So where are we, exactly?” the lady on my left asked as we sat down to dine at Gordon Ramsay’s new restaurant in the newly renovated Hotel London on West 54th Street. Perhaps she was discombobulated by the hour, which was 10.30 p.m., the only time I’d been able to obtain a reservation in the consciously effete, fourteen-table room. Or perhaps it was the room itself, which is windowless, like a bunker or some great glittering bank vault. The walls seemed to be plastered with mother-of-pearl (lacquered plastic, actually), and the swiveling dining chairs were aquamarine and had a vaguely reptilian feel. In accordance with the gourmet fashions of the day, the wine list was as thick as a phone book, and the menu was a flowery document dotted with familiar buzzwords like seasonal and hand dived. The waiters wore black vests, the way waiters often do in gourmet outposts around the globe, and they spoke in mellifluous accents from everywhere, it seemed, but New York City.
But then we really weren’t in New York City. Not in spirit, anyway. We were in that spangled, opaque, ever-expanding, and always expensive culinary netherworld inhabited by Ramsay and other globe-trotting superstar chefs like Joël Robuchon and Jean-Georges Vongerichten. It’s a world that these days stretches from Monaco to Shanghai to Dubai, and as the gourmet franchises proliferate, their individual qualities inevitably blur together in the mind. Ramsay is a Scotsman, but like most of the chefs on this circuit, his cooking is French (he worked under Robuchon). He made his volatile reputation (like lots of Frenchmen, he is a famous screamer in the kitchen) in London, where he has nine restaurants to his credit (his eponymous establishment in Chelsea is the only one in England to be awarded three Michelin stars), as well as fourteen glossy cookbooks and a string of television shows. He has restaurants in Tokyo and Dubai, and he will soon have others in Boca Raton and L.A. Like in New York, these new Ramsay outlets tend to be situated in large, indistinct luxury hotels.
The Hotel London (formerly the Rihga Royal) fits that description, and is also now sort of luxurious. To get to the elite, fourteen-table room, you must pass through a kind of upscale bar and coffee shop called the London Bar. This big, tourist-mobbed space off the hotel lobby is decorated like a mod sixties-era department store, with silvery baubles on the walls. The menu is a mishmash of small-bite “tapas style” Ramsay creations, which issue from the kitchen with startling, assembly-line-like speed. There are shavings of swordfish and tuna dressed with lime and soy (pretty good), mounds of duck ragout drowned in onion velouté (very good), and scrambled eggs topped with cured salmon and caviar (really good). Pork belly appears atop a portion of arctic char, or baked with honey and apples. There is nothing terribly wrong with any of this grub, except that three dishes (the number recommended by my waiter) cost close to $50 before dessert, and the miniature servings leave you longing in the end for Gordon Ramsay’s version of a good old-fashioned cheeseburger.
Dinner in the exclusive Ramsay restaurant is a more leisurely affair, and, considering the prices (a three-course dinner costs $80) and the expertly fawning service, possibly also more economical. But it takes a while to acclimate to the antiseptic environment, and some of the early dishes are a little odd too. The first thing I tried were langoustines, obscurely paired with bits of deboned chicken wing flavored with maple. After that came a serving of scallops drenched in overly salty truffle sauce, followed by a giant lobster ravioli with yellowy skin, like dim sum, and a similar rubbery, oversteamed consistency. One doesn’t attain any kind of traction on the global gourmet circuit without knowing something about foie gras, and both the preparations I sampled (roasted, with a date mille-feuille, and a cold terrine pressed between layers of game) were pretty good. Ditto the sweetbreads, which are lightly caramelized, served over creamed artichokes, and finished with a red-wine sauce cut with a touch of sweet vinegar.
Whether the globe-trotting Ramsay is actually cooking any of this food is probably a moot point in this era of the gourmet megafranchise. But the meals I had at the London were professionally reproduced, for the most part (the kitchen is run by Ramsay’s longtime lieutenant, Neil Ferguson), and if the chef can be said to have a discernible style, it comes out most clearly in the entrées. The best of these tend to be executed in a familiarly fussy, Continental way but invested with just the right touch of British pulchritude. My chicken was roasted to a crackly finish and poured with a rich fricassee made with onion, bacon, and prunes. The house pot-au-feu is made with tender bits of pigeon, and the venison is dressed, not unpleasantly, with bitter chocolate. Among the generally commendable seafood dishes, my turbot was bolstered with creamed potatoes and an excellent red-wine-and-shallot “civet” sauce, and the black bass was nicely cooked and decorated with crunchy nuggets of chorizo.
As our plates were finally being cleared away, past midnight, none of the weary diners at my table had anything horrible to say about their food. On the other hand, no one was babbling with rapturous excitement, either. Despite the solid quality of the cooking, there is a connect-the-dots feeling to dinner at Ramsay’s new restaurant, a sense, as the sommelier proffers his list of fancy Sauternes and the overburdened cheese cart trundles into view, that you’ve seen this all somewhere before. And, of course, you have. As at other gourmet establishments, there’s an elite “chef’s table” within the gleaming kitchen, and, to finish things off, a giant candy-laden “bonbon trolley” just like they used to have at Alain Ducasse. There is a respectable soufflé for dessert (with apricots), and two de rigueur chocolate dishes, one made, predictably, with chocolate from Valrhona. Ramsay even offers his diners a nice version of that aged haute cuisine warhorse, apple tarte Tatin. Is this the best tarte Tatin in New York City? Probably not. But I doubt you’ll find a better one in Shanghai or Dubai.
The London Bar
Hours: 6:30 a.m. to 1 a.m.
Prices: Small plates range from $14 to $18.
Ideal meal: White-onion velouté with duck ragout, cured salmon “mi-cuit” with scrambled eggs, apple-and-caramel trifle.
Note: If you have a taste for bracing whiskey cocktails, take note of Ramsay’s signature drink, the Diablo, made with a blended Scotch, a Mathilde raspberry liqueur, a splash of lime and ginger beer, on the rocks.
Scratchpad: This confused operation is a gourmet small-plates restaurant masquerading as a hotel coffee shop masquerading as a fancy drinks bar.
Gordon Ramsay at the London
Address: 151 W. 54th St., nr. Sixth Ave.; 212-468-8888
Hours: Lunch, noon to 2 p.m. Dinner, 5:30 to 10:30 p.m.
Prices: The basic three-course prix fixe is $80.
Ideal meal: Caramelized sweetbreads, poached turbot or black bass, apple tarte Tatin.
Note: You may want to skip dessert and focus your attentions on the “bonbon trolley,” which features excellent chunks of candied honeycomb.
Scratchpad: Possibly Ramsay’s earlier London restaurants were imbued with passion and a certain ineffable sense of place. This one isn’t.