As exciting as a guy hitting a homerun in the late innings to cinch a victory is, my favorite version of the American pastime is the few and far between games when every player on both teams plays every out expertly executing the fundamentals. Dining at the Chef’s table at Restaurant Gordon Ramsay is that kind of exhilarating.
At the East end of Chef Ramsay’s rather expansive and beautiful kitchen, set in a recessed compartment, raised two steps, is a sleek black stone table flanked on three sides by a plush leather banquette and white privacy glass making the perfect vantage for six diners to observe the brigade of chefs at the pass, meticulously assembling food for them and the forty-five or so patrons in the dining room.
Helmet, Misspooz, and I arrived about half an hour ahead of Pichon, Tourelles, and Ringwald and were sat in the London bar to wait with some complimentary champagne, toasts and spreads. The champagne was ’98 Dom Perignon, the toast was thin rounds of an airy baguette, and the spreads were chicken liver and foie mousse topped with Sauternes gellée and truffled cream cheese. In this bit of service lay the metaphor for the evening.
The London bar was largely populated by some kind of corporate party of people milling about with cocktails and enjoying passed hors d’oeuvres. In the middle of this crowd of folks enjoying being at a hot spot and reveling in each other and the Christmas season, a little oasis was provided us with our own server, sommelier, and some of the quintessential provisions of fineness. As they do Ramsay as a chef, I know some people enjoy poo-pooing Dom Perignon as a brand rather than a great wine. At times I have been one of them (towards the wine not the chef, him I had little knowledge of before a month ago), but experience shows that when treated with sober reflection and contemplation of the product’s merits, it is usually revealed to be consistently estimable even to the naysayer.
When this type of product is supported by others of high quality, the sublime becomes possible, and just as the truffle aroma infused cream and the rich liver spread drew complexity from the champagne, the talented staff, exemplary execution, fine product, and attention to detail drew enthusiasm from us, making for an exquisite experience unlike many I have had.
When Pichon, Tourelles, and Ringwald arrived they joined us at our banquette, adrift in the sea of travel agents or whatever they were, to finish off our bottle of champagne. Two more classic accompaniments were provided at this point as well: parmesan cheese crisps with sliced black truffle, and a plate of cured pig. The crisps were pleasant, but the cooking process magnified the cheese’s inherent saltiness, overshadowing whatever the truffles would have brought. The charcuterie consisted of a coppa, which was also a little overpowered by salt, and fine examples of sopressata and prosciutto.
With the champers and snacks plundered, we were led through the London bar and the main dining room, down a hall with a wine wall and up the two-steps to the dais from which we would survey and dine. It all started with a discussion of allergies, avoidances, and wine. For wine we simply asked that sense and decorum be used in an attempt to provide the most enjoyable pairings, for food, well you read the blog, you know this crowd eats any and everything, so it all went a little something like this:
Marinated beetroot with goat and ricotta cheese and toasted pinenuts: the beets’ earthy sweetness, the lightly lactic zing of the chevre, the toasty aromas of the nuts, came together with the astringency of micro greens and beet syrup in what should have been a small, two bite amuse that I tried to extend to four and ended up making a beautiful, pink messy amalgam of crunchy slices of beet, soft cheese, and the waxy bite of the nuts.
Red mullet with fennel, pink grapefruit and fresh herb vinaigrette: the crunch of the seared side of this fillet and the flavors drawn out from such intense heating would probably have allowed it to stand alone impressively. Instead, aspects of its accoutrements happily drew attention to different parts of this tidy whole: the bits of pink grapefruit popping with acidity, accenting the richness of the sub-skin fat; the raw olive oil warmed by the fillet’s heat providing warm tomato leaf notes to the tender flesh. Each of the individual herbs in the vinaigrette showing strongly in separate bites, combined with the bitter accent of citrus zest pervasive in the dish and made more dramatic by a pairing with Rudi Pichler, Weissenkirchner Achleithan, Riesling, Austria, 2005, made for perfection in this little fillet.
Ballotine of hamhock and foie gras with granny smith and cider vinaigrette: no matter how they are prepared pig’s trotters are rich unlike anything else. My sense here is that these were cured and reconstituted because they have all the meaty richness of a pig’s joint without the oleaginous cartilage that usually goes hand in hand with ham hock preparations. Studding the dry richness of the ballotine were flavors of cornichons, capers, and foie, in supporting roles never overpowering the salty pork bits the dish was about. Dressing (also in accent roles) were thin slices of green apple under and a salad of herbs over. Château Suiduiraut, “S” de Suiduiraut, Bordeaux Superioré, France, 2004 provided rich stone fruit and melon flavors as well as muted acidity to the course.
Seared hand dived scallops, with cauliflower and golden-raisin purée, cauliflower beignets: I think the proper name for this cut would be a steak. The scallop was cut vertically and seared on its sides. Years of being served scallops cut medially led me to expect this was the case here, so it was only after the third bite that I realized I was cutting cross grain and if I simply shifted my line of attack 45º the texture would change from sinewy to pleasingly plump and dense. Accompanying the scallop were cauliflower florets fried in a tempura-like crust, a mélange of cracked peppers, and a thick caramel with deep raisin sweetness which played as well with the Domaine Skouras’ Moscofilero’s, Peleponese Islands, Greece, 2005, spicy, rich, structure as the did the scallops.
Roasted foie gras with caramelised hazelnuts, with pear purée with champagne and honey vinaigrette: recently I have been preferring the creamy richness of slow-roasted foie over the scorched exterior/fatty inside textural results of intense fast heat. This doesn’t change the fact that the fast heat method is still the classic preparation and therefore fit in this meal well. Crunchy filberts’ roasted sweetness presented a stark contrast, while adding another layer of richness. The notes of the pear purée were pretty successfully swooped into the flavors of a cocktail paired to this dish, Chapel Down, Sparkling wine, Kent, England, Rosé, N.V. with pear liqueur, cubed pear and apple crisps, a heady libation layering constituent flavors of the dish, which traded some of the booziness of the liqueur with the fattiness of the foie to keep this from being a crippling course.
Turbot with red and yellow pepper confit with chorizo, topped with calamari, scallops and bacon, with artichokes: the fish and the accompanying fine dice of textures would have been light enough to disappear were it not for the perfect cask and paprika vinegary notes of the fleshy pile of peppers they rested on. Nora de Neve, Rias Biaxas, Spain, 2004, Albariño, with far more body than any Albariño I have yet had, walked the middle line hand in hand with bacon and bits of nut to tie the lightness of the sea to the lightness of the Spanish kitchen.
The truth is, four out of five food preparations in the world of fine dining are actually better suited to white wines than red and if you ask a good sommelier to just pair as well as can be done you will end up with a lot more white than red. Sure you can do red, and the same good sommelier will always find a red to go with just about anything other than oysters, but if you want the best pairing you will end up white heavy. Therefore, late in a meal about subtlety, nuance, and layered flavors, there can be genius in the simplicity of a classic red course. Roasted Château Briand, celeriac purée and roasted root vegetables: sooner or later if you are sitting down in a British man’s French restaurant, simple pleasure can be found in well roasted beef, traditional fixings, and a good bottle of Claret. This straightforward dish was carved tableside and accompanied perfectly by Château Gloria, St. Julien, Bordeaux, 2000.
Vacherin Mont D’or cheese with salad and walnut bread: warmed under a Salamander in its wood and served tableside, scooped into tiny bowls, it played more to a lighter home ammonia side of the funk rather than a barnyard one. This was a ripe, pungent round that probably was as funky as decorum lets be served in a fine restaurant, with buttery leather and wood notes making it well suited to a slightly sweet, perfectly acidic A. Margine, Tradittionalle, Brut, Premier Cru, Demi-sec, Champagne, France.
While I enjoyed a second and third serving of the cheese the table had:
Palet D’or and Gin Gelée and passion fruit cream: I tasted this one and found the stiffness of the jellies pleasing, as was the not cloying Cuvée Beerenauslese, Kracher, Austria, 2005 which tied up our wine parings beautifully.
Having now dined at Ramsay at the London twice, I found some similarities between the first night in the dining room and this night in the kitchen. Both times I was very impressed by technique, quality, value, and excellence of service. The big difference between opening night and week three can only be described as soul. The first time felt like the motivation was survival, whereas this time it seemed to be as simple and noble as the quest for perfection.
The line in classic French cuisine between good and exceptional is perfect execution, and often even the most discerning diner will forgive lackluster and at times even poor performance because perfection cannot be an every time thing. Which makes the times when everything hits exactly right remarkable. Even though both my meals at Gordon Ramsay at the London have felt like absolute bargains in comparison to their competition as I have experienced it around the city and the world, the price still falls in the realm of luxury dining and I forgive little until trust has been built. This was an exquisite meal and, taken in concert with my first foray, the restaurant has definitely impressed me.
Hawthorne effect in full swing, The chef’s Table at Restaurant Gordon Ramsay shines under a watchful eye. Symbiosis exists between a staff being considered and those observers offered intimate proximity from which to study. Chef’s tables by nature exist on a different plane than even the tables in the dining room of the same restaurant. That being said, no phenomenon can make bad food taste good or poor parings synergistic.
Was my opinion affected by having the opportunity to watch the kitchen perform, and to involve myself with the people striving to make the best possible meal that can be had? Of course it was. Substituting in the role of front waiter was executive chef Neil Ferguson who presented, explained, and served each of these courses. The wine pairings were selected and served by wine director Gregory Condes. Thoughts and choices were explained and discussed in a pleasant, unhurried manner by both gentlemen without a pushed sense of agenda. The food was remarkable, the juice was an extension of the perfection. Even a devotee of the new and exciting has to admit that there is clearly a reason someone in this day and age would strive for classical excellence; in a word, when done correctly, it is exquisite.