Gordon Ramsay once joked that Frank Bruni was so important he was going to have his face printed on the pillows of his waiters. Alas, the efforts of Britain's most famous chef to please the restaurant critic of The New York Times have been dashed.
Three months after Ramsay opened his first US restaurant, the London NYC, on 16 November, Bruni has finally delivered his verdict. It was critical and not a little humbling for a chef determined to crack America.
Out of a maximum four stars, Bruni awarded the London NYC just two, "very good" - well short of the "excellent" or "extraordinary" to which Ramsay would have aspired. The central failing Bruni identified was the timidity at the "icily" decorated restaurant - the first of three Ramsay eateries in the US.
Bruni made much of Ramsay's reputation for being foul-mouthed in his television shows, but he suggested the brashness had not been matched by boldness in the kitchen.
In a 1,400-word review, he wrote: "For all his brimstone and bravado, his strategy for taking Manhattan turns out to be a conventional one, built on familiar French ideas and techniques that have been executed with more flair, more consistency and better judgment in restaurants with less vaunted pedigrees."
He complained: "Most ingredients are predictable, most flavours polite, most effects muted. "Mr Ramsay may be a bad boy beyond the edges of the plate but in its centre, he's more a goody-two-shoes."
Such a verdict is a setback to Ramsay as he expands across the globe, with openings planned later this year in Los Angeles and Florida and in Paris, Prague and Amsterdam. Although he has made no secret of his intention to replicate his three Michelin stars at his Chelsea restaurant in New York, Ramsay had been careful to avoid antagonising New Yorkers by being too brash.
He has made humble noises about having to earn his customers' respect and toned down his fieriness towards staff to placate the powerful unions.
This desire to achieve, rather than dazzle, appears to have underwhelmed Bruni, who previously complained he was allotted just two hours to dine.
Other reviews of London NYC have been similarly lukewarm, with the New York Sun referring to its "unimpeachable adequacy". The Independent's critic Tom Sutcliffe was more generous and pointed out that New Yorkers prided themselves on being hard to impress and early reviews carried an overtone of chippy resistance to Ramsay's reputation.
Chippy or not, Bruni complained the menu was cautious and reliant on "default luxuries" and he declared himself disappointed with many of the dishes. The appetiser of caramelized sweetbreads was luxurious but not "gripping"; the roasted chicken was "just a roasted chicken" while there were envelopes of "raw, thinly sliced, unpleasantly papery red beet".
Worse, there were a "few off-putting concoctions" such as a "cloying, gummy wedge of turbot" and "bizarre" langoustine tails with chicken wings that he suggested might have been the work of KFC's Colonel Sanders.
He did, however, like the desserts and praised the "terrific" tarte tartin.
The critic, whose verdict is closely followed by New Yorkers, eats out at restaurants several times before deciding on them.
'Most ingredients are predictable, most flavours polite, most effects muted'
An extract from The New York Times' review of Gordon Ramsay at the London [**]
The chef Gordon Ramsay has a British television show called The F Word, an American television show called Hell's Kitchen and, by all accounts and appearances, the kind of foul mouth and foul temper those titles suggest.
You might expect his debut New York restaurant to be brash and any of its shortcomings to be attributable to audacity, not timidity.
You'd be wrong.
Step into Gordon Ramsay at the London, so named because it inhabits The London NYC Hotel, which used to be the Rihga Royal. Look hard for any vibrancy, any colour. The walls, which resemble mother-of-pearl, are less a hue than a mood: coolly, even icily, elegant.
The cautious palette foreshadows a cautious menu, as reliant on default luxuries and flourishes like foie gras and black truffles as on real imagination. Most ingredients are predictable, most flavours polite, most effects muted. Mr Ramsay may be a bad boy beyond the edges of the plate, but in its centre, he's more a goody-two-shoes.
And for all his brimstone and bravado, his strategy for taking Manhattan turns out to be a conventional one, built on familiar French ideas and techniques that have been executed with more flair, more consistency and better judgement in restaurants with less vaunted pedigrees.
An appetiser of caramel-ised sweetbreads with creamed artichoke had a textbook luxuriousness, but it didn't venture into any new or particularly gripping chapters. An entrée of roasted chicken for two was adorned with a sufficiently flavourful fricassee of bacon, onions and prunes, but it was still just a roasted chicken for two. The cauliflower beignets in an appetiser of caramelised sea scallops were adorable, but they were playing cameos in a dish whose stars turned in dutiful, forgettable performances. Among roughly eight appetiser selections on the prix fixé menu most nights, the only bold standout was red mullet, served as pan-fried fillets that were framed and tamed perfectly by the brightness, acidity and sweetness of a pink grapefruit vinaigrette.
Among a similar number of entrées, there was a similar dearth of inspiration. While chorizo and artichoke lent plenty of personality to a beautifully roasted fillet of black bass, a bitter chocolate sauce and a beet fondant didn't jazz up slices of venison loin quite as much as they needed to. The dish's music remained faint.
And there were a few off-putting concoctions, such as a cloying, gummy wedge of turbot poached in St Émilion and a bizarre appetiser combining delicate langoustine tails with indelicate nuggets of boneless chicken wing, crusted with hazelnuts and sweetened with maple syrup.
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