Friday, November 24, 2006

Knives Out: Gordon Ramsay at The London

By Nicholas Allanach

I admit it, I’m no Frank Bruni; in fact, I'm a horrible cook and am only useful in the kitchen when washing dishes (a weakness I'm in the process of correcting). Needless to say, I love fine-dining and am a huge fan of Gordon Ramsay. Admittedly, I probably admire the man more for his shrewd and unforgiving management style than his food. But who cares? Besides, as I already mentioned, I’m pretty ignorant when it comes to food. Nevertheless, when my friend invited me out for lunch last Sunday to eat at Gordon Ramsay's newest (and perhaps most ambitious) venture, Gordon Ramsay at The London, I couldn't resist.

Many of us are already familiar with Chef Ramsay's relentless pursuit for perfection. Likely this image does not come from having the opportunity to eat at any of his nine restaurants, but because of Ramsay’s celebrity stature as the host of three reality television shows. Although some critics (such as fellow kitchen bad boy Anthony Bourdain) have cautioned that Ramsay's star power could potentially deter New York’s foodie elite from frequenting Gordon Ramsay. Bourdain writes, “Mostly liberal, moneyed New Yorkers, who like to think of themselves as world-weary, cynical and sophisticated, might not take a shine to a chef known mostly for appearing on a reality show.” Of course, for all the “moneyed” New Yorkers who won’t go to Gordon Ramsay their seats will likely be taken by those who’ll welcome the surprisingly affordable menu (in comparison to Ramsay’s pricier neighbors).

When dining at Gordon Ramsay, diners will have a choice of either sitting in the casual hip bar that offers small plate fare and seating for 70 or the more formal, and intimate, dining room with seating for 45. For larger events, Gordon Ramsay at The London will offer three private dining rooms for special event functions. Guests at The London Hotel will also be able to enjoy en-suite dining. Obviously, logistics alone (not to mention ruthless food critics) are shaping this project up to be a mammoth undertaking for Gordon Ramsay and his chef de cuisine Neil Ferguson (who has been with chef Ramsay since “the hard arse days” at Aubergine). Of course, the notoriously competitive Ramsay doesn’t seem to be too intimidated by the odds stacked against him. As he claims in a recent online interview, “I’m used to pressure, I’m useless without it.”

When I dined at Gordon Ramsay I did not see any of this pressure; of course, why would the diners see any back of the house intensity? We sat in the formal dining area which is (unfortunately) rather tacky and gave me the impression of sitting in one of the quickly thrown together dining room sets often seen on Ramsay’s "Hell’s Kitchen" television show on Fox. Of course, it’s obvious Ramsay is more concerned with his food and service then setting; however, there is nothing epic or intriguing about the overall layout. Even the staff in many ways bears the signature Ramsay look (as if they too just stepped from out of the television screen), the host was a young French man (of course) with slicked-back hair. The waiters and waitresses were all smartly dressed with tightly fitting suits and ties. There was even the inevitable “cow” (this time an overweight offish looking food runner, who Ramsay himself at one point reprimanded for “speaking too much with the customers”). Not surprisingly, chef Ramsay himself came out and made his rounds to welcome diners to his restaurant.

I’m not even going to try and criticize the food, but will at least tell you what I had to eat and my initial impressions of the dishes. To start, the kitchen brought out a complimentary cappuccino of white beans with grated truffle, which was delicious and a perfect warm-up after coming in from a blustery afternoon. For my starter I had the fillet of trout over braised potatoes, morel casserole and horseradish velonte; again, delicious and a perfect follow-up to the cappuccino soup. For my main course I had the rump of lamb, confit treviso, spiced tomato jam and golden raisins paired with a glass of Reisling. This dish was very flavorful; the spiced tomato jam with the delectable lamb slices was a delicious combination. Finally, I had the chocolate mousse with chestnut and caramel for dessert.

Despite the bland atmosphere, my meal was seasonable and delicious; moreover, it was great to actually catch a glimpse of the man himself in action. Whether Gordon Ramsay will make back the 6.5 million dollars of his own money he invested in this venture, is anyone’s guess. Of course, chef Ramsay is also gunning for another three Michelin stars and the approval of New York’s foodie elite. All worthy battles for a man who has never shied away from competition or challenge, if tough is what it takes to make it in New York, Ramsay will succeed. Admittedly, having an affordable fine dining experience from one of the world’s premier celebrity chefs won’t hurt.

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