top 100: gordon ramsay at the london

IMG_1444Gordon Ramsay‘s noxious, narcissistic television persona might put you in the mind that he’s more clown than chef, but the man and his various entrepreneurial gambles collectively boast an impressive 14 Michelin stars, considered by many to be the ultimate benchmark in the hospitality industry. (To wit, there are only four 3-star restaurants in all of the UK, one of which is Ramsay’s flagship.) The bad boy of British cooking might be an unbearable bore, but his cooking is the real deal – even if Gordo is rarely seen in any of his kitchens these days. His first, and so far only, foray into the hyper-competitive world of New York fine dining was greeted with bemused detachment when he arrived with yet another eponymous restaurant inside the former Rhiga Royal, newly christened as The London hotel. Who was this Glasgow footballer-turned-chef come to teach New Yorkers about French food, the foodie demimonde decried. The reception – to be kind – was cool. Yet despite the collective ennui of my neighbors, I must give Ramsay some props. As fine dining it’s all too pretentious, let’s just get that out of the way. The presentation may be classically – and meticulously – French but the complexity of flavor doesn’t always hit the mark. And neither does the suffocating ambiance, which feels more like a temple to Ramsay’s unmitigated ego than one dedicated to dining. But that doesn’t mean the food isn’t often delicious, because it is. The secret is counterintuitive to how Ramsay see himself: treat his dining room as a relatively casual pre or post theater dinner spot. Get there early or late and order off the prix-fixe menu; it’s fantastic and a relative bargain. The simpler the plate, the better, like a perfectly poached hen’s egg over artichokes and basil puree. Or crispy skate wing with roasted fennel. Ramsay is at his level best when he’s humble with his ingredients, proving that sometimes less really is more. Does anyone dare to try and tell that to the chef himself?





last looks: glasgow

My last full day in Scotland is an abbreviated – if typically Scottish – one, marked by lashing rain. (It is the first real rain since I arrived in the UK, incidentally, so I really cannot complain.) I part ways with my friends in Paisley – they have an epic 10-hour drive south to Cardiff – and make my way to the modish Malmaison on Blythswood Square in central Glasgow. Tomorrow’s flight is an early one, so I take advantage of the persistent mizzle to pack (then repack) my accumulated bits and pieces in anticipation of an early dinner and even earlier start. Mission quickly accomplished, I couldn’t let an afternoon in the city pass without a good dose of Charles Rennie Mackintosh. It seemed fitting to revisit a pair of nearby architectural triumphs, one high and one low: the glorious Glasgow School of Art and the delicious Willow Tea Rooms. As has so often happened to me in this city, one appetite was spoiled and another thoroughly whetted.


secret whisky agenda

Confession time: the true reason for my wanting to stop off and spend a bit of time in Oban is the distillery, which – you guessed it – makes one of my favorite brown liquors. Oban also happens to be one of the oldest distilleries in Scotland – physically and spiritually at the heart of the town. In fact it predates the town. Founded by local brothers John and Hugh Stevenson, who established a boat building yard, a tannery, and in the 1790s a brewery which by 1794 would become the Oban distillery, the town of Oban is largely a byproduct of the brother’s business enterprises. By the late 19th century it had become a busy port which shipped wool, whisky, slate and kelp to Liverpool and Glasgow. The arrival of the Victorian railways brought further prosperity, revitalising local industry and giving birth to local tourism. In 1883 the distillery fell from family hands when it was bought by J. Walter Higgin. He dismantled and rebuilt it bit by bit, carefully replicating the famously small stills and other traditional features in order to preserve the quality of the whisky. Today the distillery buildings and their internal arrangements are substantially the same as they were following Higgin’s refurbishment. The distillery has only two pot stills, making it one of the smallest in Scotland, and the whisky it produces perfectly echoes its coastal location: briny on the nose with a background of heather and peat. It’s a distinctive West Highland flavor which falls somewhere between the lighter, sweeter Highland malts of Glenmorangie and Dalmore and the dry, smoky island-style of Talisker and Laphroig. Single malt whisky has been made here for over 200 years; by contrast it’s only recently that very exceptional malts were bottled and sold as ‘singles,’ as opposed to blended. Guided by senior site manager, Mike Tough, I was lucky enough to be taken through the whiskey making process and given a bit of insight into Oban’s unique profile: made using barley malted to the distillery’s particular specification, the partly germinated kernels are gently dried in a kiln where a light peat smoke gives the malt its distinctive character. The particularly addictive malty dryness in the flavor and finish of Oban whisky owes almost as much to how the grain is handled as it does the small-batch distillation process and a stillman’s attention to detail. It’s no cliche to say you can taste the tradition – and the finish is ever so smooth.


this train for oban

The train from Glasgow to Oban, where I’ll eventually meet my friends and catch the ferry to Mull, is a two-carriage “dinky” which seems to hug the shore of every loch in its path through the Highlands. If there’s a journey that could be described as lilting, this is it. As mellifluous and rolling as the Scots accent, it’s a pleasantly relaxing two and a half hours. Thankfully Oban is the terminus of this particular train, leaving me free to nod off with impunity.


one devonshire gardens

If people back home know of One Devonshire Gardens it’s likely because many years ago footballer-turned-chef Gordon Ramsay made his name in the kitchen of the hotel’s restaurant. Today, however, it’s the flagship property of Hotel du Vin, a small UK chain of boutique hotels distinguished by their architectural significance – and as the brand name implies, well-stocked wine cellars. One Devonshire occupies a row of five Victorian townhouses in Glasgow’s stylish West End, retaining all of the original features including dramatic stained glass windows, ornate corniced ceilings, wood panelling and sweeping staircases. William Burrell – owner of one of the most famous private collections of art in the world, The Burrell Collection, lived in House 4 in the 1890’s and commissioned the stained glass window above. Within walking distance of the Botanic Gardens and the famous Kelvingrove and Hunterian Museums, I couldn’t think of a more genteel pit stop before beginning a week of arduous hill walking in the Hebrides.


as feckless as a wither’d rash

Stravaigin is one of my favorite restaurants in Glasgow. At the forefront of the “think global, eat local” movement long before it became fashionable, its name comes from the Gaelic and means to wander; but in the good way, as in following your bliss – or your palate. It’s an eclectic establishment, with a menu that careers from traditional Scots dishes to Thai curries to Vietnamese pho and back again, making multiple multi-cultural stops along the way. They have their fingers firmly on the foodie pulse so it often fills up quickly with curious customers willing to become gourmet guinea pigs. I had my first taste of roasted rook (aka crow) here a few years ago and became hooked – not solely on the food but also the curiosity behind it. In search of sit-down lunch this afternoon, I happened upon Stravaigin 2, the restaurant’s more casual cafe in Glasgow’s West End. And once I saw haggis, neeps, & tatties at the top of the menu I knew it’d be pointless to bother looking any further.


my olympic moment

I land in Glasgow and find James McAvoy parading down the street with the Olympic torch raised aloft. Coincidence? I think not.


at the theatre: beautiful burnout & good people

And we’re off!  The first two shows of the spring season come with impeccable pedigrees: Beautiful Burnout arrives via Frantic Assembly and the National Theatre of Scotland – the same people behind the widely acclaimed Black Watch, while Good People is the latest effort from Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright David Lindsay-Abaire.  While the subject matters of these plays couldn’t be more disparate – Beautiful Burnout is a sensorial descent into the world of amateur Glasgow boxers, Good People is a realistic Southie drama of living with the choices you didn’t make -side by side is a good way to view them: they’re textbook examples of how to tell a story – and how not-to.  As the program notes state, Burnout was conceived by Assembly’s Steven Hoggett and written by Tony-nominated playwright Bryony (Frozen) Lavery. Instigated by Hoggett’s observation of young boxers at Gleason’s Gym, “he became intrigued with both the beauty and brutality in the movement and distress of the live boxers.”  Sounds interesting, no?  If only the working class youth seeking transcendence in the ring of this mish-mash of 80’s-inspired dance drama and pseudo-inspirational clap trap had half a chance at escape.  (Intermissionless, the audience has zero chance.)  You can’t blame the actors, who bravely endure a forced march of cardio acrobatics. Dancing to a series of ridiculous sound and video-scapes or sweating through the training drills inflicted on them by their instructor, this cast deserves a commendation for such committed physicality. Ms. Lavery, on the other hand, deserves a one-two punch to the body. She hasn’t written a play so much as strung together a series of truisms book-ended by a grieving mother at the wash. Substituting misguided conceptual posturing to disguise a total lack of basic storytelling skills creates artifice, not art. Long story short: boy wants to be a boxer, boy  eats crisps and trains to be a boxer, boy gets hit and becomes a side of mash and veg; disco plays, mother grieves; audience desperately waits for the bell.  If Ms. Lavery had any sense about her she’d head over to Manhattan Theatre Club.  Though better known for importing second-rate plays from London, MTC got lucky a few years ago with a small production of David Lindsay-Abaire’s  Fuddy Meers. It was fortuitous for the playwright as well. He found an artistic home that’s gone on to produce each of his subsequent plays.  Known for quirky characters and genre-twisting plots, Lindsay-Abaire took a decided turn in his last work, Rabbit Hole.  A realistic exploration of a man and wife shattered by the grief over their dead child, it won the Pulitzer Prize, establishing the playwright as a “serious” writer.  In Good People, Lindsay-Abaire continues to mine this new-found penchant for realism and strikes a greater gold by finding the right balance of comedy and tragedy in the moral dilemmas of people forced to hang-on tooth and nail in troubled economic times. Facing eviction and scrambling to catch a break, Margie (the estimable Frances McDormand) thinks an old high school fling who’s made it out of South Boston might be her ticket to a fresh start. All she wants is a leg-up on a job but an imagined slight leads to a surprise visit ripe with  resentment, blackmail, and a dubious bomb or two about paternity. I won’t give away any more plot except to say that to complicate things he’s “lace curtain” Irish, with an African-American wife to boot.  Part of the excitement of the play is following the unexpected developments, the oh-no-she-didn’t-say-that moments, the moral inversions, and the fallout from Marge’s incessant foot-in-mouth.  Nothing is simple in Lindsay-Abaire’s world and that’s how it should be.  We’re all good people, really.  And sometimes, we slip.


bucket list: 2009 edition – May



TURKS & CAICOS:  Providenciales has to be one of my favorite islands when I’m looking to kick back and relax. (A rare occasion, but nevertheless….)  So naturally there was an epic internal struggle when I found myself at the minimalist-chic Gansevoort South for a weekend-long fitness bootcamp.  Led by the inspiring  – and very fit – founder’s of NYC’s Core Fusion classes in an outdoor pavillion at the onsite exhale spa, it was a butt-lifting, yoga-infused sweatfest that had me comfortably fitting into formerly-snug jeans by the time I headed home.  And sporting a great tan to boot.

hiking up yer kilt

SCOTLAND:  There must be some Scottish blood in me somewhere because I always feel particularly at home here in Edinburgh.  Even in a kilt – which was the occasion for this particular visit. Interviewing the irascible Howie Nicholsby, designer and founder of 21st Century Kilts, I was tempted to try one one.  After a laddish afternoon together in full kit, I was hooked and had to have my own.  If you’re the kind of guy that thinks a rambunctious puppy or a well orchestrated baby is a chick magnet, I’ve got one word for you:  kilt.  And if you think that chocolate lab melts the hearts of ladies everywhere and leads to phone numbers in pocket, you’ll be bowled over by the inquiring and admiring eyes that greet a man in a kilt.  Gentlemen,  it defies fashion.  And a little bit of turbulence in a kilt goes an awful long way, too.


glasgow – part two

Stravaigin restaurant

Stravaigin restaurant

In Glasgow, the reality of Scottish food need not strike fear in your heart. The restaurant scene is as scrubbed and polished and locally sourced as Edinburgh or London, with well-served – even Michelin-starred – spots catering to every taste: Gamba, for the best fish in town; Stravaigin for truly eclectic (and often experimental)  fare like rook; Rogano’s for Art Deco splendor; One Devonshire Gardens for stars -  Gordon Ramsay cut his teeth at the hotel’s restaurant, Amarylis, before making for the bright lights of London and New York; and Rawalpindi for your curry fix. However, you simply cannot go to Scotland and miss out on trying haggis.

haggis1Poet-laureate Robert Burns may have written an ode to the humble haggis, but surely no other national dish causes the uninitiated to quiver in quite the same way.  It’s mythology of unmentionable bits ‘n’ pieces wrapped in a cow stomach and deep fried is quite untrue for the most part.  Certainly you can get your “haggis bits” from any number of chip shops – and downright disgusting they are; go for a deep fried Mars bar after a late night out instead – but real haggis is a dish of offal worth savoring. Along  Ashton Lane, in the cobbled boho West End, Ronnie Clydesdale’s Ubiquitous Chip has been serving homemade versions of vegetarian and venison haggis with neeps and tatties (mashed potatoes and turnips) for thirty years.  And you’ll think it ever so strange, but trust me, haggis tastes even better the next day, cold, for breakfast.

Once your appetite gets whetted for all things edible and Scottish (it has been known to happen) a visit to the Babbity Bowster in Blackfriars should be in order.  Fill up with Stovies, a traditional Scottish version of beef stew; Cullen Skink, a thick, rich soup of smoked Finnan Haddie or smoked haddock, onion, and potato;  and Potted Hough, a very unhealthy – and addictive – version of pate, as the jive-talking barman with the pirate’s patch spins a yarn as thick as the Skink.  Now you’re ready to roll out for the night

trainOne of the lasting glories of the Victorian architects are the grand, glass-roofed train stations that defined an age of industrialization and Empire.  Glasgow central station is no exception. Yet underneath that crystal palace lies The Arches, one of the liveliest subterranean attractions in the UK. The cavernous underground railway vaults seem to stretch on forever in various states of conversion and disrepair, simultaneously hosting a diverse range of cultural activity and breaking down entrenched notions of what an arts venue can be.

The Arches

The Arches

The cross fertilization between clubbing culture, visual art, live music and theater is electric; conceivably you could go from one room to another into the wee hours.  And why not? A fizzy can of orange Irn Bru will cure what ails you come the morning.

The laid back confidence of Glasgow and its citizens is as addictive as its effortless cool.  Loitering here seems to be a national pastime and the simple act of hanging out is one of the great pleasures of the city:  in the streets, at bars, pubs and restaurants, through the parks and museums.  Sure, there is still a bit of rough about, an edgy air of occasional uncertainty. But straddling the best of both worlds, Glasgow is a cosmopolitan city and unhomogenized small town at once: there is room for individuals and room for innovation.  It’s left more than one New Yorker seethingly jealous.


charles rennie mackintosh

It’s difficult to mention Charles Rennie Mackintosh and not go into further detail.  Though virtually unknown outside his native Scotland – and pretty well ignored there, too, during his lifetime – his influence had a massive impact on Josef Hoffman and the Viennese school of designers at the time; an influence which was eventually to be felt around the world after his death.  A grand testament to the lasting aesthetic principals of Mackintosh can be found at the House for an Art Lover, outside Glasgow in Bellahouston Park.  An unrealized commission during his lifetime, it was constructed over a hundred years after the fact from his original plans.

Here are a few examples of Mackintosh’s astonishing body of work, beginning with one of my favorite quotes of all time.


glasgow – part one

view_from_glasgow_towerMost Americans have an image of Scotland that falls somewhere between Trainspotting and The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie – salted with a tartan-clad dash of Brigadoon for good measure.  It’s a highland fling flung with junkies, fascist sympathizers, bumpkins, and the battle cry of Braveheart.  And it doesn’t help matters that for all of their bravado, the Scots lack a strong national identity – though what assimilated arm of the British Empire doesn’t?  They are a wily, difficult people to pin down, those Scots: at times surprising, often baffling, the resistance to being pigeonholed makes them all the more mysterious and magnetic.

Nowhere is the fictional image of Scotland shattered more quickly than in Glasgow. Once the Empire’s “second city,” it is a post-industrial town hell-bent on reinventing itself through a renaissance of style and architectural regeneration. It is a statement the city makes with surprising aplomb:  old and new roost side-by-side and even inside out. The futuristic Glasgow Science Center and its pod-shaped IMAX Theater stand like modern beacons against the Victorian backdrop of the waterside quays of the River Clyde as you enter the city center.  Nearby is the Armadillo, the affectionately named convention center that looks strangely familiar, like a riff on the famous Sydney Opera House.

Willow Tea RoomsThe axis of Sauchiehall and Buchanan Streets marks the city’s pedestrian center.  A scattering of up-market shops, cafes and galleries reinforce the city’s rebirth as the UK’s hippest urban center.  The Willow Tea Rooms make for a civilized, if old fashioned, chance to take a load off with scones, clotted cream, and a proper pot of tea in one of Charles Rennie Mackintosh’s inspired Art Nouveau interiors.  Glasgow School of ArtRarely has an architect been so identified with a city as Mackintosh is with Glasgow.   A hundred years on and his Glasgow School of Art remains not only a working art school but also a masterpiece of organic 20th century design.   From the door signs to the lighting fixtures to the furniture, Mackintosh designed a building down to the smallest of details, creating a unified whole that is well worth the necessary hassle of arranging a tour in advance. (How Mackintosh and Frank Lloyd Wright arrived sui generis with similar sensibilities at virtually the same point in time remains a tantalizing mystery of the universe.) Mackintosh’s home has been preserved as well, as part of the Hunterian Gallery in the university quarter. An interesting study in the practical aesthetics of his sensibility, it’s also a remarkable exercise in conservation.

Straying off Buchanan Street takes you into the old Merchant City, where it’s now impossible to walk about without passing one trendy bar or another – and the hen & stag parties the descend on the weekends.  Wandering its narrow streets and bespoke shops is an afternoon in itself – as is gazing at the detailed Victorian brickwork. (Think NYC’s meatpacking district before the bus tours came and wrecked it all.)  Here you’ll also find the Corinthian, Glasgow’s finest grade-A listed building.  Appropriately enough it houses a piano bar, a cocktail bar and the most inviting lounge in the city. Glasgow - Modern ArtThe popular (and much maligned) Gallery of Modern Art on Royal Exchange Square has a rather controversial collection of populist fare inside.  But it’s the simple pointed gesture outside the entrance that seems to encapsulate the Glaswegian view of life: a classical statue of Lord Nelson astride his horse, only slightly enhanced by the traffic cone atop his head.

Glasgow’s population is a respectable 650,000, yet it’s the largest retail center (outside of London) in the UK.  The rumors that Versace opened his boutique in Glasgow before London are true. There are some 800 bars, pubs and nightclubs, over 20 museums (largely free), and more than 200 cultural organizations.  A scan through the weekly paper, The List, boggles the mind with all that is on offer at any given moment.  It’s enough to make many an urban dweller wildly jealous. The saying may go “It’s a nice place to visit…,” but Glasgow has its share of expats who’ve never bothered to return home.


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