Although alchemy is considered a fake science, I believe one area where alchemy as a practice thrives is in the culinary arts. The transformation of base items such as milk, seltzer, and chocolate syrup into the sublime egg cream is truly alchemical, as is turning cream into whipped cream, cranberries into sauce, and almost any cooking process you can name is alchemy to me. But sometimes, a chef can take ingredients into another realm entirely, and such is the realm I entered the other day when a friend and I had a meal at Gordon Ramsay's NY outpost, the Maze (renamed from the London Bar). I've long been a fan of Gordon Ramsay's tv shows, so when I heard he was opening an outpost in NY, I was dying to sample his food. I was first made aware of Ramsay on Anthony Bourdain's old Food Network show, A Cook's Tour. When Bourdain did an episode on London, he showcased Ramsay as one of Britain's new breed of chef. Then BBC America ran a slew of his shows, including Gordon Ramsay's Kitchen Nightmares (slated for an American version), The F Word, and an earlier show about his attempts to open his first restaurant. Ramsay is a divisive figure in Britain, who has caused many a contretemps over his anger and opinionated ideas (he once claimed women can't be good cooks, a remark he regrets making, and he threw Joan Collins out of his restaurant once), but he has definite ideas on food and how it should be served. Like many food obsessives, he is a perfectionist, and can be cranky when standards don't meet his. This trait seems true of many of my favorite food people. The Israeli who runs Cafe Azuri on 51st St., between 9th and 10th, and who makes the best felafel in the city, is frequently cited for being cranky and rude, as was Alessandro of Melampo's on Thompson St., maker of the best sandwiches ever. Alessandro went back to Italy, and his shop is now in the hands of his much nicer assistant.
Many of Ramsay's ideas were apparent in his restaurant: the wait staff was excellent, attentive, and the head waiter answered our questions about the food clearly and without the condescension you sometimes get in high end establishments. The actual restaurant has a retro feel to it, I'd say 1963 moderne, with a lot of glass and steel, and vinyl banquets. Despite a slightly sterile quality, I found it very pleasant to sit in it. Very nice bathrooms, by the way, always a plus. Ramsay's food was amazing, possibly some of the best I've ever eaten. Ramsay is not a mad scientist, experimenting with chemical frippery like Willy Dufresne, but a chef who believes in serving perfect versions of whatever he's cooking. Among the standouts, hand dived scallops, with an astonishing garnish made from cauliflower, pork belly, a fall off the bone lamb shoulder, a delicious carpaccio of tuna, a stunning risotto made with wood mushrooms, and an incredible dessert of molten chocolate fondant, paired with an almost savory pecan ice cream. My one critique is some of the dishes were a touch over salted, but I'm very sensitive to salt as a spice, so it may just be my palate. One thing I especially enjoyed was the waiters kept refilling our water glasses without us having to ask, something I appreciate as I drink a lot of water with my meal.
I see that Ramsay has gotten mixed reviews in NY, but I think this has to do with the fact that Ramsay is not an innovator, but someone who just prepares food in an excellent manner. Ramsay is from an older tradition of chefs, and NY foodies tend to gravitate to innovators, which is why I think Dufresne gets so much press. I haven't eaten at this place, so maybe his chemical experimets yield tasty food, but it's not a direction that appeals to me.
The after glow of the meal stayed with me for several days, and I was loathe to eat anything that might spoil the memory of the experience. I highly recomend Ramsay's restaurant, and the prices are not as insane as you might expect from an establishment of such high culinary standards.