After a millennium low, the Ritz is back doing what it does best - serving classic dishes in an innovative style to diners who like to be surrounded by gold-gilt opulence. Joanna Wood reports
Fred Astaire used to sing about Puttin' on the Ritz, and for most of the last century the hotel name was synonymous with luxury, style and the best that fine dining had to offer in London. After all, Escoffier once ruled the roost here, so classical it always has been.
It would be fair to say, though, that for a while just after the turn of the millennium the Ritz lost some of its swagger and was overtaken by other restaurants offering a more contemporary take on classical cuisine. However, when chef John Williams, formerly of Claridge's and one of the country's foremost hotel maestros, arrived to take up the executive chef position two years ago, its food and beverage operation began to swing again.
Williams's head chef, Frederick Forster, had been working at the Royal Mirage hotel in Dubai, and was the Roux Scholar of 2000. In addition, he had also spent time with Thomas Keller at the French Laundry in California, so he was well placed to give the Ritz's restaurant the modern classicism that Williams wanted.
Forster and Williams draw up the Ritz's menus together. Forster says: "For the à la carte, he'll say to me 'what ideas have you got?' then give his input, but actually John gives me a pretty free hand."
When I visited in September, just after the new autumn à la carte menu had been introduced, there were several intriguing dishes with surprising combinations on offer, such as confit of beetroot with biscotti, topped with a Roquefort and horseradish cream (£14).
On the face of it, a lot of strong, pungent flavours which could easily cancel each other out. However, the elements were brought skilfully, and delicately, together, the earthiness of the beetroot cleverly cutting through the cheese. There's a bit of the sweet and sour thing going on, too, as Forster points out. "The beetroot is quite sweet and that works well with the pepperiness of the horseradish and saltiness in the Roquefort."
Ceviche of lobster with fennel "pain perdu", tuna and black olive jelly and a swede cream (£27) is another starter that has hit the right note with diners. It's texturally contrasting and skilfully balanced flavour-wise, and Forster has taken the classical niçoise match of tuna and olives and given that pairing a decidedly modern twist: a cube of marinated tuna offset by a black olive jelly.
Among the main dishes, Forster's cooking signature - his ability to marry classical techniques and dish bases with unusual modern ingredients, to cleverly contrast textures - can be seen in dishes such as Scottish lobster with frogs' legs and sweet corn blini. Other examples are maple-glazed chestnuts, curry broth and grapes (an eye-watering £49), and a deceptively simple quail farcie served with endive, arugula leaves, pineapple tart and a sauce anise (£33).
His skill in modernising classical ingredient matches is apparent again in a loin of venison which he's paired with juniper in soufflé form, the dish being completed with root vegetables and dates and a red wine sauce (£36).
Desserts in same vein
What about desserts? They're in the same vein. "We have a very talented pastry chef [Regis Beauregard]," says Forster. The menu includes prune kernel parfait with walnut mousse, caramelised pears, marinated prune and shortbread, for instance, or the classically pitch-perfect creamy raisin custard tart with rum and macadamia ice-cream (both £13). "You're never going to get away from classical food here, but we can be innovative as well," declares Forster.
There's also no getting away from the fact that dining at the Ritz is an expensive business. But then there's a three-course menu du jour with coffee and friandises at a pretty reasonable £37. Covers are currently about 75 for lunch and 80 for dinner. And, of course, people don't come to dine amid the gold-gilt opulence of the Ritz with an empty wallet - they come here for the grand experience.
What's on the menu
The Ritz, 150 Piccadilly, London W1J 9BR. Tel: 020 7493 8181