The Narrow is my first venture into Gordon Ramsay territory, the eastern outpost of said überchef’s empire in a glorious location bang on the Thames at Limehouse, a mere stone’s throw from the Limehouse basin and the locks that guard its entrance. You could not improve on the building (grade 2 listed) or its placement, obviously why it was chosen by “that engaging parody of alpha male narcissism,” to quote Matthew Norman from the Guardian.
The Ramsay takeover does not please everyone though. I know people who remembered it as the Barley Mow, a great old-time pub packed with character and locals; their opinion is that Ramsay took it upmarket and downhill. They ate there once but damned with faint praise. The food was “OK food, nothing special but way overpriced” – and if you compare it to standard pub grub it undoubtedly would be. Other critics have been a touch sniffy, among them the “critical couple” (see here) who were not overly impressed.
Yet catering for the well-to-do in the bijou flats nearby strikes me as good business. Knowing his audience, Gordon has resisted the temptation to launch full tilt into “fine dining” – a euphemism for experimental biochemistry with otherwise blameless ingredients served at astronomic prices to audiences who may well be nonplussed and fancy chicken and chips on the way home but smile nonetheless.
OK, maybe I’m being cruel, but it was a kindness for the renamed Narrow that potty-mouthed Ramsay went for variants on British pub grub in the now well-defined gastropub formula: broadly well-honed British classics, sometimes with an ironic twist, a smattering of influences from around the globe, a few comfort dishes added for good measure and a nod or two to current fashions. No, hang on a minute! This is what the chef’s website tells us about the menu:
“A menu anchored with British ingredients and a splash of Mediterranean gusto”
So there! Mediterranean gusto, eh? Does that mean anything or is it just more marketing twaddle? Do let me know…
It’s undeniably a modern tragedy that gorgeous old boozers suffer one of two fates: the brewery takeover with TV screens and slot machines by the yard; or gastropubs, by far the better fate if the original character is to be stripped and relocated, and if the effort is put into good dining from well-sourced ingredients, proper cutlery and starched serviettes so you know it means business.
The Narrow compensates for its loss of eccentricity and character by being hyper-efficient, knowingly friendly and with obsessive, if not anal attention to detail. The decor is now clean and modern, with a random assortment of paintings and artefacts on display (some sort of punt or canoe above our heads, presumably a nod to boat races a good further upstream), the waiting staff scrub up well and in maritime cliches everything is shipshape and bristol fashion. Not the sort of establishment likely to feature on Ramsay’s Kitchen Disasters, you would expect.
That said, they were marked down early on in the Millward book. The not-a-hair-out-of-place waiter, the sort of chap who would crouch down, all the better to speak at our level while preening his perfect white teeth and speaking with a subtle hint of what might well have been an Italian accent, brought me a pint of London Pride that was not only more than a touch flat, but also ice cold! No no no no no, Ramsay you @$%&!£ imbecile – only a rank amateur would ever ruin fine ale by chilling it to within an inch of its life!
That’s better out than in! Perhaps disappointingly for those who would want me to pick holes in Ramsay’s restaurant and Ramsay’s food precisely because it’s Ramsay, there was pretty much nothing else worthy of a mouthful of choice invective.
We went for the Sunday roast, constructed vertically in the modern vogue, the attraction of which entirely passed me by. At £19 you would expect the sirloin to be pink, tender, succulent and flavoursome, and, true to form, it achieved all of those highs effortlessly. If you want to be nit-picky you could say that the roast parsnips were not as good as mine, and maybe the spuds could have been cut into smaller chunks, but that would be a tad churlish. Yes, I know Yorkshire pud (crispy to a tee) should only be served with beef and not with the roast chicken or pork, but that is the modern idiom and a sign that Ramsay must be mellowing by giving folk what they actually want without the barest hint of a hissy fit.
Best of all, proper beef juices were detectable in a small puddle of gravy. If you ever want to judge a roast dinner, the gravy will tell you whether it’s kosher. Well, clearly pork isn’t kosher so maybe the word is pukka – or it would have been until Jamie Oliver took out a copyright on it. I can’t fault the gravy, and for that small mercy much thanks.
So let’s move on to another test. Desserts are often where kitchens cut corners by buying in cheap, slicing thin and selling dear with a ball of cheap vanilla. Ramsay’s pub may be prepping offsite but the shared semi-freddo nougat parfait with a small slick of deeply raspberried coulis and shredded pistachios was unquestionably the most divine pud I’ve eaten in 2015, for the juxtaposition of cold, fruity and nutty.
This being relatively late on a Sunday we stopped there, but further visits will follow to sample more of the wares. Will the beetroot-cured salmon with horseradish cream match up to mine? Will the pork belly escape the shackles of modern convention? Will the Colchester oysters and the charcuterie board still be on the specials board? Wait and see…
This much I know: Ramsay is renowned for the contempt with which he holds restaurant critics, most particularly for their lack of qualification for the job. I may not be paid for my reviews, but I know my encornet from my entrecôte. Despite the Ramsayness of it all, this is good solid fare with quality ingredients cooked properly and service with charm. It’s not difficult but so many places make a pigs ear of the easy stuff. Ramsay at least gets the basics right, for which he deserves due praise.