Gut surgery, followed by gut satisfaction in one of London's most distinctive dining rooms.
It has become something of a ritual. After every significant operation, inevitably on my gut, I take my nurse, aka my wife, out for a thank-you dinner.
I can still remember the first occasion this happened. It was back in 1985 and we celebrated at the old La Tante Claire in London’s Royal Hospital Road with me walking in with a walking stick and wondering how I would react to the very French food when onions were the first ingredient my surgeon explained I ought to avoid. I managed.
After my fourth such operation at the end of February – just a one-night stint in the Lister hospital thanks to another excellent surgeon and his robot – it was time to go out for dinner again. On this occasion I remembered that Jancis had suggested at some stage, ‘when was the last time you ate at the Ritz?’ The venue was chosen and I made the booking online without reading the small print.
We dressed up and I wore a smart suit with a buttoned-up shirt. We stopped at the Rivoli Bar shortly before 7 pm where the waiter hummed and hawed about whether there was space for us – it was obvious that there was from where we stood – before letting us in. They serve a fine gimlet here, along with an impressive range of wines by the glass.
We then walked down the hallway, past tables of predominantly foreign guests enjoying a very English afternoon tea (served at 11.30 am, 1.30 pm, 3.30 pm, 5.30 pm and 7.30 pm at £70 per adult) when not taking photos of themselves, all interspersed with tables replete with vases of pink tulips. We tried to remember when we had last been in this hotel. Jancis recalled a few occasions, several years past, when The Ritz had been the location for wine events. We reached the receptionist and gave our name. She explained that she could not let me in because I was not wearing a tie and had I not read the terms and conditions when making my booking?
We dithered for a short while. Should we head off to Oswald’s nearby? But in the end I acquiesced and the receptionist ran off and returned with a box full of awful ties. I put one on, extremely reluctantly. As I did so, I was reminded of the last occasion when this had happened to me. It was 1978 or 1979 and I was on the point of walking into Cecconi’s on Burlington Gardens when I was summoned back by Signor Cecconi for the same ‘offence’. What, I wondered, is the purpose of such ‘rules’?
All this was forgotten as we were taken in and shown to our table on the extreme left-hand wall, giving us a great view of a dining room that is simply magnificent, a period piece of pre-1914 elegance in which everything is of a part. The four glass-panelled double doors that lead out onto the garden next to Green Park; the chandeliers; the tablecloths; the padded chairs; the small vases; the fact that the room is so large and, above all, high. It is this last feature that gives the room such grandeur as well as allowing the waiters to show off their skills. When our Italian waiter came to prepare our (unordered) crêpes Suzette (see below), he explained that it was thanks to such a high ceiling that he was able to send flames shooting up. All of which adds up to a room in which everyone can hear and be heard.
The menu is the work of the executive chef John Williams MBE, who was born in South Shields. It is expensive, but not studded with ingredients such as foie gras and truffles to substantiate the high prices as at Ducasse at The Dorchester or Table in Paris. Instead, here it seems that Williams has cleverly worked out what his customers' appetites demand and has created dishes to satisfy them. Also, he follows the example of the top French chefs – Guy Savoy and Michel Troisgros for example – of not differentiating the prices of the first and main courses by much. And why should they, as both require top-quality ingredients and the same skills in their preparation?
From a menu that offers five first courses and five main courses (plus five- and seven-course menus for £175 and £195 respectively) we began with two shellfish dishes: lobster with bergamot, avocado and finger lime, and a couple of immaculate langoustines in a nage infused with bronze fennel (below) that made a lovely combination, respectively £51 and £55 each.
We followed this with a dish of Bresse duck with apricot, almond and lavender (£62) for Jancis while I went for the most expensive dish on the menu, the rather simplistic-sounding Cornish turbot with cucumber and caviar, at £85. This, seen below, was simply fabulous.
The finesse with which the first two courses were prepared broke down slightly with the desserts, although I have some sympathy with the kitchen here as in deepest February the ingredients are limited. But my dessert of Yorkshire rhubarb, vanilla custard and ginger was over-elaborate, as perhaps it has to be to justify its price tag of £27. And our appetite for sweet things had been spoiled by that ‘pre-dessert’ of crêpes Suzette.
For the latter we must thank our wine waiter, the very Italian Italo Putzu (seen in the middle of the photo at top) who has landed at the Ritz after stints at Galvin La Chapelle and Oblix and who recognised Jancis. Putzu has the most expressive face for any man in hospitality. He is bespectacled and bald with the most engaging smile. A true bringer of joy, he arrives at your table with the Ritz’s magnificent wine list. It was he who offered us a glass of Rothschild champagne as we sat down and subsequently asked his colleague to prepare the crêpes at our table.
The Ritz’s wine list is 92 pages of which one is dedicated to Domaine de la Romanée-Conti, especially sourced, it notes. But it is wonderfully comprehensive and includes bottles of the 2016 Clos de Gat from the Judean Hills (£110); a 2020 Torrontés from Colomé in Argentina (£50); a 2018 Tokat from northern Anatolia (£40); and a 2018 Riesling from Slovakia, among many, many others. We drank a bottle of Boekenhoutskloof’s old-vine South African Semillon 2019 (£95), whose full body and tangy aromas went extremely well with what we ate.
I paid my bill of £498.38, which included our aperitifs but no coffee, for this very special meal with pleasure. We had enjoyed a wonderful evening of excellent food and wine and service, spoilt only by two waiters asking us, surely somewhat insensitively, ‘is this your first time at The Ritz?’.
I think that sensitive modern designers could certainly improve on the heavily buttoned tunics worn by the all-male waiting staff. I would definitely replace the singer who sang a lousy version of ‘As Time Goes By’. And I would relax the tie ruling. Other than that, I wish The Ritz restaurant a further 100 years.
The Ritz 150 Piccadilly, London W1J 9BR; tel: +44 (0) 20 7493 8181