The past few months have been really interesting in terms of culinary cultural progression here in the UK. We’ve witnessed an emergence of food trends that seem to pop up everywhere you look. You literally can’t chuck an empty food wrapper away without hitting a food blogger or some kind of clued-up slick Rick in a bow tie and braces. For many, fine dining has been shunted on to the back burner in favour of car parking lots, rooftops, greasy-Joe burger joints and the like. To an extent I’ve observed from the eaves, as some sort of highfalutin detached ironic observer, feigning pity for the poor souls who discuss the comparative merits of one sloppy pattie-stacked sandwich over another. Then as the surge in popularity of these culinary clip-joints reached what seemed like an apex I began to dip my toe in. It was a fairly chilly dip and left me none the wiser from the point of view of actual gourmet experience. At the risk of seeming dog-like, simply sniffing at the subject before cocking a leg on it, I began to think about what my position and that of the Culinary World Tour might be in all of this. Of course any of us who have travelled much will be familiar with various styles of street food, but who would have thought even five years ago that people would soon be making a living or even a sizeable hobby out of reviewing it?
One thing that is great about pop-ups is the ability to mingle and chat over food, although that’s not always exactly what you want is it? Just as you’re about to bite into a much needed sausage, some fatuous fruitcake bowls up to you: “Phil? Phil Connors?? It’s me Ned. Ned Ryerson. I did the whistling belly button trick at the high school talent show. Is that a Jumping Jefferson dog you got there? You gotta try the one with cucumber chipotle mayo it’s to die for.” Cut to a shot of Phil dropping said dog in a bin bag, gazing wistfully through the rabble of tin pan alley up to the hoity toities on civilization street as the brass bell dings merrily above a restaurant door.
The point is that at times all you need is a decent table, in a pleasant restaurant with linen tablecloths, napkins, polished glasses, crockery and cutlery, no queues, smiling service and not a Ryerson in sight. So it was with relish that I leaped at the chance to review William’s bar and bistro at St James’s hotel and club, Mayfair. A starker contrast in environments could scarcely be conceived, no?
The mere prospect of such sophistication had me more eager than a pack of hounds baying at the scent, especially having just finished a fairly gruelling audition for The Taste. Yes, yet another cookery program on tv and you might well ask why. I’m presuming that The Taste is to food as The Voice is to music and at this point I’m beginning to realise why they didn’t select me, but more of that later. William’s was exactly the respite I was looking for. The freezer box of chargrilled skirt steak, samphire and lotus root and marmalade martini black cardamom chocolate cheesecake nonsense I’d lugged around Bloomsbury was politely taken from me by a man in a coat and tails. The bar is sumptuous and has, as you would expect, an extensive cocktail and wine list. Lighting is pleasantly subdued. One’s feet sink so deep into the pile carpet that you must raise your voice in order to be heard. I made a beeline for a mint julep in Donleavy fashion: every tulip is a julep and this mint is meant for me. Chilled pewter sat proudly on glossed glass.
Although the bistro menu offers more basic fare than that of the adjoining restaurant Seven Park Place, which boasts the accolade of being the smallest Michelin starred restaurant in the UK at a capacity of 29 covers, preparation is still overseen by William and is of a high standard. I chose Uig lodge smoked salmon as a starter, an unusual choice of dish for me as it’s hardly adventurous but the quality seemed exceptional, and I figured William would know something I didn’t. He did. It’s fantastically light and delicate though of course a mound of freshly baked brown bread and lashings of butter didn’t exactly stifle the experience.
Main was a wiener schnitzel and my wing man took the sirloin. Both dishes were faultless, but what really makes the experience here is the atmosphere, the simultaneous grandeur and snugness of it all. Wine was flowing like the Rhine, the staff were highly attentive and by the end of the evening quite frankly I didn’t want to leave. Of course, they had thought of this before I had, so we were ushered on through to the lounge for digestifs and to while away the remainder.
It’s a perfect location for exploring the West End of London, being a stone’s throw from theatre land too, so there really isn’t anything for a visitor to London not to love about this ever so slightly hidden gem.
My advice: book it.