As I have mentioned before, at the beginning of last month my friend Greg from Australia stayed with us for a week. As he is as chronic a foodie as I am, much of the week was spent talking about, cooking, eating and photographing food – what bliss!! Before he had even boarded his Qantas flight over here, we had already decided on certain dishes that would cook, certain foodie places we had to go and where we would go for a splash-out meal. Since Greg is travelling on Aussie Dollars, which do not translate into very many £££s, I weighed our options up very carefully as to where the splash meal should be. If you have money to burn there are, of course, any number of restaurants in London who would be more than happy to help you in this regard… But finding a gourmet bargain is another story. I was keen to take Greg somewhere with a “name” in the restaurant world, as well as somewhere with reliably fab food – and preferably somewhere that I had been and could recommend personally. After much debate I settled on a lunch at Gordon Ramsay at Claridges – both because I thought it was fabulous value for money (I have been there before and was hugely impressed with the calibre of the food) and because it was close enough to my office to make lunch possible without having to take an afternoon off. I did, however, warn my colleagues when I left at 12 not to expect me back in a huge hurry…
At 12:30 sharp I met Greg in the foyer of the Claridges Hotel. The hotel dates from the Art Deco era and rightly bills itself as “London’s Art Deco jewel” – stepping into the foyer is like stepping back in time to a more gracious era altogether. The restaurant is similarly decorated and is a feast for the eyes, all high ceilings and authentic Deco details and furnishings – I particularly adore the light fittings. I don’t know how, but we got arguably the best table in the house – a round table at the back of the room facing the entrance, against a wall so that we were both seated to look out across the room. We could see everyone and everyone could see us – certainly the table to see and be seen! The first things we noticed were the fabulous underplates which were rimmed in Art Deco style with silver leaf designs. To die for. I was quite disappointed when they were whisked away after we placed our order! The extremely polite and friendly staff settled us in and brought us the menus (both the a la carte and the set lunch) together with the wine list. Perused the a la carte menu but we knew what we were there for – the 3-course set lunch menu! It is without a doubt London’s best foodie bargain at £30 for three courses.
We ordered our first 2 courses & examined the telephone directory-sized wine list – I am always impressed by their extensive list as there is something to suit everyone's palate and wallet. And of course, if you don't know Chateau Lafites from your Californian Zins, the sommelier is on hand to assist you without the slightest hint of condescension. As I was going back to work and Greg was planning some sightseeing, we opted to have a glass as opposed to a bottle and selected a glass each of an Austrian Riesling which turned out to be perfect with the food. Then came the warm, fresh bread rolls with unspeakably good butter, a pat each of salted and unsalted. I should have asked where they source their butter from as it was fantastic (says the cholesterol queen!) – Greg surmised France. Needless to say we made short work of the salted pat and wee soon onto our second pat! Next, our charming waiter brought us an amuse bouche, which was a teacup of what we concluded was a creamy celery and mushroom soup garnished with truffle oil. At the bottom of the bowl were slivers of really strongly-flavoured and delicious mushrooms, so you ended your amuse on a high note. Delicious.
For my starter I had a tian of Cromer crab and avocado with confit plum tomatoes and Marie Rose sauce while Greg had a Jerusalem artichoke risotto with sherry vinegar caramel and Parmesan shavings. My starter looked absolutely gorgeous – a little tower topped with a round of plum tomato and a dab of olive tapenade in the middle of an eye-shaped plate (I really love the crockery they use!). The flavours and textures were subtle and really fabulous. The crab was shredded and mixed with tiny slices of baby asparagus tips and tine cubes of apple which made a delightful counterpoint to the rich crab meat and added some textural interest. But I have to say that Greg was the winner on the starters – his risotto was absolutely divine – gooey, infused with the unmistakeable earthy flavour of artichokes and toped with the zingy sherry vinegar caramel – incredible.
For my main course I had smoked pork belly with chocroute, glazed carrots, fried quail's egg and Madeira Sauce. This arrived looking beautiful – four little slices of pork topped with the tiny but perfect fried egg resting on a bed of chocroute and surrounded by cubes of glazed carrot and teensy little mushrooms. Greg had roast calves' liver on a bed of Savoy cabbage flavoured with marjoram, celeriac puree and braised baby onions. Everything just LOOKED so beautiful – you didn't really want to start eating and spoil the picture. I kept kicking myself for not bringing my camera… but I guess in some ways it's a good thing as the lack of photographic record forced us to take detailed mental notes on what we were eating. My pork was delicious with a deep smoky flavour and so tender it was falling apart at the touch of a fork. Each slice was edged with just enough fat and the flavour of the pork paired very nicely with the tart sauerkraut and sweet carrot cubes. But Greg once again had the winner – the calves' liver was rare (they had given Greg the option and after a moment's hesitation he had decided to chance it – he reasoned that if Gordon Ramsay's kitchen didn't know how to do rare liver correctly, nobody would!) and absolutely perfect – firm on the outside but pate-like and gooey inside.
After these two very happy courses, the time came to revisit the menu and ponder dessert. There were some great choices – I was particularly tempted by the warm walnut cake with coffee ice cream and marinated oranges. But there really was no decision to be made – my most lasting memory of my previous visit was the utterly spectacular cheese trolley and so we both opted for cheese and biscuits. The most charming cheese waiter (isn't that great?? Now there's a job I'd like!) brought the trolley over to our table and explained the selection to us. To put you in the picture, Gordon Ramsay has a cheese trolley the size of dessert trolleys that I remember from my youth. No plate of 3 standard cheeses, oatcakes and don't-ask-me-what-the-cheese-are-I-just-work-here service here. The trolley contained probably about 30 types of cheese and they were classified broadly into goat's cheese, soft cheese and hard cheese. The waiter asked what sort of cheese we liked – soft cheese, hard cheese, mild cheese, cheese with rind etc etc and based on that, started making suggestions. I wish I had taken the time to write down the names of the cheeses I chose, but I was so lost in my happy moment of cheese selection that I wrote down not a single word – sorry!!
For my plate, I chose two kinds of blue cheese (both French and both marinated in different types of alcohol – I think one was armagnac); a truffled Brie with a seam of truffle shavings running through the middle of it; the mouldiest, ooziest soft cheese on the board (highly recommended by the waiter, so I gave in despite my misgivings about its appearance!!) and a hard French cheese, rather like mature cheddar. Greg went for a mature cheddar, a hard cheese from the Isle of Mull, a mild camembert-type cheese with a hard grey rind that appeared to have fern leaves pressed into it (very pretty!); a goat's cheese flavoured with garlic and black pepper; and another soft cheese marinated in Calvados. This was all served with crackers & seedless grapes. My plate turned out to be the winner (at last! I make the better choice!). The mouldy, gooey cheese defied its scary appearance – it was smoked and absolutely divine – rather mild but with a definite smoky flavour. But the star of the show was probably the truffled Brie, redolent with the pungent flavour of truffles. From Greg's plate, the pepper and garlic goat's cheese was probably the best & the mature cheddar was very good, but not as exotic as much of the other stuff that we could have had. Ah well, next time!
By this stage it was well beyond the end of my lunch “hour” so we thought it wise to get the bill, which came together with a generous bowl of the restaurant's signature home-made chocolate truffles. They were roughly the size of marbles and dusted with cocoa. But once you bit into them, they contained the most delicious burnt caramel liquid – it was like runny crème brulée topping! We could not stop eating them! I told Greg about their other signature – strawberry ice cream balls covered in white chocolate – but I guess we will have to go back to try them another time. But, sadly, all good things must come to an end and eventually we tore ourselves away from our table and headed back into harsh reality.
I have to say that both times I have visited this restaurant (once for dinner and on this occasion for lunch) I have had nothing but praise for the food – it is high quality, perfectly executed and beautifully presented. And at £30 for 3 courses, surprisingly affordable. But in the end, I think that what sets the Michelin-starred experience apart from the rest is the exceptional levels of service. Everyone we dealt with, from the reception staff to the waiter, the sommelier and cheese waiter, was exceptionally polite and friendly without being obsequious or over-familiar and nobody rolled even one condescending eye. Greg loved it, as did I, and I left wondering why I don't do this more often – I mean, in London you can easily pay a lot more for a lot less! So if you are planning a visit to London soon (or live here and feel like a treat!) do yourself a favour and try Gordon Ramsay at Claridge's. Why? Because you're worth it!
Liked: outstanding food, exceptional service, wonderful value for money
Disliked: having to leave!
Gordon Ramsay at Claridges
Tel: +44 (0)20 7499 0099
Fax: +44 (0)20 7499 3099