I’m in England for a few days to welcome the New Year, heading off first to West Sussex on the slow train that stops ten times on its way to the coast. The snowdrifts have all gone from the little valleys tucked into the downs, though the ground is hard and the air sharply cold on the short dark afternoons. Roast pheasant is the big meal, beautifully cooked in the Aga, juicy and moist and tasting subtly but delectably gamey, as pheasants should, but never do in Canada.
Back to London for a quick burger at Joe Allen on Exeter Street. I haven’t been there for 25 years but little has changed. The burger is still not on the menu (you have to ask) and the walls are hung with many of the same old playbills, photographs and signed photos of thespians. Our cheerful waitress spotted a bottle of Inniskillin Icewine I had brought as a present for my English friends Thelma Miller and Steve Grocott and recognized it at once. She explained that she has recently come back from a year in Toronto where she worked at Allen’s on the Danforth. John Maxwell (owner of Allen’s) recommended her for this London job. Maxwell once worked here too and was co-owner and manager of the Toronto Joe Allen from 1980 to 1985. It’s a small world, nicht vahr?
Today, other very kind friends of long standing, the actress Angharad Rees and her husband, David McAlpine, treated my mother and me to an exceptional lunch at The Ritz. Built by César Ritz in 1905, the hotel has been a London landmark ever since, a sturdy colonnaded chateau on the edge of Green Park. But it had suffered in the 1980s, standards slipping thanks to careless foreign owners, the gorgeous interior stonework painted over. In 1995 it was purchased by two brothers, Sir David Barclay and Sir Frederick Barclay, who spent 10 years and 50 million pounds on a tremendously detailed restoration. It is sumptuous now, a Louis XVI palace inside, and the restaurant is often described as the most beautiful dining room in London. Champagne and cheese carts glide silently across the acreage between perfectly accoutred tables. The well-informed young servers all wear black tails but are not remotely formal or stuffy, understanding that a friendly smile is much more attractive than a haughty glance.
The chef is John Williams who was at Claridge’s before he came here. His cooking is light, contemporary and refined, based on French technique but using superb British ingredients. He can also do molecular, as witnessed by the amuse he sent out – a little glass containing a Virgin Mary of seasoned tomato essence topped with a celeriac foam. A fragile wand of a parmesan crisp lay across the rim of the glass; beside it in a spoon was an “olive,” that was actually tangy olive oil in a skin of green olive purée partially solidified to a quivering jelly by alginate.
We had sipped Taittinger Prelude while pondering the menu. For our first course, David chose a refeshing young Meursault, the 2008 from Domaine Coche-Dury that he enjoys drinking in its youth. It was perfect with my lobster salad – half a tail and a claw, lightly poached so the flesh was rare but flavourful, removed from the shell and laid elegantly on the plate. The garnish involved citrus in various guises – tiny morsels of fresh grapefruit and lemon, dots of pungent sauces and purées, slivers of crunchy fennel. For all its elegance and balance there was drama in the creamy lobster and sharply acidic fruit.
I ordered venison loin for my main course. It was a deliciously sapid little drum of very lean meat cooked just a tad more than I would have liked but exactly as I ordered (one man’s medium-rare is another man’s medium). With it, the kitchen presented a roast parsnip, a comma of parsnip purée, a block of potato mille-feuille, two crosnes and a dainty little roll of crisp dough filled with something we had trouble identifying – mushroom duxelles perhaps? Or was it offal? Finely shredded tripe even? I meant to ask the waiter but was distracted by the wine we were drinking, Château Lynch-Bages 1998, with its demure nose but marvellously intense, impeccably balanced flavours, a moment of liquorice hiding in a basket of black fruit.
We declined cheese but David and I each ordered the chestnut and vanilla soufflé that arrived with a scoop of delicious marmalade ice cream. With this we had a glass of Château d’Yquem 1991 (dark, subtle, sophisticatedly dry) and another of the 1998 for comparison. Then the excellent sommelier brought a taste of the 1999 to complete our education.
It was a flawless lunch, light and clever, and I am astonished that The Ritz restaurant still lacks a couple of Michelin stars. The hotel is fully honoured in Michelin’s hotel guide (one of only 11 properties in England that get the maximum five points out of five) but the restaurant and its chef certainly deserve recognition.
After lunch, David and Angharad led us through a mirrored door and into the William Kent House. This was a house built for the Hon. Henry Pelham (the future Prime Minister) by the architect and artist William Kent in 1742. Sir David and Sir Frederick acquired it in 2005 and have restored it to the full magnificence of its original conception. Such remarkably beautiful rooms! The hallway has a sweeping staircase without supports that draws the eye up to an extraordinary mural of 18th-century society. The dining room is splendid with crimson walls, elaborate gilding and a stunning painted ceiling in the Italian Renaissance manner. There are two suites on the higher floors and several salons and sitting rooms. The Ritz uses it as an event space. It also keeps an eye on the place when it’s empty. We were quickly joined in our explorations by a member of the hotel staff who had been sent to investigate our intrusion. He recognized our friends as guests (they are staying at the hotel for a week or two over the holidays) and was charm itself.