EVERYTHING you've learned about British superstar chef Gordon Ramsay on television is a crock. On his hit television shows, "Hell's Kitchen" and especially "Kitchen Nightmares," the three-star Michelin chef hams it up, cajoling and bullying some of the most exasperating cooks and restaurateurs on the planet into doing better work. The histrionics make for riveting television, but give the wrong impression about Ramsay's own cooking.
At Ramsay's new eponymous restaurant at the London hotel in West Hollywood (a glamorous makeover of the former Bel Age Hotel), the cooking, it turns out, is nothing like the former professional soccer player's blustery TV personality. It is refined and elegant, contemporary and worldly. Especially, it seems, when he's in the house.
A rectangular white porcelain platter holds a slice of rosy pressed foie gras with a vein of black fig running through it. The composition of foie gras and plump figs with dots of dark violet fig compote and a pickled red pearl onion is truly lovely. And the combination of flavors is just as dreamy, the duck liver silky against the rich grainy texture of the figs.
Braised pig's head isn't the head on a platter, as Fergus Henderson might do it at St. John in London. It's a sliver of sublime head cheese strewn with lightly pickled vegetables -- turnip, cauliflower, zucchini -- with a touch of sauce gribiche, a mayonnaise flavored with minced cornichons and egg. Chilled almond soup is poured into an oval bowl around a heap of rose-and-white-striped spot prawns. A swirl of vinegar makes the flavors stand up and sing.
I'm trying to decipher the soup's flavors when I look over my spoon and see Ramsay in the flesh. It's not a mirage: There he is in his trademark short-sleeved chef's jacket, chatting up the next table. Not that I'm staring or anything, but Ramsay is one of the few people who look exactly the same in person as on television. Yet he seems, at least in this context, very different from the caricature of smug, exacting, ranting chef he plays in his series.
At this latest Gordon Ramsay restaurant (preceded by versions in London; New York; Versailles, France; and County Wicklow, Ireland) the chef exudes confidence -- as he should, being the chief executive of a fleet of restaurants around the world. He doesn't do the smarmy tour of the tables, but he's working the floor and decidedly not cooking. At this level, it would be absurd to pretend that he's behind the stoves. His chef here is Andy Cook, who has worked with him in London and Tokyo.
On several of my previous visits, Ramsay was not in town. But this time, three months after the restaurant opened, he is, and what a difference his presence in the house makes. The food didn't approach this level before. It was very correct, but somehow dull -- even though the ingredients and preparations were exactly the same.
It has to do with the balance of flavors and the crispness of execution. At their best, Ramsey's dishes have a tension that makes them exciting, and very often that tension is the presence of an acidic element. It's possible I'm making too much of his being on site, and the difference is simply that the kitchen staff has come together as a cohesive team.
A place with a pulse
The SCENE seems to have changed for the better too. Glitzy couples swarm the hostess as she looks for their reservation. The 4-inch stilettos and sparkly dresses are out in force, and the bar is electric with energy. Whereas before, the place seemed half-asleep, now a small army of waiters rushes back and forth across the dining room so fast it's almost comical.
Carrying our cocktails on a tray, the hostess threads her way through the crowd as she leads us to our table, a semicircular sofa-banquette covered in an embossed pale rose leather. Polished brass shutters and modernist light fixtures sparkle and from the windows of the farther of the two dining rooms, the city lights glitter all the way to the Pacific.
Waiters aren't too formal and know everything about the menu. And you will have questions about the format and style. The menu of small plates is divided into three price categories and organized by weight with lighter and less expensive dishes going first. If you want to share in order to taste as many dishes as possible, you'll need the server's advice to know which dishes can be shared and which cannot.
It's less complicated, of course, simply to order the well-priced seven-course tasting menu. At $85, it's a bargain compared with restaurants at this level in Europe, and a good introduction to Ramsay's cooking.
Once THE food starts coming, you'll discover that Ramsay is a miniaturist with an exquisite eye. He might talk like a hooligan, but his cooking is utterly poised and often astonishing in its balance and grace. These are dishes that need to be admired in their entirety, which is one argument against sharing plates.