Dine 909′s adventures in (un)reality television

Surreal.

That’s the best word I can use to describe it.

To be sitting in a smallish restaurant in a nondescript strip mall in La Verne.

And having camera crews roaming the restaurant, and Chef Gordon Ramsay running in and out of the kitchen and through the dining area.

Yes — the Chef Gordon Ramsay — the notoriously short-tempered British culinary and television star.

The dinner took place at Charlie’s Italian Cafe on the final day of filming for Ramsay’s Fox reality show, Kitchen Nightmares.

The premise of the show, for those who haven’t seen it, is that Ramsay
spends a week at a struggling restaurant in an attempt to get the
restaurant up to standard.

Ramsay and his crew update the menu, revamp the restaurant and deal with any, um, personnel problems.

In short, they do what needs to be done to get the restaurant moving in the right direction again.

This is Ramsay’s second visit to the Inland Empire. Following a
successful rehab of Lela’s in Pomona, mounting debt unfortunately caused
the owner to close the restaurant.

Let’s cut to the chase. How was the surreal meal?

Shortly after we were seated, Chef Ramsay came over and shook the hands of my partner and myself. He even put in a plug for the cameras, remarking that he follows this very blog, mentioning it by name.

Uh…huh.

I certainly appreciated the gesture, and will appreciate it even more if it makes the final cut.

However, I was a little unsure of what the effect that the pressures of Ramsay’s and the television crew’s presence would have on the restaurant staff. But I think they passed the test.

We started with a pair of appetizers from the restaurant’s slimmed-down menu: Fresh foccacia and white bean bruschetta with bacon jam. Yes, bacon jam, and it was as delicious as it sounds. The foccacia was dense, tender and moist. It was very cornbread-like in texture and consistency.

Pasta is my comfort food, so I chose rigatoni as my entre. The pasta was accompanied by squash and sage brown butter, but not the ricotta that was mentioned on the menu. Back to the kitchen it went.

My plate came back almost immediately, this time with ricotta that seemed as if it were made minutes earlier. Delicious!

My partner ordered the lasagna, handcrafted by the owner and Ramsay himself. It was a brick-sized portion, the presentation was beautiful and the flavor was off the charts.

For this once-in-a-lifetime event, we ordered two desserts: The tiramisu and the chocolate peanut butter panini.

The panini was a melty, tasty treat that would satisfy anyone’s inner child. It even came with a trio of toasted marshmallows.

However, the tiramisu was the star of the dessert show. Seriously, I would return to Charlie’s just to have the tiramisu.

Everything I saw coming out of the kitchen looked fresh and delicious.

Of particular note was the red wine braised short rib, which was ordered by the male half of young couple seated next to us. The generous cut of meat rested on a bed of horseradish mashed potatoes.

It was brought to their table. I turned for a minute to talk to the owner, turned back around and the short rib was nearly gone.

And the best part of all this?

Charlie’s is set to re-open next week, and you can check out the updated dcor and the new menu for yourself.

They’re still learning the new recipes and they’ll only be open for dinner at first, but will eventually re-open for lunch as well.

Charlie’s Italian Cafe is at 2445 Foothill Blvd. Call the restaurant at 909-392-3734 to make reservations.

However, you’ll have to wait until the episode airs (should be sometime in December) if you want to sample the drama that went on during the weeklong shoot.

You can watch previous episodes of Fox’s Kitchen Nightmares by clicking here.