review: pro forma…
I’m sure I didn’t wake up at 3 a.m. to secure a restaurant reservation only to subject myself to three plus hours of boredom at a levy of 120£. That was my fear.
Thankfully, I was spared that fate.
But to claim that my dinner at Restaurant Gordon Ramsay at Royal Hospital Road was anything more than flawless wouldn’t be accurate.
Maybe it was my wonderful dinner mates, whose engaging personalities and shared sensibilities and passion for food sucked the energy and life out of everything around us. (Ironic, isn’t it?)
Or, maybe it was the service, which was so seamless that even I had a hard time grasping space and time beyond our table.
But that brings me back to my dinner mates and our engrossing conversation. Our table really was a black hole – entirely unto itself – that night.
Or, maybe it was just simply the food, all of which was perfectly executed but, for the most part, not terribly moving or memorable.
Am I damning with faint praise?
If you expect Ramsay’s Royal Hospital Road to be painting new gastronomic horizons, then I suppose I am.
But if you, like me, wouldn’t expect much beyond confident, contemporary Continental cooking, then you’ll understand that I’ve only confirmed our suspicions.
Though ordering à la carte seemed like much more of an interesting proposition, the Menu Prestige – the restaurant’s 7-course tasting menu – was, in the end, a more sensible introduction to Ramsay’s repertoire (I’m cringing even as I type that statement).
Thankfully, the kitchen indulged our requests for a few substitutions so that the experience for two of my (patient and understanding) fellow diners, who had been to Ramsay before, wouldn’t be too repetitive.
Here is what we had (click on each link for the photo, or CLICK HERE to view the entire photo set from this meal):
Cream Cheese Tortellini
Black truffle, root vegetable salad, and pumpkin velouté
Sauteed Foie Gras
Cabernet Sauvignon vinegar and almond velouté
Slow Braised Pied de Cochon
Pressed then pan-fried with ham knuckle and black pudding
Poached quail egg and hollandaise sauce on a mini muffin with ham
Ravioli of Lobster, Langoustine, and Salmon
With lobster chutney, vinaigrette
Filet of Turbot
Braised baby gem lettuce, leeks, and cep sauce
With steamed charlotte potatoes, cucumber, oyster beignet and caviar velouté
Cannon of Cornish Lamb
Confit shoulder, ratatouille, and thyme jus.
Roasted Pigeon from Bresse
Grilled polenta, smoked pork belly, and date sauce
Lemon and raspberry sorbet
Bitter Chocolate and Hazelnut Cylinder
Ginger mousse and milk ice cream
Nothing is ever as big in real life as it is in one’s imagination is it?
RGR at RHR is tiny.
Of course, I knew this, given that I had to fight for one of its 14 coveted tables.
Beyond the dining room, there really isn’t much more. I’m not even sure you can sit at their “bar,” if you can call it that. My wet bar at home is larger (though not nearly as well-stocked, I’m sure). There is a small lounge area, but it’s more like a landing pad at the end of the long runway leading from the front door rather than any sort of inviting or comfortable space.
The interior’s been redone, recently, I was told. From all who have had the opportunity to make the comparison, the new dining room is a vast improvement.
There’s something retro about it. The predominant color is off-white. There are bauble-borne fixtures. There are floor-to-ceiling mirrors. Shiny black trims the whole. It’s sleek. It’s sexy.
I leaned over to one of my fellow dinner mates and whispered, “Barbarella goes Las Vegas.”
One of the best bites of the evening was my very first – a “cornetto” piped full of avocado mousse and topped with creamy lobster salad and confit tomatoes.
This prompts me to draw the first of a few comparisons between Ramsay’s food and Thomas Keller’s. In a battle of the (Michelin) 3-star cones, I prefer Ramsay’s. I can’t really articulate a reason. It’s not that I liked the combination of avocado and lobster more than salmon and crème fraîche, but I thought this pre-dinner nibble had a fuller, more interesting flavor profile. It was more exciting and more successful at whetting my appetite.
And one of the best bites I had was my very last: a comforting and gently-spiced mincemeat tartlet in a buttery shell chased with a heady hit of egg nog. I’ll admit, for an American in London during Christmastime, this was more emotionally gratifying than anything else. I’m sure the average Brit would roll over and snore.
Book-ended by these two highlights was the middle, a parade of plates that were miles from middling yet far from fabulous.
Sure, there were flashes of brilliance; a bite here: the quail egg Benedict that came on my first course; a nibble there: a fat porcini mushroom paired with a rich, creamy “cep” sauce; and a sip towards the end: a clean and clear shot of green apple juice on the pre-dessert.
But there wasn’t one dish I had that stood far above or below the rest.
And, that’s not such a bad thing. Everything was consistent and very good, which is more than I can say for many meals I’ve had at this level.
Keller’s is more like a chip in a dip (it’s stuck in a truffled egg custard). Ramsay’s is more like dip in a chip: the two transparent wafers were adhered to one another with a creamy spread streaked with pistou. Ramsay’s version was more successful for two plain and simple reasons: (1) the filling didn’t make the chips go soggy, as did Keller’s custard and (2) Ramsay’s chips were actually crisp and edible, as opposed to Keller’s fused “window pane” chip, which was hard and leathery.
The formal amuse bouche, cream cheese tortellini, was a rather substantial one. The pyramid of pasta filled with cream cheese stood on a bed of finely diced “root vegetables.” A warm pumpkin velouté was poured around it. I’m not exactly sure where the black truffles were in this dish, but its fragrance (which smelled a little too strong to be black truffles alone) was pronounced. The velvety velouté was so comforting and enjoyable on its own that I’m not sure the pasta brought much to the table, both literally and figuratively; it was a bit superfluous in my opinion.
Before ordering, we were presented with the last of the house white truffles of the season, two golf ball-sized clods nestled in Arborio rice. For a wee upcharge, these would be shaved over a risotto of some sort. I wasn’t really paying attention; I lost interest when I failed to smell much when the lacquered box was passed my way.
Collectively, we waved them off.
I was a little surprised how Fransche the staff here was. I would have expected Ramsay, of all chefs, to have ye olde club of English boys in service. And, what with Ramsay’s on-air persona, I half expected to be manhandled by a surly crew of cold-shouldered pr*cks (pardon my Fransche).
Though there was a noticeable absence of female servers, we weren’t mandhandled in the least. In fact, the service at RGR at RHR was unexpectedly good. (Perhaps, this is an opportune time to disclose that one of my dining companions was a rather well-known and regarded culinary figure in the British community. But I didn’t get the sense that his presence [if it was discovered] affected our service in any way.)
He, the culinarian among us, confidently selected two wines for the evening, both for taste and for value (which, for these two bottles, was incredible). We started with an Alain Brumont Sauvignon Blanc, an Ugni blend from 2006.
Arriving with our fish courses was Domaine Sylvain Cathiard Bourgogne 2005, which went unexpectedly and especially well with the cep sauce that came with my turbot.
How could I say no when our captain proposed “Slow Braised Pied de Cochon” as a swap-out for the first course on the Menu Prestige?
The rest of my table had no problem taking Sautéed Foie Gras. Ringed with Cabernet Sauvignon vinegar and sauced with almond velouté at the table, everyone seemed pleased. If nothing else, it was a beautiful presentation. The cut of foie gras sat under a crispy potato lattice on a bright swatch of carrot purée.
And this brings up another point about Ramsay’s food: the plating at RGR at RHR tends to be gorgeous. His aesthetic is simple and makes good use of color and symmetry. He even makes black pudding look good.
My foie gras substitute, an elegant English breakfast for dinner, is a great example. The headliner was an eye-catching cross-section of terrine with layers of slow braised pied de cochon and black pudding. The banded block was set on alternating stripes of two different sauces.
The terrine had a very clean flavor, which, I know, made it particularly good black pudding. But I order bloody things for bloody reasons and this black pudding was a bit too tame for me. Together, the terrine tasted like very fine hash – porcine, a bit salty (perhaps not enough), and immensely comforting. Good though it was, this was handily upstaged by the accompanying mini egg Benedict, a flavorful and familiar tower involving a poached quail egg smothered with creamy Hollandaise atop smoked ham and a “muffin.”
If someone knows why the “Ravioli of Lobster, Langoustine, and Salmon” is one of Ramsay’s signature dishes, please do give me a ring. I can’t figure out what is particularly great about it. I mean, it’s perfectly cooked. It’s perfectly seasoned. The filling manages not to be dry or overdone, despite the fact that there are two particularly cranky shellfish involved. And the pasta is not bad either.
Is that it?
To be fair, whereas so many ravioli rely on sauces and soups to tow the line, this plump fellow managed to carry its own show. Garnished with only a dollop of tomato chutney and a spiral line of “vinaigrette,” Ramsay’s raviolo was its own wellspring of flavor and moisture. I suppose that if I could orchestrate and demonstrate such technical proficiency in a raviolo, I’d be pretty proud of my product too.
Still, it remains a bit hazy in my memory.
So does the “Pigeon de Bresse,” which the gentlemen at our table ordered. I’m sure I would remember if the bird (thigh and, I think, a slice of breast) was overcooked or disappointing in the slightest way. It wasn’t. But this dish, more than any other, failed to give me a reason to remember it.
Everything about the dish sounded wonderful: grilled polenta, smoked pork belly, and – especially – date sauce. Sadly, none of it popped. The smoked pork belly and the slivers of dates, arguably the two smallest items on the plate, made the biggest impact; two spots of sunshine on the plate.
The lady chose the better meat dish, “Cannon of Cornish Lamb.” And maybe this was fitting, given that this was the lovelier of the two meat dishes; it had more personality.
I didn’t take this dish due to a food allergy. But realizing now that there was very little eggplant in the accompanying ratatouille, I could easily have avoided the offending ingredient. The sliced rib loin reclined on a strip of confit shoulder meat and greens. It came with a delicate thyme jus, which really turned this dish a deeper shade of elegant.
Our preceding fish courses were just as lovely as the lamb. My “Filet of Turbot,” was perfectly done; the flesh was a just how I like it – a bit on the softer side. But it was the accompanying “cep sauce” which breathed life into this otherwise mundane dish. Spooned table-side (one tendril of black trumpet and one fat, halved porcini per plate), it was full, beefy, and rounded out by a mild sweetness. The sauce married particularly well with the red wine I mentioned above.
One of us asked for the “Sea Bream” instead of the turbot. This piece of fish came with the skin on, which was a nice, crispy shade of golden.
I only got a small bite of the bream, but like my turbot, I thought that sauce – here, a milky caviar velouté – really gave this dish a boost. Because this a la carte item was pared down for the tasting format, it lost what was potentially its star item: an oyster beignet. The waxy potato coins and bright greens that did appear seemed like a nice accompaniment.
Pacing throughout was very good. It was perfect, actually. Though, again, all sense of time escaped me.
The dining room had filled up quite nicely over the course of our four-hour meal. The room seemed dominated by serious-looking suits backed by expense accounts.
Cheese or pre-dessert? Normally, that wouldn’t be such a hard question to answer, especially in Europe.
There was a round of Mont d’Or, the cream of the Gods, which is verboten in the U.S., pooling unto itself, not to mention a nice selection otherwise.
But I reminded myself that I was headed to France where much (better) cheese could and would to be had. Ramsay doesn’t make the cheese. He just buys and serves it.
All the same, one in our party partook of the cart and shared with the table. It was all very good – especially the Mont d’Or, which was in its prime. Ramsay’s cheese service is also notable for its generous outlay of biscuits and breads.
I stayed with the Pre-Dessert.
Putting prunes and Armagnac into a crème brulée is just about the only way you’re going to trick me into choosing this otherwise vapid dessert. Crème brulée, and all its various potted and bath-baked cousins, generally bore me. This version really didn’t impress me either.
It was expertly executed – a perfect balance of sweetness between crust and cream. But neither prune nor Armagnac was discernible. The best thing about it was the paper-thin sheet of dehydrated apple, a crisp delight, garnishing the little bowl.
Actually, the best thing about the pre-dessert was the green apple chaser that came with it. The clear liquid, with a frothy, green head, was like a concentrated bushel of Granny Smiths. And, indeed, I suspect that’s all it was – distilled green apple juice. The meal could have ended here.
I’m sure they could have offered a more creative alternative to the “Mango and Passion Fruit Soup,” which I couldn’t have due to a (pesky) food allergy.
But the lemon and raspberry sorbets that I received instead were good, if not also beautifully presented with a star (cross-cut sheet of star fruit) and crescent (dehydrated sheet of pineapple).
The mango and passion fruit soup, which was a smoothie, was served in a narrow V-shaped glass perfect for showing off the colourful layers (anchored with lychee and topped with coconut). By all accounts, it was refreshing, with an ambush of “space dust” (“pop rocks”) at the bottom.
I must admit that I glossed over the final dessert when I reviewed the the menu. I saw the word “chocolate” and I ignored it, dismissing it as yet another toss at the obvious.
What arrived, however, was an unexpectedly lovely (not to mention drop dead gorgeous) creation. What made the Bittersweet Chocolate Hazelnut Cylinder so great wasn’t the chocolate or the hazelnut, both, by the way, which were impressively distinct in flavor. It was the ginger mousse, more froth than fluff, which had the most alluring effect on everything it touched, including the milk ice cream, which was lovely in itself. Together, it tied the meal up quite wonderfully.
As I mentioned on my “best of 2008, the restaurant edition” list, RGR at RHR’s afterglow is bright and sweet. It included a tree sprouting milk chocolate truffles; a tray of rose water-scented Turkish delight, soft as talcum and served cold; and a phosphoresching bowl of white chocolate truffles filled with strawberry ice cream.
This was all capped off by a festive Christmastime plate of those mincemeat tartlets and an accompanying shot of warm, naughty eggnog I mentioned above. If nothing preceding these last two tastes had satisfied, Ramsay made sure to end it all on a strong note.
In getting to the heart of the matter, a dear British friend of mine asks in summary of a meal: “Was there any there, there?”
Nope. Not here.
The food was flawless. The overall arc of the tasting meal was nicely pitched, if not a bit pro forma. The service was attentive and, indeed, impressive. The hospitality and generosity were great. There wasn’t a single disappointment.
But there wasn’t any soul, either.
Does membership in the highest Michelin constellation require soulfulness?
I’m not sure that it does. RGR at RHR certainly isn’t the first soulless Michelin three-starred restaurant I’ve visited.
Could RGR at RHR be London’s per se? (Or, per se be New York’s RGR at RHR?)*
Maybe RGR at RHR (and other three-stars like it) is a three-star of a different stripe, one who’s greatest achievement is its ability – and, perhaps even more significantly, its willingness – to function as nothing more than a classy, seamless, and tasty backdrop when the occasion calls for it. This occasion did, and Ramsay made it work.
For all of his bluster and bother, Ramsay’s ego manages to stay guardedly out of the dining room and the food. There are few chefs who are confident enough to understand and practice this.
There’s something to be said for a sure-footed and high-caliber meal without misstep or risk. But the trade-offs are, all too often, adventure, the hope for discovery, and the wonderment that keeps people like me sitting on the edge of that next reservation.
RGR at RHR was worth the price of admission. But I, for one, need more emotion from a dining experience.
Restaurant Gordon Ramsay at Royal Hospital Road
68 Royal Hospital Road
* Currently, RGR at RHR is London’s only Michelin three-starred restaurant and one of only three of its kind in the U.K.
To read about the other meals I had on this trip abroad, CLICK HERE.