Fringe Food

Hunting for Ramsay on Laurier

Photo Credit: Josh Davidson

Years of scouring the city in the interest of ‘fringe food studies’ (Concordia’s next degree program, once I get my job as Dean of Arts & Sciences) has led me to believe that the juciest activities are more often than not found outside the establishments, in living rooms, alleys, and parks.

Furthermore—and I need not point this out to you Internet savvy readers—thanks to WordPress and Blogspot, every frustrated chef and food critic now enjoys a frighteningly simple platform upon which to disseminate their tiresome rants, made all the more cringeworthy by the accompanying, poorly shot iPhone photos of their latest foray to Toqué or Pied du Cochon.

I would love to say to them, “The world doesn’t need more food porn—especially the amateur stuff. No one gives a shit what you ate last night. Put away your iDevice and eat your meal, already!”

But I can’t. Because I have a dirty little secret: I’m one of the most cracked-out food blog junkies in town. In fact, I’ve probably read hundreds of them in the past few months alone, a symptom of: a) my passion for Montréal food or b) my destitute social life. What’s worse, now that I’ve written these words, I realize I’m even more pathetic than the food bloggers themselves, for I lack even the balls to comment, to take my own stance, however inane. Furthermore, without me, their lurking reader, the intricate circuit of amateur food porn production could never exist. I’m not only part of the problem, I am the problem .

So when Gordon Ramsay decided to open up in town, I could not resist scouring the blogs to eat vicariously through their authors. “Juicy and tasty,” said one. “My dinner experience did not disappoint,” quipped another.

So why even bother to try it myself? Well, two reasons. First, my self-proclaimed mission has been to explore alternative food spaces, and some playful semantics would allow me to argue that there’s no bigger ‘alternative’ to an old-school québécois rôtisserie joint than the flashy gourmet empire of Mr. Ramsay—the biggest restauranteur alive, and likely the most celebrated.

But in the spirit of full disclosure of this week’s column, I’ll admit to the real reason for breaking my own rule: I am a closet Ramsay fan.

‘Fan’ is actually a diplomatic word; ‘stalker’ would be the one used by several of my more forthright friends. I’ve watched and rewatched every episode of “Kitchen Nightmares” ever made, and I even – for some mysterious reason – force myself to sit through the rest of his débris: from “Hell’s Kitchen” to “Masterchef” to the “F-Word.” I lined up for an hour in the rain to see him on August 10. I follow his tweets religiously. I even memorized the menu of his first Canadian locale: Le Laurier Gordon Ramsay.

So a recent visit to latter began as a simple personal homage—one I never thought I’d publicize. But what resulted was, in the words of Mr. Ramsay himself, so ‘shocking’ that I decided it warranted a good ol’ fashioned resto review. So this week’s article is about alternative spaces: it uses the Laurier Gordon Ramsay as an effigy, an effigy for all that is wrong with the restaurant world, a place from which to remind us of the necessity of the the unorthodox, surprising, and grassroots culinary spaces in this city.

Le Laurier Gordon Ramsay does not accept reservations. So I arrived with my dinner companion at 6:30 on a Friday evening, hoping to beat the dinner crowd. We were told we could be seated at 8:00, but to stick around les environs just in case. While we witnessed other diners depart in a huff at such a proposition (one well-dressed woman went so far as to proclaim, loudly, ‘never again!’) , us loyal Ramsayites sat patiently at a corner café.

When we returned just before 8:00, an even larger throng of diners had turned up and were swarming the hostess to cement their name in the reservation book. We overheard that the wait time for new arrivals had swelled to nearly two hours. Though I was told repeatedly that our table was up next, we continued to wait until nearly 8:30. Several other couples were seated before us, and I finally learned that a new hostess had arrived and had mistaken my name. It took persistent check-ins with our new hostess to win us our table at long last.

We looked around and considered effort required to ensure a seat in this coveted dining room. After all, it was rather unremarkable. While the décor of the original Laurier had been freshened up with typical Ramsay efficacy (we liked, for example, the little rooster on the wine glasses), the room on the whole lacked any flair or originality. A trip to the bathroom revealed that the old grungy aluminum bathroom stalls had been spared from renovation, a surprising choice (or was it an oversight?) for a restaurant raking in, at the low end, twenty to thirty bucks a head. A brief wait brought us our waiter and two glasses of house wine arrived.

The red tasted as if it had emerged from a big box, and bore an eery resemblance to the wine we used to dispense at a restaurant I once worked at—a place that treated wine as an inconvenience, but refused to allow customers to BYO for fear of lost sales. My companion too deemed it on the low end of house wines in Montréal. That’s saying something. The white, at 7 dollars a glass, bordered on undrinkable. Too bad this wasn’t a BYO, as we could have done much better at any dép.

Some time later the waiter appeared again, ostensibly to help us out. I say ‘ostensibly’ because he did not once ask us what we wanted to order, or even, for that matter, acknowledge us as human beings. Mute as he was, I suspected he had arrived to serve us water—a neglect that, ten minutes in to our seating, was made all the more conspicuous by the immaculate, stylish water glasses set empty in front of us, and by the surrounding tables’ seeming rapture at their lovely personal water pitchers filled with fresh cucumbers slices.

But nope. All he did was stare us down impatiently. Silently. Awkwardly. Not a whisper. Nevermind, say, ‘are you ready to order?’, ‘what would you like?’ or even an old, diner-style matronly ‘what’ll it be, son?’

Nothing. Not a word. I stared right back at him, almost begging him to speak. But parched and starved from the long wait, it was me that caved. I asked for the hot chicken sandwich. He finally opened his mouth, and this to inform me that my order came ‘as is,’ adding coldly, ‘there’s nothing else on the plate.’ The sandwich already priced at $13, I begrudgingly ordered a side of fries. Hey, this was Gordon Ramsay’s place, I told myself cheerily, all would be forgotten once the food was in our mouths!

We staved off our appetite by eating the housemade pickles provided in small jars at every table. Fresh and crunchy with an acidity somewhere between dill and half-sour, they tasted of old-time rôtisserie love. Which was a joy. Sadly, they proved to be the most memorable bites of the evening.

The Laurier is supposed to be about chicken. There was a reason it survived as an iconic local rôtisserie for over fifty years. But when my companion’s quarter chicken arrived it was mediocre at best. The meat was on the dry side, and the gravy could have used seasoning. But this was still a step up from my sandwich.

Billed as a “hot chicken sandwich with emmental, arugula, dijonnaise, and carmelized onions” I had high expectations. But the panini-pressed bun was cold, chewy and bordering on stale. It was so utterly tasteless as to reminded me of the day-old discount bags of bread I often buy at Provigo, rather than the fresh and toasty bun that should accompany any hot sandwich. The chicken inside was even drier than my companion’s, and the emmental was an odd pairing as it added no flavour whatsoever, only a bland layer of fat. The arugula was almost nonexistent, and those tiny threads that did make it inside were pressed so long in the panini-grill as to have lost their usual lovely bite. As I chewed, all I could think of was how great it is making sandwiches at home. You can grab your own fresh bun, keep the greens raw, and balance the mayo with the dijon.

This, my friends, is the exact opposite of what one should be contemplating when in the presence of a celebrity chef’s food. Not only should it feel fulfilling, but also surprising—and somehow impossible to achieve.

This, my friends, is the exact opposite of what one should be contemplating when in the presence of a celebrity chef’s food. Not only should it feel fulfilling, but also surprising—and somehow impossible to achieve.

The only hint of the Gordon Ramsay I knew was found in the fries: freshly-cut, prepared to order, and perfectly fried with a subtle kick to the seasoning. $3 well spent. Finally, something that made me forget my kitchen, for I knew I could never make these at home—even if I possessed the world’s top deep fryer. But with no moisture to be found on my plate: a thin dijonnaise (mostly dijon) on my sandwich, and no dipping sauce, mayo, gravy or even ketchup provided for the fries, I had to rely on dipping them in my companion’s gravy to keep my mouth from drying out.

Despite all this, I was determined to give the food a chance. But even this was not possible. Lo and behold, our waiter arrived not ten minutes into our meal: not, as you might expect, to ask how we liked the food (he never did). Rather, he tried to rush us out the door. He offered to clear away our plates, unless we were ‘still nibbling?’ Still nibbling? I had three-quarters of my sandwich still sitting there, and food in my mouth. What was this, an assembly line?

With the frenzied lineup looming (we were seated next the front door), and our waiter keen to evacuate us (yet happy to scrutinize the debit-paid bill to verify his tip), we opted out of dessert. Too bad, because the desserts looked rather interesting. I would have loved to review them. But we just didn’t feel welcome anymore. Come to think of it, we never really felt welcome at all. With the exception of one lively floor manager we saw who was personable and caring to everyone she met, the staff and ambiance we’d met merely made us want to split the joint.

The sum total of our experience at Laurier GR is by now rather apparent: it’s pretentious, time-consuming and devoid of true substance. Highly average food and shocking service which leave Ramsay’s new menu and pricetag unjustified—if not insulting. Small pros: subtle branding on the glasses and windows, perfect frites, and the tableside jar of pickles. But these are very small thrills for $55, and I’d just as soon peer at them from a blog somewhere…for free.

The experience brought home to me a valuable lesson about the perennial allure of food porn, food blogging, and good old fashioned restaurant reviews. It’s something to do with the dual nature of a dish: its interplay between what we’re thinking and what we’re sensing. There’s the idea of the gourmet Ramsay chicken sandwich – enough to keep me compelled through several lousy bites – and then there’s the material effect, the senses being triggered during its consumption. Sometimes the two meet in a delicious dance, and other times, they’re at frightening odds with each other, leaving one confused, disillusioned, and far lighter in the pocketbook.

I never thought I’d be the blind follower-type, but weeks later, I actually find myself forgiving the real Gordon while castigating his name: the Laurier deserves not even a morsel of the exclusivity it seeks from his name up on the sign, but if he were actually in the restaurant, cooking and overseeing, I somehow still want to believe that our meal would have been divine, delectable, and maybe even worth double the cash.

So at the risk of being mocked and losing all local food cred, I send out a rallying cry: Gordon, I still believe in you. I believe you do change lives, by provoking those who want to cook to cook from the heart, by confronting restauranteurs with their own notions of grandeur. You seem honest and you talk about honest food. But the Laurier Gordon Ramsay will remain no more honest than pornography to me: it’s a fun little logo, a bunch of words on a sign, a gimmick feigning to make us feel like we can have a part of you here in Montréal. We cannot. And because of this, we’ll be forced—as always—to invent our own cuisine, our own style, our own place in the culinary world. It might just be our saving grace.