Tuesday, October 30, 2007

No kitchen nightmare, this.

A couple of weeks ago, my friend Cristin called me up and asked if I was busy one impending Friday night. I had some vague, misty plans, which promptly blew aside when she mentioned what she was calling about - for her birthday gift, her lovely boyfriend Paul had booked the chef's table at Gordon Ramsay at the London. Buh-bye, half-laid plans; hello nine-course dinner!

The nine lucky guests gathered in the bar just ahead of our 8 PM reservation. Our cast of characters for the evening:

Cristin, the birthday girl
Paul, the generous host
Connie, Cristin's oldest friend
Dan, Connie's husband and dog walker
Jasmine, a colleague of Cristin's
John, Jasmine's husband
Priya, another colleague of Cristin's, and quite the foodie in her own right
Rohit, Priya's husband, a devotee of sweet and fortified wines

After a cocktail in the bar (a glass of Ayala brut for me, my absolute favorite champagne from my trip last fall, and rarely to be found here in the States), we trouped back through the dining room, down a long, narrow hallway lined with wine refrigeration, and into the hot, bustling kitchen.

We were seated at a stainless steel horseshoe-shaped table facing the pass, and since the table and its banquette were raised a couple of feet off the floor, we had a clear view of the entire kitchen, all the way down to the end where the food for the more casual restaurant, Maze, is prepared. The pass was directly in front of us, so we had a front-row seat to the executive and sous-chef's doings all night long.

The meal was one of the longest I've ever had, with eleven courses spread over four and a half hours. There were canapes, two dishes featuring foie gras, three fish courses, and three desserts (not counting the cheese or the petits fours). Each course was paired with a different wine, starting with champagne and finishing with a sherry from 1971 (the birthday girl's birth year, it's worth noting).

Each course was introduced by the cook responsible for it - the guy working the fish line introduced the scallops, the cold appetizer guy told us all about the crudo, and the grill cook told us all about our filet, and the most adorable (and patient) captain painstakingly carved and served our cheese course.

For me, the highlights of the meal were the crudo and the quail. Well, those and watching Cristin learn from the pastry chef how to make a souffle. But first things first: that crudo. Delicate circles of pale swordfish and flushed tuna were served with paper-thin slices of cucumber - the crisp cucumber added some crunch to the fleshy, unctuous fish, and the soya dressing added a hint of richness. The dish was satisfying but light, substantial but ethereal. Really, really well done.

Quail and liver make a classic pair - Ouest serves roasted quail with a side of duck liver risotto, and dinner party hosts have been impressing their quests with quail stuffed with foie gras for years now. Both represent impractical luxury at its finest - quail with its tiny bones and little bitty pieces of meat, and foie gras with its time- and care-intensive production - and both are delectably, delicately rich. This presentation was no exception - a seared leg of quail flavored with honey and soy was presented atop a sweet-and-savory pear chutney (fall creeping into the menu there), alongside a seared lobe of foie gras. We eaters were left to mix and match meat and liver to our hearts' content.

Once we'd made it through the savory courses (save the cheese), the smokers declared it was time for a break, and the rest of us started poking around the kitchen. Josh, the executive chef, took Cristin back to the pastry station, where the pastry chef and his assistant taught her all about the fine art of souffle-making (whipping the egg whites, folding in the sugar, and so on). She very much enjoyed the lesson, which she attended under Gordon's watchful eye - you know what they say: if you can't be there, a wire sculpture of your imposing mug is the next best thing.

Chef's Table
Gordon Ramsay at The London
September 28, 2007
Photos of the full menu

Selection of canapes
Melon sorbet with watermelon, blood orange and tomato
Confit of Hudson Valley foie gras with slow-cooked free-range chicken
and micro green herb salad
Joh. Jos. Prum, Graacher Himmelreich, Mosel 2004
Carpaccio of swordfish and tuna with cucumber, herb salad and soya dressing
Riesling Rosenbourg, Paul Blanck 2004
Hand-dived scallops roasted with spices, golden raisin puree
and cauliflower beignets
Alex Gambal Chassagne-Montrachet 2003
Braised Pacific halibut larded with smoked salmon,
Romaine hearts, artichokes and marinated lemon, served with
smoked horseradish veloute
Godello, As Sortes, Rafael Palacios, Valdeorras 2005
Honey and soy roasted quail with sauteed foie gras
and spiced pear chutney
Corton, Grand Cru Les Combes, Chateau Genot-Boulanger 2002
Filet of Brandt beef and braised shortrib, spaetzle with
shallot confit and beef jus
Mayacamas, Napa Valley Cabernet 1992
Selection of cheeses
Chateau La Clotte-Cazalis 2003
Pineapple puree, vanilla yoghurt, pineapple granite, coconut tuiles
Apple and caramel trifle with cider granite, cinammon doughnut
Valrhona chocolate fondant with caramelized banana ice cream,
vanilla moelleux and malted milk
Bodegas Toro Albala, PX, Gran Reserva, Montilla-Moriles 1971

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