Rediscovering over 100 years of glamour at The Ritz London
For more than 100 years, The Ritz London has loomed large as one of the world’s original luxury hotels. Cathy Wagstaff follows in the footsteps of royalty, politicians and celebrities to experience how executive chef John Williams balances tradition with innovation.
Surely this is the most beautiful hotel restaurant in existence. Marble columns, veined in pink, frame a dining room of Louis XVI opulence and a circle of gilt bronze chandeliers casts an ethereal glow over the diners below. There’s a sense of occasion walking into The Ritz Restaurant, and I think of the luminaries who have dined here before me: Winston Churchill, Charlie Chaplin, Evelyn Waugh, Jackie Onassis, Wallis Simpson and an endless list of kings, queens, heads of state, nobility, celebrities and captains of industry.
It may seem a tall order for the cuisine to live up to the surrounds, but executive chef John Williams’ eightcourse ‘Menu Surprise’ features some of the prettiest dishes I’ve ever been served, all accompanied by fine wines as chosen by sommelier Giovanni Ferlito, Head of Wine & Beverage.
The Aromatic Nage of Dublin Bay Prawns or Langoustine à la Nage is a classic that has spent 15 years on The Ritz’s menu. For Williams, the son of a Tyneside fisherman, the claws of langoustines were “like little lollipops” growing up. This interpretation is rather more sophisticated, with the delicate lobsters gently poached and resting on a bed of cauliflower purée, with fennel and blanched vegetables arranged on top like a miniature garden.
Another favourite is the turbot in champagne and osetra caviar sauce, a combination that radiates Churchillian excess. The fish is cooked to perfection, the glossy sauce giving the dish a moreish, silken texture that melts on my tongue.
While Williams puts an emphasis on the finest British produce, I’m quietly delighted when I discover the baked Tunworth – a Camembert-style cheese from Hampshire – is filled with Australian truffle. It is a gooey treat, like fondue without the fuss, served with caramelised walnuts, compressed pear and homemade biscuits.
Dessert is refreshingly light and refined, from the pear and almond tart with a yoghurt mousse dome topped with gold leaf to the haute cuisine take on a milk chocolate bar, served with decadent Valrhona Grue de Cacao (cocoa nib) ice-cream.
Chronicles of haute cuisine
Williams has spent his whole career in the UK, including the last 14 years at The Ritz. Under his leadership, the hotel’s stunning restaurant was awarded its first Michelin star in 2016, and Williams himself has been appointed a Member of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire for his services to hospitality. His journey is all the more impressive when you consider his humble beginnings. A self-confessed “Geordie from a hard, working-class background”, Williams dreamed of working at the Piccadilly landmark while he toiled in London’s hotel restaurants, eventually rising to executive chef at The Berkeley and Claridge’s before taking the dream job at The Ritz in 2004.
It quickly becomes apparent that Williams doesn’t think much of ‘fine dining’. He prefers ‘haute cuisine’, a phrase that better captures the sensations and gastronomic purity of his dining experience. It also has echoes of Auguste Escoffier, the much-admired father of modern cooking and a consultant chef at The Ritz in the first years of its existence.
For the first time since opening in 1906, the hotel’s celebrated cuisine, both classics and Williams’ innovations, have been collated in one tome. The Ritz London: The Cookbook is divided into the four seasons, with a cocktail and canapé pairing, entrées, main courses and desserts. The recipes are interspersed with insights from Williams, his brigade and the front-of-house team that give readers a peek behind the scenes of this legendary hotel, which holds a royal warrant from the Prince of Wales for banqueting services, so high is the standard of its cuisine and service.
Tea and temptation
Perhaps even more of an institution than The Ritz Restaurant is afternoon tea in the Palm Court. So popular is this stately ritual that there are five two-hour seatings each day between 11.30am and 5.30pm, during which 1,000 scones and 5,000 finger sandwiches are consumed. Every morsel is delicious, and the scones – served, naturally, with Cornish clotted cream and strawberry preserve – are the finest I’ve tasted.
While I sip my Dragon Pearls tea, The Ritz Resident Pianist, Ian Gomes, fills the gilded room with music, moving effortlessly from classical favourites to jazz standards. There’s a pause before he strikes up one of the most requested songs. ‘Puttin’ on the Ritz’ – the Irving Berlin tune written in 1927 – is a reminder that the hotel has influenced everything from our language to how we dine for more than a century.
Just when I think I couldn’t eat another macaron, cake or réligieuse, a waiter in tails arrives to tempt me with a trolley laden with sweet treats. Well, maybe one more apple mousse tart …