Ten years and several lifetimes ago, Jason Atherton was heading up the kitchen at Gordon Ramsay’s Maze. Back then, Ramsay could do no wrong. He was decorated with more Michelin awards than he could comfortably carry up a flight of stairs, owned lauded restaurants from New York to Tokyo, and was the sweary star of numerous TV shows.
But ten years and several lifetimes ago is when things started to go a bit wrong. The coming years would see personal and professional relationships explode. Key figures including Atherton would acrimoniously depart. The Ramsay empire would teeter. There were high-profile closures and higher-profile court cases and the fact he’d spent the last decade calling people ****s and ****s and ******* ******s meant nobody had much sympathy.
Ramsay retrenched, although admittedly “retrenched” in this case includes opening a two Michelin star restaurant in Bordeaux. I went over to interview him there and he was studiously pleasant, obscenely nice, speaking in the hushed tones of a man who’s been told by an expensive PR agency not to lose his ******* temper.
Now he’s back in the UK with his first London restaurant in five years, returning to the Mayfair site of Maze, which feels somehow significant. Obviously he opted to play it safe, going back to his haute cuisine roots with a… Wait, what? A pan-Asian eating house?
Lucky Cat opened this summer to a chorus of sneers and accusations of cultural appropriation, in part, I’m sure, because Ramsay spent a decade calling people ****s and ****s and ******* ******s, which doesn’t inspire anyone to give you the benefit of the doubt. Well, ladies and gents, I have a hot take for you. I liked it. I had a nice time. I would recommend it to a friend.
In fairness, I doubt Ramsay has been secretly hankering for a Japanese-ish restaurant to add to his portfolio; I think someone fed a bunch of numbers into a machine and Lucky Cat popped out. The elevator pitch sounds like it was generated by an algorithm, with its pan-Asian menu and its sharing concept and its ostentatiously American DJ booth (unoccupied when I visited on a Sunday afternoon).
It’s like someone stacked Nobu on top of Hakkasan on top of Sexy Fish and stomped on them until only one restaurant remained. Its purpose: to entice all those rich Americans staying around the corner in Claridges and the Connaught to part with large fistfuls of dollars (exhibit A, your honour: the menu uses the word “eggplant” instead of “aubergine”).
But, I reiterate, I liked it. When you’re sitting in one of the expansive booths, sipping an extremely good glass of sparkling sake, chatting to a waiter who’s so charming I would consider asking him speak at my wedding, it feels like a Gordon Ramsay restaurant. Not one of the really great ones, admittedly, but a Gordon Ramsay restaurant nonetheless.
The decor is easy on the eye, apparently inspired by Tokyo’s 1930s drinking dens, a concept so far removed in both time and geography that it’s hard to say if it bears any actual resemblance. It’s pretty, though. Along one wall are a legion of grey cats, aristocratic cousins of the gold plastic things from the Chinese takeaways of my childhood, arms held aloft but (on my visit at least) not doing much waving.
The menu zigzags woozily across Asia, the biggest stop-overs being Japan and Hong Kong. And while the words “pan-Asian” fill me with a nameless dread, it works reasonably well. A case in point: I never thought I’d write that Gordon Ramsay is responsible for perhaps my favourite prawn toast, but these four perfect, springy little morsels make a strong case.
The Burmese crab masala (a recipe from the wife of one of the chefs) is deep and pungent, with half a dozen soft shell crab legs making a final bid for freedom over the side of the copper dish, the whole thing topped with thick shavings of coconut and a tangle of greenery. You’d call it street food if it didn’t cost £24. It’s delicious, and amusingly incongruous next to the flamboyantly-presented crudités, which are precariously draped over a tower of ice cubes.
Travelling a thousand miles east, the char sui pork chop with nashi pear (£23) is a belter, its thick layers of fat melting like butter. The crispy duck leg (£27) has a nice, greasy crunch, and comes with pillows of steamed bread so light and fragrant I’d like to be buried between two of them.
The only misfire was the snail and watercress dumplings, which were over-engineered and didn’t really taste of anything. I had souffle for dessert, and while I enjoyed it, I can’t quite pinpoint from which part of Asia it hails (I suppose it did involve yuzu and lemongrass).
In a perfect world this would be the point where I say what an absolute kitchen nightmare Lucky Cat is, but I had a perfectly lovely time. Chef knows how to run a ******* restaurant.