Monday, December 1, 2008

Restaurant Review: Maze by Gordon Ramsay (CLOSED)

This review originally appeared in Czech translation in the 08/11/08 edition of Lidové Noviny.

A previously published Prague Spoon review of Maze by Gordon Ramsay can be found here.

Today, I'm starting with dessert.

I want to discuss a certain gooey little mountain of goodness: the chocolate fondant. A cross between a chocolate flourless cake and a soufflé, it is deliberately undercooked so that its center stays runny. Although the fondant's persistent popularity has turned it into something of an after-dinner menu cliché, it is rarely done exceptionally well. The insides don't ooze from the center because it has been baked for too long, or the cake is underdone and chewy, or it is made with low quality chocolate.

But the fondant at Maze is different.

As my spoon sinks into the cake's spongy crust, a warm gush of melted Belgian chocolate seeps onto my plate. Technically, this fondant is perfect, and it is a creative accomplishment, too. Instead of choosing an obvious accompaniment such as raspberry coulis or crème anglaise, they've paired it with a tangy orange toffee sauce that lends the dark chocolate a citrusy edge and a subtle smokiness. Roasted hazelnuts and a scoop of homemade beurre blanc ice cream add crunch and coolness to an otherwise smooth, hot dish.

For a man as notoriously foul-mouthed as Gordon Ramsay, he is certainly making poetry here.

Mr. Ramsay, of course, is the holder of twelve Michelin stars and the head of a restaurant empire. His reach extends to Tokyo, Dubai, Los Angeles and, most recently, Terminal 5 at London's Heathrow Airport. Maze, his more casual chain of restaurants, now has locations in London, New York, and Prague. He has starred in three television shows, published eighteen cookbooks and memoirs, and contributed a regular column to The Times's Saturday magazine. With so much Ramsay going around, many have questioned whether the ambitious Scotsman might be spreading his talent just a little too thin for his own good.

On each episode of his well-received TV show Kitchen Nightmares, Mr. Ramsay sweeps into a struggling restaurant and figures out how to make it profitable. He trims overcomplicated menus, hollers at incompetent floor managers, and schools chefs in the art of cooking simply and with fresh ingredients. He even throws away hideous furnishings, starts public relations campaigns, and patches up venomous relationships between co-owning family members. Whatever you think of his approach, it's clear that this man knows a thing or two about running a successful restaurant.
So, at Prague's branch of Maze, as my table waited half an hour, then forty-five minutes, then a full hour to receive our main course, I imagined what Mr. Ramsay might be saying to the kitchen staff if this were an episode of Nightmares: "Table nine has been waiting ONE FUCKING HOUR for their entrées! The restaurant's half empty! What are you going to do when this place is full? Fucking hell." And so on.

I would also expect him to have somebody apologize for the delay and assure us that our dishes were on their way. There was no such courtesy. And when the food did come, the beef fillet was cold. At least the waiters managed to top up our water and wine glasses – a lot. So often, in fact, that I started taking sips only after I'd checked that no one was looking to ensure that another server wouldn't swoop in to give me a refill.

The over-attentive service has rankled me on previous visits to Maze, too, when the waiters would not only spend all night performing the endless water-pouring dance (could it be a strategy to get us to buy more of those 180 CZK bottles?), but would systematically dump still water into glasses of sparkling water and vice versa. Part of the problem seems to be that many waiters serve each table, so they are unable to keep track of how often each party is being visited and who is drinking which type of water (I noticed a similar problem when I ate at the Maze restaurant in New York recently, where they also use the multiple-server system).

The inconsistencies in service are all the more frustrating because every staff member was otherwise perfectly willing and courteous. And although Maze's organization occasionally falters, the food rarely does.

Under the masterful direction of chef de cuisine Philip Carmichael, French classics are updated with playful touches. A cilantro-tinged king crab salad (440 CZK, pictured above) slathered in a smooth avocado paste comes with a nest of green apple slivers and a scoop of Bloody Mary-flavored sorbet. A fairly unsophisticated vegetable, red cabbage, is spun into a densely flavored violet puree to accompany the roasted Barbary duck breast (750 CZK, pictured below). And in a nod to the current trend for unusual salty-sweet combinations, the same dish is served with a savory duck confit wrapped in flaky pastry and dusted with powdered sugar (a similar line was toed by a wonderful dessert no longer on the menu, the peanut butter sandwich). The risks here are calculated, not random. The difference is obvious.

As far as Prague's more upscale eating establishments go, this is some of the best value for money in the city. There is no cheating, no scrimping, no artful cover-ups of mediocre ingredients by unskilled hands. In the year since Maze's opening, its culinary standards have been consistently high.
It's too bad, then, that Maze is situated close to one of the seedier parts of town, the Masarykovo train station, and in a hotel whose unattractive lobby can be seen from much of the restaurant. The art deco-style décor is tasteful, and the seating, especially the tables for two, are intimate and comfortable. But the room is a little gloomy, the ceilings a little low, the lights around the bar a little garish – and there are no windows to the outside. I've always found it hard to forget that I'm eating in a Hilton.

The fact that you're visiting a Gordon Ramsay establishment is hard to escape, too. The chinaware is from the Ramsay line, and next to the restaurant entrance is a well-lit bookcase displaying Ramsay's various tomes.

But so what if the guy has an ego? At least he can cook. Prague is much better off now that a chef of Mr. Ramsay's caliber has lifted a leg and marked his Old Town territory. I just hope he comes by to do some maintenance soon.

Last time I checked, those memoirs were looking a little dusty.

Maze by Gordon Ramsay

Hilton Prague Old Town
V Celnici 7
Prague 1
Tel: +420 221 822 300

Open Mon-Sun
Breakfast 06:30-10:30
Lunch 12:00-15:00
Dinner 18:00-23:00

Photographs by Jakub Hněvkovský, Lidové noviny


Anonymous said...

Good lord -- this woman is both a bad writer and an obtuse eater. I hope the Czech translator is improving her columns.

Anonymous said...

Gordon, is that you?

Mme Verdurin said...

Yawn... Why the (dull and superfluous) lecture about who GM is? We all survived the PR massage when Maze first opened...

The chocolate fondant is quite certainly not the brainchild of Ramsey himself but that of Philip Carmichael, a pastry chef...

Finally I am a little at a loss where to find the "French classic" in a dish like the "cilantro-tinged king crab salad slathered in a smooth avocado paste, green apple slivers and a scoop of Bloody Mary-flavored sorbet." That's some majorly playful updating indeed.

Laura said...

Hi Mme Verdurin,

Although Philip Carmichael is an excellent pastry chef, the chocolate fondant is in fact a signature Gordon Ramsay dish. It appears on the menu at many of his restaurants.

It's true that crab and avocado salad is not a specifically French dish, but it is certainly a classic one, and Carmichael has presented it in a new and interesting way.

Finally, my reviews are written for a newspaper read by the Czech masses, who tend to know a lot less about the culinary world than the foodie readers of my blog. So I apologize if the information in my articles occasionally feels a little obvious to some of you.

Thanks for reading!

outeast said...

FFS, Laura, what obnoxious commenters you have here! (It's especially vile for someone so rude to post anonymously.)

Personally, I really enjoyed that review - as I do most of your reviews.

The imperfections you describe are certainly enough to put me off going to Maze at those prices, though...