15 Nov 2008

GRH: The Ultimate Dining Machine?

WHAT GRIM timing? As my booking at possibly London’s swankiest restaurant matured, the nation declared itself collectively bankrupt. I could make light of it, claiming that I got a last minute deal: seven courses for a tenner, rinsed with a complimentary glass of ‘Pétrus’ ‘90 (from another recession year). But the powers that be at Gordon Ramsay H.Q. are probably of the opinion that, like ‘Macbeth’, it is best not to utter the name of that drama. Far too Wareing… (thump timpani).
The truth is that to scythe through 900 reservation requests per day (handled by two full timers with resilient nerves) towards one of only thirteen tables, I had to plan nearly two months ahead. The best they could do even then was 2:10pm. Rather more ‘linner’ than lunch. The Editor of ‘G.Q.’ magazine, Dylan Jones, who seems to prefer anything to editing, suggests that accepting a late lunch in an A-list haunt is tantamount to ‘…touching Scarlett Johansen’s breast, but only when she’s asleep, and only when no one’s watching…’ In all honesty, only our Welsh taxi driver seemed bothered by the belated hour of the booking, buttressing his opinion of “lunch is at 1pm!” through the perspex partition. In fact we used our spare time to visit another Ramsay enterprise just down the Royal Hospital Road.
The much-maligned ‘Foxtrot Oscar’ loiters behind a sexy black canopy. It shines like baby-oiled latex. Inside, almost everything is wipe-cleanable. A distant radio ricocheted through the dark floored, pocked ceilinged space. Dramatic, high contrast portraits punctuate walls decorated with wide turquoise fringed verticals. Whilst we only stopped for flutes of Ayala Champagne (of ‘Trust House Forte’ fame, recently revitalised by Bollinger) and a bowl of fruity bread boomerangs, what I saw looked agreeable. The story goes that the chefs from the main attraction used to come down here, to come-down, following service.
Outside, turn left, and Restaurant Gordon Ramsay is discreet, discernible only by a signed slate. Inside, all is star-bright, glamorous and fresh. Along the corridor, full-length mirrors echo apertures into the square dining room. This culminates in a modestly sized lounge: textured leather sofas, gold leaf recesses, strokeable walls, and spiky chandeliers. It feels like the waiting room to a private dentist. The same Champagne served down the road puts on four pounds here, albeit served in crystal with blanched almonds that are neatly in harmony with the overall colour scheme. The picture-less dining room is pretty: a collage of various shades of ivory, with plain, comfortable chairs parked upon deep, fuselage grey carpet. Cream roses rise from sheer vases. Tables are double-clothed. It only just avoids resembling a wedding breakfast.
A prominent British critic once described Gordon Ramsay’s restaurants, from Dublin to Dubai, as being occupied by an identikit mingle of hushed, middle-class, middle-aged, middle-incomed couples stunned to be lucky enough to have triumphed reservations. That has not been my experience at the half a dozen I have ventured into. From tables of women in Burkhas to well-oiled octogenarians, the atmosphere is convivial. Conversations are had continuously, at normal volume.
At Royal Hospital Road, a lady sported a dashing hat. A lank gent braved bureaucracy by wearing jeans. Only my father and I appeared to wear ties. Excepting the elegant lady - and at the risk of sounding like an aspiring cholestosaurus - I lament this loss of decorum. This is a three star restaurant, thirteenth best in the world at last count. Is it too much for a chap to shave (also advisable for some women), bathe and generally beautify himself for a day?
The Maitre’d enquired "Who will be hosting the table?" - an amusing but shrewd gesture to which I volunteered. The menu opened with a watercolour of a younger Ramsay. We were presented with three options: a la carte, tasting menu and the set lunch. I had enticed my father with the promise of the comparatively affordable latter. And now I piled on the pathos, indicating what an adventure it would be to give the place a thorough test drive. Without too much difficulty, we swerved into the Menu Prestige. "Just don’t think about the bill" I counselled, "I will pay the lighter half". A pungent passenger was presented from a kind of humidor. Apparently it was the largest white Alba truffle in London. Nestling between four subjects, the Buddha of the tuber world and ‘diamond of the kitchen’ (Brillat-Savarin) looked like a sleeping baby. Friends I since sent the picture to described it as ‘something from a Victorian operating table’ which might ‘look better placed on the elephant man’s head’. Either this could be shaved for a fee, or the mattress of preserving rice could render risotto remarkable. The dramatic waft was free, however.
An amuse bouche, arranged ‘especially for us’ featured chilled scallop tartare with tiny black pearls of explosively far-reaching caviar. This was flooded at table with tepid essence of broccoli which transcended the original brassica. Rosemary flecked potato bread was cottony, uplifting and absorbent. Butter was almost tear-salted. I liberated the last bottle of Clos Poggiale ’05, a vibrant Vermentino from Corsica. It was incisor sharp: granite in a glass with warm garrigue herbs gusting from within.
Pressed, almost Genoese banded Foie Gras with smoked duck came aboard a petrified Madeira consommé. This was overly conceited in my opinion. And the actual foie was slightly underwhelming, especially when compared to another culinary sanctuary like Le Gavroche (or even Le Caprice). Colourful, slender pickles included a curled tongue of carrot. A port reduction looked as if it had been applied with a ruler. The compilation tasted (and looked) symmetrical. In fact a feature of the meal, from attention to portion size and timing was well-judged balance.
A raviolo choc-full of fleshy lobster, tangy langoustine and supple, velvety salmon was crested with tomato chutney formed into a membrillo like paste. This was jabbed by a dried basil leaf. Moisture removed, the flavour of the leaf was made more poignant.
Every time we left a breadcrumb on the linen, a silver comb landed to cleanse our tablecloth.
A fillet of bright tasting Turbot was finely flavoured with a joyously luxuriously, supple texture. Tracing paper of black truffle nudged a soft spun linguine bale bathing within a musky, cep velouté. The Maitre’d reeled off a little history lesson – this dish has been aboard the menu since Ramsay left Aubergine in ‘98. Its indefatigability is not simply attributable to nostalgia, however. As Martial said ‘however great the dish that holds the turbot, the turbot is still greater than the dish…’
I headed for the loos only to have a member of staff dive in front of me to open the padded door. Rather Walter Raleigh. Soon after, my father tried to outwit them, choosing a rare moment where there were fewer staff to hand. The home team still won, however. “One day I’ll get there before you do,” my father warned. Incidentally, I noted a little message carved by the flush. It read ‘Sir G.R. woz ere’.
The road forked for the following course. My tender roast pigeon from chicken capital, Bresse came with a crispy sandwich of grilled polenta, glycerous smoked pork belly and a nutty, glossy concentrated date sauce. The overall aftertaste, a bravura of game, oozingly luxurious pork grease and very posh, lustrous gravy juices stays with me still. A robust, rested, Malbec, which sounds more like a planet than a grape came from Cahors. It added dark, earthy, absorbent tannins.
My father had a Cannon of Cornish lamb which was pinkly centred, with confit shoulder, cossetting ratatouille and a sparky thyme ‘jus’. Appealing, although I was smug in my superior selection.

The cheese cart pulled up next, wheeled in by the deputised mouse with nouse. The fact it constituted a supplementary charge left a slightly disagreeable aftertaste. My father asked whether anyone had ever requested a little of every morsel (there must be no fewer than 57 varieties hectically packed aboard). She said that a gent did once, although he backed down when she informed him that he would have to eat every last wedge. My favourite was a Corsican goat’s, which is apparently very high in protein. It was quiet on the nose, moistly textured, but firm and powerful in its brackish flavours. Bread baked specifically for cheese and a gallion of crackers marshalled, along with crisply skinned Muscat grapes.
The dessert (minor) was a witty prank: a mango and passion fruit soup, with lychee and coconut, drawn through a clear straw. Little eruptions ensued: ‘Fizz-wizz’ popping candy had been layered into the cocktail...
My father suggested that the dessert (major) should be framed. A cylinder infilled with softness: cooling, cleansing ginger mousse, very cold milk ice cream and lagoons of blackcurrant cut into – intentionally or otherwise – the shape of a cockerel.
Cutlery replaced for the final time, we were invited on a guided tour of the tight, hectic - but ordered - kitchen, where a minimum of 18 chefs cook at Michelin’s zenith. A catwalk of recessed blue lights line the floor. A little natural light percolates too. Our guide opened a wine fridge and asked which bin we would like as a souvenir (and then reneged rapidly).
On our return, we were elegantly moved to the lounge for coffee so they could freshen the dining room (we were, as usual, the final diners). Creases were steamed out of tablecloths, silver cutlery and charger plates were polished. Roses were spruced and sprayed with a little mist, beautified for the evening performance. A silver tree bore an unconventional fruit of silvered truffles. Dry ice dramatically overspilled a drum of strawberry truffles.
At only 30, Head Chef, Clare Smyth had steered us through a balanced and entertaining procession of plates. At times they were wry. It may sound sexist, but I could detect an alluring femininity in her dishes. When I eventually returned home I was told (without irony) that I looked like I had lost weight. This unequivocally serves to prove that lunching at linen is by far the best exercise...
As former bankers replace silver forks for long handled shovels – to deal with a prolonged period of gardening leave – I wholeheartedly recommend mere mortals try their luck securing a table at Restaurant Gordon Ramsay. Perhaps in time they will consider doing a higher purchase lunch? -And only then can I return...

'Gordon Ramsay' - Royal Hospital Rd., London. SW3 4HP. T. 020 7352 4441
Nearest Tube: Sloane Square
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