It's odd how certain tastes stay with you. Usually, it's something horrible, like a vile alcoholic beverage, but just occasionally it's something good. I remember being served a "cappuccino" of mushroom soup as a complimentary appetiser at Aubergine in 1996 that was so good it seemed to stop time. It was gone in three spoonfuls, but the memory of it will last forever.
The chef at Aubergine in 1996 was, of course, Gordon Ramsay, so it was with some eagerness that I entered his flagship restaurant on Royal Hospital Road. Back in those days, Aubergine had one Michelin star, whereas this place has three, so in theory it should be even better. I was anticipating a repetition of the mushroom soup experience. I'm not much of a foody, but I imagine that these are the moments they live for. When a particular combination of flavours is so powerful it suffuses your entire being, lulling you into a kind of narcoleptic stupor. Homer Simpson may not be everyone's idea of a gourmand, but I'm thinking of the times when his eyes roll back in their sockets and he starts making a low groaning noise--usually when he's eating a donut. That's what I was hoping for.
The evening didn't start off very promisingly. The interior of 68 Royal Hospital Road is a bit naff. As you enter, you're separated from the main room by an opaque glass wall that looks like a shower curtain and, once inside, the décor doesn't improve. There are a series of alcoves in one of the walls containing glass figurines that aren't a million miles away from the mantelpiece ornaments advertised in the News of the World's colour supplement.
The staff are so ostentatiously French it's almost comic. It's as if they're actors playing French waiters in a film, rather than the genuine article. I imagined the general manager, Jean-Claude Breton, disappearing into the kitchen and saying to Gordon Ramsay, "Bleedin' 'ell, guv, we've got a right bunch of tossers in 'ere tonight," but I fear he was the real thing.
Overall, it lacks atmosphere. There are only 15 tables and the other diners were far from glamorous. There was something vaguely trainspotter-ish about them, presumably because they were hardcore foodies who'd made a pilgrimage to this shrine. For some reason it reminded me the Principal's Lodgings at my old Oxford college and the ghastly sherry parties I had to attend there. Almost as soon as I got to 68 Royal Hospital Road I wanted to go outside for a fag--and I gave up smoking in 1987.
I decided to go the whole hog and have the "Menu Prestige", even if the words were back to front. (I debated whether to do a Yoda impression and say, "Menu Prestige have I will," but thought better of it.) Advertised as a seven-course meal, when you tot up all the additions it actually comes to 13 courses, but I wasn't going to quibble. That merely increased my chances of finding the three-star equivalent of the mushroom soup.
The first course--actually the fourth, if you count the freebies--was a ballontine of foie gras which was slightly disappointing. "Is this it?" I thought, as I washed it down with a Reisling recommended by the sommelier.
Then it came--the ravioli of lobster and langoustine with a chervil velouté. "Velouté" is a posh word for soup, so perhaps it was made in the same cappuccino machine as my beloved mushroom dish. Whatever the explanation, it was a showstopper, and from that moment on I was in heaven. The ravioli was followed by turbot, then fillet of beef, rum pannacotta, chocolate parfait...on and on it went. It was the culinary equivalent of Tantric sex. My only complaint is that the entire meal took about four hours, which is a little long even for a multiple orgasm.
A trip to 68 Royal Hospital Road isn't something to be taken lightly. You have to book a month in advance and you're unlikely to get away with under £120 a head. It's not exactly a barrel of laughs, either. But one thing's for sure: you'll end up doing a Homer Simpson impression.