A quiet corner of St James's

25 May 2013 by Nick Lander

This article was also published in the Financial Times.

An email from friends in Australia presented me with an immediate, professional challenge. 

They were due to arrive in London in two days' time; they would be free on only one busy weekday evening; and they wanted to have dinner around 8 pm somewhere close to Green Park station. I knew that, good food and drink aside, what we most wanted was a good chat. So where could I make a reservation at short notice where the acoustics were as agreeable as the menu and the wine list?

As a result, I found myself for only the second time in my 35 years in London walking south down St James's Street on the west side and turning into Park Place. As I did, I recalled my previous visit here, which had been to eat in the building at the far end of this extremely quiet cul de sac that since 1910 has been the headquarters of the Royal Over-Seas League.

In this instance our final destination was an even older building. A set of steps leads up to the St James's Hotel and Club, whose dark red exterior caught the last of the sun's rays. The building still looks as solid and comfortable as it has since it was built in 1892, although a complete modernisation a few years ago has retained only the original staircase that links the seven floors and 60 bedrooms. (Photo taken from the St James's Hotel and Club website.)

The rather maze-like quality of the interior means that the entrance to its intimate restaurant is via a set of tables, where a bistro menu is served, and then past a narrow bar. But the small, rather awkwardly shaped restaurant met all our social requirements as we were shown to a table by a window that looks on to a quiet wing of the Stafford Hotel behind.

The restaurant comes with all the trimmings of a well-funded hotel: thick carpets and curtains; heavy linen; an ornate gold overhead light fitting that would not have looked out of place in a first-class railway dining car of yore; and a team of well-dressed, smiling waiters under the stewardship of a face that I rather hazily seemed to recall.

As this setting led effortlessly into conversation, helped by a bottle of Riesling Trocken 2009 from Sybille Kuntz (£46), my professional memory bank recalled the restaurant manager's name, Christophe Thuilot, and that he had worked many years before at Aubergine restaurant in Chelsea alongside its then chef William Drabble when it was its culinary peak.

And it was Drabble's name on the outside of the menu that led me to appreciate that for the past four years he had been cooking here two floors below in the basement kitchens to which all the downstairs staff were summarily confined in the 19th century.

Drabble's dinner menu is estimably modern, with half a dozen choices at each course at a fixed price for two or three courses. Foie gras with pear and ginger was a nod to his classical training; the hand-dived scallops with a celeriac puree delighted our Australian friend because they are so much plumper and sweeter than those down under; and a combination of red mullet, blood orange, fennel and slow-cooked octopus was astutely conceived and colourfully presented.

Drabble, 41, has spent more than half his life learning and executing his craft and this accumulated confidence was most obvious in one main-course dish, a poached fillet of turbot with cubes of apple, mussels and chives. Its flavours were gentle and cohesive; it looked as pretty as any picture; and it seemed to sing of the sea.

When I returned with Cynthia Shanmugalingam, the founder of Kitchenette, a financial incubator for restaurant start-ups, for the £29.50 three-course lunch menu, I appreciated another aspect of Drabble's pedigree.

One of the starters was the rarely seen germini, a soup of lobster, potatoes, mint and peas, that begins life as a consommé made from the shells of the native lobsters whose meat comprises the warm salad among the first courses on the dinner menu (a salad that would have benefited from a touch of acidity). It is then clarified, thickened and ready to go.

I learnt of this recipe directly from Drabble after my lunch when he shared some of his memories of cooking in some of London's best kitchens over the past 20 years and in particular the mantra that his former boss, chef Nico Ladenis, had drummed into him. 'He used to say that cooking well is not that difficult', Drabble recalled, 'It really is just a process of lots of simple things executed correctly and in the right order.'

To complement these culinary principles, sommelier Marco Feraldi has put together a very well considered wine list. Our red, a Gevrey-Chambertin 2007 Vieilles Vignes from Geantet-Ponsiot was excellent (£92).

But although Drabble and Thuilot run their respective domains with distinction, there is one practice that I wish they would eradicate - that infuriating habit of requiring their waiters to recite every single ingredient on the plates they have just delivered. Not only is this insulting to the customers - even I can remember what I ordered no more than an hour ago - but far more annoyingly, this nonsensical custom certainly gets in the way of the chat.

St James's Hotel and Club  7-8 Park Place, London SW1A 1LS
tel +44 (0)20 7316 1615
www.stjameshotelandclub.com

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