London’s Tough Chef Ramsay, Serving Up Dainty Delicacies

The trains were late, according to the message delivered with a gentle Caribbean lilt over the platform loudspeaker, owing to a delay. So when I arrived for lunch at the hottest new restaurant in town, the friend I was meeting was already at the table. The maître d’ showed me through the small, sleek and understated dining room, which was done up in pastel colors and decorated with large glass ornaments, a frosted glass wall along one side dividing it from the entrance corridor. Customers had booked weeks in advance to get in, but the couple seated across from us, although their best friends should have advised against it, were dressed for the occasion in baggy sweaters and open-necked shirts.

At the adjacent table, a young man looked ill at ease in a jacket and tie; his brutally short haircut and clean white shirt gave him the air of a schoolboy on an outing. He sat in a silent, Chekhovian funk while the two older men at his table talked business. First foot on the corporate ladder, I thought, and too shy to speak in case he makes a mistake. But the woman in one of the baggy sweaters suddenly rose and strode purposefully to his table, holding out pen and paper as if presenting him with a writ. To my astonishment, another woman followed suit, accompanied by two friends. The man, I realized, was Ralph Fiennes (much more of a gentleman than Miles Davis, who once made an autograph hunter kneel on the ground as he scrawled his name on a paper napkin over her back–with a plastic cocktail stick).

That afternoon’s scene could have taken place in New York, Los Angeles or even Paris. But it was the height of the holiday season in London, and we were there to taste the cooking of a man many consider the equal of any great chef anywhere, who already has two Michelin stars to his name and is a serious contender for a third. People used to book six months in advance to get into Aubergine, his previous restaurant, whose list of famous customers included the usual mix of royalty, movie stars and rock musicians, and which turned away Madonna and even Martina Navratilova when the latter called in person from Wimbledon on the day she won the championship. Chef Gordon Ramsay, a 33-year-old Scotsman who once played rugby for the Glasgow Rangers, is also famous for his feuds (a garbage dispute with the adjacent restaurant on his previous premises led to scuffles between the staffs and over 100 police visits) and for kicking out people he doesn’t like. “Too bad you were late, because you just missed him!” said my friend. “He looks like a scrum half, so big I thought he wouldn’t get through the door!”

Perhaps even more than in New York, chefs in London are celebrities, written about in gossip columns and photographed looking temperamental or jockish, and they are a pugnacious bunch to boot. “Chefs hold knives to throat of London’s restaurants” was the headline when Aubergine and L’Oranger, owned by A-Z Ltd., suddenly found themselves forced to close down after Mr. Ramsay and his entire staff walked out to protest the firing of one of their team. Two months later, he opened his own restaurant in Chelsea in the premises that used to be La Tante Claire, and then within weeks made headlines again when he threw out Sunday Times restaurant critic A.A. Gill, whose party included actress Joan Collins.

All this would be of marginal interest were it not for the fact that Mr. Ramsay’s cooking is very good indeed. You get a sense of absolute confidence, of meticulous and unerring attention to detail. His dishes are so intense in flavor they seem rich, but in fact most of them are extraordinarily light. His signature, now much imitated, is the frothed sauce or soup made with a hand-held blender. When I sat down, a “cappuccino” of pumpkin soup arrived in an espresso cup with truffles shaved over the top instead of powdered chocolate. The air was filled with the concentrated scent of truffles emanating from the tiny cup.

“Is everything all right?” asked one of the young French waiters for the first of over half a dozen times we were asked this question by various people during lunch. He handed us the wine list and within a few minutes, as we searched frantically for something not in the high three figures, a boy sporting a silver bunch of grapes on his lapel came over. It was the head sommelier, Thierry Berson, a Frenchman who looks about 14 but is actually 26. He immediately sized up the situation and came up with cheaper suggestions that, for a change, weren’t run-of-the-mill. He had also worked at Aubergine, where I once watched him expertly handle a wine writer and companion over a working lunch. On that occasion, you could almost hear the gentle popping of facial capillaries as glass after glass of obviously very grand red, white and sweet wines and even port were held up to the light, swirled and ingested.

Foie gras is to a chef what Hamlet is to an actor like Ralph Fiennes, and Mr. Ramsay tackles it several ways. ” Mi-cuit ,” with an Earl Grey consommé (haute cuisine’s answer to tea and liver pâté sandwiches, perhaps); pressed with truffle peelings; or the version I tasted, roasted with a pink, creamy interior and served with a compote of quince and spices that cut the richness.

The young French waiter set a dish before me and, like a benign schoolmistress, pointed out the ingredients with his pinky: beignets of cauliflower the size of a little fingernail, cauliflower purée, a pale vinaigrette dotted with white raisins, teensy clusters of celery leaves and a ring of juicy, burnished scallops.

“Hardly what you’d expect from the hands of a rugby player,” commented my companion.

For the main course, I had steamed sea bass on a bed of cucumber shredded like tagliatelle, served with a velouté of oysters, caviar and tiny spears of perfect asparagus “as green as England’s pleasant land.” Grilled fillet of red mullet arrived on a bed of caramelized endive with more miniature beignets, this time made from langoustines; they were crunchy and delicious dipped into the splashes of day-glo red pepper vinaigrette that decorated the plate.

“Is everything all right?”

For dessert, we decided to share the Assiette de l’Aubergine for two. (The name might be a bit of a puzzler for someone who didn’t know the previous restaurant and expected eggplant.) It included an airy pistachio soufflé served with dark bitter chocolate sorbet, a perfect tarte Tatin of pears with caramel ice cream, a crème caramel in a doll-sized white ceramic dish, passion fruit and chocolate parfait, served with a creamy fromage blanc sorbet, and a painter’s palette of sorbets. (You can eat the brush, said the waiter.)

On the way out, I remembered that Oscar Wilde used to live around the corner on Tite Street, so we stopped to look at his house, which was red brick and rather nondescript, with one of those blue plaques from the National Trust by the door. One of Wilde’s many aphorisms was, “The only thing worse than being talked about is not being talked about.” I don’t think Gordon Ramsay has to worry about that.

Gordon Ramsay

* * *

68, Royal Hospital Road

London

011-44-171-352-4441

Dress: All manner

Noise level: Low

Wine list: Excellent, but expensive

Credit cards: All major

Price range: Three-course prix fixe $80, tasting menu $104, set lunch $45

Lunch: Monday to Friday noon to 2:45 P.M.

Dinner: Monday to Friday 6:45 P.M. to 11 P.M.

* Good

* * Very Good

* * * Excellent

* * * * Outstanding

No Star: Poor