Broccoli starter sets tone for an underwhelming gastro experience
The problem with success is you ve more to live up to. Reach the top of your game and you re forever teetering over a bottomless chasm of fallen heroes. The great British media (and much of the public) will line up to gloat at the first sign of failure. T
The problem with success is you've more to live up to. Reach the top of your game and you're forever teetering over a bottomless chasm of fallen heroes. The great British media (and much of the public) will line up to gloat at the first sign of failure. The higher you climb, the steeper the drop.
In the world of gastronomy, no one has further to fall than Gordon Ramsay. Not only is he successful, but he's also managed to invent himself as insufferably arrogant. Grumpy - who had the dubious good fortune to meet and interview Ramsay before the empire had stretched quite so far - claims he's a charming man, but the image rather precedes him.
His mug's also everywhere. You won't get very far without seeing his craggy features in print or on screen or without hearing him bark at some hapless restaurateur. Not only does he give us the last word on how to cook, but he's permanently pontificating on how to run a restaurant. With more Michelin stars than you can shake a stick at he obviously knows his stuff, but no one's more prime for a fall.
The Warrington is the third of his gastropubs. Diluting a brand is always dangerous. Does the move into pub-food mean "Michelin-lite" or just another chance to exploit the name? The imposing Maida Vale landmark (rumoured to once have operated as a brothel) was bought in autumn 2006 for a rumoured £5.2m. In the year or more since then, a further £6 million has reportedly been spent on refurbishing it.
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If those rumours are true, I'd be asking for a refund because it's so sympathetic with the original decor it's hard to see where his money's been spent. Outside, the tables - a big favourite with locals for many years - have gone, but inside, it all looks much the same.
The downstairs bar (always a good place for an illicit rendezvous) is a bit shinier but it's still as dark and gloomy as before. Here there's a short "cor blimey" bar snack menu of mainly seafood dishes (cockles, pints of prawns, etc), scotch eggs and pies and mash. In an area populated by a large number of seafood and pork-averse diners this may need some thought.
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Most of the bucks seem to have been invested in the kitchens, the new (dangerously compact) toilets and the upstairs dining room. Even that is fairly low key. In a Sienna Miller sort of a way, they've spent a lot of money trying to look like they haven't.
The muted tones, plush brown-striped carpet, beige upright chairs and creamy coloured flock designed wallpaper are all a bit Fawlty Towers. If I'd spent six figure sums with the builders, the least I'd expect would be a pot plant and the odd twisted metal light fitting.
Knowing I should give them a chance to settle in, but impatient to visit my local, I booked in for lunch on their fifth day of trading. Telephoning before they'd even launched, they could only offer me 12.30pm (the insomnia slot) or 2.30pm. I chose the latter - taking my chances the roast would last the whole service.
The dining room was noisy. Tables are packed in tight. We weren't in our neighbours' laps, but excessively high decibel levels had our young French waitress struggling to hear us, and my Outlaws shouting to be heard over the hubbub.
Perhaps because of the more upmarket surroundings, the menu upstairs at The Warrington has moved away from the simple, no-nonsense fare at Ramsay's first two pubs. Ramsay, or Mark Sergeant, officer in charge of project gastropub, and Daniel Kent - permanent chef - have ditched the Pearly King approach and sneaked in some dishes from across the Channel. Alongside the potted meats, broths, pints of prawns and pies nestle a cheeky beurre noisette, a sauce choron and a full-blown French classic, steak tartare.
As well as the regular menu, there's a Sunday brunch. Despite the wide choice, several dishes were history. A rib-eye, steak and kidney pie and kedgeree were long gone. I'd gambled and lost on late table roulette. Disappointing, but unsurprising so early in the restaurant's career.
Four mini, wholegrain bread flutes arrived in a white china pot and were eaten by the time we'd ordered. Thirty-five minutes later, we were still waiting. Forty minutes and our first courses arrived. Grumpy and his Dad wanted to see if Gordon Ramsay's kitchen could make purple sprouting broccoli and hollandaise exciting for £5.25. They didn't. Perfectly cooked broccoli and a buttery (borderline bland) hollandaise were fine but weren't going to set the world on fire. Grumpy wondered what Britain's best chef was doing offering broccoli as a starter.
My smoked eel, although salty, sat well with a small mound of a wet and herby celeriac remoulade. Mummy Grumpy's roasted winter vegetable salad with hazelnut vinaigrette was attractive enough. The veg were roasted to mushy sweetness but the attractively plated salad was mostly made up of a pile of hard-to-eat floppy leaves. Tired of splashing herself with dressing, she left most of the leaves alone.
The restaurant was still packed after our efficient waitress lifted our starter plates, and we endured another, "just-a-bit-too-long" wait for our main courses. Grumpy and his folks all chose the same thing. A solid, lumpy and overfried Loch Duart salmon fish cake. Perhaps they do things differently north of the border or maybe Gordon's fishmonger was pulling a fast one, but the cakes were packed with smoked white fish and potato but only a sniff of salmon. All three were underwhelmed. Chips were home-made but soggy. Buttered savoy cabbage was well cooked and... buttery.
Roasted guinea fowl was a bird more sexy than any the Warrington Hotel might have offered in the bordello years. Succulent, a little fatty under the skin and perched on a small pile of puy lentils and bacon. It was the pool of shiny sauce - the result of hours of work - that made it sing. It was so good it was all I could do not to lick it all up, face in plate. I'm not sure a "jus" has a place in a gastropub but it was every bit as good as I'd expect in one of Ramsay's more up-market venues.
Puds are more back-to-basics. Knickerbocker glory, steamed ginger pudding, apple and rhubarb crumble and treacle tart. My apple crumble was passable. The crumble was like under-sweet crushed digestive biscuits and was top heavy to the apple below. The jug of accompanying custard was perfect. A chocolate fondant was rich and to Grumpy's liking but seemed to me a thick-skinned chocolate soup out of the oven before its time. Chocolate chip shortbread - which accompanies hot drinks - was crumbly but also under-sweet.
Had the Warrington been just another new local restaurant I'd have thought it a good start. But as a Ramsay offering, I was unimpressed. It's no gastropub, it's a full-blown restaurant. You won't get out of that dining room having spent less than £35 per head - £50 if you're drinking - and most likely you'll have to book (well in advance) to even get your bum on a seat.
Admittedly I ate there in their first week. The food's OK (even very good in parts) and the service friendly and efficient, but the price and demand make it more gastro than pub. The Ramsay brand stands for brilliance. The danger is that this is nowhere near. He's probably too big to suffer, but the packed dining room - with more lining up to book tables - suggests customers might expect more from Britain's number-one, even if it's a room above a pub.
The Warrington Hotel, 93 Warrington Crescent,
Telephone: 020-7592 7960.
Food: three stars:
Service: four stars
Opening hours: Pub hours - noon to 11pm, bar food served all day. First floor dining room - Lunch served Monday to Friday noon to 2:30pm
Cost: About £32.75 per head for three courses and coffee including 12.5 per cent service.