Becks drops Gord as Manhattan transfer bid flops
If any among you still doubt that David Beckham is an exceedingly smart cookie, members of the jury, allow me to submit the clinching evidence. A few weeks ago, the Daily Mirror recently reported, he withdrew as an investor in his chum Gordon Ramsay’s Union Street Café, which opened in Southwark on Monday.
The Mirror did not explain why, revealing only that the two men “wanted different things”. We could speculate for hours about that means, but let me posit this theory: Beckham wanted a really good restaurant, and Ramsay wanted something else.
This is not to suggest he wanted a really bad restaurant. Eccentric as his psycho shtick may make him appear, he is not clinically insane, and this newbie – his 10th in Britain – is far from atrocious. It would be more endearing, or at least more memorable, if it were. What makes it so irksome is the so-what-ishness.
Me, I like my restaurants to follow the quixotic example of the French football team, which ranges from one tournament to the next between the majestic and the Keystone Kops klueless. Union Street Café, alas, is England under Sven, when the mediocrity satirically belied the glister of Beckham and the rest of the “golden generation” names.
Whether the Ramsay name remains golden, after the serving of pre-cooked food at a gastropub and various expensive failures around the world, is questionable. But if a reverse alchemical reaction has turned it into iron pyrites, nothing about this place will change it back.
Ramsay’s intention here is to ride the current vogue with a glacially cool and buzzy Manhattanite joint. To this end he has gone for the industrial chic/New York loft look, with cylindrical pipes and lightbearing metal struts on the ceiling, all leading the eye towards an open-plan kitchen. The floor is concrete, rectangles of painted driftwood are used as stands for lavish floral displays (incongruous in the faux Manhattanite setting) and old headlamps seemingly nicked from a Hillman Imp breaker’s yard add to the drabness of the lighting.
“If this room thinks it’s New York, it’s wrong,” said my friend. “It looks fantastic on the website, but in reality it’s a limp pastiche. This is Heathrow’s take on the New York brasserie.” Perhaps Ramsay’s profitable Terminal 5 restaurant has become the template for the rest? “The food,” she added menacingly, “had better be brilliant.” It was not. From a menu the website calls “Mediterranean” but which is in fact solely Italian, we began with a few pointless and charmless aperitivi, or – ungramattically enough, “aperitivo”. “Bruschetta giardiniera” hinted at lush greenery on toast, but proved a vinegary amalgam of olives and tomatoes, while “Parmigiano skin” was a bemusing bunch of Parmesan chunks with the texture of honeycomb after a spin in the microwave. As DSEI, the recent hightech arms fair in London, remided us, the fact that something is technically achievable does not automatically make it palatable.
Over a bottle of excellent Gavi di Gavi, recommended by a young sommelier whose formal badge of office (the silver grapes) clashed uneasily with his baggy jeans and sneakers combo – everything clashes slightly here – we moaned about the starters. Beef carpaccio was drowned in olive oil in an optimistic stab at distracting from the tastelessness of the meat. Although the pasta in a bowl of tagliolini with rabbit and olives was perfectly cooked, the strength of the olives swamped the gentle sweetness of the rabbit. “Quite nice,” said my friend. “If I made that for supper in front of the telly, I’d eat it. I wouldn’t be proud of my work, but I would eat it.”
The service from T-shirted young staff, expertly overseen by an old Ramsay hand who claimed the master had spent “four or five days” tasting the dishes (perhaps Ramsay had a heavy cold?) was attentive. That was as good as it got.
If it seems odd on “the clue is in the name” lines to whine about the desperate saltiness of my veal saltimbocca, the word actually translates to “jumps in the mouth”; and not “ramps up up the blood pressure dial until you stroke out”. Polpo with braised barlotti beans and spicy Calabrian sausage was “harmless. No taste to the octopus other than a chargrilled twang, but inoffensive. And where’s my sausage?” A waiter explained that it had been worked into the beans.
With a meal this blisteringly average, you expect sensational puddings to make a last-minute crack at bridge-building, but these were no Isambard Kingdom Brunels. Asked which nut was in the “Torta d’Arachidi”, a waiter replied with a delectably gnomic “the classic”. Whatever the nut ( arichide is peanut, though it tasted like hazelnut), it was encased in a watery chocolate fondant. A budino of amaretto and cacao stood proxy for the entire lunch by being forgettably adequate.
The above comes with the charitable riders that a) we absolutely loved the downstairs bar, which has a funky warmth to throw the ersatz chilliness above into sharper relief, and b) this was its second day of business, so the food should improve. But the compelling sense is that Ramsay, a borderline genius once as a classical French chef, has no feel for this end of the market; and that his name, tarnished or not, is not enough to rescue this sterile venture from sublime irrelevance. Beckham, as I said, is nobody’s mug.