When was it that Gordon Ramsay finally lost me? Was it the increasingly bad, pandering television projects? Was it the botox? Was it the name of his new L.A. restaurant, the Fat Cow, or perhaps his PR team's silly refusal to admit that "fat cow" was an insult of sorts, especially coming from a British chef? No, it was none of these things. Ramsay lost me, finally, as my friend and I sat and looked miserably over the ruins of our lunch, a lunch with Ramsay's name on it but no trace of the skill he's famous for.
There, on my plate, was most of my $28 cheeseburger, a burger that differed from the $15 burger because "the meat's better... I think it's Wagyu?" our waitress said. Covered in waxy, congealed, orange-ish cheese, it tasted no more special than any pub burger anywhere in America, except that the unexceptional, tepid fries that came alongside were doused in truffle oil.
On my friend's plate, 75 percent of her fish and chips remained, the fish outrageously overcooked and mushy, the batter thick and doughy and more like something you'd find surrounding your deep-fried Twinkie at a sketchy carnival than the work of a kitchen headed by a world-famous chef.
Between us, the chopped salad sat practically untouched, its almost slawlike combination of shaved kale, radish, cabbage and carrots somehow bland to the point of inedibility, despite the addition of orange segments and pumpkin and sunflower seeds.
"How did they do that?" I asked my friend. "How did they put all those delicious things in one bowl and somehow manage to make it taste so blah?" She just shook her head, in wonderment.
Indeed. How could our lunch possibly be so bad?
Prior to this, like many current and former line cooks, Ramsay had held a special place of honor in my imagination. Before Bourdain, Ramsay was the original celebrity chef who refused to become a joke of commercialism. While Emeril was BAM-ing on TV and opening one bad incarnation of his original restaurant after another, Ramsay maintained his foulmouthed, real-chef swagger. Where other chefs made nice for the cameras so as not to scare off the housewives who once were food journalism's bread and butter, Ramsay couldn't give a rat's ass about those housewives, and he basically said so, regularly.
For cooks, those people in the industry who still sweated on their feet for 12-hour shifts, the guy was a beacon. A cook's unglamorous life finds its meaning in the filthy kitchen banter, in the camaraderie, in the food. Ramsay represented all of those things, and also a refusal to sell out to a nicer, quieter version of himself, which might track well with young mothers if it happened to grace a soup can.
Then marketers found out that even the screaming, barking, swearing Ramsay tracked just fine with television-viewing audiences. But even after Hell's Kitchen, the show that showcases Ramsay at his most screamy, it appeared that he did not plan to grace any soup cans. His restaurants maintained at least the veneer of quality.
Well, kids, I'm here to tell you: The Fat Cow is Gordon Ramsay's can of soup.
The packaging is quite nice, I'll give him that. Tucked into a sliver of real estate next to the movie theater at the Grove (yes, it's in a mall -- we'll consider that in a bit), the room's long, swanky, barn-themed decor is awfully cute. A mixture of rustic and playful Etsy-like cow art adorns the walls, along with burnished mirrors. Semicircular red booths line the room, with long, farmhouse communal tables in the center. It's smaller than you might imagine, giving it the feel of a neighborhood joint rather than a mall restaurant.
The menu reads like a sophisticated neighborhood bistro, with British pub leanings. Apart from the fish and chips and burgers, there's shepherd's pie, a charcuterie and cheese plate, pizzas, steak, fried chicken, cocktails. The cocktails aren't half bad, falling somewhere between serious mixology and the too-sweet concoctions of less accomplished bartenders. But yes, lemon and basil and cucumber go nicely with gin, and I'm sure passionfruit iced tea and vodka are fine if that's your kind of thing. But the food doesn't fare so well.
The shepherd's pie probably was better than what you might get out of the freezer section; the braised lamb under the bland, lifeless mashed potato top was a little more stewy and rich than industrial grade, but not by much. Branzino ceviche was so besmirched by dollops of goo both green (avocado?) and yellow (horseradish?), it looked like a science experiment gone wrong. It was so disturbing it prompted me to take a picture and send it to a friend, who responded, "That looks malignant."
How was the fish? Who knows? All I could taste was glop. The "farmhouse cheese" on the charcuterie and cheese plate looked and tasted very much like cubed and wedged supermarket Colby.
I had a nicely cooked piece of organic salmon with a mustardy celery-root slaw, and the burrata and sausage pizza, while laden with a slick of oil, had a decently tangy, crispy crust. But those were two middling points in an otherwise low experience.
Perhaps all of this is unfair. Perhaps, rather than comparing the Fat Cow to other Los Angeles restaurants with big-name chefs involved, we should compare it to its true brethren -- other mall food. How does the Fat Cow stack up against Maggiano's, for instance? California Pizza Kitchen? If you were at the mall with your kids and you wanted a meal -- and you needed a drink, for chrissake -- would the Fat Cow be better than the other crap you find in most malls?
There are two answers to this. One: Not at this mall, where I'd rather eat at Short Order or one of the other options in the adjacent Original Farmers Market. Two: Not if you're comparing prices. The dinner I had with my family at the Fat Cow was perhaps comparable qualitywise to a standard American mall meal, but it cost about twice as much. As in, three cocktails, three appetizers, three entrées, no desserts, $200-plus.
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But people will come to this restaurant, because it's convenient and because they know Ramsay's name. Many will recognize it for the cynical exercise it is: lowest-common-denominator food, made without soul, and banking on celebrity. Others might come away confused. Is this really what good food tastes like? Is it really worth all this money? What am I missing?
What galls is the act of misleading those folks, the people who are curious about all the hype given to food these days, who might decide to put themselves into Ramsay's hands to help them figure it out. The hoodwinking of those customers is the real reason this restaurant is more offensive than the sum of its not-very-good parts.
FAT COW | 189 The Grove Drive, The Grove | (323) 965-1020 | thefatcowla.com | Sun.-Thurs., 11 a.m.- 11 p.m.; Fri. & Sat., 11 a.m.-mid. | Entrées, $14-$36 | Full bar | Lot parking at the Grove (no validation)