Since its major 2010 refurbishment The Savoy has struggled with its iconic River Room restaurant. The initial problem was that the culinary team put in place simply didn’t deliver. After a change of chef the food improved, but the restaurant still didn’t prosper. Now they have decided to ditch the long history of the River Room (Escoffier, Peach Melba, etc) and rebrand it as Kaspar’s, a seafood restaurant.
To explain the name requires a little detour. Kaspar is a wooden black cat, used to lend a little good fortune to private dining functions who happen to have an unlucky thirteen diners. He was pressed into action after a private function of fourteen diners was reduced to thirteen due to a last minute cancellation in 1898. After mutterings about the bad luck associated with having this number of diners, the first diner to leave the table duly had some extremely bad luck: he was shot and killed a few days after the dinner party. After this unfortunate incident the hotel offered staff to make up the numbers in any further such inauspicious circumstances, but most dinner parties didn’t want a stranger sitting at their table just to make up the numbers. In 1926 a sculptor called Basil Ionedes was asked to come up with a more satisfactory alternative, and Kaspar the black cat was born, and has resided ever since at The Savoy. The original statue is still kept at the hotel.
I had rather hoped they might let Kaspar sit at the pass and check over the fish before it left the kitchen, but it was not to be. Instead a replica feline sculpture has been brought in to deputise, on display in the room. The dining room was otherwise similar to its previous incarnation, with teal coloured banquettes and plenty of art-décor styling, with a tiled marble floor, and an open kitchen section in the centre of the room. The head chef is still James Pare, the Canadian hired in October 2011 to fix the initial culinary problems at the River Room. James had previously cooked at other Fairmont Hotel properties, in Seattle and in the ski-resort of Whistler.
The wine list was printed on the reverse of the menu and had around 50 wines, ranging from £32 to £1,500 in price. Examples were Brook Ridge 2012 Sauvignon Blanc at £34 for a wine that you can find for about £11 in the high street, Rioja Muga 2008 at £49 for a wine that retails at around £11, and Chateau Beauregard 2006 at £120 for a wine that will set you back around £35 in a shop.
A starter of Indonesian prawn salad (£12) had reasonable quality large prawns, properly cooked, though the rest of the salad elements had little flavour except for the coriander (12/20). Gazpacho (£8) poured over a few small garlic prawns was properly seasoned, though the tomato flavour was not as intense as really top class gazpacho, which is heavily dependent on the sheer quality of the tomatoes used. This is a dish best enjoyed on somewhere like the Amalfi Coast, which has stunning tomatoes, but even so better tomatoes than these can be obtained in London (13/20).
Dover sole (£34) was carefully grilled and had good flavour, vastly better than one I had eaten elsewhere in a London hotel earlier in the week: a simple but enjoyable dish (14/20). Monkfish kekab (£24) was very good; monkfish can be a lovely fish but it requires very accurate cooking or it can become quite chewy, and here it was spot-on. The fish was presented simply on skewers with a salad garnish and a well-balanced lemon nage (14/20). On the side, spinach (£3) was lightly cooked, and matchstick fries (£3) were reasonably crisp (14/20).
My apple tart tatin (£8) had nicely caramelisation and the apple still had good acidity, but the pastry was rather soggy (13/20). Of course this dish takes a long time to make and here was reheated to save time, but the solution is, as often found in France, for the dessert to be pre-ordered at the start of the meal so that it can be prepared optimally. A chocolate sphere (£8) was made from Valrhona Manjari chocolate; a hot passion fruit sauce was then poured over the sphere, partly melting the chocolate. The slightly sweet manjari chocolate went well with the acidity of the passion fruit, and this was a nice piece of theatre: the star dish of the meal (16/20). Coffee was quite good, and the cappuccino came decorated with a likeness of Kaspar in its foam.
The bill came to £103 a head, with a bottle of Louis Roederer at £69. With a cheaper wine you could eat for a bit less, but the bill would still come to around £90 each. This is hardly a bargain, though of course you are in The Savoy. Service was less than faultless, although our Hungarian waiter was friendly. They have opted for a notionally casual style, but still insist on taking the wine away and topping it up. This is fine if they can actually carry this out flawlessly, but it didn’t always happen, and given this they would be better off just leaving the wine at the table within reach. This illustrated for me how the service felt a little awkward, neither really casual nor properly formal, and not fully succeeding at either style. The pace of the dishes was quite brisk, with our main course finished within 45 minutes of us sitting down.
Overall the meal was a little mixed in standard, off to a shaky start but with reasonable main courses and quite good desserts. It was certainly a decent enough experience overall, though the value for money is debatable.