Published 24 October 1999 Style Magazine 328th article
Striped tease: Michael Winner with Gordon Ramsay and his team (Dinah Lagoudakos)
I am not a regular at Gordon Ramsay. I dined at his old restaurant, Aubergine, in May 1994 before Gordon had a Michelin star, and only visited him again a few days ago. A gap of five-and-a-half years. Previously, I'd liked the food, found the desserts highly iffy and predicted, accurately, that he'd get a star next time the guide came out. Gordon then got a second star and become famous for being in a state of high excitement in his kitchen, even reverting to what is laughingly known as bad language. I squirmed when a lot of extremely untalented chefs ganged up on him, making ludicrous pronouncements about how he was letting down the catering industry and how youngsters would not wish to join for fear of being knocked about by our Gord in one of his temper fits.
Having lived my life among movie stars, bouts of perfection-induced hysteria are nothing new. My dearest friend in show business, Burt Lancaster, once held me over a cliff in Mexico threatening to kill me. He shook me to and fro, assuring me I'd be dropped 2,000ft below. His language made Gordon at his worst seem prim. That night Burt graciously served me and the girlfriend a delicious barbecued lamb in the garden of his Durango villa. I see nothing wrong in chefs getting overexcited. A restaurant kitchen must be the most difficult place to work in: hot, rushing out food of impeccable quality, trying to keep up standards. Horrifically long hours. At least Gordon is always in his kitchen. The young people, who looked extremely unbruised when I met them, have the advantage of working with one of the greats at close quarters. Even if, at times, the quarters may be uncomfortably close.
I've met Gordon quite a bit since my first visit, dined with him end his mentor, Marco Pierre White, and spoken to him on the phone. I always found him exceptionally well mannered, charming and of exemplary character. So when I rang at short notice and said: "Can I come tonight, Gordon, please?" he was predictably affable and said: "Yes," even though there's usually a five-week waiting list.
Things did not start perfectly. I was shown a table far too small for my requirements, so I moved to a bigger one. The first food arrival was the bread, which was memorably one of the most awful rolls I've ever eaten. I kept returning to it throughout the meal, because I couldn't believe it was so dreadful.
To say that thereafter things started to look up is an understatement. I suggested a quick three-course bash so I could get out and leave the table clear for customers who had undoubtedly booked it. The maitre d', Jean-Claude Breton, responded: "Do you want the chef to do a little surprise for you?" That was the best offer I was likely to get, so I said: "Yes, please."
There followed a number of courses defined by the extreme delicacy of their taste and composition. It was as good a meal as I've ever eaten in my life. I'll name the dishes but it's the quality that counts. There was a freebie starter of baby spring roll stuffed with duck confit and deep-fried fillet of monkfish. Then a small, exquisite pumpkin soup, followed by ravioli of langoustine with a light lobster vinaigrette and other bits and pieces, a combination of flavours I shall long remember. Then a salad of sea scallops and new potatoes. My main course was pigeon de bresse in a consomme de ceps with truffle herbs and hot foie gras. Pigeon may sound plebeian, but this was a gourmet delight. A granita of pineapple to clear the palette preceded desserts that had strikingly improved since my last Ramsay visit. There was an orange souffle, a thin orange tart, three different sorbets, a hot chocolate fondant, ice cream, a pistachio souffle, little cornets with creme fraiche and passion fruit - all utterly memorable.
Only two downers, other than the bread, which I mention in case you think Gordon and I have started a serious liaison. The mint tea that finished the meal was utterly revolting. Overstewed, not a trace of fresh mint anywhere, just tea bags. And the wine waiter, Thierry Berson, who had done a great job, produced lovely wines and also helped serve, made a really silly error. When I said: "No thank you," to dessert wine, he said sarcastically: "You're better on Coca-Cola." It was an impertinent remark, chipping otherwise unblemished service. But, overall, Gordon Ramsay is a great culinary experience in a relaxed atmosphere. Certainly, in my view, a three-Michelin-star meal. I hope the real inspectors think so, too.
Yet again, your sweeping assertions prove to be wholly misconceived. That your friend Willy de Bruyn (Style, September 26) is the only amusing Belgian in the world is ludicrous. There are, in fact, twice that number: the other one is a friend of mine.
Peter S T Petts, London.
I entirely agree with your recent observations on Fanta orange drink. Not only is the drink a shadow of its former self, but I note that a can from Uxbridge, England, described on the can as "a quality product", contains 5% orange fruit, while a can from France, described only as "a product", contains 10% juice, and is not only a superior drink but less expensive, too. Why does the Coca-Cola Company palm us off with this inferior product - I think that we have a right to be told.
Tony Carter, Tonbridge, Kent.
Having had many enjoyable occasions at Sir Rocco Forte's new St David's hotel in Cardiff Bay, I was somewhat surprised to be charged £2.75 for a small (albeit Welsh and of a pretty colour) bottle of mineral water. When I questioned the bar attendant as to the price, he proudly declared: "Well, sir...it is carbonated." Is £2.75 a record for a small bottle of mineral water, or do your readers know different?
Phil Thomas, by e-mail.
Having decided to take our mother out for a meal to celebrate her 75th birthday, we chose an appropriate leading local restaurant, the Withies Inn at Compton, Surrey. This establishment is highly regarded locally and as a table of 10 we looked forward to a family celebration. When my wife suggested a birthday cake, I rang the patron and inquired whether they could supply one. They responded that they did not do birthday cakes or have gateaux on the sweet trolley, either. When we asked if we could bring a cake of our own they demanded "cakeage" of £1.50 per slice, proving the point that our restaurateurs haven't lost all their parsimonious, small-minded, petty attitudes, even in the modern era.
Malcolm Graham-Wood, Shalford, Surrey.
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