This week I revisit Gordon Ramsay in Chelsea

Friday, March 28th , 2008

 gordon-ramsay 5472 Clare Smyth 2-crop-v3.JPG 
I had the usual excellent and good value meal at Haandi, which remains one of my favourite Indian restaurants. Murgh burra tikka was superb as ever, tender and with just a hint of spices from the marinade.   Vegetables are cooked very carefully here, retaining their texture properly, as in aloo gobi, while channa has tender chickpeas and a rich, spicy sauce. Paratha is the best of the breads there.
Gordon Ramsay now has Clare Smyth (pictured) as head chef. The menu has gently evolved since my meal there last year, but as ever it has plenty of appealing choices using classic ingredients. Service was, as ever, extremely good under manager Jean-Claude, with waiting staff who were efficient but also seem to actually care. The food itself, though, was rather underwhelming. Ramsay’s kitchen never aims for over-bold flavour combinations, and there was a lovely duck dish to show the kitchen in its best light. However little slips have started to creep in, even with well established dishes; nothing scary, but a little timing inaccuracy here, a less assured amuse bouche there. I still think this is 8/10 territory; certainly virtually nothing ventured above that level, while a few too many elements didn’t quite live up to billing. It is a very enjoyable, easy restaurant to dine in, and is not even especially expensive by today’s standards, but I don’t think it is a really delivering at proper 3 star level, nor has it been for some time in my view.
I wasn’t quite sure what to expect from Bord’eaux, but chef Ollie Couillard’s track record at La Trompette and Tom’s Kitchen had raised my hopes, even for a large hotel bistro such as this. Unfortunately, though the service was excellent, there were some worrying slips in the kitchen on the night of our visit, a night Ollie was not there. 
For those of you who subscribe to my newsletter, a correction. There are indeed some “espoirs” i.e. “tipped for future stars” in the France Michelin 2008 at the 3 star level, namely: Chateau de la Chevre d'Or in Eze, Cordeillan-Bages in Pauillac and le Bristol in Paris. There are also five places tipped for a future possible two stars, and 13 more for a future single star (thanks MJ for pointing this out, and sorry for the slip).
In other news, it seems that the Connaught will, when it reopens in June, have an establishment run by Hélène Darroze, whose restaurant in Paris has two Michelin stars.  She used to work at Louis XV in Monaco before opening her own restaurant in 1999.
I should just mention the rather odd press barrage at Michelin this week based on assorted retreads of an article from Waitrose magazine, claiming that Michelin was out of touch with modern trends and was generally obsessed with formality. Really? This is the same guide that gave Heston Blumenthal three Michelin stars back in 2004.  How old-fashioned is his cooking?  This is also the same guide that has just awarded three stars to a Tokyo sushi bar with ten bar stools and no toilet.  For years chefs were complaining about how they had to spend a fortune on expensive glassware and crockery in order to gain a Michelin star, when these counter-examples suggest that perhaps they should just have tried just cooking better.
As for formality, it has awarded the informal bistro cooking of Arbutus a star.  How much more modern, simple, or informal does it get than this?   Michelin has acknowledged the value of high quality ethnic cooking, with stars for restaurants such as Hakkasan, and a number of Indian restaurants in London (maybe the wrong ones, but still).   I am sure we all disagree with certain of its assessments each year – is that place really still worth two stars, is this one not ready for its star? But the point is that this is the guide whose opinions matter.   Chefs do not work themselves into a frenzy over their position in other guide books to anything like the same extent, and this is because they know that, while they do not always agree with it, Michelin has a reputation second to none. It takes no advertising, no fees, and has anonymous inspectors; its ratings cannot be manipulated by unscrupulous restaurateurs or PR agencies, as on-line lists surely can be (and clearly are, in some cases).  
Yes there are assessments I disagree with, and the guide has flaws e.g. some country inconsistency such as the “US affirmative action program” it seems to have when awarding stars there (this phrase was coined by Josh, an American foodie friend). Yet it seems to me that no-one has come up with a better way of fairly assessing restaurants. Churchill described democracy as “the worst form of government except all the others that have been tried”.  In a similar way Michelin may be the worst restaurant guide, except for all the others.