R I P
The revamped River restaurant lasted only just over a year. It will reopen in 2013 in a different form, reportedly a seafood restaurant called Kaspar's Seafood and Grill. Kaspar is the resident hotel cat (actually a wooden statue of a black cat, part of Savoy history since the 1920s), who presumably would thoroughly approve of the new format. The notes below are now of historical interest only.
I visited the River Room soon after the Savoy re-opened after its major refurbishment. While the décor is now lovely, that meal was distinctly mixed in standard, and I was not impressed. It seems that I wasn’t the only one to have this view, because not only the head chef but the head of pastry and much of the original team has now been replaced. In charge of the kitchen now is Canadian James Pare, who has cooked at other Fairmont Hotel properties in Seattle and in ski-resort Whistler. James spent time researching Escoffier’s original recipes, and there was an Escoffier tasting menu available at £62.50, including the legendary Peach melba, which was invented here. Head of pastry now is Martin Chiffers, who worked extensively around Asia before returning to the UK. It was worth noting that there were no sneaky extra charges for vegetables here, so the prices of dishes were what they appeared to be.
The wine list has around 250 wines, and is not kindly marked-up, with the average mark up 3.5 times retail price, though there was at least a knowledgeable Canadian sommelier. Examples were Jordan “The Prospector” 2010 at £40 for a wine you can buy in the high street for £10, Pouilly Fume “Indigene” Pascal Jolivet 2008 at £95 for a wine that retails at £25, up to grander wines such as Antinori Tignanello 1995 at £230 for a wine you can find for £71. We drank one of the least marked-up wines on the list, the lovely classically made Castillo Ygay Gran Reserva Marques de Murrieta 2001, at £89 on the list for a wine that retails at £32. Breads were made in house, and tonight were warm slices of sourdough and granary bread, the latter particularly good and having soft texture (6/10 overall for the bread).
Tables are large and generously spaced, with crisp white linen tablecloths carefully ironed on to the table. There is a river view for tables at one end of the large dining room. The meal began with a little quenelle of foie gras with a few drops of balsamic dressing. The foie gras had very good flavour and smooth texture, the balsamic a nice balance to its richness (easily 5/10). A trio of large scallops (£18) were served with a little sauce vierge (tomato, olive oil, basil and lemon juice), along with thin strips of pineapple, with some honey soy dressing. The scallops were high quality, sweet and carefully cooked. As a side note, it was nice to see that these were three whole scallops, not one scallop sliced in three to eke out an expensive ingredient to make it look bigger on the plate: a trick used in some surprisingly up-market kitchens in London but one almost unthinkable in restaurants in France. The sauce vierge is a classical accompaniment to scallops and worked well, the pineapple an interesting idea to give balancing acidity to the sweetness of the scallops (6/10).
Artichoke salad had good pickled artichokes, served with carrots, peppers, turnip, courgettes and baby leeks. These were seasonal and of reasonable quality. A saffron fennel puree was very generous with the saffron, perhaps too much so as at this level of concentration saffron has a somewhat metallic taste (4/10). Camomile-crusted beef fillet (£29) was served with fondant potato, beans, candied carrots and baby wild mushrooms and a sauce made from the cooking juices. The beef was 28 days aged and from Kent, had quite good flavour and was accurately cooked; the camomile flavour did not really come through much, which for me was a positive thing. The fondant potato was made well with a rich stock, the vegetables were nicely cooked and it was good to see a proper pool of sauce rather than the few artistic dots that seems to be the trend these days. This was a simple but very well-made dish (easily 5/10).
Dover Sole (£34) was filleted, pan-fried and then reassembled, just one bone slipping through the net. The sole was excellent, cooked accurately and with care: a detail was that the underside of the fish was also carefully seared; a less careful kitchen might just sear the top for presentation. The fish was served with beans, creamy mash and a caper sauce (easily 5/10). With such a simple dish there is nowhere to hide, and the cooking was precise.
Warm chocolate orange molleux (£11) had the texture it should, a rich gooey chocolate with a melting centre, served with popcorn and salted caramel ice cream. The molleux was suitably rich, the only slight flaw being a slightly crisp outside layer on one side; however the ice cream was excellent and the orange flavour not too dominant (5/10). A pre-dessert of mango ice cream on an exotic fruit salad was refreshing, the ice cream having smooth texture though for me a more intense mango flavour could have come through (4/10). Apple tarte tatin (£11) was prettily presented, with a scoop of vanilla ice cream being home to a series of thin apple crisps inserted at regular intervals into the ice cream. The main event, the tatin itself, was not over-caramelised. I prefer a golden colour to the apples rather than the mahogany colour that sometimes appears; for me this could still have been slightly lighter in colour still, but this is a personal preference rather than a criticism. The vanilla ice cream had deep vanilla flavour, and the little apple crisps were a nice touch, adding an extra dimension of texture (comfortably 6/10).
Service was excellent, with our waiter, Richard, worth a mention: he hit just the right note of careful attention without being intrusive, an object lesson in good service. Overall this was a vast improvement over the meal we had shortly after opening, which goes to show what a difference some key chef changes can make to a restaurant. Of course this is still hardly a cheap night out, but this is now a good example of traditional dining in the grand style. What a difference a chef makes.
What follows are notes from a meal in December 2010 with the kitchen under the previous chef.
The Savoy re-opened in late 2010 after a much-needed makeover, and at £220 million you would hope that you could see the difference: fortunately you can. The main spaces are attractively set out in art-deco style, and of course this refurbishment includes the two main restaurants, the Grill Room and the River Restaurant. The River Restaurant has considerable history, with Auguste Escoffier the head chef from 1890 who established its reputation, and Anton Edelman in more recent times (1982 – 2003). Escoffier invented Peach Melba and Melba Toast here, as is noted on the menu (it omits the detail that Escoffier was eventually dismissed for taking kickbacks from his suppliers, amongst other things). There is a view over the river, although this would be best seen on a sunny winter’s lunch, as there is a screen of mature trees now between the dining room and the Thames. There is no longer a central dance floor for tea dances, and the new décor is supposed to resemble that of an ocean liner. It has plenty of prints on the wall, thick carpet and decently spaced tables. It is a large room that at capacity could seat 150 guests. These are catered to by a kitchen of a dozen or so dedicated chefs. The crockery is from Wedgewood, commissioned for the Savoy.
There was a five course tasting menu at £66. On the a la carte, starters were £12 - £19, main courses £25 - £32, and desserts £10. The menu has plenty of appealing, fairly classical dishes. The head chef was Ryan Murphy, most recently as head chef for just over a year at Ronnums Herrgard in Sweden after working at several top restaurants in New York. The 28 page wine list had plenty of well-known producers, and as well as the expected grand French wines has quite a lot of choice under £40 a bottle. Examples are Chateau Puy Lacoste 2002 at £98 for a wine that costs £29 retail, the pleasant Hamilton Russell Chardonnay 2008 at £65 for a wine you can pick up in the high street for around £17, and Chapoutier Hermitage Sizeranne 2005 for £120 for a wine that will set you back around £50 in the shops. At the high end of the list Chateau Latour 1996 was listed at £1,650 compared to a retail price of around £655. We drank the rich and excellent Schlumberger Kitterle Pinot Gris 2006, listed at £76 for a wine that costs about £22 retail. Bread is made on the premises, and was a choice of tomato roll, breadsticks, brown, white and raisin bread. It was adequate rather than inspired bread, the texture not top drawer, the flavours a little subdued (3/10).
The meal started well enough with an amuse-bouche of roasted pepper and lemongrass soup with beef cheek. The red pepper flavour came through quite well and the lemongrass was a good match, adding a little acidity and bite (4/10). My starter was a trio of scallops topped with a crust of hazelnuts, with Swiss chard, herb glazed salsify and a green peppercorn sauce. The scallops were of good quality and nicely cooked, the Swiss chard fractionally soggy, the salsify pleasant and the sauce suffering in appearance because it had been left to stand too long and a skin had formed on the surface (3/10 overall, but the scallops themselves were better than this).
Crab salad was prettily presented and had good quality crab, with the salad of apple and celery enlivened with tobiko (flying fish roe), toasted sesame seeds and parsley-lime dressing. I particularly liked the dressing, the lime adding a fresh acidity that balanced the crab well. The overall dish needed more dressing as it was a little dry, but still this was a very nice dish (4/10). The first sign of inconsistency came with my wife’s pan-fried rosti with melted Brie de Meaux, wild mushrooms and Gewürztraminer sauce. The mushrooms were fine but the rosti was completely soggy, which surely defeats the whole point of the dish? (barely 1/10).
Much better was my breast of guinea fowl with Brussels sprouts, warm seared foie gras, butternut squash puree and date jus. The guinea fowl was moist and nicely cooked through, the date jus rich and excellent. While the foie gras and butternut squash were also fine in themselves, the overall effect was very rich, with only the slightly undercooked Brussels sprouts offering any contrast to the richness of the other elements. The dish might be improved in coherence by having an element less; still, an enjoyable and well executed dish (4/10).
For dessert, it was another up and down performance. Gingerbread pudding tasted properly of ginger, with pleasant Grand Marnier Anglaise and vanilla ice cream served in a biscuit tuile. The tuile was fine but although the ice cream had smooth texture it was seriously lacking in vanilla flavour (3/10 overall). My torte of chocolate and walnut was made with high quality Valrhona chocolate but was badly dried out, sufficiently so that I only ate a little of it; the accompaniments to the torte were fine but this was a glaring technical error (0/10). Coffee was of very good quality (5/10) but petit fours were also a mixed bag, with a decent chocolate ganache but a very dry fruit jelly. Service was pleasant throughout, friendly and attentive, and water and wine were carefully topped up. The bill, even with a deduction for the problem dishes, still came to £90 a head, which is an awful lot of money for a meal with this many inconsistencies.