattice tuille
Salted peanut praline, caramelised hazelnut, chocolate crumble with milk ice cream
|NV Bollinger Special Cuvée||89|
|2013 Mouton-Rothschild Aile d’Argent||88|
|2013 Domaine David Duband Morey-Saint-Denis Les Broc||89|
|2015 La Spinetta Barbaresco Vursu Vigneto Starderi||91|
|2016 Domain de Souch Jurançon Cuvée Marie Kattalin||92|
What is the hottest restaurant ticket in town?
The Ledbury 2.0?
CORE by Clare Smyth?
KFC by Colonel Sanders?
None of those. Everyone is talking about The Ritz. Really. It might surprise you to know that it only received its first Michelin star in 2017. Executive chef John William MBE is credited with putting the glitz back at The Ritz, and that prompted gourmands to revise their hitherto dismissive views that The Ritz was about everything except the quality on the plate. In July 2021, Roux Scholarship winner and kitchen wunderkind Spencer Metzger was promoted to head chef. Metzger recently triumphed in popular TV competition “Great British Menu”, a useful way for epicures to spot future superstars. He virtually wiped the floor against the country’s most skilled chefs and this spurred me to nab the last free table weeks in advance to see whether this institution is undergoing revolution.
Let’s not pretend that The Ritz is inexpensive, far from it. Nor would I describe it as ludicrously expensive. Compared to its peers, including the aforementioned restaurants, dinner can work out cheaper at £150 per head for the five-course “Epicurean Journey” (add twenty quid for seven-courses or go à la carte.) This surprise menu leaves you in the hands of whatever chef is serving save for any dietary requirements. I opted for the five-course plus the “Fine Wine” pairing menu. I usually avoid these since I prefer drinking a bottle from start to finish and I want to hear the reassuring pop of a cork, not the surgical injection of a Coravin needle. But I wanted to see what £145.00 buys, whilst keeping the total spend under £300.00, a large amount that has become the norm if you seek seriously dining in London in these post-COVID times.
I donned my dinner jacket and tie. The Ritz has stringently applied this dress code since time immemorial and any attempt to remove either jacket or tie will result in a gentle tap on the shoulder and a polite but non-negotiable request to “forget it”. Then again, why not smarten up for the occasion? Those turning up without either can borrow one that is so ill-fitting and/or unfashionable, you won’t forget next time.
The Ritz interior.
The interior decor is ostentatious, glamorous or chintz, probably an amalgam of all three. Would you want it any other way? It’s The Ritz. It’s raison d’être is showing off, taste be damned. As such, it remains a tourist destination, families enjoying afternoon tea to celebrate that special occasion, wealthy couples residing at the hotel. The restaurant itself is ostensibly the Palais of Versailles transferred to Knightsbridge with all the accoutrements: antique mirrors and chandeliers, marble columns, Greek statues and burnished gold. You can’t help falling for its grandeur. I appreciate its spaciousness, tables widely-spaced under its magnificent frescoed ceiling, floor-to-ceiling windows overlooking Green Park that create a sense of airiness. By the entrance, a pianist tinkles away on a grand piano that elicits an occasional smatter of applause. Here at The Ritz, you are isolated from the normal world and the riffraff. The Ritz has always been about escapism.
Now, we need to talk about the food. The “Epicurean Journey” recreates the halcyon days of influential French chef Auguste Escoffier, arguably the first celebrity chef, who ran the kitchen at the turn of the century. Maybe in my naïveté I expected classic French dishes given a modern twist, to wit, recipes invented by Escoffier thrust into the modern age by Metzger’s imagination.
It is nothing of the sort.
Lunch or dinner at The Ritz remains a time machine, whisking diners back to an era when Escoffier ruled and French cuisine was the be all and end all. The Ritz delivers this with all the bells and whistles: immaculately-attired waiters with accents as thick as a 16-hour reduced sauce, verbose and flamboyant explanations of each dish as if scripted by Escoffier himself, cloches simultaneously removed in sweeping gestures with obligatory “Et voilà”.
And you know…I love all that.
I love the showmanship, the unapologetic anachronism, the pomp that surrounds the mundane act of eating. The ceremonial zenith comes when a silver antique press is parked next to our table. Within moments, four waiters are turning the screw to squeeze out every atom of juice from our duck in exaggerated fashion whilst another mans a portable stove, frantically stirring a copper pan to concentrate the sauce as if your life depends on it.
The quality of the cooking is uniformly top class. There is clearly brilliant execution in the kitchen where meticulously-sourced ingredients elevate every plate. Just don’t expect gastronomic horizons to be breached or adventurous combinations that redefine cooking. The Ritz imposes its own appellation rules that have dictated what customers must eat over decades. Why fix something that ain’t broke?
Norfolk crab with espuma of almond, peeled green grapes with crab meat in apple, fennel and grape.
The first course is served in two parts: Norfolk crab with an espuma of almonds plus a small peeled apple tartlet of crab meat, fennel and grape jelly. The crab was nuanced in flavour and works sublimely with the peeled grapes that lifts the neutrality of the crab meat, the almond imparting texture and requisite bitterness.
Dover sole “Véronique” with peeled green grape jelly.
The Dover sole “Véronique” is even better. Escoffier invented this recipe in 1898, poaching the sole and adding white seedless grapes to a wine and cream sauce. He christened it “Véronique” after an André Messager’s play that was enjoying a run at the Coronet theatre, continuing Escoffier’s penchant for naming dishes after women, most famously, peach Melba. The sole was stuffed with morel and girolles and flanked by gel boules of peeled green grapes. This was fabulous, the fish beautifully cooked and marrying perfectly with the fungi, those green grapes lending the acidity to counter the richness of the sauce. It was paradoxically rich, yet light, nimble on its toes thanks to the piquancy of the grapes.
Veal sweetbread with Parmesan and truffle sauce.
The third course consists of a veal sweetbread, Parmesan sauce spooned at the table on one side of the plate, black truffle sauce on the other. The sweetbread is small in size but packed with so much richness, sauces likewise, that any more would be too much. The sweetbread has that melt-in-the-mouth quality and works better with the Parmesan than the truffle.
Anjou Pigeon à la Presse with white asparagus.
Next was the aforementioned theatre, Anjou pigeon à la Presse. (Readers may remember a similar course at Otto’s, and to my knowledge, these are the only two restaurants that re-enact this almost arcane ritual.) After all the drama, the duck is absolutely delicious, perfectly cooked and tender, the sauce, reduced using cognac and Graham’s Ruby Port, containing my annual recommended calories intake in a single mouthful. The sauce ends up with a mirror-like glaze. Like the sweetbread, this dish is relatively small in size compared to other restaurants and yet it needs not to be any larger. It came with a single seasonal white asparagus that was perfectly cooked, though it was not quite in the league of those bought the previous Saturday market in Beaune.
On the left: Wild strawberry and white chocolate with lattice tuille; On the right: Salted peanut praline, caramelised hazelnut, chocolate crumble with milk ice cream.
pre-dessert of wild strawberry and white chocolate was another outstanding
dish, beautifully presented with a lattice tuile on top. It is perhaps the
simplest dish of the evening but perfectly executed, those wild strawberries soft
and flavoursome. I preferred this to the main dessert: salted peanut praline
with hazelnut mousseline, salted caramel and chocolate crumb served with a milk
ice cream. It was rich, extravagant and though I love the potent nuttiness, it
threatens to overwhelm the praline itself. It was a bravura finish to dinner
though I prefer the subtlety of the wild strawberries.
We finished with petits-fours that included a wonderful macaroon and raspberry and custard tartlet, though I found the chocolate Garnacha a little acrid for my liking.
With regard to the wines, as already mentioned, I handed quality control over to the sommelier and none are known in advance. Unlike most sommeliers these days, he was not some 19-year-old hipster from Shoreditch with a fancy beard, a mosaic of tattoos, a WSET Advanced Certificate, an active social media profile and a loathing of sulphur. Smartly dressed in coat-tails, he announces each wine as if I am tasting wine for the very first time. Never one to mention my vocation, I nod and occasionally feign enlightenment, for example, when informed that Morey-Saint-Denis contains a grape variety called Pinot Noir. He’s just doing his job and doing it well. And I must commend his choices because, as I informed him afterwards, they are not names I automatically go for and yet they paired well with each dish. Choices leaned towards full-bodied, richer wines to cope with the richer dishes.
We commence with the fail-safe choice of sparkler, the NV Bollinger Special Cuvée. The nose is well defined with forward, bready and slightly nutty. The palate has an irresistible fatness that those who like razor-sharp champagne might turn their nose up at, yet I enjoy its almost sensual texture and the lack of pretension.
an intriguing choice: 2013 Aile d’Argent, the dry Sauvignon/Sémillon
blend from Mouton-Rothschild. This works really well, the aromatics
having taken on a slightly oxidative slant, a little smokiness perhaps, and hints
of orange rind. The palate is well balanced and fresh, impressive in terms of
weight with that subtle bitter note defining the finish. I would not leave
bottles too much longer to be honest, so feel free to crack one open in the
reds to follow. The 2013 Morey-Saint-Denis Les Broc from Domaine
David Duband comes from a producer that I have not visited for a while. I
used to find Duband’s wines a little oaky for my liking. Yet, this 2013 (a
useful red Burgundy vintage) is drinking nicely. There remains a patina of new
oak on the nose, but it is neatly subsumed into the raspberry and blackcurrant
fruit, and a hint of Earl Grey. The palate delivers the structure one expects
from this appellation. There is grip here, perhaps even just a modicum of
austerity on the finish, but overall, I find this balanced and certainly drinking
perfectly at the moment.
partner the Anjou Pigeon you are going to need a red that is built for the task.
The 2015 Barbaresco Vursu Vigneto Starderi from La Spinetta does
just the job. Kirsch, raspberry coulis and touches of pine burst from the nose,
maybe lacking a bit of grace, but does a sterling job in coping with the
intensity of the pigeon. The palate is predictably rich, yet retains a sense of
balance, maybe missing a bit of typicité, and with a bold finish that does not
feel excessive. That bottle age might have tempered its nascent exuberance. This
Barbaresco is drinking very well with several years of pleasure to give.
finish with a sweet wine. Instead of Sauternes or Germany, we venture to the southwest
corner of France for the 2016 Jurançon Cuvée Marie Kattalin from Domaine
de Souch. Wonderful! Wild peach and tinned apricot on the nose, this is
well-defined and pure. The palate is medium-bodied, with less viscosity and
certainly less oak than you might find in Sauternes, thus rendering this
Jurançon nimble, light on its feet with admirable tension on the finish.
By this time, diners have drifted away, and we are one of only four left. There was a bit of a mix-up with my bill, which shouldn’t really happen in an establishment of this calibre. (It’s amazing how many restaurants trip-up at this crucial stage - that’s the second time I received someone else’s bill in six months.)
Overall, I thoroughly enjoyed The Ritz. Looking back, I was naive to think that the menu would be radically overhauled even with a talented chef like Metzger on the payroll. Part of me wonders whether they are missing a trick? Could they give him a bit more creative license without compromising the essence of what The Ritz represents? I think so. I guess it’s up to their Qatari bosses to decide. Cooking within limitations, surely it’s only a matter of time before Metzger moves on and becomes the new Heston Blumenthal or Brett Graham?
If you are seeking old school glamour. If you want to dine in a place with historic legacy. If you are not on a diet. If you want to escape the humdrum and seek a slice of razzamatazz. If you can tie a Windsor knot, then I recommend The Ritz. This is an institution that could easily rest on its laurels and fill its tables by name alone. Certainly, there are other places with more innovative dishes and pizzazz. Yet when you gaze up at that amazing ceiling as that piano tinkles away, when you think that somebody sitting here a century ago might have been enjoying exactly the same dish…well, there’s nothing like it.
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