By Fiona Sims
How do you win a Michelin star? If chefs knew that, everyone would be doing it. You can have all your ducks in a row – from food to service, tableware to ambience, and it can still elude you, as it has The Ritz Restaurant for many years – until now, that is. Last October, with the publication of its 2017 Great Britain & Ireland guide, Michelin decided that The Ritz Restaurant and its executive chef John Williams MBE was finally worthy of a star. About time too, chimed the industry - myself included.
So why now? It has stumped Williams, who doesn’t think he has been doing anything that different (he wells up when he remembers the moment he and his team found out about the star). The food is classical, yes, but with plenty of modern touches, and while the menu looks pretty similar to the last time I went a couple of years ago (a blessing in my book – where’s that turbot in Champagne sauce when you need it, right?), the dishes are always evolving – a new accent here, an alternative accompaniment there. The wine list has benefited from a few tweaks, too, thanks to head sommelier Giovanni Ferlito, who has added 150 new wines to the list, many from lesser known regions, even an orange wine or two.
Pic: Turbot, leeks, oscietra caviar and Champagne sauce
Michelin will tell you that it’s about what’s on the plate and the quality of the ingredients - whether cabbage or caviar. They will tell you that it’s about the flavour and the skill in preparing those ingredients and combining those flavours, and it’s about the chefs’ personality that is revealed through their cooking. They’ll also flag up whether it’s value for money, but mainly Michelin will tell you that it’s all about consistency – and the lack of it is something that haunts many chefs.
I’m pondering all of this as I’m listening to our waiter talking us entertainingly through the crêpes Suzette he’s about to cook for us at the table. Yes, that’s right, gueridon is alive and well at The Ritz London - and if you ask me, it’s a big part of why Williams got that star. Called Les Arts de la Table, it’s about the forgotten art of tableside service, from beef Wellington to sea bass cooked in a salt crust.
These dishes are presented, whole, to the table before being expertly carved, filleted or flambéed and beautifully plated at the tableside - and along with it some knowledgeable banter from your waiter.
Our guy sloshes a generous slug of Grand Marnier into the large copper frying pan on a burner on a trolley. He has already cooked down the sugar, swirled in an indecently large knob of butter, and added freshly squeezed orange juice and confit orange rind. He tips the pan quickly so the alcohol catches alight (don’t try this at home, folks) and a whoompf of flame stretches a good metre skywards. “You need high ceilings for this one,” he grins, as he spoons over the now sticky, boozy orange sauce onto our pancakes (at £36 for two - but think of the entertainment value).
And talking of those ceilings, the Ritz Restaurant has to be one of the grandest dining rooms in the world. Think crystal chandeliers and dusky pink marble, huge mirrors and generous swags, in a vast dappled-light, ballroom-sized space that looks out over Green Park, enjoyed best (in my view) at lunchtime, where the three-course set lunch will cost you £62 per person.
On the à la carte menu highlights include a silky Jerusalem artichoke royale (pictured above), which changes with the seasons (for summer, think pea royale), and langoustines with cauliflower and verbena, with its whisper of ginger and star anise and umami-kick of shellfish bisque, elegant mains such as turbot with oscietra caviar and Champagne sauce, and Anjou pigeon ‘Perigourdine’ with its decadently rich foie gras and black truffle-flecked sauce.
Williams regularly channels late 19th century French chef Auguste Escoffier in his cooking, along with other culinary inspirations. But then when he joined The Ritz as executive chef back in 2004 he already had an 18-year tenure with the Savoy Group under his belt. So in addition to The Ritz Restaurant, Williams also has to oversee breakfast, room service and numerous functions, not to mention the hotel’s famous teas. In this world of smoky grills and street food, it's good to see that haute cuisine is still alive and kicking - even it it took a while for Michelin to recognise that.
Fiona Sims was a guest of The Ritz Restaurant. To make a reservation call +44 (0)20 7493 8181, theritzlondon.com
It’s difficult. We sympathise. Despite being an entirely different shape and size we have an uncanny ability to turn up in the same outfit (usually black) and order the same dishes. We both wear glasses, swathe ourselves in scarves and fancy Daniel Craig.
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© 2015 Fiona Beckett & Fiona Sims (the2fionas.com), photography © Gary Latham, website by Scend