As a long-tenured Gordon Ramsay fanboy, I have been waiting impatiently for his Fish & Chips restaurant to open in D.C., only his third in the U.S. I've seen all of his TV series, I think, including Restaurant Nightmares, Hell's Kitchen, his Master Class and, god help me, Gordon Behind Bars. I've watched his how-to videos. I've scrambled eggs a la Ramsay [fluffy!] and cooked the Beef Wellington made famous on Hell's Kitchen [a lot of work!].
And so when his Gordon Ramsay Fish & Chips opened at D.C.'s buzzy riverfront Wharf neighborhood, I wanted to get there. Fast.
I arrived on Day 4.
I should have waited.
Gordon Ramsay Fish & Chips is a small shop, the exterior painted English-phone-booth red. The interior is terribly designed and wedged into an L-shaped storefront that wraps a corner. To get to the counter, you queue up down a long alley, crowding the soda machine, pick-up window, and customers waiting for their number to be called.
A genial staff person stands at the door, controlling with a velvet rope the population inside. This in turn creates a line outside. Two cash registers sit on the counter, a big menu board looming behind. Anyone familiar with American fast food layouts, which is to say everybody, will recognize the Burger-King-on-a-busy-Monday-lunch vibe.
Tables and counters line the walls, but most are encroached on by the folks in line, or are arranged on the other leg of the L, across from the bathrooms. The restaurant is best thought of as a takeaway, with a dozen tables and umbrellas out front and a lot of benches and other perches to sit along the Wharf's boardwalk.
I know it was only Day 4, but the staff at the registers was a bit confused and distracted. I couldn't really see back into the kitchen, but the acoustical clues suggested a hectic scene, with people hustling around fryers and voices calling out to direct them. A plater pulled the finished fried goods out of big metal bowls, arranging the contents into cardboard boats lined with waxy paper bearing Ramsay branding.
When the orders are ready, numbers are called. Ours took 20 minutes. The beer was gone when the food arrived, and there was a line out the door so I couldn't order another.
I couldn't help but imagine Gordon himself raving around the kitchen, telling staff to Focus! And Get moving! And What on earth are you thinking! And...and...and...
What's to eat?
As for that menu: Just a few choices, just as Gordon always recommends for restaurants he's remaking on Restaurant Nightmares.
Fish and chips, of course, plus fried shrimp, fried chicken, and a Fishwich and Chickenwich.
Each order comes with a choice of two sauces: The classic tartar and cocktail sauces, plus a few wild cards, like curry mango and Southwest Ranch.
Plus beer, wine, soft drinks, and a Sticky Toffee Shake, a derivative of the dessert that the diners on Hell's Kitchen and the F-Word invariably rave about.
So: How's the food?
The fish, thick stubs of cod, was simply the best fried fish I've ever had. The crust -- made with custard powder batter -- was crispy, the fish fluffy, with no oily residue. I was surprised how good it was. I've never had fish and chips in Great Britain, but I'm not sure how it could be improved.
My lovely wife's Fishwich was essentially the same fish, sized to fit in what appears to be a naan taco, topped with a cheffy, crunchy slaw. She liked it.
I was expecting something like fat, hand-cut wedges. But the chips looked little different from the sort of frozen fries nearly every restaurant serves. They came out crisp-ish, but got damp and limp after about two minutes. To be as generous as possible, the chips -- one half of the chain's name, for god's sake -- were undistinguished.
By contrast the sauces were dead-on, sharp and complex in an expectedly culinary way. The cocktail and tartar, the latter described as "Gordon's," were elevated in some way I couldn't quite place. Capers in the cocktail sauce maybe?
Ketchup was served in little plastic packets of Heinz. To put a fine point on it: Even Burger King does better than that.
If I were Gordon Ramsay -- and I am not -- I might say of this fish and chips restaurant: "'Chips' is in the name of the restaurant for fuck's sake! You can't serve these! Dump them in the trash! You're not working fast enough or hard enough! Look at that line! Bullocks!"
He'd mutter "good job" to the folks frying the fish.
I think at the core of this is the difficulty in scaling Gordon Ramsay. He's got small kitchens, local staff, probably a dearth of company leaders who understand and can instill in others the Ramsay high-performance vibe. You have to control costs, depend on local suppliers, and make the best of the space you've rented.
Maybe next time
It is unfair, of course, to judge a restaurant by its performance on Day 4. So I'll be back.
But I'll also be back for another fanboy adventure at the Wharf. In early 2023 Gordon is opening a Hell's Kitchen, just the third in the U.S., not far from the Fish & Chips.
It will be overpriced.
It will be over the top.
It will be a glorious shitshow.
I won't go there on Day 4.