Wednesday, September 19, 2018

The Ritz * - Revisited

This post was to come up much earlier. However, I was faced with a technical challenge. The battery on my laptop failed. Yes, it is a 7 month old machine, thankfully, bought with every warranty and service contract that could be sold covering the machine. I must say that the service by Dell was excellent. My enquiry with the “Dell” engineer revealed something rather surprising. Del has outsourced servicing/support for their machines to Wipro. So, the engineer who turned up was a Wipro employee seconded to Dell.

We had last eaten at the Ritz in November 2016 soon after the Ritz had been awarded its first star in Michelin. You can read about that experience here. Since then, we have been reading only good things about the food. Once we knew our visit to London was certain, HRH the Queen of Kutch made a reservation for dinner.

When we entered at 7.30, the room was 40% full. The clientele was generally older, all white. We were the only Browns and there was a table of 4 Yellows. A flock of Blacks turned up much later. But you get what I am saying, a well-heeled, older, non-Instagram, non social media crowd. Later, the restaurant got more full.

The dining room is gorgeous. Possibly, the most opulent I have been in. A close second, though in a different style, would be the dining room at Berner’s Tavern. High ceilings, Apricot walls and dim LED lights, all of which, while making the room beautiful, contribute to making photography challenging.

There is only one Menu, though divided into 3 sections. First is the Table De La section where food is brought out on a trolley and there is table side carving or preparation. The second section is the Menu Surprise where you are offered 6 courses chosen by the Chef. A La Carte is the third. We chose the Menu Surprise. Our reason was simple. This Menu Surprise was simply smaller portions of the food from A La Carte – sort of like a Greatest Hits. In actual fact, these 6 Course excluded Canapes and Petit Fours. It turned out to be 7 courses and not 6, a fair amount of food, not excessive for me, but a little much for HRH the Queen of Kutch.

We started with a couple of Gin & Tonics, which is one of our favourite drinks. And drinking this Aperitif in London in Summer is absolutely correct. The wines are pricey, though I spotted a reasonable bargain in a house wine which sounded great - Ritz Pauillac, Domaines Barons de Rothschild, Lafite. Not bad, though HRH the Queen of Kutch declared it a little acidic. She has a fine palate.

I am not going to bore you with a description of every dish. The photos carry a description of the dish.

The Canapes. Left to Right. Cheese Sable. The exquisite Coronation Chicken Tuilles with a mild Curry flavour and lastly Lemon Macrons with Smoked Salmon Mousse wand Salmon Roe garnish. 

Dehydrated and then re-hydrated Heritage Tomato, Burrata, Parmesan and a Tomato Consomme.

Parmesan Mousse to accompany.

Duck Foie Gras Terrine. Please have a careful look at the Cherry slices. Lots of tweezer work, but, more importantly, look at the knife work when slicing. Also, dont Cherries have seeds? How was this sliced?

Langoustines, Almonds, Green Beans with a Shellfish Bisque/Sauce 

Turbot  with a Champagne Sauce

Cutlet & Fillet of Lamb with Courgette 

Cheese with Truffles

Pre Dessert - Peaches with Peach Ice Cream

Dessert - A luscious Chocolate Tart with Caramel Chocolate Sauce 

The food was flawless. The standard of cooking, the quality of the ingredients, the presentation, the flavours, the sequencing and the colours were all top class. Though this restaurant has been graced with a single star in Michelin, honestly, the food was right up there with the big 3 star boys and certainly as good as the better 2 star places. All the food came out hot despite the service glitches. Not a single, and I mean not a single, dud dish or even a slightly subpar one. This was a tour de force of high quality classical French cooking and techniques, in other words, Haute Cuisine in its true sense.

The big problem we thought was the service. This is what we had experienced the last time as well. Let me try and tell you what we thought the problem was.

Our section of the restaurant comprised of probably 8 tables, 2 rows of 4 tables. Of these 6 tables were occupied with a total of 15 people, give or take 1. We had two persons serving us, a senior who also took orders and his deputy. Of course, there was a separate Sommelier with his team who handled the drinks and water. The waiters were Italian [not that it made any difference, simply FYI] and were friendly, hard working and we had no complaints with them.

The food was brought to the dining room by runners or Bus Boys who carried food laden trays covered with Cloches to the room. Then the waiters would get the food to you. The Bus Boys would then take empty trays and dirty dishes back to the kitchen. The problem was that 2 waiters was simply to few for even the 15 odd people they were serving. This is high end food. Each course needs cutlery to be changed. Every dish needs an explanation to be given by the waiter to every diner, which sometimes invites a question and, obviously an answer. Each guest on the table has to be served simultaneously, so two waiters could serve a 4 top. Sometimes the kitchen sent up 2 or 3 tables food together causing delays in service. God help you if you were the third table in sequence to be served.

While this was galling and irritating, inexplicably, for the Cheese course, which required no cooking was delayed by 15 minutes. Either the kitchen delayed sending it, or, having sent it, the waiters were simply to busy to serve it to us. Thankfully, it was a Cheese course so waiting did not damage the food. At this point, HRH the Queen of Kutch, told off the staff. This had a dramatic effect. Our last two courses came out in a flash and, we were asked if we wanted our Petit Fours boxed. We said yes. Why did this happen? Possibly we were switched from being table No 3 in sequence to becoming table No 1. The whole menu Surprise had taken a good 3 hours. This was long. Sitting that long with breaks between food did get a bit irritating.

All in all, it was a most pleasant evening. The irritation hit only towards the end of the meal when the wait got to you. The food was excellent, the room exquisite and the atmosphere charming.

After having been twice, and on both occasions having had similar experiences  [though the food this time was much better than the previous] do I recommend this restaurant?

Of course, yes. Great food, eaten in a historic and beautiful dining room in an iconic hotel, what more could you want. The service is not the waitstaff’s fault, its something more fundamental. They need more staff, but then with so many staff in such a large room, that raises other issues. To conclude, do visit the Ritz, besides making you feel good, as my niece Aditi says, it makes you feel rich!

The Menu Surprise is GBP 105 which is INR 10,000 per person.

Tuesday, September 11, 2018

Holborn Dining Room

The Pearl Assurance building at High Holborn is a stunning building. It was constructed, in phases starting in 1912 and was completed in 1960. It was the headquarters of Pearl Assurance who sold the building to the Marriott Group who established the Renaissance Chancery Court Hotel. I have stayed here on work a few times as my US based clients loved the place. They preferred to meet in London, rather than flying to India. Suited me fine. Marriott gave up the property in 2011 and the hotel was run privately for a year. Then it was taken over by the US based Rosewood Hotel Group and after a massive renovation, it reopened as the Rosewood Hotel.

The massive banking hall of Pearl Assurance on the ground floor of the building was converted into a massive Brasserie style dining room seating up to 180 diners. This space, now known as the Holborn Dining Room, serving very British food in a very French looking room. This is manly British food, think, hearty meat pies, fish, grills and the classic English desserts like Sticky Toffee Pudding.

The Holborn Dining Room has been receiving rave reviews. The Head Chef is Calum Franklin who has had a solid career prior to handling the stoves here. What he has devised is truly remarkable. Franklin and his pastry section have some serious talent.

The dining room is beautiful. It was very full on a Tuesday night. Marble flooring simple wooden tables with no table mats. These photos are not taken by me.

Menus were handed out and we pored over them. The Bar menu had a large selection of Gins and Tonics, so we decided to order one each. The photograph is of a Gin & Tonic called Persie Herby & Aromatic which is garnished with fragrant herbs like Bay, Rosemary and Basil. Looked much better than it tasted. Frankly it was as we say in Marathi “Panchat” or watery, needed more Gin. We decided to switch to wine. Bottled drinks are always the best – wine, beer get me? No need to mess about with mixing and diluting things. Drink it as it was intended.

Drinks done, two starters ordered. First up HRH the Queen of Kutch ordered the Duck Pork & Pistachio En Croute with Plum Chutney. Good flavor in the Pate with a good pastry crust. Absolutely nothing to complain about.

The second starter was stunning. Lobster Thermidor Tart. Lobster Thermidor was “invented” by the great Auguste Escoffier circa 1890. A Thermidor Sauce consists of Fish Stock, Cream, herbs, often egg and always Mustard. Traditionally, the lobster tail is cleaned, the cooked meat mixed with the sauce, put back into the Lobster Shell, covered with Gruyere Cream and gratinated. Here what was done was that the sauce and lobster was put into a Puff Pastry case, much like a large Vol Au Vent. It was fantastic, a well flavoured sauce, mustardy, soft lobster chunks in a crisp Puff Pastry. A Lobster Claw, crumb fried, as garnish. This is how to have Lobster Thermidor. No malarkey with Lobster shells and making a fool of yourself eating it.

Now we were anticipating more great food. We were not disappointed. HRH The Queen of Kutch ordered the most popular dish on the menu – the Hand Raised Pork Pie. A Hand Raised Pie is typically English. This is made with a hot water pastry crust. Hot water and fat are combined with flour. The feature of this pastry is that once it is cool it retains its shape thereby enabling the filling to be inserted. Then it is baked. The Pork Pie was filled with chunky pieces of pork and bacon, thoroughly delicious. If that was not enough, the Pie was served with a rather delicious Pork Jus, sticky and deep flavor. Absolute knockout.

I ordered the Chicken, Girolle [Mushroom] and Tarragon Pie which was served with a very well-made Pea Puree. Deeply flavoured, moist Chicken and great crust. This was excellent though the Pork Pie was superior. Do appreciate the work done in decorating the two pies. Now imagine making probably 200 of these every day. This is hard work.         

The food was filling, much more than normal. So, it was to be just one dessert. Lemon Tart with a Raspberry Ice Cream. Once again, the Tart base was top class. The Lemon Curd well made, tart and sweet well balances and a nice touch of a Lemon Jelly covering the Custard.

Reading this you will realize that our meal consisted of lots of pastry, Pastry on the Pate En Croute, Thermidor Tart, Pies and the Lemon Tart. As I have written earlier, there are Pastry masters at work in the kitchen. All the food we ate was better than good. Not a single weak dish. The only weakness was in the drinks. We saw that other tables had ordered some very good-looking Fish and luscious Burgers. The food looked good.

Without booze you could expect to pay GBP 50 or INR 5000 for all the food. Of course, we ordered two vegetable sides which I have not photographed. This is not cheap but the food is typically English, of very good quality and flavor served in a beautiful dining room. What more could one want? We will certainly be back here soon.

Unhesitatingly recommended.

Sunday, September 9, 2018

Hawksmoor Kinghtsbridge - London

OK! Let me first clear the air.

Mera Bharat Mahan

Bharat Mata Ki Jai

Swachh Bharat

Pradhan Mantri Awas Yojana

Yes, we ate beef. I hope we are let back in India. I guess we should be Ok as I have sworn my allegiance to India by starting with a few choice slogans.

Dinner was at Hawksmoor Knightsbridge - the British Steakhouse and Cocktail bar mini chain. We have been to Hawksmoor Air Street several times in the past, but, never this branch. Located a couple of meters down from the legendary Harrods in a large basement, the restaurant seats 120, so it is not really intimate. The décor is Art Deco which I quite like. When we reached for our 7.30 reservation the place was 60% full, by the time we left, it was heaving.

As we sat and ordered, HRH the Queen of Kutch told me that after Peter Luger in Brooklyn in July 2017, this was the first steak that we were eating!! Probably correct. We do eat a lot of Buffalo in India but not in steak form. And the last few trips to London, for some reason or another we have not eaten at a steak restaurant.

Menus were handed out by a most rare creature – an experienced English waiter. What a pleasure. Gin and Tonic to start, cool refreshing and delicious. Fever Tree Tonic is so much better than the rather sweet Schweppes we get in India.

To start we ordered a portion of Potted Beef & Bacon that is served with Yorkshire Pudding and a Brown Onion Sauce. Potted Beef is much like a Rillette, where the beef is cooked in stock till it breaks down. I presume the fat comes from the beef as well as the bacon. The result is you have a delicious, simply flavored, unctuous, beef Pate. Yorkshire Puddings are savory, not sweet, made in a muffin pan with a batter consisting of flour, milk and eggs. The runny batter is poured into very hot muffin trays with beef dripping. The result is a perfect accompaniment. Some what a cross between a Poori and Pao. Very light and airy. This was delicious with the Potted Beef. An excellent starter.

A 750-gram [with the bone] T Bone for two cooked medium rare was our choice for our main course. This was accompanied by Roasted Bone Marrow, Creamed Spinach and Skinny Fries. No sauces, just some English Mustard. The T Bone was very good, soft, well seasoned, crunchy and charred on the outside. I must say that the T Bone was far from the brilliant T Bone we had at Peter Luger. It was the same cut, however, a different animal differently bred and differently fed. Makes a huge difference. Despite the poor comparison with Peter Luger, this was a very good meal.

If you have not read my post on Peter Luger and Hawksmoor Air Street, please do. That gives you a good background on steaks.

Desserts were a rather sweet Sticky Toffee Pudding and a better Peanut Butter Shortcake with Caramel Ice Cream.

To some extent, steak restaurants are much like Tandoori/Kebab restaurants. You could argue that in some ways Tandoori/Kebab cooking is more complex as an additional step of marinating the meat is involved. Thus, the complexity of the marinade is a step not done in a steak house. But leave that argument aside. The cooking in Steak houses and Tandoori/Kebab restaurants is similar – meat cooked simply on open flames on in a hot pan – but getting a top quality of steak or Tandoori/Kebab is rare. Very few places get that correct. Even this simple cooking requires lots of value add, skill and most importantly, sourcing. Hawksmoor has definitely got it, as does, in my opinion, Bukhara/Peshawri at the ITC in India.

Leaving aside the booze, you should expect to pay about GBP 50 or INR 5,000 per head in Hawksmoor for a starter, main and dessert. This is about on par with the Bukhara/Peshawri at the ITC in India.


Saturday, September 8, 2018

London - Down the tube?

We were last in London in late March early April 2018. A long absence followed. My Passport was to expire and I had to go thru the trauma of applying for a new one. Once that was done, we set about applying for fresh visas for the UK. All this takes time, despite what people may say, my Passport took 5 weeks. Don’t ask why. It just takes time. The visas took effectively 3 weeks. That is standard time.

Anyway, we are back for a week. Great weather, sunshine, cool breeze, what more could one want. Then we started to see things, no no it was not the alcohol or drugs kicking in, but simply some observations.

I first came to London in 1985, HRH the Queen of Kutch in 2000, and, over the years have come here, literally countless times, sometimes for work and mostly for pleasure. As a tourist, everyone goes to Oxford Street. This, for those who don’t know, starts at Marble Arch and along the Street you have the iconic stores – Marks & Spencer, Selfridges and John Lewis – and reach Oxford Circus a crossroad where Regent Street crosses Oxford Street. Oxford Street continues all the way to Tottenham Court Road.

Oxford Street is iconic in the true sense of the word. This time, we felt, that icon was fading. It seemed somewhat worn and torn, somewhat sad. Many of the shops are now shuttered. Sir Philip Green who owned several brands, Miss Selfridge, BHS, Topshop and Dorothy Perkins among others, has shut them down. This has meant that all the shops these brands had on Oxford Street are shut. Recently, House of Fraser also shut only to be rescued.

The clock above the main entrance to Selfridges has always been beautiful.

Here are some shuttered sites.

On the one hand you have these shuttered stores, you have a new phenomenon. Very large sweet [candy] stores and tourist tat stores are opening. These blare Arabic music and have very Asian mustachioed men manning them. The character of Oxford Street has changed, unfortunately for the worse.

There was yet another phenomenon which struck us. This is the presence of large numbers of Muslim/Arabs. I know I am being very politically incorrect but so be it.

The Arabs are now everywhere. Historically Edgeware Road has been Arab central but now it is all over. In swathes of Knightsbridge and acres of Mayfair the only language you hear on the street is Arabic, not Russian. You have Arabic pharmacies, Arabic clothes store and of course Arabic [Lebanese] restaurants all over. Shisha bars are a dime a dozen. What we thought was even more disturbing was masses of Arabs exiting basements at 1.30 pm on Friday. Obviously post Friday prayer.

I leave you to draw your conclusions.