Think about Old London and what scene comes to mind? Fog, intertwined alleys and hidden courtyards, probably. Iron railings, warm brick, brass plaques. And hotels: yes, every Edwardian writer seemed to talk about hotels. They were the acceptable places in which to meet friends and to dine, when restaurants were less numerous than they are today. But those hotels must surely have been swept aside by samey modernity, by cold grey cement and sheets of plate glass.
Well, the fog has gone, but Dukes is still standing and still sports those classic features, and it overlooks its own courtyard behind St James’s Place, off St James’s Street. It was opened in 1908 although the courtyard dates from the 1500s, and the hotel still retains that authentic air of class and propriety, although this is far from a starchy establishment. It’s celebrated for its Martini Bar and for mixing the original James Bond cocktail – shaken, not stirred – and the Champagne Bar is a cosy retreat from the throng of Mayfair.
Thirty Six is Dukes’ restaurant and was opened in September 2011. It has contemporary grey walls but it fits well with the traditional feel of the hotel as the architectural features have been retained, the tables are well-spaced, the upholstered chairs are in muted terracotta and there are dramatic black accents from lampshades. The silver chargers and classic cutlery have hand-made colour-marbled glasses as a striking counterpoint.
Chef Nigel Mendham of Thirty Six offers British cuisine but with all the charm and flair that one would expect across the Channel. His menu takes advantage of seasonal British ingredients and a lot of imagination. The descriptions hardly do justice to that with which you will be served. Nigel seems to add value at every turn with a demitasse of soup here, some savoury spoon bites there, a pre-dessert when one thinks it is almost over, and then there are decadent petit fours to round off the extraordinary event.
Red Mullet and ‘All things Nicoise’ was my choice of starter and the reality exceeded my expectations, which ran along the lines of a bit o’ fish atop a French salad. The mullet was the best I have tasted, being moist and flavourful with a crispy skin which adds so much to the dish. The ‘Nicoise’ elements were little vignettes of the eponymous salad and were indispensible ‘sides’ to the mullet.
Rare-breed Pork braised Cheek, Langoustine and Granny Smith Apple was my guest’s starter. Offal and those previously discarded cuts of meat are appreciated these days although they often need greater care in preparation and cooking, but it’s worth that effort. Nigel has combined deliciously savoury pork with delicate langoustines, and apples have always been a partner to porcine products. My companion was delighted with his elevated ‘surf and turf’.
Goosnargh Duck, Sweet Potato, Chestnuts, Duck Samosa and Charred Sprouts was my main course and it was substantial. The duck was presented medium-rare and it was perfect – pink and tender. The miniature samosa and turned potatoes added texture and sweetness to the tapestry. The sprouts were going to be my nemesis but they were a revelation. The charring gave flavour and the vibrant green vegetables still had bite; there was no hint of that unpleasant sprouty taste that has spoilt many a decent Christmas dinner.
John Dory, Aubergine, Spiced Mussels with Herb Quinoa took the fancy of my guest. This was a wonderfully attractive plate of yellow hues. The fish was mild and simply grilled, the aubergines were tender and smoky and the quinoa was nutty and well-textured, and an inspired accompaniment. It’s an ancient grain that is becoming more popular, although it has been appreciated in South America for thousands of years.
Thirty Six Pear Savarin, Poached Pear, Almond Custard and Pear Sorbet was my guest’s dessert – or more accurately his dessert served with two spoons. Savarin is a yeast-sponge cake that one often finds in the guise of over-sweet and sticky Rum Baba, but Nigel offers this cake as a lightly soaked confection that didn’t upstage the fruit. The poached pears had distinct flavour and the sorbet was refreshing. That extra spoon made impressive in-roads into the dessert.
Chef Nigel Mendham has a marvellous stage for his very evident talents. Dukes has been famed for its Martini Bar and it’s no surprise that this restaurant, Thirty Six, offers commensurate quality. It’s a joy!
St. James’s Place
London SW1A 1NY
Phone: +44 (0)207 491 4840
Fax: +44 (0)207 493 1264
Restaurant review by Chrissie Walker © 2018