The Union Street Café is in a dismal, dingy part of London; dismal dingy Southwark. Southwark, in fact, is almost charismatically dingy, a land of despairing streets and brick arches and railway tracks heading suicidally for southern suburbs. Even the churches (small, brown, bricked, almost bricked-up) look apologetic, as if they know they have failed.
But it is here, on the junction of Union Street and Great Suffolk Street, that Gordon Ramsay, the second most charismatic of the original celebrity chefs — after Marco Pierre White, now selling stock cubes to old ladies with his swiftly receding sexual charisma — has built his new restaurant. It is his tenth in Britain. It was to be a co–venture with David Beckham, the ex-footballer and human thong, but Beckham pulled out; perhaps the restaurant was not thin enough for his terrifying wife Victoria?
The cuisine is Italian, but food was never the point of Gordon Ramsay; it was always about his anger, his face, and his chomping desire for an empire; and also the fact that he was cynical enough to attempt haute cuisine while punning, at Heathrow airport, with the appalling Plane Food. Of course he isn’t here in the kitchen of the Union Street Café; who loves their tenth child? He is probably in some TV studio, stuffing powder into the crevasses in his face, or perhaps shouting. Instead there is a wall of smiling heads greeting us at the door. So many happy heads smiling together. They are like the Tweenies, but abducted.
The vibe, as morons say, is Manhattan. Except this isn’t anything like Manhattan, which is overrated in any case; it is, I am afraid, closer to Penge, or even Southwark, still lurking just outside. But it has exposed pipes, concrete floors, ugly lighting, greying pop art and all the detritus of 1980s urban grunge, which to me only bespeaks dodgy builders; all we now need is Madonna, circa 1985 and young again, gyrating over a potato ricer while licking a sledgehammer (‘Men at twerk’). It is violently unsexy; why would you dine in a restaurant that looks like your own home under renovation? And in Southwark, which needs no more gritty reality, least of all gritty reality re-imagined by Gordon Ramsay’s accountant, with help from his stylist, neither of whom I suspect has a clue about reality, gritty, Manhattanite, or otherwise?
Apparently many have — it was the Beckham effect. Ten thousand covers booked, I was told, and they are full until Christmas (except there are many empty tables, so they aren’t). But in the absence of David Beckham, never a man to sell food (he exists to sell knickers to the broken), the Union Street Café — and bar, which is apparently your ‘local urban living room’ — will have to survive on its kitchen, which is encased behind a wall of glass. ‘Restaurant theatre,’ they call it. Ugh.
The Tweenies bring a series of dishes stuffed with salt. I want to judge them kindly; but I can’t taste anything except the salt. Two types of cheese — mozzarella (with Parma ham) and burrata (with pumpkin) — covered in salt. Risotto al funghi and rigatoni ragù — likewise covered in salt. The veal was possibly salt — with veal. Was this a no-longer-necessary attempt by Victoria Beckham to render the food inedible? Did a bulimic chef ‘go dark’? Even my guest, who normally subsists on Wagon Wheels and hate, can’t eat it.
So here is Gordon near the end; flogging salty pasta to the tidy workers of Southwark. Because local hipsters wouldn’t eat in a Gordon Ramsay joint, if they eat at all; he is too old for them. His demographic is veering inexorably towards the stock cube.
Got something to add? Join the discussion and comment below.
Union Street Café, 47–51 Great Suffolk Street, London SE1 0BS, tel: 020 7592 7977.
You might disagree with half of it, but you’ll enjoy reading all of it. Try your first 10 weeks for just $10