Now, please don’t go thinking I hated this place just because, out of everything, I liked the serving dishes best. But this tableware, you should see it. There was a gleaming half-pipe of a bread tray — one end decorated not with skaters, but a carved starfish and his clam mate. A platter of oysters was a puddle of nickel, moonlight on an open sea. And then there was the prawn cocktail — spoiler, no-one could say this restaurant is at the vanguard of modern cooking — which arrived in a bowl held aloft by a silver-skinned octopus, tentacles waving in victory, or perhaps squaring up for fisticuffs.
Trouble is, I’d already seen this exact cephalopod that week at a tucked away, family-run Greek-Cypriot spot in Cleveland Street called The Four Lanterns, there since 1970 and what you might euphemistically call “unpretentious” (though for the record, I adored the place; go — 020 7387 0704 to book). So to see it at Gordon Ramsay’s new seafood restaurant tickled me: it’s nice and all, but when the bill is some £125-a-head, it’s not entirely unfair to expect something new, or at least not something you can find at the local Greek gaff. Or, for that matter, at John Lewis (check their website). Going to the Savoy probably shouldn’t mimic dinner at your aunt’s.
A cute, eight-legged stand is not the be all and end all. But it did seem emblematic of a kind of familiarity — what you could dub ordinariness — that marks this large hotel dining room. I don’t think the River Restaurant is a bad restaurant, I just wish Ramsay had put a little more effort in. All together now: I’m not angry, I’m just disappointed.
There is, however, much to like. Those oysters, Scottish, were fresh, briny little things — although we asked for the “chef’s selection” and were dealt six of a kind. Perhaps the chef had run out of ideas. The prawn cocktail was as it should be: big, fleshy fingers of prawn, not too heavy on the sauce — well, you probably know how it was. It’s a prawn cocktail. Granted, there was the welcome addition of grapefruit.
Half a lobster (delicious) came simply, as it should, glistening and cooked wholly right, the shell cheerfully giving up the meat. Railway-track charred monkfish was softly spiced with a tandoori mix and whipped from the grill just in time. Its side, a cauliflower bhaji, was more difficult. I liked it, but then of course I did — I’d had its twin on the weekend in one of those M&S curry boxes (these are a guilty pleasure of mine. The shame...) Still, the table of Americans by us seemed to be having a terrific time, despite one of them repeatedly mentioning the death of the other’s mother. A restaurant that can overcome conversation like that deserves its due.
There was a not bad scallop tartare, too. It sat on its shell — normal, correct — which is when it struck me: the last time a restaurant like this would have felt fresh, the crowd might have turned to that shell to tap ash from their cigarettes. I suppose they could call it timeless. I couldn’t.
The last time it would have felt fresh, the crowd might have turned to the scallop shells to tap their cigarette ash
Ramsay has long looked after the Savoy Grill at the front of the hotel. Taking over what was once the black dread of Kaspar’s tallies with his recent, astonishing and somewhat admirable global expansion. He doesn’t stop and, well, chef knows who’s coming and how to keep them happy. This place was full. And granted, River obviously isn’t after stars or the like; it’s likely meant to be a classic fish place with comfortable surroundings. Mission complete. But with such a name above the door, and at £250 for two, with just half a bottle of wine, no puddings and no coffee, is it too much to want a little more? Fresh places are at their best when they offer joy, innovation — and a sense of escape. This feels too typical for that. New? Could have fooled me.
The Savoy Hotel, Strand, WC2R 0EU. Meal for two including drinks and 15 per cent service, about £250. Open Sunday to Thursday, noon to midnight. Open Friday and Saturday, noon to 1am; gordonramsayrestaurants.com