Several people were perplexed as to why Gordon Ramsay would feel pressed to open a gargantuan, Japanese-ish restaurant, his first venture of this genre, and place it in Mayfair, the most prohibitively expensive area of London. Yet, of a Friday evening in July, soon after Lucky Cat’s many dozen welcoming maneki-neko felines began waggling their paws on the walls, I scanned his new venture’s heaving room and thought, “Ah, yes, this all makes perfect sense.”
My teensy plate of prawn toast had just arrived: four circular, 50p-sized lumps of prawn toast laced with sesame kimchi for eight quid. A white geisha – vodka, sake syrup, yuzu – arrives with its frothy egg white embossed rather eerily with an ornate, electric-blue geisha’s face that will not dissolve regardless of how hard one slurps. Around me, a buoyant crowd – a mix of moneyed tourist couples, business dinners and special-occasion parties – are flinging money hand over fist at single duck legs caked in bonito and served with a bao bun (which is northern Chinese).
Ramsay’s name is still as tantalising as it was, for example, in 2004, when he was reaching peak shouty-man and screaming into Edwina Currie’s face on ITV. In fact, no – Ramsay is a different level of magnetic now. He is a Wolfgang Puck in Las Vegas draw, in that diners who may eat out only once a year, perhaps on vacation, will stumble inside in a zombie-like fugue, pointed there by the hotel concierge, towards a name they’ve seen on the telly, before being cajoled into spending two, three, maybe four hundred pounds on teeth-chatteringly sweet saikyo miso black cod and bowls of unremarkable steamed rice.
Ramsay was not at the stoves in the vast open kitchen, close to a selection of open-plan “private dining” areas that are not remotely private. Neither is his name or image anywhere. In many ways, though, his work was already done: Ramsay’s star power guaranteed the sort of pre-buzz required to finance a hulking, gorgeous, sexily lit, mock-1930s Tokyo drinking club with marble-trimmed bars, bronze-flecked bamboo panelling and jewel-box tiled flooring.
And did I mention the cats? The waving cats? Always waving. Waving goodbye to Friday night as you order a 16-quid negroni and peruse the relatively small, double-sided cardboard, pan-Asian menu. Waving goodbye to next month’s mortgage payment as you note that the duck leg – albeit delicious, sticky, crunchy, fatty and served with cucumber and a half-decent pillowy bao – is £27.
At these prices, everything should be exquisite, which it very much is not. Service is chaotic. There are more staff on the floor, swaying and mouthing nonsense, than at the closing number of Live Aid in 1985. Dishes you didn’t order appear at the table, and when you call the server back for more information, they’re either as confused as you are, or make up another name for them.
Four slices of bland, flabby “smoked shortrib” turn up with some daikon, yuzu pickle and chilli oil for £17. “Um, excuse me. We can’t work out what this is,” I say. “It’s the pastrami … I think,” says a waiter, walking away. Monkfish cheek katsu with a dipping bowl of wasabi and seaweed “emulsion” is fiercely fishy and semi-inedible, like overcooked pub scampi, and a long plate of tuna tataki comes swimming in wakame oil and house soy.
This isn’t even the best sort-of-Japanese food being served within a mile radius: there are more delicious things rolling around the conveyer belt at the Yo Sushi! on nearby Woodstock Street, but then, if you’d asked the 12-strong table of delightfully dressed-up ladies – mini frocks, moisturised legs, lots of hair – who were out celebrating their friend’s 21st whether they’d rather be in a chain restaurant with riff-raff or having the time of their life at the hot, new Gordon Ramsay place, they’d no doubt look at you as if you were daft.
Pudding is a pineappley spin on rum baba, called a “yum baba” (cough) and served with coconut-based cream. It feels microwaved: chewy and hot in some places, in others not.
By this point, I felt I’d given things a really good shot, but a peculiar sense of buyer’s remorse always sweeps over me during dinners such as this, especially as you can see the bill mount up. Also, Lucky Cat doesn’t need me. My feelings will make no difference to its audience. Ten fresh planeloads of business-class passengers will have touched down at Heathrow while you’ve been reading this. They are all feeling lucky about dinner tonight. And they’ll be greeted with a huge wave.
• Lucky Cat 10 Grosvenor Square, London W1, 020-7107 0000. Open all week, lunch noon-2.45pm, dinner 5.30-10.45pm. From about £60 a head à la carte, set lunch £36 for three courses, chef’s menu £65 or £80; all plus drinks and service.