"Smart casual. No caps, vests, flip-flops or sportswear” it says on the website for Gordon Ramsay’s new London restaurant, Lucky Cat. I’d heard that few venues apply these strictures any more, since the time Bill Gates was turned away from a restaurant where he might have spent a lot of money… Also it seems so po-faced and old-hat.
A venue offering pan-Asian food in Mayfair with Nobu Berkeley, Novikov, Hakkasan, Roka Mayfair, StreetXO and Sexy Fish all within carb-dodging distance is unimaginative, otiose, dare I say boring? The fact that Lucky Cat’s head chef Ben Orpwood once held that position at Sexy Fish is maybe an in-joke — or a big cheque — but he did see out the last days of Maze, the Ramsay restaurant that previously occupied the site. The accusation of cultural appropriation that has been doing the rounds on social media seems the least relevant of the issues. There are plenty of Antipodeans and Europeans able to master the style.
The website promises an atmosphere “inspired by the drinking clubs of Thirties Tokyo and the Far East”. Even I can’t remember that far back so it is quite a safe bet but I suspect that such places were considerably more sultry and seductive than a hotel-haunted space where dim lighting flatters neither the food nor the customers and the music is particularly drab EDM, too loud in the evening for having easy conversation.
However, it is five years since Ramsay opened a restaurant — Heddon Street Kitchen — in London, so Lucky Cat, with its attendant hoo-ha, had seemed at first a good choice to take the generous chap who bid for a meal with me in the Evening Standard Christmas appeal for the Elton John Aids Foundation. Vince Stanzione, author of the bestseller The Millionaire Dropout — whom I have seen described as “The King of Spread Betting” — has studied the menu online. He is fan of Asian food.
Vince suggests that we skip the Sushi & Raw section on the grounds that he eats plenty of that elsewhere, and we debate choices from Buns & Dumplings, Fish & Meat, Skewers and Salads. Some of the assemblies seem to reflect a kitchen running amok with unfamiliar ingredients.
Using bonito flakes (dried fermented tuna) as coating for deep-fried duck leg served with bao, hoisin and sliced cucumber — a duck not a million miles from Peking — gives admirable crunch but an unwelcome fishy flavour.
Whole coriander and cumin seeds pressed into spiced lamb short ribs are not the most palatable way of appreciating those spices. Saikyo (pale, Kyoto-origin) miso black cod is foolproof pleasure but the size of the piece of fish for £37 seems to be unnecessarily mean.
The best dishes of the lunch are Burmese crab masala with its inscrutable sonorous sauce and roti resembling shoe leather, an attribute that I read as authentic, and the skewer of pork belly glazed with Nikka whisky and yuzu mustard.
I like the mizuna & bitter leaf salad with curls of apple so much that I order it again when I return for dinner the following week but it is a different pile-up the second time and not as well dressed. What is that thing Michelin says about consistency?
Standout dish of the items tried at the second meal is char siu dry-aged pork chop topped with cubes of fondant nashi pear. Vying for most disappointing are okra skewers and wok-fried greens, a travesty of what almost any Cantonese restaurants can do better. A bit of a find, as it costs only £4, is crispy tofu and avocado bao. We also enjoy the dry, cedar-y, Kiku-Masamune Junmai Taru Sake at a reasonable £48 for 720ml, which is poured with due ceremony.
Staff generally are at sixes and sevens, not helped by having to take orders on iPads, a distancing process that brings a hunted look to some faces. New restaurants often face such problems but the Ramsay group must surely have a pool of talent to draw on, a means of avoiding the waits we experience.
A possible way around this would be to book the Chef’s Table seating up to 12, where menus at £65/80 are prepared or finished in front of your very eyes. Also near the open kitchen — or at its epicentre, as the publicity puts it — is counter dining where seats can be booked individually and communication with the chefs is direct.
At dessert time up pops James “Jocky” Petrie, formerly Heston Blumenthal’s right-hand man, now group executive development chef for Gordon Ramsay. If he developed the Yum Baba Roasted Pineapple and Yuzu & Passion Soufflé tried at the first meal, they were what might be termed a saving grace. Almost.
Serried ranks of shiny gunmetal grey ceramic Maneki-neko (lucky cats) are arranged near the entrance. I can’t now remember if they’re holding up their left paws, denoting attracting customers, or their right paws which beckon in money, success and prosperity. Whatevva. The website says you are allowed to bring small dogs.