Restaurants & Bars 13

extremely detailed Ramsay's report: or what event dining is like for a neophyte

drdawn | Sep 10, 200508:13 AM

I know nobody needs me to deliver the verdict that the good people at Ramsay's can cook rather well. So I'm writing this in the same spirit as lurid office gossip, which is only fun with the juicy details. This was really my first foray into event dining, and I felt compelled to record the whole subjective experience. This was no mere meal, but three hours of culinary entertainment and, indeed, gentle instruction by example. The entire time I kept wondering whether this was this the cherry high that I shall forever chase. There was not a morsel that failed to make me swoon; I’ll therefore stick to straight description and you can insert your own swooning noises as appropriate. As this was a 7+ course meal, the description is equally long and involved.

I had called ahead to warn about a shellfish allergy, after some kind encouragement from this board. As soon as we were seated the waiter asked who of us had this allergy, and assured me with flourished detail exactly how this would be accommodated. I have never felt in safer hands. Then canapés arrived, on the house—one of many classy touches that made me less squeamish about the impending hole in my bank account. One was two impossibly thin potato crisps stuck together with cream cheese infused with truffle oil, the other tubes of delicate filo, one stuffed with guacamole, the other some sort of salmon flavoured cream cheese, with chopped smoked salmon poking out at the end. It was at this stage I discovered that the best way to help someone get over food hang ups is a place like this. I don’t think you need to be told that the cream cheese was not exactly Philadelphia. My guacamole-hating companion enthused over the guac. Ditto with the smoked salmon.

The menus arrived, and we were walked through its contents. I was amazed at the staff’s knowledge of the menu, and their descriptions became part of the entertainment. The sommelier came over with a tome of a wine list. We’re not serious wine drinkers, and find ordering wine intimidating. We more or less know the qualities we enjoy, and with that he helped us sort out what to drink. He put us off getting a whole bottle, and sorted out some individual glasses for us, which enhanced things immensely. My partner had said he wanted an easy drinking red, and when I said I wanted something more assertive, he could have used it as an excuse upsell me, but he suggested something less expensive. I thought this was such a nice touch, and I really started feeling at ease. I was quite surprised at just how quickly all of the staff put us at ease with the whole experience—we were quite obviously intimidated as we walked in. Even though the Evian was served in a silver cansister and the crystal was real, there was no sniffiness or snootyness to speak of. I think now when we order wine we will be much more confident, knowing that if a waiter makes us feel odd about it, it's not us.

After being offered bread with the option of salted or unsalted butter, the amuse bouche turned up. This was a free surprise from the chef, which arrived in a hollowed out egg shell in a sweet little cup. Sitting next to the egg shell was a silver spoon resting on a silver cube. In my silver spoon there was chopped tomato jelly, which was clear and intensely tomato-ey. On my partner’s silver spoon was something creamy that involved chopped scallops, with five eggs of black caviar. I thought this sort of structuring was rather fun: eat this bit first, and then you can have the rest.

In the cup was more tomato, garnished with a single fried basil leaf standing on end like a flag. Somehow the chef had managed to get the flavour of the tomato into what was like a whipped cream, but much lighter and more delicate. The taste wanted to convince me it was cream of tomato soup, and the texture was telling me something quite different. My partner found this a bit much. The flavour was so intense he felt he had been socked in the mouth, and with the texture confusion he couldn’t work out whether he liked it. It left him perplexed, but I loved it. Just beneath this mixture was a heavier set cream with bits of sun dried tomato. Accompanying the lot was a mini brioche stuffed with aubergine caviar.

The first proper starter came. It was a terrine of foie gras and an aromatic peking style duck, with two decorative green beans, a mini onion and a comedy sized cauliflower floret. This was served with olive oil-doused ciabiatta slices. It looked too pretty to dismantle. I went first, and tucked into the foie gras. I had never had this before, and it tasted like a big goop of butter to me, and to be honest rather unpleasant. I then twigged that it was meant to be spread on the ciabiatta, and it immediately became revelatory. The Reisling played off of it nicely, giving it a new flavour entirely.

The lobster and chicken appetizer had been replaced for both of us (at partner’s request) with a layered dish of pig’s trotter, knuckle and thin smears of blood pudding. There was also a small assembly of a tiny bottom half of a roll, what I thought was thinly sliced cured beef, a fried quail’s egg, some melted cheese and a truffle shaving. There was the most satisfying spludge of yolk upon cutting into it. The trotter et al wasn’t a terrine in the sense that there was no aspic in sight, but it had been layered and then sliced, served blood warm. I was so pleased this was on the menu. I’m a bit of a whimp when it comes to nose to tail eating, and I want to get over it. This was the dish to help me do it. I thought pig’s trotter would involve bone, but it was simply meaty gelatinous stripes giving form to lovely soft knuckle meat. Again, the flavour was immensely intense. This was beginning to confuse my stomach. I’ve had the opposite happen before: food so bland even though you’ve filled up you’re still hungry because you haven’t actually tasted anything. But I was actually starting to fill up at this point, and I had eaten almost nothing in terms of volume. This dish was particularly rich, and I regrettably left some of it on the plate in an effort to pace myself.

Next up was pan fried turbot served over an inch thick disc of quickly seared watermelon (yes, watermelon), julienned mange tout with a citrus sauce. The sauce was lightly creamy and had very subtle notes of grapefruit. This was just what was needed after the heaviness of the previous courses. By this round we realized that not only were we about an hour into the proceedings, but that we had done nothing but talk about the food. It was actually hard to have a conversation. Not that we minded—we can talk anywhere! But there were people gabbing away around us, and I wondered about these people. Were they just obscenely posh and used to this sort of food? Were their palates numb?

The meat course arrived. I had fillet of beef on a bed of spinach and onions. There were mushrooms scattered about the plate, and a separate pile of creamy mash topped with braised beef cheek and a truffle shaving, and beef jus with something I didn’t recognise--I believe an alcohol. I also had never had truffle before. For some reason I’m incapable of tasting it, which was disappointing considering they’re supposed to be quite a treat. The beef was so tender when I touched the top it was as if waves were reverberating. I also liked how there was no mucking about when ordering it: “The chef serves it medium rare; will this be alright for you?”.Uh, yes! My partner had the Cornish lamb done two ways, one was a simply pan fried fillet, the other involved braising. It had the same tenderness, and came with a thyme-infused jus. Partner took one bite and I don’t think I’ve ever seen such a (food-generated) reaction in him. It was like the world had stopped. His came with asparagus spears and blanched cherry tomatoes. He had an equally earth shattering moment upon tasting the tomatoes. We couldn’t work out what had been done to them. There was a sweetness, but somehow more than that. I wish I could explain it.

I then had the cheese course, while my partner chose the pre-dessert. The most amazing trolley arrived, and I picked out mainly goopy stinky ones. After helping me navigate around what was what, the server arranged in order from strongest to mildest, and suggested this is the order in which I eat them. This really did make a difference, and I shall make it a practice. It was served with a small handful of black grapes, walnut bread and crackers. Partner had a tarragon-infused crème brulee in a miniature copper pot, long and cylindrical. The tarragon was so subtle it was hard to place, which is exactly how you would want it in a crème brulee. He happily discovered some cherries at the bottom, which worked well with the tarragon.

By this time we were dumbfounded, and even a bit exhausted. Strawberry and champagne soup with minty foam and crystallised coriander came in a tall soda shop-like glass, complete with glass straw. We started regaining our senses. I particularly found the glass straw amusing.

I got up and immediately one of the waitstaff saw me and directed me to the loos. Not only did the loo smell like the fresh lilies that decorated it, but there were actual towels, folded tidily around the sink. Actual towels! Complete insanity.

One more course… or so I thought. A bitter chocolate fondant came, with a blueberry compote on top. It was in a very rigid cylinder shape. Somebody had gone round the outside of the mold with stripes of white chocolate for a nice layered ringed effect. The plate had a chocolate smear that was coated with some sort of sweet crumb, and another thinner line that met at the centre with the fondant. I normally can’t stand the old squirt bottle—to me it’s the vacuous social climbimbing desparate housewife of the kitchen-- but this was really quite beautiful. The chocolate fondant was quite firm, suitably bitter, and there was a soft, forgiving cream inside.

This was all too much. It was silly. I had immensely enjoyed myself but I felt a bit defeated. This was perfect food, and I realised that in some sense I don’t want this sort deliciousness every day. I had spent the last month or so getting back to healthy, plain foods, and it was almost all too much. Almost.

A waiter then came over and offered to take us into the kitchen. You can imagine the cartoon stars that bulged out of my eyes upon hearing of this treat. We sheepishly stepped into the kitchen and a lovely Italian chap named Simon came over to us to chat at the pass. He took his time—wasn’t rushed in the least! He was telling us how the kitchen worked, how they get the timings right, etc.. There were no French people in the back; he joked that we keep the French at the front of house because they don’t know how to cook. He was amazingly down to earth, not a whiff of ego nor the cloying enthusiasm of a TV chef (you know who you are, Rick Stein). I could easily spend time in a pub with him. I thanked him for accommodating my allergy; he remembered I was the shellfish person and said “oh, that’s fine. You should see some of the crap we get asked to do—the laundry lists of things people think they can’t eat!” The kitchen was immaculate, and oddly calm. He also said something rather perplexing: that consumers have access to better produce than he does because of supermarket buying power. He mentioned specifically M&S and Sainsbury’s. I don’t want to believe him—that means it is all down to technique and I’ve got so much further to go. I may buy it for veg, but for meat and fish it must be a different story. I have no idea whether they bring everyone through the kitchen or if they could just see we were the sort of people that would appreciate it, but it made us feel rather special.

We took our coffee in the little lounge. Snuggled in our squishy leather seats, we were offered a spiraling tower of thin chocolate discs, alternating white and brown. I chose a brown one, which had a thin smear of fruit jam. As if to underscore that this was an over the top meal, a small glass tray arrived with little indentations, which were filled with balls of strawberry ice cream covered in white chocolate. Then two miniature cones arrived in a silver cone holder, thin and crispy but dipped in dark chocolate and filled with a light mango flavoured cream. Now you’re just showing off, Simon. There we sat, with stupid grins on our faces, like children who had just gorged themselves on amusement park rides.

The inevitable forking over moment came, and it was what I expected. But somehow it wasn’t painful. I wasn’t paying for seven courses: I was paying for all the extras, plus the knowledge and experience that goes into that level of service. I always hated the idea of ‘attentiveness’, that glasses get filled and waiters hover. But here good service was about knowing the food and knowing how to put together and pace a meal for optimal experience. I had learned so much, it was worth paying for. If you have a flat lump sum of cash to spend on expanding your food knowledge, don't do a weekend cookery course. Go to Ramsay's.

Are you still reading? Wow! Go get some lunch!

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