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|Chef Gordon Ramsay in 2006. He is all-blond now.|
We went inside "Kitchen Nightmares," the TV reality show where foul-mouthed Chef Gordon Ramsay tears down, then rebuilds a restaurant that has lost its way to customers' hearts.
We didn't actually have dinner with the chef, though he greeted us after we were seated Thursday night at one of two tables in the bar room of the Spanish Pavillion, a 34-year-old Harrison restaurant that was getting a makeover, including an overnight renovation of its dated interior. (One thing the chef missed is the misspelling of "pavilion.")
If we had made our e-mail reservation earlier, we might have gotten a table in the dining room, where Ramsay and two camera crews spent most of their time. But we never heard the chef raise his voice, curse or throw a tantrum during the restaurant's relaunch.
In fact, he seemed to have a lot on his mind the few times he passed our table on the way out, presumably for exterior shots or to take a break in his trailer at the back of the parking lot.
I stopped him on his way in on one occasion, and mentioned that Chef Ji Cha, one of his "Hell's Kitchen" alumna, had opened a Korean fusion restaurant in Fort Lee, and he reacted positively.
"That's good news," he said softly.
It rained all day and into the night Thursday, and traffic to Harrison was awful. But we got there for our 6 p.m. reservation, then had to stand around in a chilly tent while production staff checked us in, had us sign release forms and photographed us holding numbers and a sheet of paper with our family name on it.
Inside, production crew in jeans and sweaters constantly checked their paperwork, whispered into microphones, and moved around with cameras and sound booms, focusing on groups waiting at the bar for their tables.
We pumped the woman checking coats and the man who came out from behind the bar to serve us for information, but didn't find out much.
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The woman, a former employee who was helping out on this special night, said the show's producers approached the restaurant, and that it was a long process, possibly two years. She said we couldn't go to a downstairs bathroom, because of all the recording equipment there.
The bartender said the restaurant was doing business, but was serving the same menu as most of the other Spanish places across the river in Newark's Ironbound -- huge portions and acres of yellow rice and addictive, thin-sliced fried potatoes.
Meanwhile, the dining scene had changed, with the addition of tapas bars, updated Portuguese restaurants and an influx of Brazilian places. At the old Portuguese places, you can gorge on unlimited quantities of roasted meat and poultry presented at your table on spits.
Ramsay updated the menu at Spanish Pavillion, adding tapas (small plates) and light entrees accompanied by vegetables, plus soup or salad. He also made a special, coffee-flavored flan for the relaunch. You can still get paella for two.
We started with three small plates -- potato-and-cheese croquettes ($6), patatas brava ($4) and an assortment of olives with bits of manchego cheese ($4). We loved the croquettes, but the patatas brava were just fried potatoes by another name.
The soup wasn't the standard potato-and-greens soup called caldo gallego, but a delicious puree of potato and garlic with a little cream and possibly sherry. The salad wasn't just a little iceberg lettuce with a few olives, but spring mix in a champagne dressing.
Our entrees were short ribs with carrots ($19); monk fish with sweet red peppers, artichokes and onions ($19); and fillet of sole with a lemon-butter sauce ($20), accompanied by spinach and zucchini.
My son complained his block of meat didn't have any actual ribs and was "bland," to boot. I loved my monk fish, which has the texture of lobster, and its simple sauce, and my wife couldn't finish the sole, though she liked it.
I drank a full-bodied red wine from Rioja (only $5.25 a glass). Soft-drink or juice refills were free.
We shared the flan ($5), and the coffee flavor gave new life to this old standard.
As you might imagine with a new menu after so many years of preparing and serving standards, we had to wait for each course, but it wasn't intolerable.
When we left, our last glimpse of the chef in his white jacket and black pants was as he ducked into his trailer.
Spanish Pavillion Restaurant, 31 Harrison Ave., Harrison; 973-485-7750.