Sunday, 30 August 2015

Kaspar's at the Savoy

Kaspar's is the reincarnation of the old River Restaurant, reborn with some style. I actually arrived at the Savoy by way of a very pleasant amble through Victoria Embankment gardens, so the simplest thing would have been to nip in the hotel's understated River Entrance and straight in to the restaurant. Simple maybe, but there was no way I was going to miss the opportunity to stroll along Savoy Court and make a grand entrance beneath the famous glittering steel frontage, passing a pristine pearlescent Rolls valet-parked at the side - as you do.

Just before we go in, let me take you on a small detour along the aforementioned Savoy Court; it is a much-loved and oft-quoted piece of London trivia that this is the only road in London where vehicles must drive on the right. According to the Savoy's press officer this is because traditionally, when travelling in a horse-drawn carriage, ladies would sit behind the driver and so would exit on the right hand side; this system enabled a decorous and less muddy descent straight into the hotel. The Londonist, a wonderful and authoritative site on all things London (if you're not already following them, do so immediately on or @londonist), has pointed out that Hammersmith bus station employs the same rule, though presumably not for the same reasons. I have since heard the 'fact' re-quoted as the only named road in London where traffic drives on the right. Either way it's a rarity and still a nice little nugget of London randomness.

Meanwhile, back to the Savoy itself. Graciously greeted by numerous members of staff (all, inevitably, far more elegantly dressed than I was) I made my way through the lobby, past the shop and through the tea room to Kaspar's. The sheer sumptuousness of the hotel is reassuringly impressive; chequerboard marble floors, glittering chandeliers, cascades of vibrant orchids and gleaming polished wood. Entering Kaspar's itself is like stepping back into the 1920s, with dramatic Murano glass lighting above the circular bar, huge mirrors and stylish Art Deco detailing.

Before we get to the meal itself, for those of you who don't know the story of Kaspar, let me give you a little background; are you sitting comfortably? One evening in 1898 Woolf Joel, a South African mining millionaire, hosted a dinner for fourteen at the Savoy. One of the diners cried off at short notice and an anxious guest suggested cancelling the entire evening; superstition has it that, if thirteen people sit down to dine, the first one to leave the table will die within the year. Joel reassured his guests by ensuring that he himself was the first person to get up from the table; weeks later, he was murdered in his office. 

Erring on the side of caution the Savoy began providing tables of thirteen with a member of staff as a quatorzieme, but this meant diners could not always speak freely. The problem was solved in 1926 when Kaspar was sculpted by Basil Ionides; to this day he sits before a full place setting as the elegant fourteenth guest when required, napkin around his neck, silent and utterly discreet. 
 However, as our booking was for two, sadly there was no need for Kaspar to make a personal appearance. Settling down at the table we decided to look through the menu over a glass of champagne; dithering over the crispy duck salad to start, I eventually went for the garden pea soup, which was served poured over an asian-style prawn and salmon dumpling. The soup was excellent and the pairing with the dumpling worked much better than I expected, the different sweetnesses complementing each other really well. My companion (an effortlessly chic friend who could very plausibly have been 'in residence') chose the beautifully presented wild garlic pannacotta with white and green asparagus and sauce gribiche, a kind of tartare/aioli sauce I usually think of pairing with fish but it was delicious with the asparagus.

For our main course we had the pan-seared fillet of pollock with escalivada (a wonderful Catalan roasted vegetable dish with punchy, smoky flavours) fennel and shellfish nage, and a perfectly-textured sun-dried tomato and goat cheese risotto with basil oil. We had considered ordering extra sides but the portions were actually more than sufficient for lunch (not always the case in set meals), particularly after the very more-ish freshly-baked bread on arrival. 

None of which meant, of course, that we were going to miss out on the dessert options. We opted for the delicious but incredibly rich dark chocolate and black sesame tart, served with chocolate ganache and a delicate milk tea ice cream, and the homely artisan cheese selection with chutney. The service throughout was very good; attentive without ever hovering, and friendly without being too informal - not something I generally mind (within reason) but somehow the glamour of the surroundings requires a certain poise and professionalism on the part of the staff to round off the experience; this is lunch at the Savoy, after all. The only, tiny cloud on the blue sky of the day was the off-menu drinks prices; we had considered treating ourselves to a glass of pink fizz, but as that started at a slightly eye-watering £23 per glass, we thought better of it. But, as I say, this is the Savoy, and it did feel like a special treat.

Another little strange London fact for you, before we go; Carting Lane, that runs alongside the Savoy, was allegedly known as 'Farting Lane' in the late nineteenth century. This was due to the Webb Patent Sewer Gas Lamp installed there, which both burned off the unpleasant and potentially dangerous gases from London's sewers and used them to provide 24-hour lighting. Even the combined donations of the Savoy's guests were not sufficient to power the lamp alone but the methane did supplement the more standard gas supply; it does, however, give a whole new meaning to the term 'gas lamps'.
The original was all but destroyed by a careless delivery driver reversing in to it, but has been restored and there it still stands; you can see the difference in design compared to the lamp at the front of the hotel.

Yours, officially a lady who lunches,
Girl About Town xx