The Savoy Hotel has long been seen as a luxurious destination venue for the rich and famous, an image consolidated by its recent £450 million refurbishment. The result, which marries traditional and modern features, is particularly noticeable in the River Restaurant, redesigned by Pierre-Yves Rochon to incorporate Art Deco influences with an interior resembling that of an ocean liner. Marbled and richly carpeted floors, mirrored walls and attractive lighting provide the setting for large, well spaced tables with fine napery and supremely comfortable beige leather chairs and banquettes. Tables by the windows, preserved in their original form, have magnificent views of the Thames
All this might suggest the River Restaurant is accessible only for a considerable outlay. Yet, whilst prices are not low, they are surprisingly competitive with those of similar fine dining establishments. The carte has starters from £12 to £22, main courses £22 to £36, and desserts at £11. There is a good value set lunch menu and pre-theatre menu available Monday to Saturday at £35 for three courses (£30 for two). The extensive international wine list starts at £26 a bottle, and glasses range from £10-£26. Thus, by West End standards, the Savoy is certainly not financially exclusive.
Leading the kitchen is James Pare, Head Chef since October 2011. His previous experience at other notable Fairmont Hotels in Seattle and Whistler is excellent preparation for the exacting demands of the Savoy clientele. With top quality seasonal French and British ingredients, he has created a contemporary French menu, giving his own interpretation to classical dishes. For instance, seared yellow fin tuna comes with dried green olives, garlic confit and fennel salad; belly pork is paired with prawn carpaccio; pan fried turbot is garnished with potato terrine and cucumber tagliatelli; and crème brulee is flavoured with liquorice.
James’ cooking is precise, well balanced with occasional playful touches, especially in the desserts. He is particularly proud of his Auguste Escoffier Menu, which he has researched extensively. At £62.50 for 6 courses it is a relative bargain amongst restaurant tasting menus. Fine Dining Guide visited the Savoy on a week day evening in January 2012 to sample this delectable feast.
An amuse bouche of chicken liver parfait was suitably smooth and well flavoured. Topped with pumpernickel crumbs which gave a contrasting texture, and dressed with radish and micro herbs, it looked like a delightful miniature plant pot
The first course of consommé of quail was a master class in execution and presentation. This acid test of haute cuisine was expertly prepared to give a beautifully clear golden broth which captured the delicate gamey flavour of the bird. A garnish of foie gras and a slither of quail breast added richness, although neither was needed to enhance the pure, glistening essence. (Wine: 2010 Massaya Rose, Bekka Valley, Lebanon)
“Sole Victoria” was also impressively rendered. Fillets of firm textured Dover Sole had been gently poached and paired with sweet, succulent lobster slices. The timing of both these elements was perfect. The accompanying sauce, a hollandaise flavoured with fish stock and lobster, complemented the main ingredients without overwhelming them. Shavings of winter truffle added an earthy fragrance providing a contrasting finish to the dish. (Wine: 2008 Puligny Montrachet “Vielles Vignes”, Roche de Bellene, Burgundy)
Salade Alsacienne, an intermediate course, was a simpler interpretation of this regional classic. A quennel of potato salad, walnuts and truffle dressing was suitably seasonal and light. Anything more would be excessive, given the richness of the preceding and following courses. (Wine: Pol Roger Brut, Epernay, Champagne)
Lamb Noisettes, cooked pink, were tender and, with the help of a wrapping of fat, well flavoured. Fine herbs lifted the dish, whilst potato fondant and tiny roasted potatoes provided appropriate garnishes. A rich sauce bought the various components together. (Wine: 2008 Ca’Marcanda “Promis”, Angelo Gaja, Bolgheri, Tuscany)
A plate of English and continental cheeses, all in prime condition, included Manchego, Comte and Beenleigh Blue. Soused cherries provided a lively foil to the deep, savoury flavours of the cheese. (Wine: 2010 Morgon, Marcel La Pierre, Burgundy)
Finally, another Escoffier classic was offered as dessert. Elsewhere, Peach Melba has been interpreted in many extravagant, sometimes deconstructed, forms. Here, the essentials of the original – poached peach, vanilla ice cream and raspberry coulis – were retained with the addition of a mass of spun sugar, candy floss. Served in a silver sundae dish, the simple, elegant presentation of Escoffier was preserved. (Wine: 2009 Tamar Ridge, “Boptrytis”, Tasmania.)
Finally, the petit fours which accompanied the strong expresso coffee showed the strengths of the pastry section, led by Martin Chiffers: soft almond financiers, intense jellies, crisp rose macaroons, and dark chocolate ganache were all highly accomplished in their execution.
Other aspects of the meal were excellent. Breads, baked on the premises, were warm, with soft texture and crisp crusts. Service was knowledgeable, solicitous but not obtrusive. The sommelier chose the flight of wines with studied enthusiasm. Best of all was the Puligny Montrachet, an inspired, regal, accompaniment with the Sole Victoria.
The new team at the River Restaurant have made an impressive start. Although James Pare is not a well known name in current restaurant circles, it can only be a matter of time before he makes a lasting impact. From the evidence of Escoffier menu, this will not take long.