Becks drops Gord as Man­hat­tan trans­fer bid flops

The Daily Telegraph - Saturday - - Front Page -

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.

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