Eating out: King of his own castle

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The Independent Culture
GORDON RAMSAY

68 Royal Hospital Road, London SW3. Tel: 0171 352 4441. Open Monday to Friday, from noon to 2.45pm for lunch and 6.45 to 11pm for dinner. Set menus only: three-course lunch, pounds 25; three-course dinner, pounds 50, seven-course dinner, pounds 65. Credit cards accepted

I NEVER ATE at Aubergine, that fabled place where the rich dined on the finest fare, spiced by exclusivity. That was where Gordon Ramsay made his name and earned a considerable reputation, not only for the glory of his food but also for the seemingly endless scraps with his neighbours over dustbins, which probably earned him as many column inches in the press. I meant to go there, but never quite got around to it - the thought of booking a table six weeks or more before the event always struck me as a trifle ridiculous. A week is about as much as I can handle, 10 days at the outside. Anything longer than that just ain't cricket, in my book.

So the announcement that there will never be more than a four-week waiting list at the new Gordon Ramsay restaurant appeared to offer little hope of me ever making my way to his table. Miracle of miracles - when I finally got it together to enquire tentatively whether they might have a table for lunch for the following week, the answer was "yes, madame." And no, this wasn't a case of special treatment for a restaurant reviewer. You could have walked in from the street on the off-chance and been seated and sated. I don't imagine this state of affairs will continue for long - the chic, new, all-his-own Gordon Ramsay's has only been open for a few weeks - so take advantage of it. The set lunch menu, at pounds 25, is a real bargain.

I may not have passed through the portals of Aubergine, but at least this is not the first time I have sat in the dining room at 68 Royal Hospital Road. Last time the walls were pinkish, and the man at the helm was that elder statesman of London's haute cuisine, Monsieur Pierre Koffman himself. Nor is this the first time Gordon Ramsay has cooked in these kitchens, for he was once one of Koffman's ablest pupils. It must be a marvellous feeling to return in glory, master of all you survey, with all of London's food lovers at your knees.

The new look is more masculine, with etched glass screens echoing the blue tones and floating women of the long, swirling mural by the entrance. White ceiling and walls, curiously Seventies-ish beige embossed wallpaper in alcoves, sporting large glass ornamental vases and bowls, a mirrored pillar in the centre. All plush and flush, no great surprises to distract you from the most important item of all, the food.

It began with a neat little show opener, or rather amuse-bouche, as our very French waiter would have it, of a small essence of tomato, clear, intensely flavoured juice, with little shreds of basil and cubes of tomato float-ing in it, served in a neat little cup. Light and bright, it works admirably to kick-start the gastric juices without occupying valuable space in the pit of a hungry stomach.

Just as well, for the dish that followed was exceedingly rich. It was laid before me reverently, complete with the detailed Gallic description that accompanied each new arrival. So there it was, a generous slice of foie gras ter- rine, flecked here and there with slices of black truffle and haloed by a ring of the teensiest, most perfect pickled girolle, the very epitome of luxury. It was good, but lacked edge. Foie gras begs for something to balance its decadence, especially when served cold. Truffles alone are not enough, and the girolles were too tiny, too vinegary. The best foie gras terrine that I've ever tasted was made by Pierre Koffman - and I'm going to show off here - for our wedding breakfast, and what made it so good was the sweetness of Sauternes to mitigate that richness.

My partner on that occasion and this was William, whose first course salad of red mullet came with "caviare aubergine" an odd bit of phraseology, even in menu-speak. It might have meant a double act of aubergine and caviare, but I think that it actually proved to be what I call poor man's caviare, in other words an aubergine puree. If I sound a little vague on this, then no wonder: I didn't get a look in, for he scoffed the lot in the twinkling of an eye.

I made quite sure that I got a taste of his next helping, a glorious slab of turbot (his favourite fish) poached in red wine then swathed in an all-embracing, dark glossy robe of red wine sauce. Magnificent stuff this, the fish cooked just a point, firm and sweet. And as for me, well, I got a pretty fantastic deal too, with a sphere of very fat, sweet, juicy roast scallops, each sitting plumply on a thin cushion of cauliflower puree. To liven up the act, there were the smallest droplets of crisp fritters and best of all, the elegant little dollops of olive-green goo, which turned out to be an inspired liquidised "vinaigrette" thickened with capers and pale raisins. An unexpected mixture of ingredients all round, swishly pulled together.

"Et pour dessert, monsieur-dame?" Monsieur was amply satisfied with his small free-standing turret of creme brulee, sauced with a pure and clean-tasting jus of Granny Smiths. Why, though? We came over a touch patriotic at this juncture. What's wrong with the legion of truly great British apples, now hoving into season? Still, it has to be said that they make dandy fruit crisps: thin slices of dried Granny Smith, all pale ivory edged with green, surmounted the creme brulee, like the petals of a columbine. These fruit crisps are obviously a bit of a hot favourite: full-length, brittle cross-sections of banana (like something a biologist might slice off to sandwich in a slide for a microscope) topped my blessedly light terrine of orange and pink grapefruit. And here they came again, damn it, this time jauntily perched on twee miniature ice-cream cones, filled with a passion fruit and cream-cheese ice-cream.

Braving indigestion, we rushed down our puddings, gobbled up a brace of dolly's cones, washed down swiftly by coffees, and even managed to pay the bill and squeeze out of the door just in time for William to make his three o'clock meeting and for me to catch my train. I stood in the kitchen a few hours later, braced by the reality of domesticity, and marauded by two clamouring children. Supper ... and nothing but the freezer to turn to - where are you, Gordon, when you are really needed?

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