Union Street Café is the new venture from Gordon Ramsay – a man now as famous for his marathons, triathlons and talk show appearances as he is for his dinners – but without goldenballs himself, David Beckham, who apparently pulled out of the reported partnership just days before the launch. If Becks’ purported involvement was just a stunt to ensure publicity and drive a flurry of bookings it certainly worked, but was almost entirely unnecessary as this restaurant is good enough to stand on its own.
Ramsay’s ventures tend to range from the amazing (Royal Hospital Road, Petrus) to the unexceptional (The Narrow, Maze, Foxtrot Oscar) with the misses probably outweighing the hits and his being somewhat overshadowed by former protégés e.g. Jason Atherton, Angela Hartnett etc. But Union Street is definitely a hit for me.
The décor and atmosphere are one of those things that will divide people; personally I loved them even though they are a bit self consciously try hard not to be trying hard looks. Tables are decently spaced – such a rarity in London – and seating is comfortable. The restaurant itself is an old warehouse and many traces of this remain – the steel shutters from loading bays, concrete floors, chipped pillars, and no nice neat ceilings, but instead visible cables and ducting. However, added to this is some artwork that could best be described as contemporary (i.e. some people will hate it, some love it), lots of leather banquettes, a bar with some sexy lights etc. There is some, non intrusive, music though it does get noisy at it fills up (it was quiet at 7.30 when we arrived, but by 8.30 there was scarcely a seat in the house and a couple of walk up customers were sent away for not having been lucky enough to have been amongst the thousands who rushed to book) due to all those hard surfaces. Incidentally the menu itself is really hard to read, they use a pale loopy font, almost as bad as comic sans, and it’s a curious mix of proper Italian with occasional English flourishes on a single, floppy, sheet of paper.
Customers are a real mix, and I suspect driven as much by people who were handy with an online booking system as those who would normally go to somewhere like this. From the middle aged couples, through to the people on dates, the glam girls in the corner drinking cocktails and posting pictures of each other on Facebook/Twitter and what looked like a business party all in suits and looking miserable at having to spend the evening together.
Service is very good, not quite perfect, but that might just be because it’s still early days. You don’t get a single waiter(ess) throughout, instead they go for the first person to get to you each time. This does lead to a few small issues e.g. with some people not able to translate the dishes from the Italian on the menu so that you don’t resort to Googling on a smartphone, a slightly long wait for dessert menus when several people failed to catch our eye and the person taking our payment being by far the least charming member of staff we encountered all evening, but fix these few small grumbles and it’ll be bang on.
Food is really good and I fail to see how anyone can describe it otherwise. 3 of us all ate different dishes for each course and no one had a single thing negative to report. I started with mushroom risotto, it arrived properly hot, which is always a good start, nice consistency and warm flavours. This was followed by sea bass in an, almost stew like, mix of borlotti beans and parma ham accompanied by rosemary potatoes and deep fried courgette – the fish was firm and the ‘stew’ had a nice spicy, filling flavour, the courgettes (always a personal favourite) weren’t quite as good as the benchmark that is set by Daphne’s, but the rosemary potatoes were wonderful – crisp on the outside, fluffy inside and the sort of roast potatoes you can only dream about (I’d go back just for them, even if everything else was horrible). Dessert was panacotta with figs and grappa, really unappetising looking – it was presented resembling, and there is not a good way of putting this, a silicone implant from all those news reports about PIP – but tasted great; frequently the grappa is so massively overdone that all you taste is the burn of cheapish alcohol, but here the grappa was in the panacotta rather than the figs and gave things just the right bite. Do lose points though for a very limited dessert selection, essentially 4 options, 2 of which were variants on panacotta, one ice cream and one grape tart, with the addition of a cheese selection and one of the 4 dessert options (the grape tart, which at least 2 of us would have ordered) was apparently sold out – not really good enough at just 8.45 on a Monday night!
Prices are good value; 3 people, 3 courses, wine, water and service came to just over £55 per head – and there is a decent selection of reasonably priced wines available, no need to start at the £50 upwards that a Mayfair postcode would bring.
I’d go back without hesitation though it’s booked up quite a long way in advance; it’s a really good addition to what someone, erringly, labelled a run down bit of south London. Well done Mr Ramsay.