In Wendens Ambo, the quirkily named Essex village where I was lucky enough to grow up, there is a pub called The Bell. And in that pub, more days than not, there is a man. Let's call him Paul. In fact let's call him Paul Nelson, for 'tis he. One day, probably about 15 years ago now, he made a bet. He did this a lot. The precise details are lost in the mists of time (at least to me) but it was with the landlord and it was something to do with whether the chancellor would be raising the duty on beer in the forthcoming budget. So confident were both parties that the size of the wager quickly escalated until it reached the arcane sum of £468, apparently derived from the value of a certain quantity of beer at the time. And so concerned was the landlord that his missus would learn of the size of the bet he coined a new codeword for this precise amount of money. Henceforth £468 was known simply as a "Nelson", a denomination admittedly rarely used in any discussions not involving silly bets in the pub.
Fast forward to last autumn, when, buoyed with optimism after a moderately successful summer against whoever it was we were playing, I felt another famous victory coming on against the old enemy in the Ashes. Resident office Aussie Fiona was having none of it, and, not knowing of Nelsons, proposed an even money bet (what was I thinking?) that involved the loser standing the winner a meal at Gordon Ramsay's eponymous HQ in Royal Hospital Road. Clearly I lost. It seems only right that this bet, or at least the sum involved, shall henceforth be known as a "Ramsay".
I have a lot of time for Gordon Ramsay, an attitude I don't seem to share with many foodie types. In the dark days before I started going to flash restaurants on a regular basis, and before he'd become a bona fide A Lister, he cooked one of the first memorable dishes I had sampled – some sort of crêpe Suzette soufflé – when he'd been given the dessert station in a kind of Who's Who guerrilla kitchen at the Restaurant Show in about 1997. I also remember sharing a lift with him later that day and listening to him slagging off Pierre Victoire, a cheap and cheerful mini French chain that I thought was the height of sophistication at the time. Already larger than life and not inclined to pull punches or take prisoners... but clearly a gifted chef.
A decade or so on, and Ramsay's empire has flourished. His name adorns fine dining flagships and the most modern of gastropubs, trouble-shooting fly-on-the-wall documentaries and the hard-to-classify F-Word. And it this mix of celebrity trappings and extreme diversification – not to mention ill-judged advertising campaigns – that has alienated many food fans. But while I can't deny he must be spreading himself thin he's pretty consistent in preaching common sense and demanding quality and old fashioned values from his various viewers, readers, victims and staff. And his recipes somehow manage to be both challenging and foolproof: everyone should have a go at Claridge's chicken pie from the Secrets book.
Other foodies have a more fundamental objection: to his cooking. Ramsay restaurants, they say, may be long on classic flavour combinations, but are seriously short on innovation; his chefs can't or won't embrace the latest trends or the ultra modern techniques that are making stars of other members of the select three-star gang. Indeed, many were genuinely surprised when Royal Hospital Road held onto its status as one of only three three-star restaurants in the UK (and the only one in London). Never having eaten there, I couldn't really comment on this accusation. I'm in a far better, if poorer, position now.
The dining room at Royal Hospital Road is small, no more than a dozen tables evenly spaced around a curiously staid but undoubtedly smart modern(ish) environment. I was first in the room, and consoled myself during the wait for Fi (whose lateness was so fashionable it is quite possibly now the new black) with the thought that this was quite clearly the best table in the room: between the two front windows, with both chairs angled in to face the whole room. If there had been any stars to spot we could have ogled with impunity.
We nibbled discretely on canapés of foie gras parfait and taramasalata (both beguilingly light) with various crispy things to dip and studied the menu. There are three options, a limited choice set lunch for about £45, I think, an a la carte selection for £80-odd and the pompously named "Prestige" tasting menu for £110. In for a penny, in for a Nelson, of course: we went for the full whack with a couple of tweaks, and asked the consummately friendly sommelier to pick some wines by the glass for each course (the wine list is a scary tome that looked very impressive but as usual just drew my eye to all the most expensive bottles - eleven grand, since you asked).
So... Brace yourselves... Here goes:
An amuse of crab cocktail with confit tomato, a sorbet of (I think) red pepper and a chicory leaf with sour cream to scoop things up. A slightly involved opening gambit but hard to fault. Very summery.
One of the real highlights: a hot terrine of trotter, pork knuckle and black pudding with a cute quail's egg Benedict, balsamic and hollandaise sauce and a slice of summer truffle. Immensely satisfying, especially as my body basically thought this was breakfast.
For Fi, a single raviolo of lobster, langoustine and salmon poached in a light bisque and apparently served with a lemongrass and chervil velouté. I had a little taste of this and I wasn't bowled over. Very solid texture (maybe too solid) but without the subtle bisque-y flavours I was expecting.
Parmesan coated scallops on an octopus carpaccio with dollops of cauliflower purée and a Parmesan sauce. Probably the weakest link, and a real pity as the octopus was fantastic and the texture of the scallops spoke of a confident hand at the stove. Unfortunately, though, the Parmesan dominated: the crust on the scallops heading towards bitterness and the otherwise tasty sauce lingering a little too long in the mouth.
My second fish course: braised halibut with lavender pasta and pea velouté. The fish was a little bland on its own, but taken as a whole, this worked rather well, although the teetering pile of raw stuff on top was a bit annoying.
Fi's choice was monkfish wrapped in confit duck gave me serious food envy. The duck and the red wine sauce worked their magic so well that it was easy to forget this was a fish dish at all.
Fi's main course was a seared then poached fillet of Northumberland beef with a truffle and summer vegetable consommé, poured over at the table from a clear teapot (I ask you). The beef was great but Fi was put off by the unadvertised (and in this case unwelcome) bed of braised oxtail on which it was resting. I'd have scoffed the lot, but I was busy cursing my phone's photo memory and tucking into a canon of Cornish lamb, perfectly pink and resting in this case on a cushion of incredibly powerful confit shoulder. This was accompanied by a thyme jus and a fine ratatouille in a mini-roasted bell pepper and was as accomplished a classical meat dish as I can recall.
Offered the slightly unfair choice at this juncture of cheese or pre-dessert, we both went for the latter, and were rewarded with a cute yoghurt pot of what was described as creme brulée but was in fact a heavenly lemongrass custard with a dollop of raspberry compote. Wonderful.
The first dessert proper was a peach soup with some thicker apricot at the bottom and an amaretto cream on top. This felt very dated but was OK, especially when I found some popping candy somewhere in mine. Fi didn't believe me; I wasn't about to have a bet, though.
The finalé was a Granny Smith parfait on top of a layer of chocolate brownie surrounded by more chocolate, with "honeycomb", a chocolate straw and various slicks of coulis and something with coconut sprinkled on it. I thought this was all a bit confusing but Fi was enthusiastic about the combination and I had to concede that there was nothing that didn't actually work: it was just trying a little too hard. Fun to hear the waiter struggling to get his thick French accent around "Granny Smith", though.
Petit fours were fun: a foaming silver bowl of balls of strawberry ice cream in white chocolate blasted on a bed of dry ice and a little tree of silver coated truffles. Good stuff.
The wine choices were spot on throughout, but I'm afraid you'll have to hypnotise me if you want the details. I think I'd have preferred to see a fixed price wine flight to go with the menu, but in the end the sommelier struck a decent balance between luxury and price. We agreed at the end that the wine was one of the real high points of the meal.
The service was unremitting, eventually becoming a parody of itself. Apparently there's one member of staff for every customer, but I understand this is supposed to include those in the kitchen. Judging by the hordes front of house there can only be a maximum of two pour souls slaving away behind the scenes. It all got a but silly, really: did we really need to have our table scraped after every course, even long after we'd finished with the bread? Does it really need four people to place two plates in front of two people? Was the function of those two sub-maitre d's really just to wait around until someone asked for the bill? Difficult to what else they were doing.
But back to the food. My humble three-star dining experience to date is limited to the Fat Duck (OK before it got its third star), L'Arpege and now Restaurant Gordon Ramsay. It's clear that of these, the first pushes boundaries, and pushes them successfully, the second has taken ultimately refined classical techniques and applied them to the finest ingredients, and the third... Well it's clearly far closer to the classical style and is not going to win over hardened foodies who want to be amazed. There was nothing amazing, in the true sense of the word, in this meal: just (on the whole) well crafted, well presented, well thought out dishes that worked both individually and as an ensemble. It was great to see some Heston-style fun touches coming in with some of the fripperies around the edge of the meal, but there will need to be more wow factor in the substance of the menu before the foodie crowd comes back on side.
And the bill? On the basis that, technically, the terms of the bet would have allowed me to pay for Fiona to dine alone, a Ramsay appears to just a little more than a Half Nelson.
Restaurant Gordon Ramsay, 68-69 Royal Hospital Road, SW23 4HP 020 7352 4441