A senior executive, an Australian who has lived in London for the past 15 months but is still shocked at how expensive London is and how little he gets for his country's dollars, approached me recently with an even broader than usual smile on his face.
"Nick, Nick, I ate something last week which even you will not have eaten. A £32 chicken!" With that, and the thought of how any 'chooks' you could get for Aus$80 back home, he put his head back and roared with laughter.
Unfortunately, I had to disappoint him as only the night before I had paid the same amount for a main course, duck in my case, albeit at the same place, the dining room of the Ritz Hotel in London. And while he had drawn some comfort from the fact that the bill for his chicken, preceded by an asparagus risotto, had been picked up by a visiting representative of the Murdoch empire, my bill of £186.90 for two including one of their least expensive bottles of wine did not give me that satisfaction.
In writing a review of The Ritz as a non-resident it is difficult not to slip into the role of an assiduous teacher writing an end of year report on an under-performing student: good in parts but definitely a case of ' could do better.'
The best part is unquestionably the popular Rivoli Bar on the way in on the right opposite the Palm Court where the setting is stylish, cocktails are well executed, the crisps and nuts good quality, and the young, well trained staff sensationally enthusiastic. On my last visit there was a young Italian waiter who treated the bar as though it had been in his family for generations and anyone who walked in as long lost friends.
The Rivoli is the hotel's most modern addition (opened a few years ago to a faithful Art Deco design ) but once back in the main corridor that leads past the Palm Court (where on most afternoons they serve over 300 afternoon teas for £32 per head at a gross margin, and contribution to cash flow, which every chef and hotelier in the world can only envy) I encountered the first of several waiters in black tie and tails.
The impression that this engenders is immediate and I believe intentional: that one is being transported back in time to a classic dining room of the Belle Epoque era, an impression enhanced by the unchanged ornate interior; candles on every table; space between the tables each bearing their plate of Melba toast; the trolleys of cheese and bread; a pianist whom, as they left, an elderly Japanese couple thanked profusely; the absence of air conditioning; and the hotel's unchanging rule that all the gentlemen diners sport a jacket and tie even on one of the capital's warmest and stuffiest of evenings.
The hotel's management have done their best to continue this tradition by recently hiring John Williams, a classically trained chef formerly in charge of the banqueting side of Claridge's as their executive chef. But sadly all these ingredients do not a great restaurant make.
Professional lapses occurred almost immediately. The bread rolls which had obviously been baked with some expertise were rock hard as no-one had bothered to protect them from the humidity. The sommelier brought the bottle of wine I had ordered, opened it, interrupted our conversation to read the name of the grape variety clearly visible on the label, left it in an ice bucket and walked away leaving us nothing to drink until we managed to summon him back from a far away corner.
My first course of a jellied tomato consommé with what was described as foaming corn mousseline was hugely disappointing. The soup was bland and not as cold as it should have been and instead of a foaming mousseline there was just a thick bland topping with some gold leaf, a mixture that did nothing to add anything to what I hoped would have been a refreshing dish. The other starter, tuna tartare with caviar (prissily described on the menu as 'pearls of the Caspian') combined two such rich ingredients that the final result was just too much. Excellent ingredients which were well executed but this was a dish which, when it was at the drawing board stage, should have been toned down to leave a better and more satisfying impression.
And so on to the £32 duck, or roast 'Prince de Dombes' duck with orange and cinnamon sauce (at £64 for two) which did look magnificent when it arrived on the carving trolley. But sadly the waiter took so long to wrest the meat from the carcass that we were forced to ask him to leave the over-cooked breasts and thighs whole rather than undertake any further surgery so that we could get on with the meal. Its eventual delivery seemed sadly to be a hidden signal to the rest of the waiting team to interrupt to find out how we were doing – I stopped counting after the tenth such interruption.
What this magnificent dining room urgently needs is a restaurateur, someone who has considerable experience of a successful, independent restaurant and can pull all the individual elements together, set quality thresholds to match the prices, make the whole more than the sum of its parts and in the process create what would, could and should be be an exceptional environment.
The wine list would benefit from similar treatment. It is sloppy, with, in certain cases, the country of origin missing from the wine's description, and is virtually across the board hugely expensive with many wines marked up three to five fold. Neither of the two tasting menus boasts anything as risqué or even user friendly as a range of recommended wines by the glass to complement the different courses.
Classic elegance – The Ritz dining room's obvious raison d'etre – was never inexpensive even when grand hotels had a pool of cheap labour to call on. But nor will it ever lose its appeal and now that so many of London's hotel restaurants have abandoned this ambience and style of service The Ritz has the field almost to itself while the slumbering giant that is The Dorchester slumbers on. But it cannot rest on tradition alone or on the quote from 1928 from Irving Berlin on the back of the menus. Restaurateurs nearby at The Square, The Greenhouse and on a more informal basis right next door at The Wolesley have shown the way – it is time for The Ritz's management to pick up the gauntlet and to deliver in an exceptional setting great food, great wine and far, far better value for money.