Monday, 20 July 2015
The Ritz Restaurant, Piccadilly
For over a hundred years the Ritz has stood in its commanding position on the corner of Green Park, famous throughout the world as the last word in opulence and luxury. And despite my own occasional weakness for a bit of glitz and glamour, I had never been, partly because I'd heard very little about the food in the Ritz Restaurant (and as most food bloggers eventually learn "nothing heard" usually means "nothing good") but mainly because they insist on male patrons wearing a jacket and tie, and I wasn't entirely sure my mismatched "Granddad's funeral" outfit wouldn't make look like a bit of a tit. I quite like to feel comfortable during dinner, not like I'm being interviewed. Yes, funerals and interviews, the only other times I've worn a tie.
So what changed? Well I would have been quite happily carrying on with my life and not worrying about wearing a tie if it weren't for something that rolled past my Twitter feed one evening called pommes soufflées. Just when you think you know everything there is to do to a potato comes this extraordinary technique, involving twice-fried discs of precisely-measured spud that inflate into neat little crunchy pillows of golden-brown loveliness. And in that moment, I knew I had to have them. And given that the Ritz was one of only two restaurants in town they were available (the other being Otto's, very highly regarded but a similar price point and if I'm paying this amount for dinner, I want to sit near things made of gold), I made a reservation, dusted off my tie, grabbed a mate and headed off to Piccadilly.
The vast global influence of the Ritz's own particular style of gold-drenched Baroque sumptuousness is, at first, its own worst enemy. Having seen so many cheap copies of the ornate gold fittings and velvet drapes and plush carpets in, I don't know, Vegas casinos or ironic Shoreditch nightclubs, it takes a while to adjust to the fact that here, finally, is the real thing. The cutlery really is solid silver, the statues covered in real gold. This is what real luxury looks like, and matched with smart waiters in tail suits (in various hues denoting job title and/or seniority, I imagine), the effect is quite overwhelming. And, it has to be said, pretty intimidating at first until the service relaxes you and the food arrives and you really start to enjoy yourself.
Because it's very, very easy to enjoy yourself at the Ritz. It's not just that the food is fantastic; I'll come to that in a bit. It's that almost as much fun can be had from just letting the whole theatre of being in the place sweep over you - like anywhere in such a setting that's doing its job properly, you are made to feel like a star in your own personal theatre production. But at the Ritz, they've been doing it for so much longer than everywhere else, and with such high production values, the effect is all the more thrilling.
But anyway, the food. Amuses were, from left to right, some kind of seafood cream cracker that looked quite like an Oreo, a delicate sugar tube of rich liver mousse, and - the runaway favourite - an extraordinary citrus meringue containing a light salmon mousse topped with roe. And look at the tray they were served on, and the gleaming butter dish in the background...
...and the silver basket of just-so melba toast, and the little silver chalice of sea salt. There was so much expensive tableware present at any given point it began to resemble the interiors department at Harrod's.
Of course the real show was yet to begin. Terrine of goose liver, with spiced pineapple and gingerbread was the kind of exquisitely geometric dish that you only see in places where the number of available hands in the kitchen isn't an issue. So precise and cleanly-colourful it could have gone one a pedestal at the Tate, and yet the taste as just as impressive - a silky-smooth mousse, faintly peppery gingerbread, and beside it a neat row of alternating cubes of jelly and biscuit. Topped with gold leaf, naturally, just in case the volume of elemental metals on show threatened to dip below that of a South African deep mine.
The other starter was, as is clear even from my photography, every bit as painstakingly pretty. Fresh crab (all white meat of course, no expense spared there) in a shiny green jellified roll containing cucumber and avocado (a classic combination that was probably invented here for all I know) and a side blob of various colours and textures topped with caviar. As with the terrine, it all looked so obviously hard work with all of its precisely-placed blobs and clever techniques, smashing it apart with a fork felt like a slap in the face to a hundred commis chefs.
Beef Wellington can't be the easiest thing to organise in a restaurant environment - they ask you to order it 40 minutes in advance, but it's hard to figure out how even this lead-in is enough time to get the fillet perfectly medium-rare and with a good golden brown pastry. Still, they do - just about. The one blip in otherwise perfect service during the evening was that my female friend was given the two smaller, more cooked end pieces and I (being the red-blooded male in an ill-fitting tie) got the nicer, more tender, and larger, central sections. As soon as our waiter's back was turned we evened out the portions ourselves, but this was a rather presumptious mistake to be made at this level.
Despite all that the Wellington was, though, a superb bit of cooking, with shaved truffle and a core of foie gras lifting this traditional English grand-hotel staple into the heights of international gastronomy. The pommes soufflés, as well, were everything I'd hoped they'd be, and even more exciting once I'd realised you could make a hole in one side and fill them full of gravy, like beefy dahi puri.
If the starters looked too good to eat, the desserts were difficult to even look at without imagining with a shudder the countless man-hours devoted to their creation. Wild strawberries with white chocolate and verbena was a delicate cylinder of chocolate, coloured pink as well as white, containing a light mousse studded with various strawberry textures, topped with a neat layer of the berries themselves and then on top of that a smooth strawberry sorbet. And a ring of spun sugar. And some neat dots of strawberry purée. And who knows what else.
Elderflower with champagne and raspberry took a more modernist approach, with various neat circles of raspberry and elderflower mousses, jellies, crumbles and creams. Sorry about my murky photo, but by this point the house lights had been dimmed and the entertainment had begun, first a pianist and then a quartet doing old jazz classics. Such scenes have probably happened at the Ritz for the best part of the last 100 years, the acoustics finely-tuned to allow for a general buzz of conversation alongside the live music. It was all very impressive.
So it is for this reason only that the Ritz doesn't get full marks. Yes the food is exceptional, the service (mainly) perfect, and all the extra frills and gold-plated accoutrements (petits fours were faultless as well) adding up to an experience hardly like any other, lavish and otherworldly. But it impresses with technique rather than generosity, it's exact as opposed to beautiful, polished rather than friendly. It's great fun, but it lacks something - not soul, because I can't describe it as soulless, that would be unfair. It's just that by the time the bill arrived (£255 with one bottle of that cheapest wine and a couple of glasses of dessert) there was a very tiny niggling feeling of having been taken advantage of. But you know what, I'd still save up again to go back. I might even buy a new tie.