A hundred years ago The Ritz London opened its doors on Piccadilly, named after Swiss hotelier César Ritz (though not associated with the present Ritz-Carlton hotels or The Ritz in Paris and Madrid).
The celebrated names who have signed the guest book here are legion, from Noël Coward and Charlie Chaplin and just about every member of European royalty. Although upkeep at The Ritz has always been steady, its purchase in 1995 by the Ellerman Group, with £40 million poured into renovation, has restored every detail to mint condition, while every modern amenity has been added to the 133 rooms.
Not without reason, The Ritz Restaurant has been called the most beautiful in the world, with its vast yet welcoming size, crystal chandeliers, huge mirrors, gilt bronze garlands, veined marble and thick carpets. Just striding up to the room through the grand corridor makes you straighten up and stick out your chest. The Ritz's reputation for being fuddy-duddy vanished long ago. The room was packed with well-dressed guests obviously enjoying a happy evening. Executive Chef John Williams buys the finest ingredients in the London markets, from glorious British seafood to beef and dairy. The menu is now balanced with classic British and French dishes allied with flavors as contemporary as any in London right now.
The best way to appreciate all of it is the six-course "Menu Surprise" of signature dishes (£95, with wines £165), or the classic "Les Arts de la Table" menu that brings the wait staff to your table for the lost art of carving and plating. On Friday and Saturday evenings, "Live at The Ritz" offers a four-course dinner and dancing to live music (£95). The Ritz is the single restaurant in London that still requires gentlemen to wear a jacket and tie. Don't even think of crashing the room without them.
We began with whimsical amuses (below)--an Oreo cookie-like black shortbread with goat's cheese and citrus gel, and smoked salmon mousse, creamed cheese and lemon macaroon topped with keta roe. An appetizer of fat langoustine (£24) was simply grilled, with mint, black garlic and the sweetest peas in town. Terrine of silky goose liver came with spiced pineapple and gingerbread (£24).
The pedigree of his superb loin of lamb with caramelized shallot, mint and peas (£38) is from a noble British breed. Fatted pigeon had a celery, apple and truffle sauce (£37), perfect for the slight gaminess of the bird. There are British cheeses as well as traditional desserts like lemon tart with raspberries and meringue (£14) and a hazelnut semifreddo (£17), ending off the evening with petits-fours and chocolate. The prices on The Ritz menu are not cheap--how could they be for all this grandeur?--but neither are they out of line with similar restaurants in London. With the amuses and petits-four, with both tax and service included, a three-course meal will run you about £80, less than a similar meal at Alain Ducasse at The Dorchester.
The experience of dining at The Ritz gives you a good dose of tradition with a touch of royal flourish, neither stilted nor faux, virtues that will always make a stay here unique in its appeal.
THE RIVER CAFÉ
Few restaurants anywhere can claim the success of The River Café, which, since opening in 1987 in Hammersmith on the Thames, 30 minutes from the center of London, has rarely had an empty seat at lunch or dinner, seven days a week. What's more, everyone seems to know one another, guests and staff.
Opened by Ruth Rogers and the late Rose Gray as a kind of canteen for the staff in the design building it occupies, The River Café was immediately recognized as something completely different and new in London--a menu that diverged from stilted clichés of the time to be more regional, allay cucina rustica that prized simplicity and flavor first and last.
The room retains the same breezy pastel colors and light it's always had, with a wide open kitchen and a window wall overlooking a backyard lawn that is very popular in good weather. Rogers and Executive Chef Sian Owen work small wonders with very few ingredients, exemplified by a dish of summer peas and cuttlefish (£20; below). Carne cruda of veal--a classic Piemontese dish--was finely chopped raw rump meat with squashed tomato on bruschetta and aged pecorino (£20).
Oddly enough, pasta dishes here are few in number (the pasta itself is made in daily batches only enough for the day), but every one maintains the Rogers-Gray mantra that the food taste like what they'd enjoyed in Italy according to the seasons, typified by ravioli stuffed with buffalo ricotta, garden herbs and lemon zest with marjoram butter and pecorino (£19), and the strozzapretti with basil pesto and green beans alla genovese (£19). One of the signature dishes here is the linguine with crab (£20), dressed with olive oil and a shot of chopped chile peppers.
Seafood is always dependable here, especially wood-roasted turbot, this summer with anchovy, capers and flowering oregano with summer beets and garden rocket (£42). If it's on the menu I always order the squab, wood-roasted to a rosy turn with Tuscan red wine and roast potatoes. The enormous char-grilled beef sirloin with borlotti beans, mustard, Sorrento tomatoes, and basil (£40) can usually be seen on a sizeable number of tables each day. For dessert the excellent gelati are recommended (two for £8) or the dense and decadent Chocolate Nemesis (£10).
Just as important is the notion that you are dining not only in one of London's best restaurants but one of its most pioneering and innovative, consistently delivering a kind of food others have been copying for two decades now. And on a summer's day on the gently flowing Thames, there are few places many people would rather be.
The River Café is open for lunch and dinner daily.
DINNER BY HESTON BLUMENTHAL
Having dined here two years ago with a friend, I couldn't wait to come back again with my wife, whose palate brooks no imperfections in a dish, no matter how illustrious the name of the chef. In this case the name is very illustrious indeed: Heston Blumenthal, who has, for more than a decade, held three Michelin stars for his wildly modernist restaurant the Fat Duck in Bray.
Blumenthal's entry into the center of London, at the Mandarin Oriental Hotel, caused a flurry of speculation at what kind of mad molecular experiments he would undertake for a larger clientele. Instead, Blumenthal went head over heels retro, bringing back dishes London hasn't seen for centuries, in an effort to show how very antiquated dishes could be brought winningly into the 21st century, and they manifest his showmanship, not just show-off tricks. There's a very reasonable three-course lunch menu at £38, as well as à la carte; a six-person "Chef's Table" is situated directly opposite the show kitchen where Executive Chef Ashley Palmer-Watts serves eight tasting courses in season, at £150 per person for lunch and £200 for dinner, tax and service included.
The open kitchen was designed as in a royal house, with a pulley roasting system, and porcelain wall sconces in the shape of antique jelly molds.
The menu names, some dating to as early as 1390, don't tell you much: "Meat fruit," "Salamagundy," "Rice & Flesh." But once this food has been seen and tasted, you understand something of the fun of the old nursery rhyme's "four and twenty blackbirds baked in a pie." No black birds on Dinner's menu as yet, but you will find that lovely Meat Fruit (£17.50) crafted by putting chicken liver parfait inside what looks like a perfect orange, served with grilled bread (above).
Salamagundy (circa 1720) comes as chicken oysters, salsify, bone marrow and assertive horseradish cream (£17.50), while Spiced Pigeon is cooked in ale and served simply with artichokes. Iberian pork chop (circa 1820) is a dish of great succulence (below) , with "pointy cabbage," onions and a classic sauce Robert of a demi-glace laced with brown mustard (£36).
Desserts can be as deceptively simple as brown bread ice cream (circa 1830) with salted caramel and a pear-and-malted yeast syrup (£12) or a tipsy cake (circa 1810) of sweet brioche soaked with spit-roasted pineapple, Sauternes, brandy and vanilla (£14). They also make ice cream right before your eyes, if you wish.
Dinner by Heston Blumenthal is open for lunch and dinner daily.
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