I ran out of my house today flustered, bothered and anxious. I dropped my phone in a lexan of ice water yesterday and basically flushed all my phone numbers down the drain. At the time, I found it pretty amusing. I had my last phone for about five years, then I replaced it last month due to my mother turning on the sprinklers while I was soaking up some California sun, and a month later I get water damage…again. That amusement lasted for all of about twenty seconds, and then I had to get back to cooking so I put it out of my mind. I didn’t really think about the loss of my phone until I realized I had to coordinate lunch plans with Seoyoung for today. We were supposed to meet at her restaurant, Gordon Ramsay. So this morning, I ran out the door, hoping to fix my phone early so I wouldn’t be late for our big lunch date.
I opened my front door just as my elderly neighbor was opening his. He looked at me with his watery Scotch eyes and said in his thick Italian accent, “young lady, do you know what love is?” I was not in the mood for this 9am riddle, but I smiled back and shook my head no. I’ve only heard this question a bakers dozen of times, but I forgot the answer. We started out the front steps together and I was hoping he would turn left as I was turning right, but we continued on down the road together at a shuffling speed. “You know, it’s a misunderstanding between two fools!” I knew I heard that one before… He laughed at his own joke and then reminisced for a minute or two about his wife and their love. He then turned to me and acknowledge that I must be late for work and shooed me on my way. He always gives me a little something to think about on my way to the train…even if I’ve heard it once or fifteen times before.
I spent about an hour at Verizon only to find out that they don’t repair phones, only replace them. So now I have an old phone that doesn’t work and is keeping my friends’ phone numbers under lock and key, and an empty new phone with no numbers for me to idly text. But, I did have Seoyoung’s number and found out our lunch date was at noon. That was really all that mattered to me at the moment.
I made it to The London hotel before Seoyoung or her friend Eunji, so I sat in the lounge and read the pricey drink list while waiting. The casual dining room and bar feels very English to me. Not that I’ve been to England in years, but I guess it fits my overall image of Brits. The chairs and booths are a greyish aquamarine with wood panel floors that feel rustic yet posh. Tile mirrors line the walls and reflect the solemn colors that evoke drab days in London. Yet it’s all comfortable, cool and elegant. And maybe the many English accents being spoken around me made it feel that much more authentic.
Seoyoung and Eunji finally skipped through the entrance and we made our way into the fancier of the two dining rooms. The first thing I noticed, and loved, were the swivel chairs. I immediately flashed back to ‘bring your kids to work day’ and fighting over the swivel chair with my sister. I love swivel chairs! Especially in an environment that’s usually too stuffy and uptight. I immediately fell into my chair and began turning…and then caught the many mirrored reflections of myself around the room and realized other people could see me! I restrained myself and focused on other things. The colors of the room were similiar to the first room, yet there were accents of rose and maroon in the table flowers, and no music was being played.
So enough of the trivial details. I was curious about the food. The restaurant does a prix fixe lunch: three courses for $45. I feel that the price is pretty reasonable, yet I think Jean-Georges is still an incredible deal for the same three courses at $28. I went into the meal a little skepticle, but that thought was smashed to bits within the first few bites.
I don’t think the food is revelatory, but it’s damn good. Our amuse was a trio of a gougière stuffed with a mushroom mousse, a blini that encased a bites worth of smoked trout, and a quenelle of fish perched atop a cauliflower panna cota. I love Jean-Georges for the balance between heat, acidity and sweetness, but this food felt elevated in a different sense. Ingredients were paired well and many times in a classic sense. Most food I eat or cook has a concept deriving from a classic dish, but there is usually a twist. Either an ingredient is substituted with a lesser-known-sure-to-impress-with-a-wow-factor-ingredient, the dish is deconstructed, or it is presented on an apparatus not typical to most restaurant goers. Ramsay’s food was not over-reaching, yet still hit many high notes.
We all ordered an item out of the three categories and had them delivered to the center of the table. Seoyoung and I made Eunji eat our way…meaning we ate all of her food. No, not really, but we did share the three dishes. And Eunji’s too tiny for a real three course lunch, so there was much food to go around. Two of those dishes were seasoned perfectly. I ordered an heirloom tomato salad only because I was shocked to see tomatoes on the menu at this time of year. First I scoffed at the idea, but then remembered being at the farmer’s market on friday and still seeing tomatoes there. I was wearing a scarf and coat and there were tomatoes being sold in mid November! I really ordered it because Seoyoung told me it was a delicious dish…but I did have my doubts. The plate came out and I must have looked at it for a solid thirty seconds before plunging my fork into the patchwork of colors laying in a carpaccio manner on my plate. A whole tomato was sitting, skinless, on the corner of the tomato blanket, and mountain caviar was served table side to dress the salad. A basil crème fraiche supported a paper thin tuille of brioche, and a toasted piece of bread was served as a means to mop up the deliciously acidic and sweet vinaigrette.
Seoyoung snagged the tiger shrimp prawn dumpling, which most likely holds the title in The Guiness Book of World’s Records for the Biggest Dumpling Ever. Seoyoung and Eunji both squeeled “wang mandoo!”, which translates into ‘king dumpling’ in Korean, when the dish was placed on the table. The dumpling was about the size of a tennis ball, packed to the brim with shrimp, and served in a shrimp broth with a dollop of fennel puree on top. It was hearty yet light, aromatic, and completely reaffirmed my shrimp obsession. I love shrimp in the simplest of forms. I will go to town on a shrimp cocktail, I enjoy them in a seafood pasta, and ebi sushi always seems to end up on the table whenever I’m around…but this shrimp dumpling truly is the king of all shrimp dishes. And supposedly it is one of Ramsay’s signature dishes. So whether you’re in Vegas or Dubai, this dish will be on the menu. And needless to say, if I ever venture to any of his other restaurants, I will order myself my own order so I don’t have to share.
We were then sent out a complimentary foie terrine dish with a gelee of calvados and tapioca. Duck with apples is a common application, but the duck liver with the calvados, was for me, a first. At Eleven Madison Park, we would sheet out foie into about an 1/8th of an inch in thickness and then layer it with a gelatin. When I worked there, it began with an asparagus water (mediocre) that then evolved into a cherry gel (delicious) and then on to concord grape (I could have made sandwiches out of the stuff!). The technique was familiar, but the tapioca not only gave it a beautiful bubbly appearance, but a bit of texture as well. The crisp taste of the apple spirit, paired with pickled apple, parsley puree and romenesco all united to create a harmonious dish that would make ducks eager to fatten their livers.
Our entrees arrived shortly after we licked our plates clean. I had a tastey plate of medium rare cooked tenderloin graced by the addition of some short rib. A reduction of red wine was adhered to the plate prior to plating (a bit too sweet for me) and the plate was garnished with braised onions and seared porcinis. This dish was nice, but Seoyoung’s duck dish really wowed. The duck was cooked perfectly–no sous-vide in sight–and came with a side of fig, fried duck tongue and sautéed duck liver and crouton. The dish was so delicous that I almost swiveled off the chair. I was audibly moaning and wiggly from side to side every time I stole a bite from her plate! I adore duck tongues but usually only ever see them on dim sum menus, where they’ve been smoked and accompany cuttlefish. This was a completely new preparation for me and the result was a crisp, gelatinous bite of tongue that sung harmonious chords with the breast and liver bits of the duck.
I think I may be reliving my meal in too much detail, but I think it’s worth the revisit. Gordon Ramsay’s restaurant only received two starts from New York’s restaurant critic, Frank Bruni. Ramsay is one of only three chefs in England to maintain three Michelin stars for his restaurant (the others being Heston Blumenthal and Alain Roux), and I don’t think it’s for naught. I think people were quick to judge the TV reality star, and inevitably judged his food rather than his character. And maybe the food just wasn’t where it is today. Bruni described the food as lacking imagination. There was a disparity between the ‘bad-boy image’ of Ramsay and the timid, no-gusto food that whispered to diners rather than forcefully debuting the talent in the kitchen. Now, I think there is no way this food can be brushed aside–it gives cause for excitement and does not just rely on the name behind the food. Gordon Ramsay’s lunch prix fixe is a steal for the quality of the food (amuse bouche, appetizer, entree, desserts-which were amazing!, and petit fours) and will make you respect the man for more than having the balls to call people ‘useless, fat cows’ in front of all the world to see.