Too Big To Fail: Gordon Ramsay Pub & Grill
"Shitshow" is a strong word, implying an almost total fail of the basics of running a decent food & beverage operation, and it's one that should be used carefully. Too many junior foodies who haven't dined with any chef older than David Chang like to throw it around with glee like a caged monkey on a tear.
And calling out 'shitshows' isn't the objective of this blog: if it's that bad, it's not worth the time spent writing about, nor your time reading. Better to highlight some place that's really good. But, celebrity chef Gordon Ramsay spends an increasing amount of his time in the public space (i.e. on TV) telling other folks how to "get it right," so as Ramsay himself allows, diners have even higher expectations for him to "get it right" at his own venues. Especially with all he's allowed to work with (one might assume he's in "whatever you want" territory these days). As Al Mancini said in his own notes on P&G last month, Vegas had Caviar Dreams when Ramsay rolled out his plans for three venues on the Strip.
Anyway, Gordon Ramsay Pub & Grill, which by many accounts is already enjoying huge sales, is not a "shitshow." It's a cool space (love the server costumes and big Medieval tableware), with a well-intentioned staff and some positives on the menu(s). But it isn't quite worthy of the name Gordon Ramsay... or for that matter, of the rest of the name.
There's a reason that English pubs are nicknamed "the local." The priorities of a pub are that it's close, it's familiar, and it's friendly. Not only does "everyone know your name" as the Cheers theme song used to sing, they also know everyone you dated, and how you f***ed it up, and they still like you. It's a place that is quite literally carrying on the centuries-old tradition of basically being the neighborhood living room. You don't think about going down the pub--it's doing anything else for the evening that takes thinking about.
Now you might say, that's never going to be possible in a big resort. But Vegas' tourist flow includes a huge percentage of regulars from Southern California, and there's no reason to think you couldn't pull in a faithful following from this big contingency. Further, certain Vegas Strip properties that aren't even value-priced have managed to engage the repeat appreciation of locals (cf. The Cosmopolitan's STK).
At any rate, GRPG isn't a pub in any respect. It doesn't even have a dartboard (I'm told that's 'in the works'), and while it's comfortable and convivial, you don't think of it as a place where they'd be happy to have you hang out for hours, where you're likely to run into other friends without planning, where girls are going to get up in between the tables and start dancing to Motown or 80s hits just for the heck of it. Check out by comparison the Queen Victoria Pub at the Riviera. I don't mention this because it's a totally traditional pub replica in looks and menu, but because it's a totally traditional pub in terms of attitude. One might have hoped that Ramsay would've overseen the creation of a venue that would feel like the kind of place where the notoriously fussy chef would let his hair down.
As far as the 'Grill' part, there's no visible grill here (there is one, it's just not visible), and the rather lengthy menu isn't particularly "grill" heavy, so... I suppose "Lounge" and "Restaurant" are too dull.
Enough editorializing. Particularly disappointing here is the beer selection. True, most British pubs are actually sponsored by one brewery, so you'll only get 4-5 taps max. But we're in the middle of a huge craft beer frenzy, and the Vegas Strip has several spots with massive and impressive draft and bottle selections (see Public House in the Venetian, The Pub in Monte Carlo, etc). The choices here aren't awful--it's the only place with Ramsay's own Innis & Gunn on tap, and you can do a fun 8-selection tasting at the bar for $15--but it's dominated by the corporate beer brands that paid for their taps (yes, that's why they get prime spots), which you can get anywhere. SMH. They also have these very cool glass chillers atop the bar in orer to serve your beer at proper temperature (for what they paid to install them, they might have paid for their own taps, but I digress).
Most of the cocktails are trying a little too hard to be clever, and would be better if replaced by just some English classsics. Give me a proper Gin & Tonic instead of this Mother's Ruin, an unbalanced sage-minty thingy... However, the stout-based Scuffle cocktail, which you can see my server mixing up here, is a must have: creamy, complex, almost like a dessert--but you'll want two.
By and large, what I sampled from the food menu was trying too hard to be 'different' without even reaching the level of competence of standard pub grub. It's a wonder that Ramsay's Executive Chef here, Jeremy Berlin (ex-Gordon Ramsay at the London, West Hollywood and LA's esteemed Church & State) didn't workshop these recipes before opening, and an even bigger wonder that they weren't nailed down a month after the fact. But again, it isn't universally bad--in fact what's good is so good it makes you wonder how the same kitchen could produce the rest.
• Duck Confit Poutine: The thin gravy poured tableside is a cute presentation, but as luck would have it, a Canadian couple sitting next to me confirmed my own feelings: french fries with some stuff piled on top isn't Poutine just because you say it is. The duck meat was nice, but the dish was oversalted in general.
• English Ale Onion Soup: Gorgeous. A big portion of fragrant, slightly-sweet, rich and thick almost-chowder with two cheesy croutons floating. Best thing here, and really it's all you need.
• Fish & Chips with mushy peas: As I've said before, I love the minted mushy peas here, they're fresh-tasting and delectable. The recipe for the fish seems to be, take a really nice portion of light, flaky Cod, and ruin it in an oversalted batter (matched with a sadly bland tartar sauce). The big 3x cooked fries seem like they're overcompensating for someone's inadequacy. Why not just serve normal English chips? Especially as you've made some really nice, bright ketchup?
• Shepherd's Pie: I cannot even imagine what Gordo would say were this soggy, flavorless casserole brought to him on the telly. But I'm pretty sure most of it would be bleeped out. This is Cooking 101 stuff.
• Truffled macaroni & cheese: Creamy with a bit of crunch from the breadcrumb topping, not awful, but overpowered by the earthy black truffles. Why does mac & cheese confound so many chefs? Are they too proud to just look up a recipe that works?
• Short Rib & Beef Cheek Sandwich: Two very tasty and textured parts of the cow chopped up and served wet on a nicely toasted roll. The only problem here is the arugula, which wilts under the heat and gets chewy. Some English pickle or cabbage would make a better contrast. Still, recommended.
• Sticky Toffee Pudding: Totally traditionally, dense, rich and treacly. Exactly what you want, damn the calories (although in their effort to keep it moist, this one was almost raw in the middle).
• Butterscotch pot de creme: A lighter dessert option (the cookies on the side are unnecessary) with pepitas on top for some nutty texture. I can still taste it.
So, I'm not usually the bossy type, but when you go to GRPG, here's what you're ordering: A pint of Innis & Gunn or a Scuffle. The onion soup, Short rib sandwich, side of peas if you want, and pot de creme (or sticky toffee). We'll both be happy.