The Savoy Grill, The Strand, London, WC2
Saturday 11 December 2010
To any Gordon Ramsay watchers who have gathered around this page hoping to witness another disaster: move on – there's nothing to see here. Sure, with Ramsay's family life and business empire in crisis and his most recent restaurant, Petrus, opening to hostile reviews, there was more than a chance that his latest venture could have been a car crash. Instead, the grand old Savoy Grill glides sedately out from under the dust sheets with the well-tuned purr of a vintage Rolls-Royce.
Whatever else may have gone wrong for Ramsay lately, something has definitely gone right at the Savoy. Emerging rather later than the rest of the hotel from a lavish three-year refurbishment, the remodelled Grill room looks beautiful: moodily lit and glamorous, with dark, lacquered walls that give the impression of being inside a glowing tortoiseshell box.
The front-of-house team is young and relaxed, operating with a minimum of Frenchified fuss. And the menu feels equally modern, despite reaching back for inspiration to the classic grill dishes of the past. There's no messing about with fine-dining mimsiness – no supplements, or amuse-bouches, or any of that inter-course nonsense that Ramsay tends to go in for (don't start...).
"This is easily the most appealing Ramsay menu I've seen," said my lunch companion, the restaurateur Oliver Peyton, of Great British Menu fame. And it is, without doubt, a great British menu. The modern French influence introduced by Marcus Wareing when Ramsay first took over the Grill in 2003 has been largely phased out, in favour of something more traditional.
Grilled meats have been reinstated – not just the usual steaks, but Herdwick mutton cutlets, pork T-bone and mixed veal grill. Omelette Arnold Bennett survives, and the trolley bearing the roast of the day has been reintroduced. But what characterises this menu is a pleasing, Ivy-style mix of luxe dishes and trad Brit classics; you could follow glazed lobster thermidor with mutton, carrot and turnip pie. There's even a separate vegetarian menu, though why would you go to the Savoy Grill and not order meat? It would be like spending the evening with Gordon Ramsay and... (I said, leave it).
At the recommendation of chef-director Stuart Gillies, a Ramsay stalwart who has come over from the defunct Boxwood Cafe, I ordered the baked Hereford snails, which were about as good as snails get; six swooningly savoury mouthfuls in a shallot sauce, on a slick of puréed parsley root. Oliver's foie gras torchons were impeccable, but the heavily-spiced chutney that came with them had something of the WI bazaar about it.
Both main courses showcased top-quality British meat without feeling the need to give you the postcode of the producer. Beef from Dedham Vale got a generous, two-way treatment, like some heavenly compromise between a steak and a stew, partnering meltingly tender shoulder, slow-braised in red wine, with a hunk of pinkly roasted fillet, and a sauce of creamed wild mushrooms. Oliver's venison chop, from the charcoal grill, came with game chips and half a head of caramelised roasted garlic, and was served rare, at his request – "I like my meat still walking". Succulent and sweet, with a smoky char, it was knock-out. "Britain really does have some of the best meat in the world," said Oliver, settling comfortably into his GBM persona.
Perhaps it was my guest's TV fame that caused our waiter to give him, rather than me, the menu containing the wine list, and to offer him the wine to taste. Old habits die hard, and there's still a masculine feel to the Grill, despite the female-friendly redesign. Many of the tables were occupied by all-male groups, including a quintet of venerable theatre impresarios who looked to be settling in for the afternoon.
Despite the embracing of British tradition, the menu offers desserts rather than nursery puddings, including rum baba, millefeuille and tarte tatin. We shared a baked Alaska, flambéed at the table. Too much liqueur ensured a theatrically long burn time, but left the meringue peaks unpleasantly singed. A selection of humdrum British cheeses failed to ignite.
Still, given that this was lunch on the second day, this was an impressive performance, and already the room has the excitable hum of a successful restaurant. Gordon Ramsay was apparently there to greet guests on day one, and is obviously leaving nothing to chance. Pricing is reasonable, or as reasonable as it gets in a top London hotel that has just paid the builders £220m – our bill came to £80 a head, including wine, but it would be possible to escape for a lot less.
One of the famous facts about the Savoy Hotel is that its entrance is the only road in Britain on which cars must drive on the right. That probably feels increasingly comfortable to Ramsay, whose success on American television has surely contributed to his problems here. But the reborn Savoy Grill reminds us of how well the Ramsay restaurant operation can work at its best. Let's hope the beleaguered Ramsay sticks around long enough to see it flourish.
The Savoy Grill, The Strand, London WC2 (020-7592 1600)
Around £90 a head including wine and service
Tipping policy: "Service charge is 12.5 per cent discretionary, of which 100 per cent goes to the staff; all tips go to the staff"
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