Before last week there were three things I knew about Dukes Hotel – that Ian Fleming enjoyed martinis there, shaken not stirred, that a charming surgeon client of mine uses it as a London bolt hole and that an army-boy friend spent his wedding night there after a beau monde St James’s ceremony.
Cuisine: Modern British
Best for: Mid-deal dinner / confidential debrief / a bit of Mayfair indulgence, particularly with non-UK clients
My preconceptions were of old school class – genuine good service and solid traditional fare. For the hotel this was spot on – a gorgeous townhouse, tucked away in classic well to do SW1 with smart waiters and cosy armchairs in the cocktail bar.
Michelin starred chef Nigel Mendham has been lured to London from the Lake District to make the restaurant that little bit different. It is unmistakably a hotel restaurant in appearance, but the food gives a suave James Bond style nod towards something more adventurous.
I met my suitably dashing dinner companion in the pre-dinner lounge (think Her Ladyship’s sitting room) for a glass of Perrier-Jouët (all very civilized) and some inventive canapé spoons. The soft-boiled quail’s egg was divine and the smoked salmon with caviar and sour cream perfectly executed. Elegant and indulgent.
The dining room itself was in keeping with the conservative grandeur of the rest of the hotel. Discrete, comfortable and confidential with exemplary service, though the atmosphere lacked any feeling of intimacy or romance. An amuse bouche of root vegetable soup had a velvety thick texture and wheat-free bread was provided without incident (always impressive).
Mr Bond went for the braised cheek of rare breed pork with Mendham’s take on Waldorf salad – walnuts and what may have been fried watercress, with a light caramelised apple and celery purée. The scallops starter was meaty, with a delicate cauliflower panna cotta and red sorrel. The manager’s recommendation of the flinty Chablis Grand Cru as an accompaniment suddenly made a lot more sense when I discovered the tiny pieces of smoked eel (something I last had in rather bolder form at L’Atelier de Joel Robuchon).
Thirty Six does some excellent wines by the glass, including a punchy Mr Smith Shiraz with intense cherry and blackcurrant flavours and a soft warmth to the finish. This went wonderfully with the Highland venison, butternut fondant and bacon spaetzle (“that rocks”, as my secret agent friend put it). The Lemon sole came with a quirky ‘taste of carrots’ and was complemented by soft tomato lentils, spinach and decorative savoury foam.
A palate cleansing margarita followed, with lemon granite and tequila gel providing a zing and a giggly fizz to proceedings. The desserts were creative, a coffee parfait with cappuccino foam and dabs of bitter chocolate and a pink grapefruit carpaccio with honey and ginger.
It’s the little extras that can turn somewhere that is merely aspirational into a destination venue. The food at Thirty Six has been carefully thought through at each stage of the dining experience. Mendham’s approach to the menu is inventive, mixing languid luxe with leftfield innovation and flashes of excitement. It is already somewhere special, but if the energy in the kitchen could be replicated in the décor it would be something spectacular.