An intimate St James’s hotel dining room – now home to William Drabble, Ramsay’s successor at Aubergine – that’s attracted much press praise; our lunchtime visit, however, was underwhelming.
Perhaps we’re just feeling unseasonally grumpy, or maybe we’ve been serially unlucky, but this new St James’s fine dining room is the second restaurant we’ve visited of late which just hasn’t quite lived up to press-induced expectations. (The first was Mennula: not that it wasn’t pleasant, just not quite up to billing.)
It was admittedly ‘just’ lunch we went for. But you can tell a lot from a grand restaurant’s set lunch. And we did spend £55 apiece (including two glasses of wine each), so we don’t think we should be apologising too much.
So what do you hope for if you go to a ‘fine dining’ restaurant for the set lunch? You hope for good value, obviously, but also a hint of what makes it special (especially when the ‘name’ chef, Wiliam Drabble, made quite a name for himself at Aubergine).
Many aspects of the ‘set’ experience are, after all, precisely the same as grander folk enjoy Ã la carte: amuses, inter-courses, bread, coffee, chocolates, and so on.
So let’s look at those incidentals first. Our first dish, an amuse of apple and crème fraÃ®che on a small square of smoked salmon, set a very positive note. And an inter-course – a lobster ravioli – was lovely (probably the best item we tasted). Bread, however, should be superlative in any restaurant with real pretensions, but the odd baton we sampled here – a sort of super-grissini – failed to excite. Coffee was very competent, but the hard soft-centred chocolates with it (fabrication maison) didn’t do it for us. So far, rather mixed then.
The advertised set lunch itself offered a choice of just two dishes for each course. One of the starters – pork rillettes which were underwhelming in both taste and appearance – must be accounted a real dud. (And they came with granary toast; shouldn’t it have been pain de campagne?) The other starter, scallops, if better, similarly induced something of a ‘so what?’ feeling.
And then the main course. Unfortunately, we and our guest had the same main course, a ballotine of pheasant (the alternative, skate, being one of those threatened slow-maturing fish which diners-with-a-conscience know they should just never eat). It was a sort of agreeable mush, but as our guest – one of London’s most inveterate diners-out – pointed out, pretty dull towards the end.
Puddings were, in their own terms, very good. But, sorry: where is the inspiration in a choice between chocolate mousse and crème brûlée? Is this a bistro? We frankly don’t care that this is the menu for poor people: the set lunch should be about showing – or at least hinting – that there’s a real fire of imagination at work in the kitchen. The suggestion here was the the blaze approximated to a candle.
The wine list showed a similar lack of spark. No Burgundy by the half-bottle, or glass? In fact the selection of wines by the glass is both limited and rather strange. We know this is a small-scale establishment, but have they not noted that many establishments nowadays offer a really interesting range by the glass (or carafe)?
The intimate dining rooms themselves – only the first one, with the bar, being on any scale – are a matter of personal taste. For us, a room with three tables, like the one we occupied, is the worst of all possible worlds, lacking either drama or privacy. Yes, such a room is, itself, discreet, but one is hostage to fellow diners.
Let’s just say that we’ve never had lunch before where a charming, but rather loud, neighbouring table has ended up offering our guest a gift of a free pair of (new) lady’s undergarments.
To her credit, she accepted them. Indeed, if you’re reading this, neighbouring party, she tells me she’s subsequently worn them with pleasure.