EXACTLY five years ago a 26-year-old Scottish-born chef, Gordon Ramsay,
opened his first restaurant, Aubergine, in Park Walk off Fulham Road, as part-owner and chef. He had originally planned to be a professional footballer, was signed up by Glasgow Rangers at the age of 15, but did not advance beyond the reserves. So he then completed a course in cookery and hotel management, and came to London to gain experience as a chef. He worked first with the almost equally youthful Marco- Pierre White, who had just opened his own first restaurant, Harvey's, in Wandsworth. Ramsay then moved on to work with Albert Roux at Le Gavroche before going to France for three years, where he worked with the top chefs Guy Savoy and Joel Robuchon. This formidable training pro- duced a formidable chef, and it did not take long for word to get around that Aubergine offered some of London's finest cooking. By the time he left this summer, Gordon Ramsay, now 31, had won two stars in the Guide Michelin and turned Aubergine into one of the hottest spots in London, where a table in the 45-seat room had to be reserved three months in advance — at least.
It had already been rumoured that Ram- say was planning to move from Park Walk to Royal Hospital Road, a mile away, whence his colleague Pierre Koffmann was planning to take his Tante Claire restau- rant, with its three Michelin stars, to the Berkeley Hotel. But all this happened more abruptly when Ramsay, having quarrelled with his holding company, A-Z Restau- rants, left Aubergine with all his staff and set about an instant refurbishment of Tante Claire. Having left Park Walk at the begin- ning of August, he reopened in Royal Hos- pital Road in early September. Ramsay had to leave behind his fine cellar at Aubergine, and Koffmann had taken his with him from Tante Claire, so Ramsay's young French sommelier, Thierry Berson, had just five weeks to assemble a new cellar for the new restaurant, now called Gordon Ramsay. During the same time United Designers completed a revamp of Tante Claire's rather dull room.
By mid-September, when I visited Gor- don Ramsay for lunch with my friend Justin Nason, a retired ambassador now living in Cannes, the restaurant was in full swing, with all but one table taken in the coolly elegant room with its dark pink carpet, café-au-lait suede-covered chairs, and a dramatic blue and white etched glass screen along one side of the room. We felt instantly at ease and eager to tackle the cooking.
As at Aubergine, Gordon Ramsay offers a three-course lunch for £25, dinner for £50, with a five-course 'Menu Prestige' for £65. Curiously all three charge an extra £4 for coffee and petits fours, which seems rather unnecessary. Fortified by a glass of house champagne (£8), Justin and I decid- ed to try the set lunch which, as before, offers two no-choice three-course menus, which you may 'mix and match'. Before starting we were offered Ramsay's 'signa- ture dish', cappuccino of haricots blancs, with saute girolles and grated truffles, as a delicious amuse-gueule, with Justin then starting with a salad of red mullet with caviar aubergine, and I with a terrine of foie gras with pickled girolles.
Both were superb. Justin stated that he did not know a restaurant in Cannes which would prepare mullet as impeccably (the aubergine caviar was magnificent too), and my terrine of duck's foie gras, interleaved with the girolles, was equally sublime. Next I chose a navarin of fish — succulent pieces of ultra-fresh sea bass, salmon, brill, monk- fish, plus a sea scallop — lightly poached and served with a gorgeous veloute of broad beans with fresh peas, and some spinach, while Justin ate a splendid braised shin of beef in an intense red wine sauce, with perfect pommes purée.
For dessert he chose vanilla crème brfilee, served with wafer-thin slices of Granny Smith apples and apple jus: similar to that served at Mirabelle, but maybe a lit- tle more unctuous. I ended with a glorious pave of oranges with pink grapefruit in a lovely wine jelly, with a banana and passion fruit sorbet; most refreshing. The petits fours that accompanied the coffee almost justified the surcharge, so skilfully were they made. With this memorable meal we drank an admirable 1990 Medoc — Château Lachesnaye — from Thierry's bril- liantly selected new list, good value at £30, and with dessert enjoyed the glass of sweet Italian recioto he recommended. The final bill of £118 was some way from the £25 lunch we had started with, but it was a mag- nificent meal. I can't wait to return for din- ner, and as they are now taking bookings only up to a month in advance I might even stand a chance!
No sooner had Gordon Ramsay and his team left Aubergine than A-Z Restaurants started to look for a new chef and staff to replace them. They found a 27-year-old Liverpudlian, William Drabble, who joined from the Michelin-starred Michael's Nook in Grasmere, having learned his craft in London at the Capital, Chez Nico, and Pied a Terre — all distinguished kitchens. Pierre Baldelli became restaurant manager and David Chatain took over the fine cellar left behind by Ramsay. The room is pre- cisely as before — less stylish than Gordon Ramsay's but perfectly satisfactory, and the new staff are impeccably courteous, one waiter even parking my American friend Julia Petersen's car for her when she arrived in a tizz, having failed to find a space. Prices are slightly lower than Ram- say's: £23.50 for the same format three- course lunch, but including coffee, and din- ner £39.50 for three courses, with coffee £3.50 extra.
Julia and I went for the set lunch, she starting with a fine light mousse of foie gras with broad beans and girolles, and I with a salad of crab, moulded with cauliflower mayonnaise and avocado purée: while the colour scheme of the ensemble was attrac- tive, the taste was slightly nondescript. Next Julia ate a daube of beef in red wine with pommes purée and cepes and another purée, of bacon and watercress, around it, which she enjoyed. I also liked my pan- fried fresh, firm brill, accompanied by a good nage of vegetables with some prime asparagus.
For dessert Julia greatly liked her fon- dant of chocolate — the warm dark choco- late oozing temptingly out of it — with a splendid mint sorbet, and ,I was delighted with an outstanding pear tarte tatin admirably caramelised and with good vanil- la ice cream. Coffee was fine, but the petits fours were a dull let-down. As Julia was not drinking I enjoyed a glass each of good Pouilly Fume and well-made Nuits St Georges, only slightly overpriced at £6.50 a glass. Sadly Aubergine was conspicuously underfilled — just four tables occupied — and the atmosphere was thus sadly defi- cient, but I have little doubt that things will pick up, even if it does not quite regain its former brilliance.
Gordon Ramsay: 68 Royal Hospital Road, London SW3; tel: 0171 352 4441. Closed Saturday and Sunday.
Aubergine: 11 Park Walk, London SW10; tel: 0171 352 3449. Closed Saturday lunch and all day Sunday.