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Gordon Ramsay Hell’s Kitchen at the Wharf is big, brash and good

Images of British chef Gordon Ramsay are found throughout his Hell’s Kitchen restaurant at the Wharf in Washington. (Scott Suchman for The Washington Post)
9 min

Gordon Ramsay Hell’s Kitchen doesn’t greet arrivals so much as dare them not to be dazzled by all the brand’s party tricks.

A chorus of welcomes from a bevy of hosts has all the subtlety of a flash mob. No sooner are you checked in than one of the cheerleaders escorts you up a flight of illuminated white stairs to one of two stage sets, er, dining rooms: one, overlooking billions of dollars of expansion on the Wharf, done in red, the other, a vision in blue, facing the Potomac River. The color scheme hammers home the way teams are created on “Hell’s Kitchen,” the reality TV show starring Gordon Ramsay, the British chef with the fiery temperament.

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Bridging the dining rooms is an open kitchen that appears to be a block long. “It looks like the kitchen from TV, but there’s no competition!” says a waiter with all the glee of someone who just won the lottery and found a Franklin on the sidewalk. Like a lot of staff here, he acts thrilled to work at the second of Ramsay’s Washington imports, the first being his nearby fast-casual Gordon Ramsay Fish & Chips and the next being Gordon Ramsay Street Pizza in Penn Quarter. Our server goes over the drinks list with the kind of detail typically reserved for airlines’ contracts of carriage — “everyone tastes everything here,” he says of the training process — which is difficult to pay attention to given the pulsing music and video animation in a playground that screams Las Vegas.

After he takes our cocktail orders, our minder tells us, “I’ll be right back to talk about the menu!” The reaction from everyone at the table is bug eyes. The first few moments at the first Hell’s Kitchen outside a casino or a hotel place diners in a pinball machine. Dazzled? Dazed better describes my companions and me.

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We brace ourselves for more — and more follows. The “talk” covers pretty much the whole menu, with special attention paid to dishes made popular on Ramsay’s show. The scallop appetizer, striped with a rich chicken jus, features thin slices of seafood. “Why? They cook faster,” says our server. Meet the lobster risotto. “Why? It’s been on the show, too.” We also learn that the grilled octopus is specific to the Washington market and the signature beef Wellington, featuring “the Rolls-Royce of steaks,” takes 45 hours to make.

Four minutes — too long — pass before our walking Wikipedia retreats, allowing us to collect ourselves, I mean, pick our dishes. I drain my peachy, gin-powered “Notes From Gordon,” a cocktail I ordered mostly for the message, printed on a little red-and-blue scroll affixed to the glass. “You call yourself a chef?” the note signed “Gordon Ramsay” reads. “It takes you 2 hours to make minute rice!” Ha ha ha.

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As much I try to keep an open mind on the job, the introduction to Hell’s Kitchen tests my inclination. I am therefore unprepared for my first taste: The risotto with lobster is … good! The texture of the rice, cooked in vegetable stock, is spot on, as is that of the lobster, sweet and tender from being poached in butter. The seafood is presented as a coral stripe on a golden canvas of rice, fragrant with sage and flecked with bits of squash.

A companion pushes a skillet of meatballs my way. Everyone serves meatballs these days, I think to myself as I pluck an orb from the dish. Again, I’m surprised. The meatballs, shaped from Wagyu beef and pork and seasoned with fennel and oregano, are tender and delicious. So is their sauce, coaxed from San Marzano tomatoes, onions and garlic. Did some Italian nonna slip into the kitchen? Better still, the meatballs share their skillet with a crisp counterpoint, polenta croutons.

Restaurant groups the size of this one tend to send their best and brightest to new launches, and Gordon Ramsay North America, 21 venues strong, is no exception. Guiding the D.C. team in its early days is Christina Wilson, the Season 10 “Hell’s Kitchen” winner, whose reward was the chef de cuisine position at Gordon Ramsay Steak at the Paris Las Vegas. These days, she’s vice president of culinary for Gordon Ramsay North America, in Washington Wednesday through Saturday for the near future and assisted by three key chefs from Las Vegas. “We’re still recruiting” for the executive chef position in the District, says Wilson.

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Previews of the latest attraction at the Wharf included photographs of a beet salad emerging from a smoke-filled glass cover, the way the vegetable is announced at some other Ramsay venues. “We have the cloches” in Washington, says Wilson, but haven’t used them because the Potomac provides plenty of performance. Fair enough, until I look around the restaurant and notice how many visual distractions there are, including all shapes and sizes of tridents. The design shows up on ice cubes, chair backs, light installations, the facade of the kitchen … seemingly no square inch of the nearly 15,000 square foot restaurant is free of a reminder you’re in Ramsay territory.

But I digress. The stack of golden beets doesn’t need smoke to make an impression. Tangy yogurt, sliced kumquats and a sprinkling of savory pistachio granola provide plenty of lift to the arrangement.

The popular beef Wellington costs $65 but is easily shared. The beef is cooked one temperature, medium-rare, and reveals considerable thought. A housemade crepe separates the rosy meat from the puff pastry, which keeps beef juices at bay and leaves the outside crisp. Dijon mustard adds some welcome bite to the show, whose presentation includes balls of vegetables, an inky reduction and a ring of buttery pureed potatoes. The next best steak is the thick-cut, bone-in rib-eye: two pounds of primal pleasure flanked with fleshy maitake mushrooms, roasted garlic and a peppercorn sauce that doesn’t pull any punches.

Salmon is nicely prepared, served (crisp) skin side up with a bed of beluga lentils. Lots of restaurants offer something similar, though. Avoid the chicken scallopini, best for its roasted peewee potatoes and dry when I sampled it — an entree I’d implore to “Get out!,” to borrow a phrase from Ramsay.

Beverage manager Timothy Clune adds a sense of calm and class to the circus. Last seen at J. Hollinger’s Waterman’s Chophouse in Silver Spring, he incorporates local flavor in his opening list. Virginia’s Catoctin Creek Roundstone Rye adds its woody notes to “Smoke on the Water,” dramatically staged in a smoke-filled lantern, and the Viognier from Michael Shaps Wineworks in Charlottesville (love the tropical fruit the white wine evokes) is a great companion to the charred octopus sparked with chimichurri, among other first courses. Clune looks to France when pairing a red wine with the beef Wellington, specifically the 2016 Domaine de Chevalier L’Esprit de Chevalier. It’s lush with black fruit flavors, a touch spicy in the finish.

The same warm sticky toffee pudding you can get at Ramsay’s nearby chipper is featured here, along with a terrific trifle served with a long spoon so as not to miss any of the chocolate pudding, peanut butter mousse, cake “croutons” and whipped cream layered in the tall glass. The lightest finish is a big scoop of coconut sorbet in a half coconut shell, showered with toasted coconut and streaked with mango-passionfruit sauce. Gilligan, meet Gordon.

A friend who booked a table for me shared a detail regulars might relish but anyone trying to eat under the radar might decline. There’s the option of uploading your photo to the reservation system so the hosts can greet you on arrival. Too Big Brother for my taste.

Of course there’s merchandise. If dinner hasn’t given you enough Ramsay, maybe a shot glass, cookbook or tote bag is in order. Or a mug, magnet or chef’s jacket. Those and other mementos are sold in a souvenir shop off the ground-floor lounge that features a wall of framed photographs of “Hell’s Kitchen” winners.

The bar, by the way, is nice to know about when you search online and can’t find an opening in the dining rooms for 90 days — seriously? Every time I’ve dined here, I’ve spotted free tables upstairs, probably by design so that staff isn’t overwhelmed. In contrast, the bar is first come, first served — and it makes an affordable entry point. I’ve noticed lots of customers ordering only appetizers there before a look-see upstairs.

Social media sharers will want to get their photo taken in front of the video of The Man Himself before they go.

Hell’s Kitchen is high camp made easier to swallow thanks to food that’s better than it needs to be.

Gordon Ramsay Hell’s Kitchen

652 Wharf St. SW. 202-558-4450. Open for indoor dining 5 p.m. to 10 p.m. Sunday through Thursday, 5 p.m. to 11 p.m. Friday and Saturday. Prices: Appetizers $16 to $46 (for a dozen oysters), main courses $32 to $90 (for 24-ounce rib-eye steak). Sound check: 77 decibels/Must speak with raised voice. Accessibility: Elevators allow access to the second-floor dining rooms; restrooms are ADA-compliant. Pandemic protocols: Staff are not required to be masked or vaccinated.