WLC’s resident sybarite, Lucy Shaw, heads to one of the grande dames of the London dining scene, The Ritz Restaurant in Piccadilly, for a five-hour lunch of many acts.
The concept: The Ritz Restaurant at the five-star hotel in Piccadilly is one of the grand dames of London. Swiss hotelier César Ritz opened The Ritz London in 1906, eight years after he founded its Parisian older sister.
Inspired by the teachings of revered French chef Auguste Escoffier, who popularised and modernised traditional French cooking in the early 20thcentury, softly spoken South Shields-born John Williams MBE has presided over the 120-cover restaurant for the last 15 years, which was awarded its first (long overdue) Michelin star in 2016.
Looking after the food offering at The Ritz is no mean feat – the kitchen, which includes 19 pastry chefs, is open 24 hours a day, seven days a week, and the team are expected to flit seamlessly between cooking high-end fine dining dishes destined for the main restaurant, and more modest room service offerings.
The décor: While it’s easy to descend into hyperbole when describing the interiors, the dining room is, without exaggeration, one of the finest in Europe if not the world, if opulent Louis XVI-inspired décor is your thing.
We were sat at the back of the restaurant, giving us a magnificent sweeping view of the room, which is so lavish, you can practically feast on the interiors alone.
A riot of ornate bronze, twinkling chandeliers, pink marble columns and sumptuous swagging, it’s a dining room fit for royalty. Marie Antoinette would have loved bringing her entourage here for lashings of cake.
Framed by a bronze garlanded balustrade, the oval-shaped ceiling is painted with pink clouds drifting in a pale blue sky, and at one end of the room are gilded figures holding tridents, and a classical marble statue.
The room’s floor to ceiling windows let in a generous amount of light, while the panelled mirrors in gilt bronze frames make the space look even grander than it is, if that’s possible. On our visit the place was abuzz with animated chatter – a far cry from the stuffy environment one often encounters at fine dining establishments.
The food: Never without his signature toque, executive chef John Williams is one of the UK’s most skilled practitioners of classic French cuisine. He’s also one of the most modest chefs in the business, meaning his mastery has gone under the radar for far too long, though he finally seems to be gaining the recognition he deserves.
Putting modern twists on classic French dishes, Williams works will local seasonal ingredients sourced from the UK, including lamb from the Lake District, beef from the Cornish moors and lobsters from Scotland.
While his dishes pay homage to traditional French techniques, they benefit from Williams’ signature lightness of touch and emphasis on fresh flavours, meaning it’s easy to leave after a languorous lunch feeling pleasantly satiated rather than uncomfortably full.
During our lunch, which began at 1 o’clock and ended at 6pm, by which time a number of guests had taken their seats for dinner, we made our way through the majority of the starters on the suggestion of the restaurant’s larger-than-life manager, Luigi Cagnin, a charming towering Venetian dressed in a navy blue tailcoat and pinstripe trousers, who has worked at The Ritz as long as Williams.
Signature dishes: Our meal got off to a good start with a simple tomato consommé, which proved to be one of the most delightful dishes of the day. Swimming with sweet tomatoes, fresh basil, crunchy fennel and slivers of almond, the zingy starter was a celebration of summer flavours and the ideal palate cleanser for the richer dishes that followed.
Another standout dish was an Asian-inspired crab ensemble prettified with a bubble bath of foam, lilac edible flowers, and a generous quenelle of Oscietra caviar. The flavour of the sweet white crab meat was elevated by supporting acts of apple, avocado, ginger, fennel and lime, making the dish sing with citrus.
The star of the show was Scottish langoustine à la nage with bronze fennel. Resting in a peachy pool of blissfully creamy langoustine bisque, the fennel offered subtle aniseed notes that gave the decadent dish welcome freshness, while the plump sweet langoustines were a masterclass in letting the majesty of the ingredients speak for themselves without any need for pomp and ceremony.
Moving on to the meat of the matter, we hit another high note with our disc of duck liver parfait served with a glossy dollop of cherry sauce, cloud-like pistachio cream and generous hunks of hot-buttered brioche.
When enjoyed together, the result was delightfully decadent yet perfectly balanced, the thick cherry sauce adding a pleasing sour tang that cut through the fat like a samurai sword through silk.
The drinks: Be sure to give yourself ample time to pour over head sommelier Giovanni Ferlito’s 93-page wine tome. While wines from all of the world’s classic regions are present and correct, Etna-born Ferlito is keen to broaden the wine horizons of both seasoned oenophiles and nervous novices.
He is constantly adding exciting names to his list, including a number of orange wines following an eye-opening trip to Georgia, and drops from lesser-known wine nations like Japan, Uruguay and China. He even offers a selection of ancient sweet wines ‘by the spoon’ (10ml measure).
So impressive is Ferlito’s forward-thinking list, particularly given the history of the venue, that we voted it as our number six restaurant in our latest Wine List Confidentialguide. Ferlito and his team of seven sommeliers make good use of the Coravin, allowing the restaurant to serve upwards of 100 wines by the glass.
He encourages daring pairings, including a zippy, oak-aged Albariño from Rías Baixas with the Asian-inspired crab dish, and a honey and lime-scented Domaine Huet Vouvray demi-sec 2017 to cut through the fat of the foie gras.
However, the finest match of the lunch, dispensed by affable senior sommelier Arturo Scamardella, was a classic: Michel Bouzereau Meursault-Genevrières premier cru 2015 with the langoustine, its saline, citrus and mineral notes mingling seamlessly with the shellfish in a heavenly union that will live long in the memory.
Bollinger’s Granny Smith apple-laced La Grande Année 2008 meanwhile, made for an adventurous and successful pairing with a punchy dish of Isle of Mull scallops served in an unctuous broth with bacon-like cubes of smoked eel.
Who to know: Led by the loquacious Luigi Cagnin, the majority of the waiting staff are Italian, and are among the finest you’ll find in London. With one exception, everyone who served us had that enviable easy charm you can’t teach, making us instantly feel at home. Wine lovers should seek out Giovanni Ferlito on arrival and ask him to surprise them with daring pairings.
Don’t leave without: Ordering the Crêpes Suzette. No trip to The Ritz is complete without indulging in its signature pud, created with fire and flair at your table. On our visit we were lucky enough to have the aforementioned Cagnin do the honours, while telling us the story of how the dessert came to be.
Legend has it that the zingy pud was originally created for King Edward VII at the Café de Paris in Monte-Carlo, and is said to be named after a beautiful French woman in the King’s dining party.
Dousing the pancakes with a generous glug of Grand Marnier, creating orange-scented flames that licked the ceiling and filling the room with the glorious smell of melted butter, Cagnin’s creation offered the perfect balance of caramel sweetness and zesty orange.
Last word: A meal at The Ritz isn’t cheap – starters hover around the £28 mark and mains will set you back around £50 each, but in terms of value for money, the experience over-delivers.
From the effortlesss charm of the staff and the near faultless food to the opulence of the interiors, lunch or dinner here is one of those memorable events that punctuates a year.
Throughout our five-hour lunch we were never made to feel hurried – quite the opposite in fact – it felt like time was slowing down to allow us to eek out every last pleasurable minute of the experience. With a bold, modern wine list, fresh twists on classic French cuisine and exemplary service, a meal at The Ritz is a rite of passage, and something everyone should experience at least once in their lifetime.
The Ritz Restaurant, 150 Piccadilly, London W1J 9BR; Tel: +44 (0)20 7493 8181