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“I am reeling from the news,” emailed a former banker from New York now based in London. She was talking about the imminent closure of Ransome’s Dock – one of the restaurants she has grown to love in her adopted city. Many who enjoy excellent food, a great wine list and very fair prices (on the current menu the only main course over £20 is the 30-day-aged sirloin steak and chips) will feel the same way about this Thameside restaurant, run for the past 21 years by husband and wife Martin and Vanessa Lam.
I know what a principled professional Martin is because he was my chef and partner at L’Escargot in Soho in the 1980s. Over lunches at their home during that period, I also began to appreciate that Vanessa is an excellent pastry chef. Ransome’s Dock allowed her to develop these skills – her treacle tart remains the best I have ever eaten – and these talents were inherited by Harriet, their younger daughter, who worked in the kitchens for two years and as a manager for one. Sophie, her elder sister, also worked there as a waitress, making the restaurant very much a family affair.
To survive and to give so much pleasure to so many over two decades in an industry not known for its longevity is a great tribute to the Lams’ culinary prowess. But the restaurant’s closure (on August 11) is significant for several reasons.
The first is the retirement from active duty at the stoves of the wave of chefs who, when young, were some of the first to highlight the importance of the best seasonal British produce. Vanessa, now 61, first met Martin, 57, while they were working in the late Justin de Blank’s provision store in Belgravia, where the food writer Elizabeth David was a customer. Martin was to cook for David at The English House restaurant and she is still credited as the author of the Lams’ recipe for spinach and ricotta gnocchi with butter, sage and Parmesan – one of the mainstays of Ransome’s Dock.
But as I write this with the menu by my side, I have great difficulty in deciding what I would choose to eat if I were sitting at one of the restaurant’s outdoor tables by the water. Gazpacho perhaps, or a grilled artichoke heart with goat’s curd, broad beans and mint to start? Then sea trout with pastis mayonnaise or a duck breast, an ingredient Martin has always cooked expertly, with peas – or the Dorset plaice fillet with clams? Since Vanessa’s treacle tart is not on this menu I would be forced to relish her gooseberry fool, crème caramel, or hazelnut meringue with strawberries and cream instead.
Martin also made the restaurant a magnet for luminaries of the world’s wine trade. Inspired by a dinner in the restaurant’s earliest days organised by David Gleave of Liberty Wines for Isole e Olena, the renowned Chianti producer, Martin began to appreciate quite how much business and pleasure cooking for wine producers could bring to him – and quite how well his regular customers would respond to the special wine dinners he organised.
The Lams have been instrumental in making this part of London far more widely recognised by food and wine lovers – but pioneers tend not to be fixated on profit. While turnover grew to just over £1m by 2008, the restaurant never made enough cash to undergo a much-needed internal redesign.
It then suffered two hefty body blows. The first came in February 2010, when the nearby Albert Bridge was closed to all traffic for 22 months, thereby cutting off, as Martin put it, “the direct link to the heart of our regular clientele in Chelsea”. Then Simon Fuller’s entertainment company, whose offices were next door, was sold and the staff relocated.
For almost two years, Parkgate Road became a place through which hardly anyone drove a car, while the surrounding area became a permanent traffic jam. Business fell immediately by more than 25 per cent, while the prospects for a significant recovery were scuppered by a new wave of openings in more central areas. Vanessa roars with laughter when I suggest that their future without the restaurant may be more lucrative than the past. “It has to be,” she responds. Yet, after a month off, she intends to find a way of passing on her culinary expertise – as does Martin.
Happily, Ransome’s Dock passes into the hands of another husband and wife team, Johan and Elsa De Jager, who will serve customers old and new from October.
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