Poor old Gordon. It has not been the best of years for Britain's most famous three-star chef, what with taunts of embellishing on his soccer career and serving "boil-in-the-bag" meals; allegations of an extramarital affair; having to pull the plug on his restaurant in Prague, failing to make the World's 50 Best Restaurants list; being fined for late filing of the company's accounts, and dropping off the Sunday Times Rich List. And it's only May, for heaven's sake.
I can't quite believe it, but the bad press has been so relentless I am beginning to feel sorry for him. So the time has come to go to his flagship restaurant without any agenda other than to have dinner, and judge it on its merits. It has, after all, managed to remain the only London restaurant with three Michelin stars in 2009, in spite of Ramsay's horrible annus.
A glass of chilled Ayala house champagne (£12) and a perfectly crisp little cone of lobster and avocado get the evening off to a fine start. The square, glass-fronted room is hushed, neat, with the sort of understated décor best described as sterile-chic. There is nothing here to offend, but for the fact that there is nothing here to offend; tablecloths are creaseless, bud roses perfect, walls lacquered.
As ever, it is the things you don't see and hear that probably cost the most dosh; the room is the most perfect temperature, sound levels are sympathetic to conversation; and no foul obscenities can be heard from the kitchen, where Ramsay protégé Clare Smyth has been chef de cuisine for over a year.
A little starter sings of springtime, as a delicate, clear tomato essence is poured over baby vegetables. Next, a dramatically striped cross-section of pressed and fried pig's trotter and blood pudding has a deliciously grubby refinement. Pan-fried sea scallops served with soft potato gnocchi and a whisper-thin layer of octopus form a harmonious balance of sweet and soft; each flavour singular and clear.
The wine list runs for 35 pages and conforms to three-Michelin star type with its seven vintages of Lafite and nine of La Tour. God help you if you want something under £50. Even a plummy, perky Kiwi Burnt Spur Pinot Noir is £51, and struggles to be lush enough for the rich, gamey flesh of my roast Bresse pigeon and its jelly-soft lobe of pan-fried foie gras and confit leg. Flavours are gamey, paired with intelligence to beetroot, polenta, bacon. A dish of turbot is wedding-white, flanked by pretty langoustine bridesmaids with wild mushrooms and an undercarriage of soft, bland linguine. This is classic cooking; sophisticated, well-edited and flavour-first.
An assiette of desserts is a playful, table-covering collection of sweet bibs and bobs. The miniature form suits a little tarte tatin, which is caramelised all over, but it leaves a small chocolate soufflé over-souffed.
In the current context, Restaurant Gordon Ramsay probably sits closest to the two-star-and-rising Alain Ducasse at The Dorchester. There are restaurants more ground-breaking (Fat Duck), more personal (Hibiscus), and more exciting (Texture), but you come here for crafty, harmonious cooking with full make-up and not a hair out of place.
I bow to the execution, although it doesn't steal my heart. If you don't get schmoozed by restaurant director Jean-Claude Breton, you can get lost, as I did, in a swarm of sniffy French boys delivering menu descriptions by rote; bringing dessert menus when they have already taken your dessert order; or suggesting wines for cheese when you are not taking cheese. Let's just hope it doesn't happen to the Michelin inspectors, or I might have to start feeling sorry for the shouty one all over again.
Scores: 1-9 stay home and cook, 10-11 needs help, 12 ok, 13 pleasant enough, 14 good, 15 very good, 16 capable of greatness, 17 special, can't wait to go back, 18 highly honourable, 19 unique and memorable, 20 as good as it gets
Restaurant Gordon Ramsay, 68 Royal Hospital Road, London SW3, tel: 020 7352 4441
Lunch and dinner, Mon-Fri; dinner £90pp for three courses (around £280 for two including wine and service)
Second helpings: Budget Michelin dining
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