Spoiler alert: one of the coolest and tastiest restaurant experiences I’ve had.
We spent the first couple days of 2016 at our shore house where we binge-watched movies (three in a row, two nights back to back), enjoyed a few more days with our nautical Christmas tree before taking it down and sat down to two nice dinners.
One at a local restaurant- one of many within a 10-minute drive from the house. And the other, which is the point of this entry.
I’d only been two Atlantic City twice before.
The first was around 2002-3- not much memory of that beyond a crowded boardwalk with loud music.
The second was shortly after I turned 21. It was November, we were celebrating two birthdays in the family, I broke even doing my first-ever round of slots, and we had one of those “one day you’ll look back on this and laugh” experiences. Let’s just say we made sure to note where we left our car in the future… just in case the parking garage moves again. It’s a long story 😛 which included nightly people watching on the boardwalk with more hilarity than the comedy show we paid money to see.
This time around [1/2/16], there were less shenanigans and the people who made the experience memorable were part of the experience we came to… well, experience.
[Strike that word from the record- won’t be needing it for the rest of the entry].
Long before we became borderline-Food Network competition addicts, “Hell’s Kitchen” was one of our favorite reality shows. Still is, in fact.
We’ve seen every season, found chefs to love and love-to-hate and saw first hand how a fine-dining kitchen is (and isn’t) meant to run. This upcoming season will prove to be interesting for a couple of reasons. A month ago, I thought it’d just be because of the Bradley Cooper movie “Burnt.” Even after all these years of “Hell’s Kitchen,” I didn’t appreciate the clockwork operation of the restaurant kitchen until I saw these actors actually cook the food for the actual movie. With the competition chefs, it’s guaranteed that mistakes will be made. Sometimes, it’s still hard to watch Gordon Ramsay yell and demand that the food be made all over again. But the movie taught me that there is a rhyme to the reason- To maintain the momentum of the crazy-fast-paced work environment, there is no time for “I’m sorry, chef” or explanations/excuses- you just need to learn from your mistakes and do better the next time.
Now all of us will be going into next season with the knowledge of what a Gordon Ramsay restaurant is like to dine at. Namely, a restaurant headed by not one, but two “Hell’s Kitchen” winners.
First impression: it was a little intimidating and disorienting.
We came to the table and received a drink menu that had some, but not all, of the food items listed. Because it was a pub, I thought I might have a beer, but I didn’t recognize any of the names.
I eventually decided on a glass of Sauvignon Blanc and everything else fell in place after having a couple minutes with the full menu.
Our server Elena had an accent, although we didn’t get around to asking where she was from. She asked if my dad ordered his beer choice with the knowledge it was Gordon Ramsay’s favorite- he had no idea- but liked it enough to have a second glass. My mom switched to it later after her Bloody Mary got too spicy towards the bottom.
My dad asked if either of the “Hell’s Kitchen” chefs were working that day. Meghan from season 14 (the most recent winner) usually did nights, but La Tasha from season 13 was due to start in an hour. She asked if we’d like to meet her, we agreed [although we thought at the time we might be finished eating by that point], and she said she’d bring her over when she arrived.
The décor was “pubby” and very British (the mascot was an English bulldog and the beer glasses had a bulldog silhouette in the pattern of the English flag). Casual but there was a sense of refinement.
I’d never ordered a glass of wine at a restaurant where I was also provided with additional servings in another glass container. Thought that was a nice touch.
Even the silverware looked kind of fancy. The blunt end of the knife looked like a crest from a knight’s shield.
We all saw the Hell’s Kitchen trademark beef wellington on the menu, but the price stopped us from ordering it.
But all of our foodie expectations were met, if not exceeded.
Between the years of watching Chopped, Hell’s Kitchen and MasterChef, I couldn’t help but think in those terms with my food.
The last time I had a lobster roll, it was served in a wrap, but still tasty.
This lobster roll was in a more upscale version of a hot dog roll, tasty with great texture. The lobster was plenty with a hint of citrus from the Meyer lemon and garnished with chives. The Masterchef part of my brain was admiring that there was a lot of lobster and it wasn’t oversaturated with the sauce (this would have made the roll soggy and mine was not). Also on the plate were also three small pickle chips and a small bowl of nickel-sized kettle chips.
It and my salmon dish had two things in common- they fit my choice of wine perfectly (I was in the mood for seafood that day and the pairing just worked out that way) and in both cases, I finished everything on my plate.
The “Hell’s Kitchen” part of my mind came in when I noted the crispy skin on my salmon. I’ve had salmon in restaurants many times in my life and I don’t think I’d had it with the skin on. When we have it at home, I usually put the skin aside because it’s not a pleasant bite.
There’ve been countless times on the show where the chefs would screw up the fish because it wasn’t cooked with the skin side down- therefore the skin never got the ideal crispiness.
And on Chopped, I’ve seen the contestants neglect the skin on the fish when they leave it on. Or their improper plating with the sides or the sauce makes it unpleasant to eat.
On my plate, the fish was served on a cauliflower puree and the skin side was up. And the skin was delicious- very crispy with just the right amount of salt. I’m officially a fan of crispy skinned fish- if it’s done up to Gordon Ramsay standards.
One of the best salmon filets I’ve had. The sides included caramelized cauliflower (great char on that- the Geoffrey Zakarian restaurant on Norwegian Breakway did this with their broccoli side- both equally good) and watercress salad.
Whoever ran the garnish station definitely had their hands full with my plate. Every element was handled perfectly, so I made sure to finish everything on my place.
We were maybe 10 minutes into our entrees when Elena brought La Tasha to our table.
She welcomed us warmly, shook our hands, and asked how we were enjoying ourselves.
At this point, we were having a great time and it’d just gotten better.
Fielding my dad’s questions, she said that things are going well, she’s still enjoying work there and apparently new year’s was the craziest dining service they’d had since the restaurant’s opening. Perhaps even crazier. After she left, we theorized that they probably needed her and Meghan in the kitchen for what was sure to be a “all-hands-on-deck” situation.
Looking back on it, it’s still pretty surreal and awesome.
Gordon Ramsay has such a high standard and set of expectations for his chefs and his restaurants. And it’s great to see it in person.
And the fact one of his chefs was happy to take a couple minutes of their time to meet with us- just wow…
And Elena was a great server too. Made sure we were happy with our food and if we weren’t so full afterwards, we would have taken her up on those after-meal coffees 😛