My first Ramsay. It has been a long time in waiting, but for one reason or another, I have never eaten at a Gordon Ramsay restaurant. One obstacle was the fear factor; sceptical that Gordon would live up to his name and worried that London’s sole three star would not wow. Subconsciously, it was an exercise in expectation management; I knew that if I did not administer my anticipations in advance, the meal would not stand a fair chance.
I had quite forgotten about the man and his many restaurants when I got a call from Ulterior Epicure. As a gypsy gastronome in London this Christmas he obviously wanted to test the Capital’s best and Restaurant Gordon Ramsay at Royal Hospital Road is questionably that.
Gordon Ramsay, Scottish born, but Stratford raised, had dreamt of keeping goal for Glasgow Rangers. He probably would have too had it not been for a series of injuries. However, instead of signing with a lesser team, 19 year-old Gordon enrolled in a nearby college to study hotel management and catering. He then worked his way through local restaurants and hotel dining rooms before his relations with the owner of the Wickham Arms made his position there untenable and motivated a move to London. Here he spent his first three years at Harveys under Marco Pierre White, but tiring of ‘the rages and the bullying and violence’, he went to Le Gavroche. After a year there, Albert Roux invited him to Hotel Diva in the Alps as his second. Though Paris soon proved too powerful a pull and, in 1989, he joined Guy Savoy as ‘his blue-eyed boy’ and learned that flavour should be a dish’s focus. But Gordon found Guy’s management manner to strict and joined Joël Robuchon’s Jamin. This was no better – one story has him breaking down in tears in an alley after his first day; another has Robuchon tipping hot ravioli on his head. Three years of mental and physical stress in Paris, working under demanding chefs and seven days a week (he had a part-time job serving coffee at a café, Le Bastille), ‘formed [his] character’ and was where he ‘found [his] soul’. However, he needed a break, so spent the next year on a private yacht, the Idlewild, based in Bermuda. In 1993, he returned to London as head chef at Koffmann’s La Tante Claire, prior to renewing his relationship with MPW at Rossmore (later Aubergine) as head chef and partner. In just over a year he had his first star and in 1997, his second. A dispute with fellow owners, A-Z Restaurants, however led to his departure and the following year, he launched the independent Restaurant Gordon Ramsay at Royal Hospital Road, financed by his father-in-law, Chris Hutchinson.
This set the restaurant ball rolling: as RHR won three stars (2001), Amaryllis (Glasgow), GR at Claridge’s and Verre (Dubai) were opened. Petrus and Menu at the Connaught (2002); the Savoy Grill and Boxwood Café (2003); Maze and GR at the Conrad, Tokyo (2005); GR at the London (NYC) and La Noisette (2006); Cielo at Boca Raton (Florida), Ritz Carlton Powerscourt (Ireland) and Maze, Prague (2007); and Foxtrot Oscar, Trianon Palace & Spa (Paris), Plane Food (Heathrow Terminal V), Maze Grill, GR at the London (LA), Murano and York & Albany (2008 ) ALL followed. Deep breath. There has also been three London pubs (ten more in the pipeline); the announcement of Maze, Melbourne; half a dozen TV programmes in the UK and US; a scholarship award; an OBE; ten cookbooks; two autobiographies; and a cookery school. Second deep breath.
It has generally, bar a few bumps to the big Scot’s pride (Amaryllis ended in failure and closure; and he ‘did a Ducasse’ in NY, with GR at the London criticised as being too boring and unambitious), been success upon more success. Ramsay is arguably the world’s most recognised chef with a dozen Michelin stars at restaurants spread across the world employing over one thousand people; and he is a TV darling.
Ramsay is chef-patron, whilst Mark Askew is RHR’s executive chef. He is a Yorkshire man who relocated down south in 1989 to the Savoy Grill as a commis under Edelmann. Prior to joining Ramsay’s kitchen at Aubergine in 1992, he also spent time at La Tante Claire, Michel Bourdin at The Connaught and at Nico’s. In 1996 he went to France, to Maison de Bricourt and Michel Bras, before returning to Aubergine as head chef. He was also at Ramsay’s right hand when he opened RHR, becoming executive head chef of Gordon Ramsay Holdings (i.e. Ramsay’s restaurant collection) in 2001.
Hold on, there is one more…So Ramsay is chef-patron, whilst Mark Askew is RHR’s executive chef, but chef de cuisine is Clare Smyth. She is only RHR’s fourth head chef to date and though Ramsay has been quoted as saying that women ‘couldn’t cook to save their lives’, he thinks very highly of her, telling the Observer’s Elizabeth Day: ‘I would say that a talent like Clare Smyth comes through the kitchen maybe once every ten years. The last time was with Angela Hartnett in Aubergine and that was back in 1995.’ However, do not let her hear that: ‘I’m not the next Angela Hartnett…I really hate it when people compare me to her because, in all honesty, Angela is a one star Michelin chef and I’m a three star one’. Well, it’s clear what Ramsay sees in her; she is a feisty one and fiercely ambitious too. Leaving her home in County Antrim, Northern Ireland, at sixteen, she did an NVQ in food preparation and cooking before spells at Grayshott Hall, Gidleigh Park and the Fat Duck (two day try-out) prior to a permanent place at Bibendum. St Enodoc Hotel, Cornwall (where she won Young Cornish Fish Chef of Year) came before joining RHR in 2002. She was soon singled out as a talent and sent to the French Laundry to learn more. She then wanted to spend time in France so Ramsay arranged for her to work three months as a private chef and then eighteen months with one of his heroes, Ducasse, at Louis XV (here her cooking was apparently well-liked by Lewis Hamilton). She returned to RHR to take over from Simone Zanoni, who moved to Trianon. Smyth takes after Ramsay; once service starts, ‘it’s eff this, eff that’ and she is a strict task-master – unable to tolerate those who make mistakes, she sends them home straightway. And she sacks someone once a week.
68 Royal Hospital Road is an understated Georgian townhouse in Chelsea; the only clue that this is the cornerstone and global HQ of Gordon’s empire is the small dark slate stencilled Ramsay by the door; however, the top hatted doorman may also give something away. Immediately upon passing through the black front door, there is a second inner glass one; be careful, the first must be pushed, the second pulled and the space betwixt is tiny, so one can become wedged without difficulty. Next is a narrow corridor – mirrored and marbled with slits in the wall that afford a view of the main dining area – that leads to a small bar.
A 2006 £1.5 million refurbishment by designer David Collins created what Ramsay describes as the ‘culinary equivalent of a Chanel handbag’. Collins toned down his standard showiness with shades of creamy beige for the panelled walls with intermingling mirrors and lacquered black for the moulding and furnishings; the carpet is light grey. The room is square with little more than a dozen tables. A mirrored mast supporting a serving station is the room’s focal point. Comfortable, upholstered chairs sit around double-clothed tables that are set with silver vases holding white roses, silver gilded cover plates and heavy cutlery.
Serveurs are ample in number with a supposed one-to-one ratio of staff to customers, though I have read that this equation includes those in the kitchen. The FOH is led by Jean-Claude Breton, who Ramsay first met at Le Gavroche and has had at hand since Aubergine opened (1993).
Amuse Bouche 1: Crispy potato tuile. A couple of crunchy game chips, mozzarella and pistou sandwiched in between, were served in a silver toast rack. There was a nice smokiness to the potato, but the pistou – a Provençal sauce of garlic, basil and olive oil (basically pesto minus the pine nuts) – went rather unnoticed as did the soft, mild mozzarella; more of both would have improved taste and texture.
Les Pains: White; brown; brown with olive; potato & rosemary; and jacket potato & honey. The bread selection was decent, but was neither served warm nor baked by the restaurant. The first fact I do not mind, but the second, considering that even unstarred establishments make the effort to make their own, is a little letdown. Slices of white, brown, olive and a couple of kinds of potato bread were offered. All had nice soft, open crumb and firm crust, but the potato and rosemary along with the jacket potato and honey were my favourites. The latter especially, a type of tortano – a variety of Easter bread-cake from Campania cooked with larded dough, filled with cheese and salami (neither found here though) and twisted into a roll – had light, but substantial middle, delicate sweetness and rock-hard shell. Deftly detailed mini mounds of salted and unsalted Bordier butter accompanied.
Amuse Bouche 2: Cornetto avocado mousse. Dainty pastry feuille held a heavy load of confit tomato, lobster Caesar salad, smoked salmon and avocado mousse. The salpicon, dominated by the subtle sweetness of the seafood and tomato, was bound with creamy avocado – the single most distinct flavour – and Caesar dressing (parmesan, lemon, olive oil and egg). The finely diced filling worked well with the crisp consistency of the casing and smoothness of the mousse.
Amuse Bouche 3: Raviolo of cream cheese and black truffle. A single cream cheese and truffle tortelloni sat on a small salad of winter root vegetables that was submerged beneath vibrant pumpkin velouté. The pasta was good and its cheese centre, mild and creamy, but without a trace of truffle. The carrot, celeriac, celery combination that carried the raviolo added crunch and subtly supplemented the sweetness of the pumpkin. Popularly, tortelloni are packed with pumpkin pulp paste, so I imagine having here the gourd outside rather than inside the pasta to be a petite play on this.
Entrée 1: Roasted Loire Valley foie gras with braised carrots and almond foam. Sautéed tenné-tinged lobe of Loire foie gras, balanced atop a brace of braised baby carrots and protected beneath a carefully crafted tuile of potato, was partnered with carrot purée, a swirl of Cabernet Sauvignon vinegar and almond foam. The sizeable slice of foie was cooked a little longer than I would have chosen and had not been deveined, but had good flavour. Al dente carrots were sugary; tater tuile, agreeably brittle; but nut froth, mild. The choicest component was the red wine vinegar; fruity, intense and complex, it was a very fine foil to the fatty foie.
Entrée 2: Ravioli of lobster, langoustine and salmon with tomato chutney and vinaigrette. A second, wrinkly raviolo, stuffed with scampi, salmon and lobster, seasoned with coriander and basil and resting upon concentric rings of lobster vinaigrette, was adorned with dried basil leaf and tomato chutney that bled nicely over the warm pod. The pasta, as though vacuum-packed in appearance, was soft and again well-made, the casing capitulating without much compulsion to reveal a dense wadding of diced shellfish, salmon mousse, herbs and puréed tomato. This is a signature RHR dish and has been on the menu since the restaurant first opened. Regretfully, it was utterly forgettable. The raviolo, poached in light bisque, had no depth of flavour: the salmon had little richness; langoustine and lobster no briny-sweetness; or the tomato atop, sugary-tang. A satisfactory structure was there, but the satisfying savours were elsewhere. Also – not that it was markedly dry – more moisture might not have gone amiss.
Plat Principal 1: Fillet of turbot with braised baby gem lettuce and cep sauce. Golden gamboge, pan-fried fillet of turbot was matched with mixed mushrooms wrapped in braised baby gem lettuce leaves, whole trompettes de la mort and a sliver of cèpe, all soused in a tableside serving of cèpe and langoustine velouté. The turbot was cooked nicely and complemented by the smoky-sweet sauce. The mushrooms were juicy and gave good continuity between the different elements. Baby gem, stuffed like vine leaves are to make Turkish dolma, was interesting in design, but quite dull in delivery; its fungi filling – chopped up cèpes, shiitake, trompettes de la mort and Paris mushrooms – simply lacked strength. However, the presence of the shiitakes, though strangely enough an unusual sight was not unwelcome one.
Plat Principal 2: Roasted pigeon from Bresse with grilled polenta, smoked pork belly and date sauce. Half a roasted and deboned pigeon de Bresse, its leg confit, was brought with a block of grilled polenta capped with chestnut and Californian date; a second couple of baby carrots (fellow diners had only one; I was gifted another in place of the smoked pork belly I had to forgo) came with these as did Madeira and date jus. The glistening bird had beautiful, full-bodied aroma; its crispy skin covering actually rather mild meat. The flesh, no longer deep and dark in colour, was maybe a little overcooked. Californian dates are jumbo, fleshy and honey-like, but this one was dry and bland; polenta, did not add much to the dish; and the sauce was unremarkable. What did stand out was the delicious, warm, crumbly chestnut. My description probably paints a rather ugly picture, but the dish was not that bad. I am a big fan of both dates and pigeons (especially those from Bresse as these birds are best and noted for their unique texture and flavour), so this plate promised much. What I received was disappointing, all too easy to forget and not nourishing enough for a meat main. To quote a friend, it did not gratify my inner carnivore. And before I finish, smoked pork belly swapped for a carrot baby carrot: an inadequate exchange on so many levels.
Pre-dessert: Crème brûlée and apple juice; or Cheeses. There was now a choice of cheese or pre-dessert; one of our party opted for the former, the rest for the latter. I shamefully failed to note which cheeses were sampled, but they were all rather good and came with walnut bread, black Muscat grapes and a big silver boat of assorted Miller’s Damsel crackers – the only immoderate moment of the meal.
Pre-dessert consisted of a small shot of Granny Smith apple juice and baby Armagnac crème brûlée. The fresh squeezed shot was composed of two separate solutions; the larger, lower layer being the clear juice of the apple core, whilst the light green, top one being the stronger skin. The crème brûlée was sweet and smooth with a sugary, crunchy covering and concealed cache of punchy Armagnac and prune compote.
Dessert 1: Mango and passion fruit soup with lychee and coconut. An elongated cooler came next with dense mango and passion fruit juice rounded off with lychee and coconut foam. The first taste was of thick, sugary-tartness and then a secret ‘surprise’. Space dust. This sent obligatory tingles through our taste buds, but failed to seriously excite us. The soup finished with lighter, acidy-sweet clean coconut and lychee foam, conspicuously, but unavoidably slurped through the glass straw.
One of us cannot eat mango so, as a less than creative replacement, was given lemon and raspberry sorbet (literally a dollop of lemon and another of raspberry; oh, forgive me, I almost forgot the pineapple and star fruit tuiles).
Dessert 2: Bitter chocolate and hazelnut cylinder with ginger mousse and blackcurrant granité. The second sweet course occasioned the prettiest plate of the night to be presented. A chocolate tuile column, bedded with hazelnuts, brimming with ginger mousse and bejewelled with blackcurrant granité, arrived alongside milk ice cream atop choc sponge circle and supporting a skinny coco pencil; stencilled around these two little towers, were ruby red lips of blackcurrant coulis. Bitter, woody Valrhona 66% Caribe had natural nutty-fruitiness that complemented the sweetly sharp blackcurrant and warm ginger. The milk ice cream provided a cooling counterpoint.
The space dust went straight to my head and I never photographed this dessert, so I am obliged to Ulterior Epicure for the above shot; thankfully, he still had his wits about him.
Petit Fours: Chocolate truffles; strawberry ice cream in white chocolate; mince pies; Turkish delight and eggnog. First of the friandises was a small shimmering tree of silver bearing similarly shiny fruit; these satellite swellings turned out to be sterling-sprinkled chocolate truffles. Then a tin drum, wrapped in white napkin, was set down. As its lid was lifted, dry ice drifted out and over the table uncovering spheres of strawberry ice cream enclosed within white chocolate. In pursuit was a plate of seasonal mince pies, tray of rose water Turkish delight and cups of eggnog. The strawberry ice creams were unmemorable though the mince pies pleasing. Toasty eggnog, gently spiced with cinnamon and nutmeg, was rather nice, whilst the faintly flowery Turkish treats were unexpectedly yet refreshingly cold and tasty.
Straightaway let me say, this was not a poor meal nor a bad experience – there was nothing really wrong with any of it. Actually, I had a great time. I spent three fine hours in the charming company of three fellow food-lovers. We ate, we drank, we spoke. Speak we did indeed. Of restaurants we had been to or wanted to go to, of food we had liked and not liked, of chefs…basically we talked all dinner long. It was, I think over petit fours, that I finally felt obliged to approach the pink baby elephant asleep on the table and ask how we felt about the food right there in front of us. This little detail told me volumes.
I contrast it to my meal only days ago at the Sportsman. There were five of us that time and it was an equally chatty crowd, but with each new plate, silence. Head down, fork/spoon/knife in hand, we ate. We chewed our food and we chewed over our thoughts, selfishly. At Ramsay’s, I cannot recall the food interrupting us once.
That said, the cooking was fairly flawless, the presentation was good and the dishes left a pleasant taste on the tongue. There were a few moments that the tuck tried tugging at my attention too – the cornetto amuse, the roasted chestnut, the icy, clear Turkish delight – but these were too few, too far apart and too featherweight. I found it all simply superficial. There was the dish description on the menu; that was what I was served. The plate provided the provender; each element was cooked well, each arranged nicely. There was nothing more. What more do you want? Well, I believe at this level it should be more than just cooking the ingredients as they should be and making them look pretty – the components ought to unify, magnify and glorify each other. The dish should be more than a sum of its parts.
The cuisine at Ramsay’s restaurants has often been branded boring and formulaic; head chefs are supposedly under strict orders and strictly ordered to obey. Could it be that too many chefs have bored the broth? There is nothing wrong with classic cooking or tried-and-tested flavour combinations. However, a lack of creativity does exist. This is most apparent when the kitchen is at its most audacious and it is almost cringe-worthy. With desserts, the decorum is dropped, a tad: pre-desserts are delivered with secreted space dust; chocolate truffles are given a space-age twist; and the strawberry ice cream balls are submerged in smoke. At the table, these may educe a chuckle, but really they are just doing what has already been done (and made famous) already, namely by Heston Blumenthal at the Fat Duck (possibly picked up by Smyth during her two day stint there). With the fruity cocktails, for example, it was my second sampling of space dust in two days. It was Ulterior Epicure’s third. As a side note, those noisy glass straws, a departure from plastic and also politesse, need rethinking. A last note on the limited invention was with my pigeon; the smoked pork belly was replaced with another baby carrot. This is a pet peeve of mine. I am always disappointed when a pork element is simply removed and the dish served like that; that missing morsel must have been there for a reason, it must have added something unique and necessarily to the complexion of the dish. How is a baby carrot – in taste, size, value, etc – any sort of suitable substitute?
The service was surprisingly efficient. Courses came in swift succession, but it was neither too fast nor too slow. The staff were polite, but humourful too and very accommodating with alterations to the menu. They were also very smiley. although, I found them also a little superficial; as soon as I started to ask some staff questions about the food, those smiles turned upside down – either they did not know the details or they did not want to divulge them. There was also a touch of grace left wanting; we were never hurried, but I personally felt a faint discomfiture between myself and the staff. Basically, I have had smoother, slicker service elsewhere (without three stars).
I know many foodies who do not like Gordon Ramsay or his restaurants full stop, but I am certainly no Ramsay reviler. I like the man’s Kitchen Nightmares programme and respect him as a businessman, but personally, I just do not consider him as ‘Ramsay the chef’; to me he is ‘Rambo the celebrity restaurateur’.
In a sad sort of way, I was not too disappointed with RHR. I did not expect – though I really, really wanted – to be wowed; and I was not. What did let me down was the thought that as the lone three-star in London, this is arguably its top restaurant – that thought depressed me.
But perhaps the blame lies with me – I expect too much. For me, three stars still mean magic, still mean wow. Or I think it should. Then again, I am a naïve, fairly-fresh foodie. Maybe I must grow up….
As for Ramsay’s restaurant, it lived up to my expectations. Unfortunately.
68 Royal Hospital Road, Chelsea, SW3 4HP
tel: 020 7352 4441
nearest tube: Sloan Street