The Ritz hotel's restaurant certainly is impressive. A circle of eight gilt-bronze chandeliers, linked by a garland of flowers, also in gilt-bronze, is reflected to great effect in floor-to-ceiling mirrors, multiplying the sense of space. Full-length windows facing west ensure a changing spectrum of colour across marbled columns and panels throughout the day. While the overall effect is immensely grand, it is one that is also warm and welcoming.
"I really wanted to bring the restaurant back on track, as it really is the most wonderful setting," says John Williams, who took up his current position after spending nine years as chef des cuisines at Claridge's hotel. "The room can certainly dominate, so I have to make sure that the food doesn't let it down. My intention has been to combine the elegance of classical French cuisine with a sprinkling of British specialities and flair."
At the same time, Williams is all too aware that he can never be totally prescriptive. "The chef may propose, but the customer disposes, so we always have to do what the guest requests, if required."
In keeping with the grandeur of the setting, Williams readily incorporates luxury ingredients such as turbot and foie gras into his dishes, as well as selecting the best quality of even the most basic items. However, this doesn't mean that the cost of eating at the Ritz needs to be prohibitive. The price of the set three-course lunch, in fact, dropped from £45 to £35 soon after Williams arrived, and has only just been increased to £37.
"We have really increased the value of the menus in the past two years," he says. "We might have some very wealthy clients, but they like a bargain just as much as anyone else."
Williams uses the term "palace-style cooking" to describe the food at the Ritz. "It is very classy and classic, but also very fresh and light. There is nothing old-fashioned about it." A starter of slowly cooked beetroot shows Williams's use of new culinary techniques, with an espuma machine producing an accompanying light foam mousse of Roquefort and horseradish, and beignets of cauliflower and edible pansies and violets adding the finishing touches.
Among the main courses, butter-poached lobster accompanies pork belly and squid; confit of sea bass is served with a white bean purée, wild asparagus and a vanilla and caviar velouté; and fillet of beef is partnered with a fricassée of sweetbreads and girolles, a horseradish sabayon and a Hermitage sauce.
Supporting Williams is his head chef, Frederick Forster, who joined the 50-strong brigade nearly a year ago. "He is a very fresh-thinking chef, with a good palate, and is excellent at using modern gadgets," says Williams. Forster, the Roux Scholar of 2000, has an impressive CV, including a stint with Pierre Gagnaire in Paris and a spell cooking in Dubai.
Alongside the more innovative dishes are always a selection of simpler dishes - such as grilled fillet of Aberdeen Angus, grilled rack of organic Welsh lamb and grilled whole Dover sole or meunière - favoured by many of the Ritz's regular clients. Classic Ritz dishes are also available on certain days, including fricassée of lamb with lamb's tongue, sweetbread and mousseline of peas on Mondays, boiled brisket and tongue with root vegetables and horseradish velouté on Thursdays and fisherman's pie with cockles and mussels on Fridays.
Williams is keen to involve the waiting staff in the preparation of his food as much as possible. "The dining room really lends itself to having a dish finished off at the table," he says. In particular, he mentions the roast leg of Pyrenean lamb, which is carved in front of the customer and served with a violet mustard and herb crust and sarladaise potatoes. "Such dishes always create a wonderful ambience in the room."
Although covers in the restaurant have risen since Williams's arrival, with lunches increasing from about 30 daily to 70-plus and dinners ranging from 70 early in the week up to 145 for a Friday or Saturday dinner dance, it is the figures for afternoon tea that continue to surpass everything else. With a waiting list of six to eight weeks for Monday to Friday and three to four months at the weekend, afternoon tea is a major institution. About 400 covers at £35 per head are served daily during five sittings - the first at 11.30am and the last at 7.30pm.
The components of afternoon tea should be classic and simple, according to Williams. "Our sandwiches are very straightforward - smoked salmon, cucumber and cream cheese, chicken and lettuce, egg mayonnaise and cress, and ham," he says. "There is no place for the likes of chicken tandoori sandwiches at the Ritz." A selection of seven different pastries, which always include a millefeuille, British fruit cake and raspberry tart, together with scones, jam and clotted cream, are also served, alongside a choice of 17 different teas.
For Williams, it has been the fulfilment of a lifelong ambition to become executive chef at the Ritz, and it looks as though he is ensconced for some time. He has enjoyed the challenge of building up and improving the quality of food and beverage at the hotel, and is now looking forward to working on the new menus for the private dining suites, due to open later this year (see panel, above).
"I had been offered the position on three previous occasions, but the timing was never right," he explains. "This time, it was being asked by the general manager, Stephen Boxall, who I'd worked with at the Berkeley when he was the restaurant manager, that made it right. We always have had a good rapport, and we both share the same ideology and passion about this wonderful hotel. I knew I would have the support from him to achieve my aims here."
A tasting menu of Ritz specialities (£85)
Confit beetroots with biscotti, Roquefort and horseradish cream, lentil dressing
Morels stuffed with foie gras mousse, asparagus fricassée and a Gewürztraminer nage
Lemon oil-poached lobster with avocado mousse, feta and pepper purée
Confit of sea bass with white bean purée, wild asparagus, vanilla and caviar velouté
Baked salt-crusted pigeon served with sautéd foie gras and truffled Madeira jus
Pistachio soufflé with Amedei chocolate ice-cream
Williams on private dining The opening of six new private dining rooms in William Kent House, adjacent to the Ritz, will help turn the hotel into the best food and beverage operation in London, according to Williams.
A new kitchen, being installed to service the private rooms, will include a new pastry area from where the 400 afternoon teas will be served daily.
"The food in the private rooms will be the same as that served in the restaurant. It will definitely not be banqueting food," says Williams.
"All the food will be cooked fresh; there will be no holding of food that has been cooked earlier. Unless you cook and serve food immediately, some of the flavour is lost. Where possible, we will cook meat on the bone, and we will start cooking main courses as starters are being served.
"The largest sit-down dinners will be for 80. For me, the cut-off number of covers for cooking and serving immediately is 250.
"Freshly cooked food is the only way to ensure clean, fresh flavours and enjoy the best of whatever ingredients are seasonal at the time.
"The most important factor is to ensure that we have our staffing correct."