End of an era at Ransome's Dock

20 Jul 2013 by Nick Lander/FT

'I am reeling from the news about the imminent closure of Ransome's Dock', emailed a former banker who since her move from New York to London has grown increasingly impressed by her adopted city's restaurants, 'although I understand the rationale'. And she is far from the only one. 

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 restaurant right by the Thames and not that far from Battersea Park run by husband and wife, Martin and Vanessa Lam, for the past 21 years. Those who wish to take advantage of this epitome of a warm, family-owned restaurant should get there before their final service on 11 August.

I know what a principled professional Martin is because he was my chef and partner in L'Escargot in Soho in the 1980s. During that period I had also begun to appreciate what an excellent pastry chef Vanessa is over lunches in their home when our respective children were small. 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 Ransome's Dock kitchens for two years and as a manager for one. Sophie, her elder sister and today a travel writer, also worked as a waitress here, thereby ensuring that the restaurant was very much a family affair.

To survive and to give so much pleasure to so many over 21 years in an industry not known for its longevity is a great tribute to the Lams' collective culinary prowess. But the restaurant's closure 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 this extraordinary food writer is still credited as the author of the Lams' recipe for spinach and ricotta gnocchi with butter, sage and Parmesan that has been one of the mainstays of the menu.

But as I write this with their menu by my side, I have considerable 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 goats curd, broad beans and mint to start with? 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.

Alongside these attractions, 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 intellectual pleasure cooking for wine producers could bring to him and his brigade and quite how enthusiastically his regular customers would respond to the special wine dinners he organised. This ploy was also effective in spreading his restaurant's name around the world.

The Lams have been instrumental in making this part of London far more widely recognised by food and wine lovers, to the extent that the restaurant is part of 'the knowledge' for aspiring London taxi drivers. But pioneers tend not to be fixated on profit. While the business grew to a turnover of just over £1 million by 2008, and Martin in particular passed on his own knowledge to a younger generation of chefs, many of whom have carried it back to their own kitchens in Australia and New Zealand, the restaurant never made enough cash to undergo a much-needed internal re-design.

It then suffered two hefty body blows. The first was that the entertainment company that belonged to Simon Fuller, whose offices were located next door and which yielded many excellent customers, was sold and the staff relocated. And then for a period of 22 months from February 2010 to December 2011, the crucial nearby Albert Bridge was closed to all traffic, thereby closing, as Martin recalled dejectedly, 'the direct link to the heart of our regular clientele in Chelsea'.

Parkgate Road became an area through which for almost two years hardly anyone drove a car, while the surrounding area became a permanent traffic logjam. Business fell by over 25% immediately and the prospects for a significant recovery were scuppered by a new wave of restaurants opening in more central areas, several of whom followed the Lams' principles and proved more convenient for wine enthusiasts.

Vanessa roars with laughter when I suggest that the future without the restaurant may be more financially lucrative than the past. 'It has to be', she responds. After a month away from the stoves she intends to find a way of passing on her culinary expertise, as does Martin.

Happily, Ransome's Dock passes into the capable hands of another husband and wife team, Johan and Elsa De Jager, who aim to delight new, and old, customers from October.

Photo courtesy of canalandriversidepubs co uk.

Ransome's Dock  35 Parkgate Road, London SW11 4NP: tel 020 7223 1611

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