The Savoy Grill, London

The relaunched Savoy Grill owes more to modern French cuisine than to British tradition, says Tracey MacLeod
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Indy Lifestyle Online

First Claridges, then the Connaught, now the Savoy Grill. Is there nowhere left in London for a girl to feel patronised and excluded? "Nice to see you again," beamed Angelo Maresca, the Savoy Grill's venerable maître d', as I surveyed the newly refurbished, more female-friendly dining room. The fact that I'd never set foot in the place before was no obstacle to his determinination to make his customers feel at home.

Angelo is one of the few relics of the old regime to survive the restaurant's modernisation as part of the growing Gordon Ramsay empire. As with Claridges and the Connaught, the refit involves a change of tone rather than radical reinvention. Under Marcus Wareing, the Michelin-starred chef of Pétrus, the menu has been brought into the 21st century. Perspiring joints of meat are no longer stretchered around the room and operated on at table. The formal service, with its synchronised removal of cloches, has been replaced by a more relaxed style, in which the bread basket is chummily left on the table. The waiters are much younger, and no longer dress in tails. And - gasp! - gentlemen are now allowed to lunch in an open-necked shirt rather than a jacket and tie.

Many of its former patrons were distressed that the Savoy Grill was going to change. My guest, the Labour peer and media mogul Waheed Alli, wasn't one of them. "Two things used to distinguish this place. It was very expensive. And they were very rude."

He broadly approved of Barbara Barry's redesign, which has introduced an element of low-key glamour to what was a rather dark and stuffy oak-panelled room. The wood-panelling is still there, but the wood is paler, and warmed by flattering pools of light. The silver-leaf ceiling and mirrored columns nod to the room's heyday, but in updating from the Thirties to the Noughties, some elements seem to have got stuck in the Seventies. The black-and-gold striped banquettes are particularly Biba-esque, while Waheed felt the black slatted blinds were "a bit Crossroads motel". And this from the man responsible for reintroducing that soap to ITV.

At a fixed price of £35 for three courses, the à la carte menu offers excellent value; even more so the £21 set-lunch menu, which opens with the Savoy Grill's most famous dish, Omelette Arnold Bennett. There are still a few opportunities for some table-side carving action, in the form of a short section of roast- and grilled-meat dishes. But otherwise Wareing's menu owes considerably more to modern French haute cuisine than to British tradition.

From the set menu, a starter of potted shrimp was a greener, healthier reworking of the dish, with avocado taking the place of the traditional butter and mace. Calves' sweetbreads were first rate, their slightly caramelised surface chiming with the piquant sweetness of a pancetta and onion marmalade.

Even when tackling deeply British dishes, Wareing's cooking has a French accent. His steak and kidney pudding is an old-fashioned individual pud, with a slippery suet crust, anointed in onion and Guinness gravy. But the braised root vegetables that come with it belong to a different culture, and seem to enclose the whole dish in inverted commas.

Many of the main course offerings would sit quite happily on the menu at Pétrus; in fact a version of the meltingly soft strips of braised Wiltshire pork belly, with sautéed Jerusalem artichoke and a sticky red wine and shallot reduction that I had here does. The sticky reduction was a theme of our meal; this kind of cooking has something autumnal about it, all braised root veg, intense brown sauces and aromatic hits of truffle, most pungently in the velouté of wild mushroom with truffle oil, which was served as an amuse-bouche.

Nursery puddings may no longer be on offer, but le chariot de pâtissier still circulates. From it, a prune and Armagnac tart was fine; certainly better than my own blandly sweet choice. But then, what was I expecting when I ordered Rum Baba macerated in Malibu?

Our fellow guests included peers and power-lunching newspaper executives, but unlike Claridges, this isn't really a venue for people celebrating special occasions. And despite the feminisation, it does still feel like a place for a business lunch rather than the ladies who lunch.

What must surely be the most expensive coffee in London - £5 for a single shot of espresso - bumped up the bill a little, to around £40 a head with a half bottle of wine, but it still struck Waheed as considerably cheaper than under the ancien régime.

So will he be returning as a regular? "Well, it definitely fills a gap. Somewhere between The Ivy and the House of Lords," he mused. "And it does feel much more modern and friendly. Mind you, they could have done that just by being polite."

The Savoy Grill, Savoy Hotel, Strand, London WC2 (020-7592 1600)

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