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, who presumably will 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 (16/20 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 15/20). 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 (16/20).
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 (14/20). 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 15/20).
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 15/20). 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 (15/20). 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 (14/20). 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 16/20).
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.
Further reviews: 10th Dec 2010