Wednesday, November 2, 2016

The Dining Room at the Ritz

Dinner was to be at the Ritz. The Ritz in London.

Dear readers this is a place that is steeped in history. This is the place where it all started. To begin at the beginning, there was a man Cesar Ritz a Swiss, who rose from being a waiter to a great hotelier. His name is synonymous with class, polish, opulence and luxury. Even today, 98 years after his death, Ritz's name is on the door of the most famous and luxurious hotels in the world.

Dear readers please do not be fooled by the several “me too” copycat Ritz Hotels we have all over the place. Why, even our fair city of Mumbai has a Ritz – at Churchgate. A hotel owned by Punjabis and frequented, in its day, by Chandrasekhar a former Prime Minister of India! That is a fake Ritz.

Cesar Ritz decided to build a hotel in London that would surpass all others. Of course every hotelier aims to do exactly this. We have the Mumbai Taj built on a scale like no other by J N Tata [leave aside the fact that no one knows if was constructed the wrong way around – typically Make in India]. Anyway, the Ritz was constructed in the very early 20th Century with then unheard of mod cons and refinements in hygiene. Ritz, being Swiss, was obsessed with hygiene. So you had huge lead lined tanks constructed on the roof to supply 24 hour hot and cold running water. Bathrooms had heated towel rods, bedrooms were painted white and beds were made of brass and not wood, every room had a fireplace, and, gasp, built in wardrobes. Ritz shunned free-standing wardrobes due to his fear of dust settling on them; instead he built cupboards into the rooms with doors matching the panelling.

The hotel opened to new standards of luxury and service. The décor inside was Louis XVI style, with lots of elaborate carved furniture, the use of Apricot as a colour, gold guild, bronze chandeliers and so on. To sound very cynical, it looks like any old style Punjabi house. It looks like Gaylord restaurant at Churchgate except it’s a hundred times better and more opulent. I assume you get my drift.

To make the experience all the greater, Ritz recruited the great Auguste Escoffier – the King of Chefs and the Chef of Kings as he was described – to design and man the kitchens at the Ritz. The influence of Escoffier is as strong today as it was then. Escoffier did one great thing. He codified French cuisine and its techniques in a book ‘Le Guide Culinaire” which is a major reference book even today. He codified the 5 mother sauces – Béchamel, Veloute, Espagnole, Hollandaise and Tomato. These are used even today.

The kitchens at the Ritz are the kitchens where Escoffier cooked. So dear readers, I hope you now realise how these kitchens are really where it all began.

The Restaurant, ironically, has only just won its first star in Michelin! The food is French though modernised. The Head Chef is John Williams MBE, who, according to me, is a great unsung hero in this day and age of highly publicised and televised chefs.

We had a 7.30 pm reservation, and, as is our wont, we reached 15 minutes early. The Ritz has a strict dress code. You have to wear a jacket and tie. Jeans are a no no and sports shoes and casual clothes are simply not allowed in any part of the hotel. As we entered, ahead of us were a mother and daughter, inappropriately or incorrectly dressed, who were stopped by the security and told very politely, in hushed tones, basically, to fuck off.

Soon we were seated in the vast beautiful dining room. Luxury and opulence – words that come to mind repeatedly – can be used to describe this. The room was not very full, but soon filled up. We were offered 4 types of Champagne to start and menus were handed out. You had an a la carte menu which was in two sections – Section 1 had what they called Arts De La Table – where there is tableside service. Beef Wellington for two formed part of this menu. Section 2 had the more standard first course, second course and desserts. In addition you had a separate tasting menu or Menu Surprise where you were served 6 courses of the best in season.  We stuck to the standard a la carte menu.

We had a team of 3 to look after us, a Sommelier and two waiters. All were formally dressed in black trousers with a black tailcoat. We took a few moments to soak it all. Soon, HRH The Queen of Kutch, caught up in the atmosphere requested our waiter to take a photo of the two of us. The waiter declined, saying hotel policy is that staff cannot take photos. Not to be defeated, she whisked out her mobile and took a selfie!

Soon the food started to arrive. First we had a selection of Canapés. Brilliant. A cylinder of Coronation Chicken in a sweet, salty crunchy case, Smoked Salmon Mousse in a Lime Macron – truly astounding – and Goats Cheese in Sable biscuit. Gone in 60 seconds!

Melba Toast. A Escoffier creation 

For starters HRH The Queen of Kutch ordered Roast Scallops with Pumpkin, Bacon and Beach Herbs. This was as pretty as a picture and tasted smashing. I had a spoon and the Beach Herbs were really good. What a well-conceived dish.

My starter was Agnoloti with Perigrod Truffle, Caramelised Onions, Pecorino sauce and Pickled Onions. The sauce was literally liquid Pecorino Cheese, stunning in flavour. The Agnoloti itself was paper thin, and somehow, the pasta retained its al dente texture. How they did this I do not know. This was indeed skilful cooking. I was rather pleased. The food so far had been served hot, looked great and tasted better. The seasoning was spot on.

Next up were the main courses. Since it is Autumn Game is in season. So HRH The Queen of Kutch had Roast Grouse with Celeriac, Walnuts and Salted Grapes. This was served pink as it should be. She said that the Salted Grapes were interesting. The dish came with a light Grouse Jus which was beautifully seasoned. Once again an Autumnal dish with completely well-chosen Autumnal ingredients.

I was tossing between the Lamb Fillet & Cutlet with Courgette Artichoke and Peppers on the one hand and Bresse Duck with Heritage Beetroot, Duck Liver and Apricot on the other. So I asked the waiter for his recommendation, which he promptly said was Duck. So Duck it was. What a fantastic dish. The Duck was cooked pink and the sauce was a beautiful, clear, syrup and tasted a cross between a Chinese Sauce with hints of Five Spice and Star Anise and French with the sweet of the Apricot. The Beetroot was really “beetrooty”. The pan seared Foie Gras was beautiful. Also on the plate was a small Spring Roll with minced Duck and Hoisin Sauce. This was an absolute knock out.

Something called Pommes Souffle - Basically crisp savory potato  'Shankarpala" to be eaten with the duck sauce.
This was skill. Cooking a correct variety of potato sliced thin, twice, resulting in the puff. 

Both dishes were top notch. Nothing to complain. This was really good food by any standard.

By now we were both feeling rather happy and basking after a wonderful meal in wonderful surroundings. So, in a fit of enthusiasm we ordered a glass of Calvados and one of Armagnac. We had a few sips while we swirled the liquor in the snifters and took in the heady smells.

Now it was time for dessert. There was one obvious choice – Crepes Suzette. This is finished tableside. So we would have tableside action with a show, some fire and some leaping flames. A trolley was wheeled over and some sugar was melted butter added and then some orange peel. Soon it was time for flames, a healthy splash of Grand Marnier which ignited, followed by some brandy. The crepes were soaked in these beautiful juices and served with a dollop of Vanilla Ice Cream. Delicious.

I recall eating Crepes Suzette at the Rendezvous the now long departed French Restaurant on the top of the Bombay Taj, years and years ago. This tableside show at the Ritz took me back to those days when Mumbai was Bombay and Beef was Kosher. All that is now regrettably gone, gone forever.

Petit Fours were presented. The bill was paid and we headed out to get us a taxi.

Without doubt it was superlative food. Well deserving of the one star in Michelin. I cannot say the same thing for the service. We suffered jerky service, with food and or drink coming at slightly uneven intervals. However we could see tables around us where the Canapés were brought after the first course was eaten. This was shocking. Fortunately we had no such issues. My point is that while the Dining Room does have only 1 star in Michelin, its prices and quality of food are far above those that you would pay at a 1 star in Michelin. Thus, at these prices, you have to have service to match. The Dining room is large, between 100 to 130 people are served dinner, which is a lot for fine dining. The room is indeed beautiful but, you did not get a sense of intimacy. It felt like a Hotel dining room and not a restaurant.

To conclude, I would unhesitatingly recommend the food at the Ritz Dining Room. It is very good. The only hurdle you have to get over is that at these prices, if service does not match, should you not be going elsewhere – say Restaurant Gordon Ramsay, or Alain Ducassé or Helene Darroze or even Le Gavroche where you can be assured of food and matching service?

That my dear reader is the question.


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