Wednesday, May 04, 2011

Fine dining

Dinner at Gordon Ramsay at the London West Hollywood was Saturday night. I was nervous all week because my longtime susceptibility to canker sores flared up with at least three in the back of my mouth (including a big one on my right tonsil that caused a throat sore enough that made eating hard). Thankfully by Saturday I felt like I was about 85 percent healed and knew I'd be able to eat mostly problem free as long as I didn't talk too much Saturday at work. Thankfully, my co-worker A. stepped up and ran the staff meeting pretty much on her own.

The London West Hollywood is a hotel just south of the Sunset Boulevard, a particularly swanky section of Sunset Boulevard—point of reference, I parked directly in front of The Viper Room (RIP River Phoenix). On a couple of the Yelp! reviews people complained about rather exorbitant parking costs (someone mentioned $20). I had a 30 percent off coupon courtesy of Blackboard Eats, but I didn't want to piss that away on parking.

Once we entered the hotel, everything was very tony in a more classic sense. There was brass/gold and lots of white, as opposed to the stark brushed steel, dark wood aesthetic. I dug that. Incidentally, when we walked into the lobby we didn't know where the restaurant was but thankfully we had our choice of two suited-up dudes just standing in the small lobby who smiled in the ask-me-a-question-I'm-here-to-help way. So we did and were directed down the hall that shot off to the left and then proceeded to the end and made a right.

When we got there for our 7 o'clock reservation the restaurant was mostly empty. Saturday at 7 p.m. is an earlier time, but I'd been working all day and figured why wait. As we checked in, I made sure to tell the hostess that I was redeeming my discount coupon and gave her my printout with the discount code. Nothing says I belong at a michelin-starred restaurant like pulling a six-folded 8.5x11 piece of paper out of one of my back jeans pockets to get a discount.

First thing that surprised me: Gordon Ramsay at the London West Hollywood (the actual name of the restaurant) is in the same place as The Boxwood Cafe. It's so the same space that when you open the menu you have the Boxwood menu on the left and the fancier restaurant on the right. Btw, the more casual cuisine at Boxwood (that's where you can order a burger) is still uncheap. The entrees range from $16 to $34.

The first decision was whether to get the three-course meal for $68 a person or the five-course for $82. Our waiter, Jose, who wore the standard uniform gray suit, white shirt, no tie. Jose had told us that the serving sizes were "European" meaning smaller as an enticement to order the five-course. After several minutes of deliberating G, one of my former students who now works for the city of SF, and I each decide on the three-course. I recalled my Craft experience of how a slowly consumed multi-course meal of smaller portions (meaning not TGI McOliveBee's Lobster size) could be perfectly satisfying.

As I've learned from my whopping five fine-dining sorties, the menu doesn't offer lots of choices, because the idea is that these dishes required lots of creativity and skill and some pricey ingredients so let's specialize in a few and just be aces with them. Suck on that Cheesecake Factory!

Before the appetizers came they brought us a canape of very thin crustini to dip into the silkiest thing I've ever ate—mascarpone, white truffle oil and olive oil. Several Yelpers said that this was their fave thing. I don't think I'd go that far, but still ... this was unlike anything I'd ever eaten and the best example of textural contrast I've ever eaten.

The canape was a big contrast to the standard dinner bread, which had a too-hard crust and was otherwise just slightly above average. :(

Then come the official appetizers. Sadly, I forgot what kind of Pinot Noir I ordered. I remember only that I allowed our waiter to choose it and that it cost $22 a glass.

I order the Tagliatelle with Charred Octopus as my appetizer. The pasta was perfectly al dente, the tomato sauce had a tiny hint of sweetness but wasn't too sweet. Still it was just well-cooked pasta, right? Wrong, with the octopus it was fantastic, though charred outside it wasn't dried out or too chewy. The octopus was cut into thin slices, like penny-sized and the charring added a texture and smokiness that mixed great with the pasta.

G got the foie gras with toast and a smoked ice cream, which neither of us remembers the precise flavor of. She said it was excellent though.

Entree: Scallops and Pork Belly with multiple vegetable purees. Double SAD:, I don't remember what specifically. One was green and one was reddish though. Seeing the three sauces, the two huge diver scallops resting on juicy pork belly and one of those towers was topped with a shiny golden fried quail egg, whoa. You definitely eat first with your eyes. The waiter explained that my dish was very complex and had "lots of flavors" happening.

The scallop was super juicy and the flakey pieces slip off so smoothly when cut that the butter knife was more than sufficient to slice it. It was so fresh that eating it solo was tasty, but combined with the pork belly and purees, it was divine.

G got the chateuabriand, which according to the internet and our waiter, is the best part of a cow. It's the thick center of the tenderloin. I don't eat mammals, but since this might be a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity I caved and tasted two small bites after G offered. We of course wanted to share as much as possible. (I think G had some kind of pork app, because I didn't try that.) The steak was very good, though since she ordered it medium, it wasn't as juicy as I used to eat steak. Nevertheless, if I had chateaubriand every time mom force fed me steak as a kid, I'll bet that I'd still eat beef.

I'm such a beef and high-end dining novice, that I didn't even know that this was a cut of beef that you could get, let alone that it was considered among the very best.

After that came dessert. G and I each ordered the chocolate cylinder. It's about 2.5 inches tall and thin, like an old school film canister. Inside there's roasted marshmallow that's crispish on top and melty below--think Smorelike--and then under that some caramel crunchiness, maybe peanuts. To the side is almost a golfball hazelnut ice cream. The hazelnut was by far the star of the dessert, which was otherwise good. Of my fine dining experiences, this was easily the most average dessert.

In fact, the average note of the dessert pushed this experience down below Craft and Silfur (in Reykjavik) on my list of best restaurant meals ever. Still, though, it was amazing. I mean, we're talking like distinctions between 98, 97 and 96.

Two last things, they forgot to apply my 30 percent off discount when they brought my bill. I didn't notice at first and just gave them my card. In part because I wanted to get going since I'd already gone past my two-hour meter by about 5 minutes. But when I was about to sign I looked more carefully and the bill was $224 pre-tip. WHAT? Thankfully, once I told Jose he cancelled the first charge and they re-ran my card. The new bill was only $156ish. Whew! Much better. Since we're instructed to tip based on the original bill, it came to about $98 a piece. This is the most expensive meal I've ever eaten, but totally worth it. It was outstanding. And, I managed to avoid the parking ticket!
Great comment from my friend Kerri: I assume these dishes weren't coated in a thick layer of cheese. You forgot to include that in your differences with TGI McOliveBee's Lobster. I'm with you on pulling out the folded coupon. I hate that feeling.