If you know me, you know that I enthusiastically disdain celebrities. I’ll admire smart and successful people, but I wear hero worship like Kevin Federline wears a tuxedo. That is to say, it doesn’t really fool anyone. Which is why I found myself repeatedly questioning the sheer thrill I not only felt, but constantly expressed, sitting at Gordon Ramsey at Claridge’s on Friday.
Coming to London, I looked forward to doing some of the touristy stuff if time allowed — Tower of London, Windsor, Kensington, Regent’s Park, etc. After all, it’s been 15 years since I was here. The one thing that I knew I wanted to do, though, was to treat Alison and myself to a truly great meal at one of Gordon Ramsey’s restaurants. I told her that it was the London experience that we couldn’t have somewhere else. I demanded that this be the thing she let me do for us, then calling it an early birthday present, she pulled a coup and treated me. Rascally woman.
Regarding Chef Ramsey: I’m a bit of a fan. It’s not just that I’ve seen every episode of Kitchen Nightmares six times, or that I maneuver my schedule to be able to catch his other various shows whenever they’re available in the US. I really admire him and the way he has built a culinary empire – not on the strength of some catch phrase (Emeril, that one’s for you) or dumbing down cuisine so people can do it in 15 minutes between insider trades (howdy, Martha Stewart). Ramsey is an astute businessman, a terrific leader, and loves the food with consummate skill and passion — sure, he yells, but that’s to motivate and inspire that passion in other people.
I should say, before I go further and by way of reference, that Alison has already blogged our experience so some of the most fun details are in print and I won’t address them here. Go check out Alison’s blog right now as a complement, then come back and finish mine. Certainly, Jean-Francois was every inch Martin Short; when I exclaimed “Wow!” after tasting the sea trout, he stopped dead in his tracks and turned to us. “I waz about to cheek on you,” he screamed from ten feet away. “But ‘wow’ iz ze answer I waz looking for, and it makes me zo happy!” And he did actually look that way. And he went away.
The other bit of Jean-Francois that made for great conversation was when he scolded me for scribbling notes. I was briefly, but heartily, offended when he told me that it “iz very zuzpect when someone takez notz in ze restaurant!” I pride myself on being polite and generally knowing the rules of etiquette, and I was only taking notes in my lap, so getting called out publicly and loudly for doing something gauche made me pretty hot. Alison’s theory that he didn’t like the idea of critics coming into the place unannounced placated me somewhat because that made sense, and then when she pointed out that he was running around the restaurant yelling at other guests, I announced, “Okay, I’m back to having a good time!” We actually got a good 10-15 minutes debate out of why the wait staff was in our faces, and why the volume was set on 12.
It actually came out of the writing incident that Jean-Francois offered to give us a tour of the kitchen, and we decided that if I was going to have a proper Fan Experience, of course we’d go back and meet Steve Allen. The fun part of that is that we’d decided that they have two lunch services, at 12:00 and 2:30. We were part of the first sitting and were comfortably finished with the full tasting menu at 2:20, sitting over our dessert wines. J-F appeared out of nowhere and announced that it was time for our kitchen experience, and took us back to see where the magic happened. After five or ten minutes mostly spent dodging service staff, he brought us back out … to find that our table had been cleared. They have a waiting area in the front of the restaurant and had moved our wine glasses, plus set out new desserts for us to nibble on: chocolate truffles and strawberry-banana marshmallows, made on site. Jean-Francois invited us to sit down and relax over the remainder of our wine.
“Do you think they did that just to get us off the table?” I asked.
Alison checked her watch and noted that it was right on 2:30. “Totally,” she said. “It was so smooth that you don’t even notice getting handled.”
“Well,” I offered. “We noticed, but it’s so smooth that you don’t even mind.”
Jean-Francois gave me a card, saying that we are now “members” and to give him a call personally if we’re going to be coming back and he’ll expedite our reservations or anything we need. I imagine he can get away with an offer like that to tourists from the U.S. who make it clear that this is a once-in-a-lifetime thing. He vanished, and we heard “Bon appétit!” booming from the dining room somewhere.
Alison did, happily, omit the menu in her writings. We scrutinized with great interest the menu prestige and the a la carte menu, but eventually settled on the tasting menu with the paired wine flight. Without further ado, here was our gastronomic experience (with wines):
White onion and wild garlic soup, cep marmalade
Citrus-cured sea trout, cucumber sorbet
Riesling, Klein Constantia, Stellenbosch,
South Africa 2009
New season asparagus with bacon crust, Comté, almond velouté
Viognier, Secreto, Colchagua, Chile 2010
Braised shoulder of rose veal, roasted pear
with a Fourme d’Ambert crumble
Fillets of Rye Bay plaice and winkles,
peas and broad beans, apple vinegar dressing
Zweigelt, Anton Bauer, Donauland, Austria 2007
Hot chocolate and pistachio fondant, rhubarb sorbet
A couple of notes about that menu, as they occur to me.
- I love the way soup is properly prepared, and I have to learn to do it more frequently: the primary ingredient in a soup, in this case cep (very flavorful mushrooms), is sautéed beautifully and the broth prepared separately. The broth is then laid in over the primary ingredient, so they’re each a delightful ingredient in and among themselves.
- “Cucumber sorbet” sounds really strange, and eating it was no less so. But the POP in your mouth when you taste a veggie/salty explosion of cold ice — well, my reaction is what got Jean-Francois’s attention. Really great, and a perfect accompaniment to the sea trout.
- Alison isn’t exaggerating a thing when she talks about bacon-breaded asparagus. It was actually a corn meal batter, but with flecks of bacon throughout it. We passed several fantastic minutes deciding the several ways we might try to powder cooked bacon into a breading and the things around which it would wrap itself lovingly.
- Alison had the veal, since she’s not a big fish eater. And while I ordered the other main so we could try each, and decided that if I had it to do over again I also would have preferred the veal. I’ve also gone from not knowing how to actually pronounce “plaice” (it’s “place”) to deciding it’s one of my new favorite fishes.
- I need a knife that can do sliced veal shoulder the way Alison had it – very thin and piled like roast beef, with a honeyed au jus over. Unbelievable.
- The above is a copy/paste from the web site. Dessert was actually a chocolate molten cake with raspberry preserves and powdered sugar, with a passion fruit essence drizzled across it. Just as the soup, we discussed our regret that we couldn’t lick the dishes once we’d consumed everything that our utensils would allow us to reach. Alison was really impressed that I devoured dessert, but she shouldn’t have been, having just eaten raw trout a short while earlier — seriously, people, the food was so good that they could have served me deep-fried dog urine and I’d have babbled about the vintage.
There was no wine paired with dessert, which seemed travesty to us (at least, at that point). I ordered an amontillado, because 1) it tastes great, 2) its fun to say, and 3) I’m never above a nod to a good Edgar Allen Poe story. Alison had a nice white dessert wine. We shared, then ooh’d and aah’d.
The verdict: one of the single best meals I’ve ever had out, anywhere or any time. And when hitting up very fine dining, nothing is better than a companion who is a lady on the streets and … well, a 12-year-old on the comedy circuit. We were served bread and had eaten one piece, plus the amuse bouche. Jean-Francois came by to wish us “bon appétit,” and when he walked away, Alison leaned across the table conspiratorially and asked, “Do you think I should have told him my mouth is thoroughly amused?” We agreed that she’d been right to hold back on that one. It could be misinterpreted.
Shortly after we finished the first course, one of the ubiquitous service brigade came around to remove dishes and scrape crumbs from the tablecloth. Alison remarked that there were crumbs all over in front of her and a green stain where some of her garlic soup had splashed down, while the swipe the server made on my side of the table was basically just for show.
“He just scraped my side to make you feel better,” I said.
Alison raised her eyebrows and shrugged. “All I know is, two things are going to happen here. They’re going to change the tablecloth, and I’m going to change my shorts,” she said. Over my laughter, she asked me, “Do you like the way I class the place up?”
Yes. Yes, I do. I already knew that I loved Chef Ramsey, but I was surprised at how excited I got. And at the perma-grin I had the whole time we were there. And at the way, when challenged on it, I ultimately wasn’t even embarrassed to be so ridiculously happy to be there and having my Fan Experience. Let’s face it: some guys go to car conventions, some do fantasy baseball camps, and some splurge on backstage passes at concerts. My idea of an over-the-top experience is to eat cuisine designed and cooked by Steve Allen, with input from a personal hero, and sitting across from a woman who is unparalled in every way. I expected this one to be spectacular, and I wasn’t disappointed.