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  • Writer's pictureCraig Stoltz

Hell's Kitchen restaurant review: Gordon Ramsay in purgatory

As I've previously reported in this space, I'm a fourth-degree Gordon Ramsay fanboy. I've watched all the series, seek out his recipes online, have a cookbook. I scramble eggs and grill burgers closely following instructions on his YouTube videos. I find his bluster amusing, his cooking insights useful. I've even watched an embarrassing number of episodes of Restaurant Nightmares. When my wife and I visit restaurants that violate his rules of success -- too many items on the menu! Owners who visibly linger in the front of the house but don't do any work! -- we chuckle knowingly.

And so it was with excessive enthusiasm that my lovely wife and I and a couple of friends headed to the new Hell's Kitchen restaurant at DC's Wharf. This is his third Hell's Kitchen in the U.S, all of them spin-offs of the long-running reality competition series of the same name. All are located in high-traffic tourism hubs, like Las Vegas, midtown New York City, and various casinos all around the country. This should immediately tell you something.

And it did. My devotee expectations were too high. It was not the heavenly Hell I'd wished for. Instead it lived in an in-between gustatory purgatory (to use a phrase I shall never repeat).

It's clearly designed as a lure for Ramsay-curious travelers, falling somewhere between pure tourist sops like Margaritaville and the more food-driven Michelin-starred restaurants operated by top TV chefs like David Chang and Tom Colicchio.

That said, this or any Hell's Kitchen may be worth a visit for foodie tourism alone, assuming you have some headroom on your credit card and don't take things too seriously.

Welcome to GordonWorld

The restaurant is partly a Gordo theme park, producing a vivid aroma of tourist bait immediately upon entry.

A video display of the man himself barking out insults stands by the front door. Images of him, chef-jacketed and cross-armed, loom on the walls, the red- and blue-hued open kitchens the show made famous stand front and center, columns of flame lick up the walls on video screens, and so forth. There's all a muchness to it, as the Brits might say.

HK fans may recall that the hapless competitors had to master, among other things, Beef Wellington, sauteed scallops, and lobster saffron risotto. Many times the scallops were scraped form plates into the trash as Gordon shouted his withering contempt.

As I hoped, all three dishes were on the menu. And so we tried 'em all.

The kitchen: Heaven and Hell

The Wellington was as-seen-on-TV excellent: lovably tender meat, precise medium rare temperature, densely rich duxelles, beautifully crisp jacket of pastry. The scallops were perfectly cooked, soft and sweet but wearing a firm, crusted sear.

And yet: The coins of lobster tail were splayed across a sauce so oddly dense and so heavily flavored that the saffron disappeared entirely. It made a rich dish unnecessarily, inexplicably richer than it needed to be.

Other plates ranged from meh to wow. The mac and cheese, featuring among other things smoked Gouda, was so good I looked up reverse-engineered recipes of the HK version online (I am not the only fourth-degree Gordon fan) and made it the next week at home. My buddy's short rib was dry, a clear whiff by the kitchen. But dessert, sticky toffee cake claimed to be from Ramsay's mom's recipe, was smashing, as Gordon might say, a kind of moist Heath Bar.

Drinks were B+, the wine list surprisingly short and unremarkable. A gin cocktail called the Note from Gordon, included...wait for it...a note from Gordon. As garnish. The notes excerpt some of his ripest insults, a sort of Ramsay fortune cookie. At least one I think get lost in the translation. "You've put so much ginger in this, it's a weasley!" Huh. I think that might be British slang for red-head.

The service was slow and choppy. Our guy came and went, but mostly went. The courses weren't paced well. Additional jus for the dry short rib came when the plate was clean. A floor manager prowled the room muttering into a headset, to little effect.

Check, please

The damage: $350 for two. To be fair, we got three apps and five drinks between the two of us. But still.

Running dozens of restaurants that promise the quality produced by a chef with three Michelin stars and an international following is, to be plain, a burden the big man has brought upon himself. I'm sure quality and cost control in an establishment he cannot personally supervise are a challenge, to badly understate.

Still, Hell's Kitchen doesn't live up to the man's own standards. Had our evening been an episode of the Hell's Kitchen series, he might have chased our waiter onto the street with a vulgar rant, scraped the lobster into a trash bin, and roared at the floor manager to explain what in god's name she was actually doing.

So maybe HK serves inconsistent food for high prices and tries to capture travelers with a well-known brand -- but well, at least it's Gordon's tourist trap. For this fourth-degree Ramsay fanboy, that was good enough for one night.


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