Gordon Ramsay at the London

Everyone loves to hate Gordon Ramsay. I may actually be biased as a reviewer by not being biased: I have never seen his reality shows Hell's Kitchen or The F Word, where his profanity-laden hissy fits earned him a lot of detractors. There's the rub of food television: When viewers love you, you're Molto Mario, when they don't, you're Rocco.

My chef friend and I entered the restaurant the day after Bruni's two-star dis in the Times with a certain amount of trepidation. Was Gordon Ramsay really that bad? At first glance, the restaurant seemed worthy of three stars. The pearl gray dining room, ringed with frosted glass paneling, has a shrine-like feel, so much so that my friend mimicked angels singing as we sat down. As the meal progressed, we respectfully disagreed with reviewers Bruni, Platt, and Richman. Gordon Ramsay at the London isn't boring. It's just British.

If you've ever been to the Gordon Ramsay restaurant at Claridge's in London, where I went many a year ago, you'll recognize the muted palette of the room, the French-inspired service and food, the hush, the lack of anything that might distract from the food on your plate. These are all signature Ramsay-isms. Love him or hate him, he is a brand, and a very London one at that. Gordon Ramsay's New York outpost is posh. All sorts of displays are wheeled about: a huge silver punch bowl filled with bottles of champagne offered as an apertif, a comprehensive cheese tray, a petit-four cart bedecked with cakes and candies in glass jars. In a quirk that also seemed particularly British, there is an almost fetishistic attention to the massive array of sterling silver steak knives, forks, fish knives, fish spoons, teaspoons, and demitasse spoons, all of which are rotated in and out in a constant blur of service.

A three-star place doesn't make you pick and pay for amuse bouche, and neither does Gordon Ramsay. The meal began with toasts and spreads - a velvety chicken liver paté, sweet and savory in one bite, and a more sophisticated version of bacalao in which the cod was mixed with leeks. We asked for more toasts for the paté. "I couldn't make this at home," I said. My chef friend said, "Maybe. But it would take a week." We were very pleased to be served the BLT-esque parfaits that even Bruni liked. A delicate tomato coulis made up the bottom layer, then a layer of celery root, then potently smoky bacon topped it off.

My chef friend, the more adventurous diner of the two of us, ordered the veal sweetbreads. They arrived lightly battered and fried, set on beets and stewed cabbage and dressed with a wonderful Cabernet reduction at the table. "Tastes like chicken. Really good chicken," I said. "And it doesn't look like a brain on a plate," she said, which has not always been the case at other restaurants. Lobster ravioli was our one foray into the fish realm of the menu, which disappointed other reviewers at least in entree form. The lobster appetizer was anything but: The one large ravioli (doesn't that make it a "raviolo"?) was stuffed to bursting with lobster sauteed in butter and served with a celery root cream. It hit just the right notes of decadence and lightness, and Gosset champagne complemented it perfectly.

A palate-cleansing, inventive amuse bouche of pineapple granache garnished with crystallized cilantro arrived, and I couldn't help but be reminded of Marcel Vigneron on Top Chef. Presumably it was his attitude, not his penchant for molecular gastronomy, that landed him in the hospital after an angry fan accosted him at a nightclub and smashed him in the forehead with a bottle. I have seen that reality food show, and if Marcel cooked me a meal, I would be inclined to dislike it. But Marcel didn't prepare this crystallized cilantro garnish, so I didn't mind it at all.

The main courses are served and dressed with a small amount of sauce tableside. For my chef friend, the venison in a chocolate sauce, for me, the lamb with marjoram sauce, since, as I've mentioned here before, lamb is the new short ribs. This was a cut I haven't encountered before, a "cannon" of lamb," which our waitress explains is the rack without the bones, the best part of the filet. (The filet of the filet?) It would be a perfectly delicious cut of meat on its own, but the Mediterranean and Indian touches of eggplant spiced with cumin and marjoram sauce take it out of the realm of the purely French. With it I had a glass of the excellent 2000 tempranillo from La Rioja Alta, Viña Alberdi. Unlike Bruni, we did not find the chocolate sauce on the venison overwhelming; it was smoky and spicy, a proper mole. But the Times review had landed more than 24 hours before. Had Ramsay already changed the recipe?

I went a little crazy with the cheese cart when it arrived, ordering five different sorts of cheeses, many of which I'd never heard of before. The Swiss Vacherin was so creamy it was nearly liquid and came served in a little bowl (with a little silver demitasse spoon, of course). This and a Corsican Brindamour (a.k.a. Fleur du Maquis) were fantastic. We also had a fabulous apricot souffle, whose sweetness was offset by the crunchy roasted pralines speckled throughout. Its fluffy top was permeated by a large dollop of ice cream, an act performed tableside with much aplomb, of course. Then, candy and cookies, and more candy and cookies. The restaurant's unabashed sweet tooth also seemed to me quintessentially British; Nigella Lawson didn't rise to fame licking foie gras off a spoon, after all.

So what's the problem? We saw Gordon Ramsay's glass as half full, not half empty. I would have given him three stars. And I don't think it's any coincidence that the only glowing review I read was also penned by a woman, Moira Hodgson of the New York Observer - Ramsay relies on charming the diner with subtlety and sophistication. Leaving the shrine, I was reminded of the Robert Parker quandary. Which came first: Parker's taste for wines that punch you in the face, or the typical American gourmet's taste for wines that punch you in the face? Will it ever be OK again to say you'd like a nice, light, crisp white without cringing with embarrassment? In cuisine, what's wrong with tradition minus the over-the-top flourishes? It's as if everyone, chefs and reviewers alike, wants to be contrarian by deviating from the expected, but it's difficult to do so when the expected is itself contrarian.

But Gordon Ramsay could have told you that.

Gordon Ramsay at the London
151 West 54th Street


Neal said...

I enjoyed reading your review.

Anonymous said...

I, too, enjoyed reading your review. Perhaps more than Neal.