“Need a dinner date? I’m your Gordon!”
The e-mail subject line was almost too good to be true. Gordon Hamersley — chef of the beloved South End restaurant Hamersley’s Bistro, cookbook author, and Globe cooking columnist — had a brilliant idea. He and restaurant critic Devra First would go together to Ramsay’s Kitchen, the new restaurant from UK celebrity chef Gordon Ramsay.
Located in the Mandarin Oriental in Back Bay, Ramsay’s Kitchen has been swamped since it opened at the end of January. Fans of Ramsay’s restaurants (some of them Michelin-starred), television shows such as “Kitchen Nightmares” and “Hell’s Kitchen,” and brash style flocked to experience his food for themselves. And when the restaurant first opened, there he was in person, with his spiky blond hair and culinary chops.
But how would the restaurant fare once Ramsay left, back to the business of being an international celebrity chef? And what would one longtime Boston chef think of the new arrival’s spot? That’s where we come in. Here’s what happened when one culinary Gordon went to another culinary Gordon’s restaurant.
Devra First: Good morning, Gordon H. Last night we had dinner at Ramsay’s Kitchen, celebrity chef Gordon R.’s first Boston outpost. Let’s discuss!
My first impression — everyone’s first impression, really, upon visiting — was the ginormous portrait of Ramsay Himself inside the entrance. I don’t remember ever seeing one of you at Hamersley’s Bistro.
Gordon Hamersley: First of all, Devra, thanks for inviting me, and I will just say that as a former Boston restaurant chef, dining with you is a little weird to start with. I mean, any chef who says they’re perfectly comfortable hanging out with the Globe food critic is being disingenuous. But it’s been years since we closed and years since you judged my food, so, RIGHT, let’s eat!
I am literally laughing as I think what [wife and Hamersley Bistro co-owner] Fiona and our staff’s reaction would have been if I’d showed up one day with a 10-by-20-foot portrait of myself and asked where they thought we should put it. As for the portrait of “the other Gordon,” while certainly not our style — and it probably would not even occur to the great chefs of Boston to have a huge image of themselves be the only artwork on the wall — I get it. Gordon Ramsay is a huge star, and with that comes a branding/imaging program with no limits. I was reminded of the fabulous portrait of Paul Bocuse in his iconic palace of French culinary tradition. His portrait sits at the end of the dining room: “Lest you forget where you are, monsieur, here is a little reminder.”
DF: Totally weird to be dining with you too! But such a pleasure to have you at the table. I don’t think anyone recognized you without the Red Sox cap, although the excellent French wine-themed tie was kind of a tell…
Agree about the portrait: It’s honest. Eating at a Ramsay restaurant is as much (or more) about Ramsay as it is about the food. And the menu itself is pretty conservative. I compared it with the menus at London restaurants like Gordon Ramsay Bar & Grill, and it is pretty similar. Do I wish we’d gotten Ramsay at his Michelin-starred best? Of course. But I guess restaurants like Ramsay’s Kitchen bankroll the Restaurant Gordon Ramsays, and the lauded flagships lend an aura that gets customers into seats across the board. And a little TV presence never hurts.
Regardless of the menu choices, I found the cooking at Ramsay’s Kitchen to be technically quite solid — better than I’d thought it might be, to be honest. The thing that struck me was that proteins, still the center of the plate here for the most part, would be perfectly cooked but barely seasoned. The salt and spicing came largely from the other components on the plate. The jumbo lump crab cake, which the server recommended highly, was our first taste of that.
GH: I am mystified by how chefs like Ramsay are able to juggle multiple locations, concepts, and countries and keep quality high. It would be interesting to know how the economy of scale works in a big empire like that.
I wasn’t surprised at the level of cooking at all. Ramsay knows classic technique well; it’s his stock-in-trade. I imagine the Boston chefs are being schooled to get the basics right. As for the crab cake, the server got the description right: a massive portion of crab held together by some breadcrumbs, crispy on the outside, warm on the inside. It was seasoned very lightly with Old Bay, I think. Frankly, I’m used to much more assertive seasoning, and I longed for extra mustard and pepper that so complement the sweetness of the crab. Thanks to the tiny citrus salad, there was some acidity to it. And I could have used triple the amount of the very good, citrus-y aioli.
DF: There was so much crab! So little filler! (As it should have been: It was $29.) But a lemon wedge and some remoulade would have gone a long way.
GH: Hey, what about that Connecticut-style lobster roll? The way we fought each other to see who could devour it faster kind of looked like a round of WWE in action. I’m saying you liked it?
DF: Loved it. It was one of my favorite things we ate. It was pretty, with celery leaves and herbs scattered across the top, and claw meat laid strategically across the top so it looked like a little orange fin. The lobster was perfectly fresh and tender. The toasted bun had just the right airy crispness. And everything was doused in butter — not too much butter, but the amount of butter just before too much butter, which is to say the right amount of butter. The only thing wrong with it was what made us fight it out for stray morsels: There was so little lobster! Just a few wee bites! I tried to be dignified about this, but obviously I failed. Like the crab cake, the dish was $29; lobster prices, all prices, are high, and unfortunately for the consumer this isn’t a crazy price for a lobster roll in a Boston restaurant right now. But at that point, I might rather pay $34 and get some actual lobster in my lobster roll? I dunno.
Then we both wanted to order the scallops for all the wrong reasons: We thought we’d probably hate the dish. It just sounded dated and sweet and busy, involving pork belly and chicken jus plus apricot puree, pomegranate, and cara cara orange. So fruity!
GH: Yep, I was looking forward to hating this dish. I think it was my vision of the fruit bomb that turned me off. But hate it I didn’t. There’s almost never much wrong with scallops and pork in any form. Sure, the pork belly could have used a bit of caramelization and a hint more salt. But all that fruit worked really well. Three sweet elements, each with very different properties, brought balance to the dish. Apricot has a round, rich sweetness; the orange is mild citrus; and the pomegranate a jolt of exploding acid, and that was the kicker. The aigre-doux reduction of chicken and pomegranate molasses worked its magic, and I found myself mopping the last bite of pork belly through it — the taste missing in the belly on its own. It was a fine example of how ingredients that seemingly might not work can come together to create more than their parts. The way to get the best of the dish is to pile a fork with a bite of every element and let those flavors loose on your palate.
DF: I want your expert take on the beef Wellington, a signature dish of Ramsay’s. It mostly reminded me how much I don’t love filet mignon, although I did appreciate the assertive, flavorful layer of mushroom duxelles. But I’m willing to own that my failure to love the dish was mine, not the dish’s.
GH: Beef Wellington is one of those recipes that every chef cooks at some point in their career. There hasn’t been a kitchen I worked where it hasn’t been part of some menu. Done well, it is a sublime, elegant dish that has many steps. Tender beef slathered in Dijon mustard with mushroom duxelles and either pâté or prosciutto, all wrapped up first in a crepe and then in puff pastry, it is cooked in the oven until golden-brown. To keep the crust from sogging, the crepe layer is crucial. After cooking and resting, the pastry is cut open to reveal perfect medium-rare beef. A reduction of red wine and demi-glace is usually served on the side.
You’re right about the cut of beef. Filet mignon has very little fat and therefore just doesn’t have the kind of beef flavor we’re used to, so it’s vital when making Wellington to salt and pepper the meat well and get a good hard sear on the beef. That caramelization not only locks in moisture but also provides an added layer of flavor. Once everything is neatly encased in pastry, it gets cooked in the oven at high heat, and essentially the pastry cooks and gets golden-brown but the inside actually steams. Poking a tiny hole in the pastry allows the steam to escape for more insurance against a flabby crust. But there is much to go wrong if each element isn’t done right. The duxelles, while cooked until almost dry, can also throw some moisture, as will the pâté and mustard, so each step must be done perfectly or the meat will taste boiled.
This is a rich dish, and a well-balanced red wine sauce really cuts the recipe’s richness. Can you tell it’s one of my favorite things to cook? The Ramsay Wellington we had I thought was well executed, tasted just right, and lived up to the classic standard. Bravo!
DF: What about the boring little boiled turnip and carrot on the side?
GH: In the picture on the website, the boiled carrot and turnip are there. Maybe that’s what he uses globally. When he partners with Elon Musk on space flights, they’ll be there too.
DF: Is that happening? Because it’s so plausible.
GH: No, I just made that up. [Laughs] The thing that was most striking to me on this menu was its lack of regard for the seasons. We have tomatoes on the vine; we have pomegranate seeds on the scallops. That, I think, is very different from how the average good, thoughtful Boston chef would approach their menus these days. There’s no real nod to local stuff. There’s no real nod to seasonal stuff. Is this the opening salvo for menus to come, or is this the menu that’s etched in stone forever because that’s what he’s going to do in Miami, Denver, and so on and so forth? By July 4, on menus everywhere in the city, spring is gone. What’s going to happen at Gordon Ramsay’s restaurant? You’re in New England and you’re about to get into the growing season.
DF: Yep, that’s a really good question. Is this meant to be a restaurant for the locals, or mainly for the steady stream of tourists passing through Back Bay? The decor is pretty generic. There is this beautiful little oyster bar, but no one’s paying it any mind. My hope for this space initially was that a new Eastern Standard would open here, and I don’t think Ramsay’s Kitchen brings energy to the neighborhood the same way that would have. If it had a really strong bar program or a slightly more eccentric menu, that would have been welcome. The cocktail list is pretty short, and the drink I had was fine, although my wine was too warm and I felt weirdly typecast as, like, a Riesling Mom by our server. I understand it’s a hotel restaurant, but so was Eastern Standard.
GH: Interesting to wonder if a Boston chef had taken the space if the vibe would have been different. What would Jody Adams, Ken Oringer, or Ana Sortun have envisioned for it? As it is, the feel is a little corporate and somewhat disappointing.
DF: How important do you think service is? I felt like it was very responsive at Ramsay’s Kitchen, albeit with a good-humored shtick, and I definitely got the sense we were on a tight schedule for the next seating. This wasn’t a leisurely dinner with chat time between courses.
GH: Service can make or break a whole evening. I used to think it was secondary in casual places, and that if they had the basics down and the food was great, that was all that counted. Not surprisingly, I was wrong. Service sets the tone of everything, and reading a table, timing courses, and ultimately dropping a check and being ready for the next group is exceedingly difficult to do well. Think about it. A server gets paid mostly by the guest, is employed by the chef/general manager, and has to negotiate in an intensely pressurized atmosphere with often differing needs all night long … and do it with a smile. I don’t know how they manage.
Our server was definitely attentive, very enthusiastic, and enjoyed taking care of us. Did he read us well? Perhaps not completely. We wanted to be left alone to chat and eat and look around, but I’ll never criticize any server for being over-the-top pleasant, which this one was. As for timing, I looked at my watch when the main courses were cleared and thought, OK, this is just where we should be right now. Restaurants get mistaken for charities by some diners, but if a server can’t turn tables with grace and efficiency, the house ain’t going to make it long term. Business is business.
DF: And dessert is dessert. We both loved the Eton mess. I love fruit and meringue desserts; I love all the different textures as the meringue and the cream settle in together. And a great sticky toffee pudding can be transcendent. I would say this version (attributed to Ramsay’s mum) was good, not great: I like that kind of dessert to have a little more complexity, to be darker and deeper than this was. It felt like something was missing. Not that it stopped me from eating it! It was still sticky toffee pudding.
GH: Dessert was fun! Being married to an Englishwoman who adores both Eton mess and sticky toffee pudding, this was familiar territory for me. We used to make sticky toffee pudding from September until March or until the pastry department threatened to quit. So, one of my favorites.
DF: You brought desserts home to Fiona. Did she approve?
GH: She scarfed them down at 1 in the morning. Her assessment: “They were bloody delicious.”
DF: Should we talk about the chickpea tikka masala?
GH: We should give him a mulligan. I’m not going there. Your local Indian restaurant is going to do a lot better.
DF: Or Trader Joe’s. But at least the menu is vegetarian friendly. There’s also a beet burger. We’ll try it next time.
GH: I look forward to seeing how the restaurant matures. That’s if I’m allowed back in there, or anywhere in Boston after eating with you! Can I borrow your wig?
774 Boylston St., Back Bay, Boston, 857-289-0771, www.gordonramsayrestaurants.com/en/us/ramsays-kitchen.