Restaurant Gordon Ramsay. No fireworks.
I’d not thought much about Clare Smyth MBE, until Restaurant Gordon Ramsay won the ultimate accolade in The Good Food Guide this year. Ten out of ten. Top marks. But Clare is not a well-known TV chef or cookbook writer and her light has been firmly hidden behind the Ramsay bushel.
If you’re wondering what she looks like, the menu won’t help, with its painting of Mr R, shown in the actual act of cooking. I’m not sure when he last picked up a knife in his flagship restaurant. Certainly not recently enough to justify his picture all over the menu.
I wonder about Clare and how she feels about sublimating herself to brand Gordon Ramsay. On summoning up a mental picture of Gordon, my first image is not that of a serious chef. He’s really a restaurateur these days and I can only imagine that slapping his moniker all over the restaurant appeals to a certain type of punter and I am aware that my own prejudice towards the shouty type of TV persona that Gordon personifies excludes me from that group.
But I go with an open mind, wanting it to be perfect and, on 5th November, hoping for some culinary fireworks.
I last stepped foot inside this room when it was Tante Claire (of blessed memory) in 1990. It hasn’t changed dramatically, notwithstanding the art-deco refurb. The only section with some personality is the club-style bar. The dining room is fifty shades of greige.
You know you are in a serious restaurant because there appear to be more staff than diners, but the service is unobstrusive and extremely friendly throughout.
I am here with F, winematcher extraordinaire and thus I do not have to worry about the wine or rather I do, quite a lot, as F asks me to try her choices with the various dishes and I fear that my palate will let me down and I will show myself up, but her choices are perfect and it is easy to see what goes with what and a joy to have my own personal mini wine-matching session.
We start with tiny gougères. Or rather I do, as I am early and I am leaving them in the interests of politeness. The mâitre d’ encourages me to try them. I know you are waiting for your friend, he says but they need to be eaten warm. It would be rude to ignore his recommendation. They are delicious. F arrives and I point in the direction of the gougères. I must wash my hands she says. I take the opportunity to sneak another one into my mouth then I realise that I have had the last one.
The mâitre d’ acknowledges F and from his conversation I assume that F has been here before, or has let them know that she was coming. But no. Maybe we both look like other people, because when the mâitre d’ tells me it is nice to see me again, as he hands me my coat, I wonder who he thinks I am.
I choose the £95 fixed price menu, as I wish to compare it to my recent meal at Maison Troisgros, a three Michelin star restaurant in Roanne, France. I am interested in that whole Michelin debate about whether the classifications are “country-specific” and I’ll be writing about that in a separate piece. Spoiler: yes, I believe that they are.
F orders the prix-fixe lunch menu at £55.
A glass jar arrives, with a sealed lid, smoke swirling around in it. It’s a smoky grilled piece of chicken, nestling amongst pine fronds and with raw almonds underneath. I see little point in the almonds. They haven’t picked up any discernible flavour and seem unnecessary . A lot of visual excitement and not much more.
Then an egg with creamy potato and egg filling with a piece of wild truffle on top. This was delicate and tasty but lacked the oomph of the not-dissimilar Dabbous version.
My starter was beetroot and smoked goat’s curd. A baking dish was brought to the table carrying what looked like a large crusty bread roll. Salt-baked, the beetroot was decanted from the crust and laid out on a dish for inspection before being whisked away to be sliced and decorated. It was a long fat dark beetroot. A whopper. Again, the theatrical presentation. A day later and I’m struggling to remember anything other than fairly plain beetroot, some goats cheese, a few crackers and some onion-based relish on the beetroot itself. I do not remember the grapefruit thyme or hazelnuts which I now see, looking at the menu. It looked gorgeous, but nothing in the dish gave me pause or stopped me from speaking, which is always the test. F’s pumpkin agnolloti in pumpkin juice was far more successful.
And again with the tableside demonstration, this for my next course, turbot with seaweed, wild chervil, sea beet and palourde clams. Like superior boil-in-the-bag, gathered at the top, a clear plastic bag was cut open, so we could get a hit of the sea, as the vapours wafted over the table.
It looked like a decent tranche of fish in its watery bath, which is why I was so surprised at the two very modest fingers of turbot which arrived on the plate, with some slightly charred greenery for accompaniment. I was waiting for the rest of the dish for a short while before I realised there was nothing else. And the clams were hardly noticeable. I use the dread word bland. Nothing jumped out. Nothing other than the bits of charring on the vegetables had an interesting flavour. The fish was perfectly cooked and beautiful but this was not exceptional or generous or inventive. I was surprised.
They did ask a number of times if everything was okay and perhaps I might have said some thing but what does one say? There was no fault at all in the execution of the dish indeed it was almost perfect (although I wasn’t sure that the charring quite worked) but how do you say to the maître d’ that the dish is just dull?
Again F was the main course winner with the roast rabbit loin and Bayonne ham, salt baked turnips, toasted hazelnut and pickled mustard seed. Flavours in that dish packed the necessary punch and it felt like proper value for money, albeit F felt that the sauce was a little over-salted. Which she did mention.
Before the dessert, we were given a pestle and mortar with frozen leaves, which we were to crush before dipping a sorbet into them. They do like a little table action.
To finish, carrot cake with mead, bee pollen sweet cicely and cream cheese ice-cream. I’d have preferred a slice of traditional carrot cake, said F and I was thinking just that. A very slim rectangle of cake with wafers dotted above and three blobs of ice cream this was, again, not a dish which made me go mmmm. And if you think I am not a person capable of mmmm, I am still remembering the pistachio dim sum dessert from Troisgros; just the memory of which is enough to make me want to book a flight back to Lyon and brave the hell that is the Périferique.
There were no fireworks at Restaurant Gordon Ramsay, there were not even sparklers, despite all the tableside entertainment and the nod to modish ingredients. What seemed to be missing was some drama in the food, a little adventurousness, something to remember. Like the room, the food is elegant and safe. Stick to the set menu if you want value for money. At £95 I felt a little let down. Less a firework, more a damp squib.