You need a good memory to recall the excitement that surrounded the opening of Gordon Ramsay at Claridges in 2001. In those days, Ramsay had it all: He was rich and famous and was -- along with his mentor, Marco Pierre White -- one of the most revered chefs the U.K. had ever produced.
Ramsay is now richer and more famous. It’s just the reverence that has gone, to be replaced by sniping: Where once Britons celebrated his success, now we dine out on his failures. It’s an appetite that is fed almost daily by bad publicity.
The reopening of the Savoy Grill before Christmas came as something of a surprise to Ramsay’s detractors, who had written him off after his messy split with his father-in-law Chris Hutcheson, who had headed Gordon Ramsay Holdings, the company that runs Ramsay’s restaurants from New York to Tokyo.
The slightly outdated charm of the Grill has been replaced by a restaurant that is modern and accessible yet holds onto some traditions in terms of dishes such as Omelet Arnold Bennett and the presence of a carving trolley with daily roasts. While it’s not London’s best restaurant, it’s a success.
First, the place looks good. Russell Sage -- the designer also responsible for Ramsay’s York & Albany -- has recreated a glamorous feel for the room, which over the years has hosted diners such as Charlie Chaplin, Winston Churchill, Marilyn Monroe, Frank Sinatra, Elizabeth Taylor and Oscar Wilde: Not at the same time, although that would be a memorable dinner party.
The Swarovski chandeliers, antique mirrors and mohair fabrics all contribute to a luxurious ambience and there are plenty of tables where anyone would be happy to sit. (The one discordant note is the inclusion of photos of famous diners.)
The menu of chef-director Stuart Gillies (ex-Boxwood Cafe) and head chef Andy Cook is long and welcoming, and the prices aren’t scary. Among the starters, lobster bisque with brandy butter is 8.50 pounds ($13.64), while my favorite -- baked egg cocotte with smoked bacon, wild mushrooms and red wine sauce -- is 10.50 pounds. I’ve tried most of the starters over four visits and didn’t find one that wasn’t well conceived and executed.
Among the mains, I’m a fan of the steamed steak and onion pudding with onion sauce, which is rich and satisfying and costs 18 pounds, and the braised English hare with roasted saddle and buttered spaetzle. (This may be absent from the menu for a while: Under the Hares Preservation Act of 1892, it’s illegal to sell hare in the months of March through July.)
There’s a good choice of fish and roasts and there’s a vegetarian menu. The only disappointments have been a couple of steaks that lacked the big flavor you find at Goodman and Hawksmoor. The hand-cut chips are light and crispy.
The desserts are a real treat, particularly the mandarin baked Alaska, which is theatrically flambeed at the table. Other highlights include custard millefeuille with mango.
The wine list is thoughtfully constructed, with plenty of value -- a Torrontes at 24 pounds and Cotes de Rhone Villages at 30 pounds before you scale the heights of Burgundy’s finest. The sommelier, Christopher Cooper, is one of the best things about the Grill: He’s friendly, approachable and knowledgeable. Ramsay restaurants are generally strong on service.
(I went back to Ramsay’s Petrus last month and for those who were underwhelmed when it opened last year, it’s worth a second look. There’s a lunch with wine pairings for just 50 pounds. Executive chef Mark Askew and head chef Sean Burbidge were both cooking, and the front-of-house team under Jean-Philippe Susilovic is among the best in London.)
Some expectations of Ramsay have sunk so low, even a half-decent restaurant sounds good. Savoy Grill is better than that.
Savoy Grill, 5 Strand, London, WC2R 0EU. Information: +44-20-7592-1600 or http://www.gordonramsay.com/thesavoygrill/.
The Bloomberg Questions
Cost? About 40 pounds for the food.
Sound level? Buzz of conversation, about 70 decibels.
Inside tip? Ask for a corner table.
Special feature? It’s a restaurant with a history.
Will I be back? Yes.
Date place? Very good choice.
What the Stars Mean: **** Incomparable food, service, ambience *** First-class of its kind. ** Good, reliable. * Fair. (No stars) Poor.
Sound-Level Chart (in decibels): 65-70: Office noise. 70-75: Starbucks. 75-80: London street. 80-85: Alarm clock at closest range. 85-90: Passing bus. 85-95: Tube train.
(Richard Vines is the chief food critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. Opinions expressed are his own.)