150 Piccadilly, London, England, W1J 9BR, United Kingdom

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Chef interview

John Williams MBE is the head chef of the Ritz Hotel in London.

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As you walk into the ornate dining room of The Ritz, with its marble and gilt and huge mirrors, you could easily feel that you are stepping back in time to 1906, when the hotel opened. The food is also steeped in tradition, but there are modern touches to go along with the classics that the leading chef of his day, Auguste Escoffier, would recognise. As an aside, Escoffier himself cooked at The Savoy in London, The Ritz in Paris and the Carlton hotel in London, owned by Cesar Ritz. He is particularly known for organising kitchens into disciplined brigades, with separation of duties and strict hierarchy. To this day large kitchens still have his classification of chef de cuisines, sous chef, chef de partie, line chef (cuisinier) and commis. Escoffier also codified the five “mother sauces” of French cuisine: hollandaise, bechamel, velouté, tomato and Espagnole, itself a modernisation of Marie Antoine Careme’s grandes et petit sauces. Escoffier’s reputation was tarnished by his taking 5% kickbacks from The Savoy’s suppliers and being duly fired­, but this little indiscretion is mostly overlooked in the history books, given his undeniable accomplishments.

Back at the Ritz in 2021 I opted for the surprise menu today, but there was an array of menu choices here, ranging from a three-course lunch menu through to a seven-course tasting menu at £125, with full vegetarian and vegan options. The trio of canapes were tried and tested. A smoothly textured mousse of Ragstone cheese, wood-roasted pepper and basil was served alongside silky duck liver parfait with sour cherry and yoghurt. Bringing up the rear was a delicate sugar tuile cylinder containing a filling of coronation chicken, whose gentle spice nicely lifted the flavour of the dish (18/20 average).

The first formal course was ballotine of duck liver with damson and pistachio. The foie gras was sourced from Landes in the south west of France, and had been marinated in Armagnac, port and Sauternes for 24 hours. This was then rolled out with a port and spice reduction and wrapped in spiced port jelly. On the side of the parfait was a blob of preserved damson gel and pistachio yoghurt. The dish was accompanied by toasted brioche but also a new dish, a pistachio Bakewell tart using pistachios from Bronte in Sicily. The parfait had velvety texture, with the acidity of the damson balancing its richness. The little tart was a triumph, the pistachios adding an extra dimension to the dish, the flavour of the pistachios themselves superb. This is a really top-notch dish, with lovely balance and a high degree of technical skill (easily 18/20).

A tried and tested dish followed, Scottish langoustines and bronze fennel, served with herb nage. The live shellfish were shown to us before being whisked away to the kitchen to be poached in butter, served with the nage broth flavoured with cauliflower puree, herbs and baby vegetables from Cornwall along with broad bean flowers from Merseyside. These large langoustines were delicately cooked and had gorgeous natural sweetness, set off nicely by the delicate vegetables and herbs. This is a superb dish, and it was beautifully executed today (19/20).

The kitchen here can come up with modern dishes to complement the classics, and what followed illustrates that well. Chawanmushi is a Japanese savoury egg custard that has lots of umami flavour. Here it was made with aged Parmesan and black truffle, which at this time of year come from Australia. A truffle jelly was flavoured with port and Madeira, and the egg custard infused with kombu and 26-month aged Parmesan rind.  This was then combined with a foam made from 36-month aged Parmesan cheese. On the side was a lovely gougere, the choux pastry filled with truffle cream. This was a remarkable dish with enormous depth of flavour, light and fluffy in texture yet packed with umami flavour and lifted by the fragrance of the truffle (20/20).

A new dish followed, a large slab of Cornish sea bass served with an aioli made with garlic and saffron, fresh coriander seeds, shaved fennel dressed in olive oil as well as fennel tips, segments and puree of Menton lemon, the dish finished with a lobster and saffron sauce. The fish was beautifully cooked, and the acidity of the lemon nicely cut through the richness of the sauce, with the tartness of the coriander seeds bringing an earthy contrast (17/20).

The final savoury course was tournedos of 14-day aged Aberdeen Angus beef from Shrewsbury. The meat was cut from the end portion of beef tenderloin and served with salsify that had been cooked in foaming butter and red wine, along with a lovage emulsion and finally a classic sauce Bordelaise. This sauce, based on a demi-glace, was finished with diced bone marrow, red wine and cooked onions and lovage. Given the richness of the sauce we were fortunate to also have delicate pommes souffle on the side. The lovage emulsion and the potatoes provided balance to the very rich sauce, which was beautifully made. I was less convinced about the meat itself, which was cooked correctly but had rather limited flavour compared to some other cuts of beef. However, the sauce was the star, and with the emulsion and the fabulously light souffle potatoes, the protein itself was almost a sideshow (16/20, but much more for the sauce). 

An initial dessert was wild Spanish strawberries with vanilla parfait and sweet cicely, vanilla sable, strawberry and vanilla parfait, with sweet cicely Chantilly and puff pastry wafer, with a garnish of wild strawberries and sweet cicely leaves, alongside strawberry sorbet on an almond crumb. This was a light and nicely balanced dish, the acidity of the fruit balanced by the parfait, the pastry delicate and the liquorice hint of the cicely leaves bringing a different flavour note (18/20). Finally, there was the Ritz chocolate souffle, a perfectly made souffle using a rice pudding base, which helps deliver even texture all the way through, the feather-light souffle still delivering a deep chocolate flavour. It is hard to imagine how this could be improved (20/20).  Classy petit fours comprised vanilla and strawberry shortbread, dark chocolate. Almond and hazelnut praline, lemon mousse and salted caramel bon bon. 

Service was superb as usual, the copious waiting staff being friendly and helpful, and showing that characteristic of unruffled high-class service: you hardly know that the service is happening at all unless you happen to need something. The bill with wine came to £207 per person. The Ritz is operating at a level that hardly any restaurants in the capital can match, including those with more stars awarded by a certain French tyre company. The Ritz provides a stunning dining room, terrific service and, above all, dish after beautiful dish of elaborate, sophisticated and highly enjoyable food.  


Further reviews: 28th Mar 2024 | 02nd Feb 2024 | 11th Dec 2023 | 01st Nov 2023 | 24th Sep 2023 | 26th Jun 2023 | 10th May 2023 | 08th Mar 2023 | 09th Dec 2022 | 04th Nov 2022 | 30th Sep 2022 | 20th Jul 2022 | 24th Jun 2022 | 15th Apr 2022 | 08th Feb 2022 | 14th Dec 2021 | 06th Dec 2021 | 22nd Oct 2021 | 14th Oct 2021 | 25th May 2021 | 15th Oct 2020 | 28th Aug 2020 | 31st Jul 2020 | 29th Feb 2020 | 19th Nov 2019 | 25th Oct 2019 | 30th Sep 2019 | 30th Aug 2019 | 16th Jul 2019 | 18th Apr 2019 | 12th Mar 2019 | 26th Sep 2018 | 01st Aug 2018 | 04th May 2018 | 20th Apr 2018 | 13th Feb 2018 | 11th Dec 2017 | 02nd Feb 2017 | 15th Jun 2016 | 27th Jan 2016 | 26th Aug 2015 | 28th Feb 2015 | 21st Dec 2013 | 24th Aug 2013 | 30th Apr 2013 | 29th Dec 2011 | 01st Feb 2011 | 01st Dec 2010

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