The Ritz Hotel has a long history. It was opened in 1906 by Swiss hotelier César Ritz after his initial solo hotel venture The Carlton Hotel on Pall Mall (which opened in 1898). These days the public spaces of the Ritz are very grand, impeccably decorated with plenty of formally dressed staff. The dining room is at the back of the hotel as you enter: you walk past the constantly packed tea room to get to the restaurant.
The dining room itself is impressive, with very high ceilings and floor to ceiling windows to match, overlooking the Ritz’s Italian garden and Green Park itself. Everything is opulent, from the thick carpets through to the painted ceiling and grand murals, to the stone statues. Such is the scale of the room I didn’t even notice a grand piano in one corner: 100 diners can be seated at capacity. The bone china on which the food is served was specially commissioned for the Ritz. This is very much a formal dining room, and one of the last places in London to insist on a jacket and tie for men.
Chef John Williams (MBE) has been overseeing the kitchen since 2004, after long stints at The Berkeley Hotel and Claridges following training at Au Crocodile in Strasbourg. A team of around 16 chefs serves the main dining room. The menu was £48 for three courses, which seemed to me quite modest, though the a la carte is pricy: starters £18 - £27, main courses £37 - £49, so sticking with the menus is probably the way to go. The cooking is very classical, and the menu full of appealing dishes with luxury ingredients.
The wine list was extensive and features fine growers, but was very heavily marked up in all but obscure parts of the list. Egon Muller Riesling Scharzhofberger 2009 was fairly priced at £59 for a wine that costs £30 retail, but the lovely Torres Mas la Plana 2004 was heavily marked up at £96 for a wine that you can pick up in the shops for around £22. Things get no kinder as you move to the high end of the list: the divine Vega Sicilia Unico 1991 was £680 for a wine that can be found for around £214 retail. Pinot Gris Schlumberger Kitterle 2005 was £83 compared to a shop price of around £22. The excellent Coche Dury Mersault was £236 for the 2008 compared to a retail price of about £113, whereas the 1999 was a steep £482 compared to a retail price of around £172. It is a real shame that the hotel has dictated such egregious mark-up percentages, as it discourages wine lovers from bothering at all. There is no excuse for Louis Roederer champagne to be charged at £21 a glass, when a whole bottle costs £36 in the shops.
The Ritz has now added to its menu some dishes that involve a little tableside theatre. The meal tonight began with excellent raw scallops, prettily presented, with pickled cucumber, avocado mousse and little spheres of fried pigs head (6/10). Next were very high quality langoustines with broad beans, the shellfish tender and having excellent flavour, served with a verbena sauce that mercifcully was very subtle (7/10). Foie gras terrine was served in a brioche with Sauternes jelly; this was very good, though not having quite the depth of liver flavour that the best versions can have (5/10).
Asparagus with a morel sauce and a poached egg was very good indeed (6/10). A roasted celeriac was carved open at the table, served with candied walnuts, pea shoots and a sauce flavoured with tomato: the celeriac was very soft in texture and worked well with the morels, but it was very salty even to my taste (5/10). Whole sea bass in pastry was also carved tableside; this was a sort of fishy version of a beef Wellington, the pastry containing a mushroom duxelle, quail eggs and lobster mousse, separated from the pastry by a layer of spinach. On the side was a mireille sauce (béarnaise sauce with a reduction of lobster) This was served with leeks; the fish had good flavour, and the pastry excellent texture (6/10).
For dessert, strawberries with basil sorbet seemed rather out of character for the Ritz, but the strawberries had quite good flavour (5/10). Much better was Amadei chocolate dessert with a chocolate sauce, tonka bean ice cream and pear puree, which had really rich flavour and several textures of chocolate: a classy dessert (7/10). Service from the large team of waiters was very slick. This was another very fine meal at the Ritz, clearly cooking at a strong one Michelin star level; at some point Michelin will hopefully acknowledge this. The bill with wine came to £118 a head.
What follows are notes from a meal in February 2011.
The dining room here is striking, luxuriously appointed as you might expect, yet for me the food is what I care about, and the attention to details shows in the bread. Several top London restaurants just buy in their bread, but here it is made from scratch and it shows. A brioche was extremely delicate, an oliver bread light in texture and heavily flavoured with olive, while even a plain white bread was excellent (easily 7/10 bread).
The first dish today was chicken terrine, served with a quail egg beignet and pickled mushrooms. The technique shown in the terrine was hard to fault, the texture smooth and the garnishes carefully made (6/10 at least). Next was celeriac baked in hay, served with salt beef, bone marrow and black truffle. This was a pretty dish, the bone marrow providing some depth of flavour and the earthy celeriac going well with the beef (6/10).
My favourite dish from this meal was tea smoked salmon with crayfish and bergamot. Normally I am not a fan of bergamot, but here the flavour was well controlled, and the salmon was fabulous, nicely paired with carefully cooked crayfish (8/10). Native lobster was cooked just a fraction longer than I would have ideally liked, but was by no means overcooked, served with a rich carrot puree and ginger broth. These were pretty strong flavours for the delicate lobster; I thought it was fine but my experienced dining companion thought the broth overpowered the lobster (5/10).
Next was an ingredient treat, milk-fed lamb from Pauillac, presented on a wooden board and carved at the table: the lamb was carefully cooked and the flavour was lovely (comfortably 7/10). Cheese from Paxton and Whitfield was pleasant rather than exciting, which I found odd as they are a very good supplier (5/10). Dessert was Brillat Savarin cheesecake, served with poached rhubarb, buttermilk and vanilla sorbet. This was a prettily presented dish, and for me I would just like to have seen more Brillat Savarin flavour, though I really liked the idea of the rhubarb to provide balancing acidity (6/10). Coffee was of very good quality. The sommelier provided some well-matched wine pairing, and I particularly liked the Podium 2008 Verdicchio dei Castelli di Jesy Garofoli with the salmon. Service was top of the range, attentive, knowledgeable and friendly. Why this restaurant does not have a Michelin star is a mystery to me. The bill was £106 a head, so hardly cheap, but this was for a full tasting mneu with generous wine pairing.
The notes below are from a meal in December 2010.
Bread is made from scratch here. This was genuinely well made e.g. an olive bread with airy texture and excellent crust, a walnut and raisin bread with similarly lovely texture. Brioche of onion and bacon was soft and fully flavoured, while the baguette was perhaps the only relatively ordinary bread; an Armenian crisp bread made with Parmesan was also enjoyable. The breads averaged at least 6/10 standard, with the best ones better than this – it is rare in the UK for me to really enjoy the bread in restaurants, but these were very good indeed.
Salad of native lobster with fennel and lemon featured tender lobster and carefully prepared fennel, while the lemon and also a small grapefruit garnish provided acidic balance to the richness of the lobster. This was a well balanced, well executed dish (6/10). Next was crab wrapped in a roll of spiced apple. The crab was fresh and the apple a good foil to the shellfish, though the advertised ginger flavour was missing in action, and I was not sure what the pickled radish really added (5/10). The menu continued with classy foie gras ballotine with port wine reduction, pain d’epice and pistachio, with a little caramel sauce. The main element was very well made, the foie gras smooth in texture and having lovely full flavour; maybe an acidic element would not have gone amiss, but this was a most enjoyable, albeit rich dish (6/10).
I now had scallops with beetroot, smoked eel and watercress leaves with confit potatoes, with a watercress sauce. The scallops were high quality and cooked just right, the eel providing a further rich element, so the earthiness of the excellent confit potatoes and sourness of the beetroot gave a welcome balance to the dish. The watercress sauce was fairly restrained, which was no bad thing given it could easily have distracted from the sweetness of the lovely scallops. I wondered whether one less element in this dish would improve the overall effect, but everything was technically well made (6/10). At this stage my wife had a very capable black truffle risotto, which had rice with lovely rich texture and plenty of truffle flavour (6/10).
My main course was veal with morels and bacon, with veal jus, garnished with baby leeks. This is not the only dish in the meal which was quite rich and I think would have usefully benefitted from an acidic element, but the veal itself was very carefully cooked and had good flavour, while the morels and jus were lovely, fine examples of classical cooking (6/10). My wife had a generous piece of tender monkfish on a base of gnocchi and lobster (6/10). By this stage I was getting pretty full, so skipped cheese, which is supplied by the excellent Paxton & Whitfield in nearby Jermyn Street.
Crepe Suzette is a classic dish (invented at the Café de Paris in Monte Carlo) of light pancakes with orange zest, sugar and liqueur, in this case Grand Marnier, flamed at the table. This dish has perhaps become a cliché, but if it is well made, as it is here, it is genuinely lovely. Here the crepes were light and the orange flavour well balanced, the Grand Marnier in no way dominating the dish (7/10). Dessert proper was a chestnut soufflé – I liked the texture of the soufflé, and the vanilla ice cream with it was classy, but I felt that the chestnut flavour did not really come through (still just about 6/10). Coffee was of high quality, with some generally pleasant petit fours such as a Tonka bean chocolate, salted caramel mousse and raspberry tart; only a lemon Madeleine lowered the standard, the Madeleine too hard in texture and needing more lemon flavour.
Service was top drawer tonight. Of course you would expect a place like this to be well staffed, and it was, but it was still impressive to see just how slick a well-drilled team of waiters can be. They were uniformly professional, friendly and attentive, providing service that would be hard to improve upon. The bill was £108 a head without service, which seemed to me fair given the high quality ingredients and cooking on display. The key here is to go easy on the wines, whose mark-ups would make anyone wince. Yet the set menus themselves are not particularly expensive.
Overall, this meal was a quite a revelation to me. It was many years since I had been to the Ritz, and although I had heard that in the last couple of years the cooking had moved up a gear, to be honest I was sceptical when I sat down. Yet tonight dish after fine dish appeared, with barely an error to speak of; I have had much worse meals than this with Michelin stars attached. To be sure, it is not cheap, but if you are careful with the wine it is not extortionate either, and you are getting classy cooking and exemplary service in a lovely dining room.