Dukes: it’s no longer just for martinis

Timothy Barber
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Thirty Six

Dukes Hotel, St James’s Place, SW1A 1NY

020 7491 4840 www.dukeshotel.com
FOOD ****

Cost per person without wine: £60

DUKES Hotel, which lies in one of those impossibly cute courtyards off St James’s street, has for aeons been famous for one thing: martinis. Its bar, a cosy nest of nooks, crannies, corners and alcoves, is the kind of male-centric place which allows you to pretend you’re a member of a gents’ club, even when the guardians of Brooks’ and Boodle’s wouldn’t give you a second dismissive glance.

It’s presided over by a diminutive, snowy-haired Italian called Alessandro, who I’m told is to martini making what Michelangelo was to ceiling decoration. Since all martinis taste like turpentine to me – and I’m afraid even Alessandro’s exquisitely prepared, thyme-infused creation put me into a cross-eyed wince – I’m not the person to judge. My martini-loving companions assured me his reputation is fully justified though.

However, he’s no longer the only alchemist of ingredients in the hotel.
The Dukes basement, a warren of meeting rooms with a restaurant I’m not sure anyone born since 1955 was previously aware of, is being upgraded.

One of the rooms is now a champagne lounge, where you can sit and drink bubbly cocktails amid a rococo swirl of pink, green and gold furnishings – it’s the feminine yin to the cocktail bar’s yang.

And in the restaurant a chap called Nigel Mendham has been installed as chef. Look out, Alessandro – young Nige picked up a Michelin star last year for his work at the tiny Samling hotel in the Lake District (part of the bust hotel group Von Essen). Now he’s come to make it amid the bright lights of the big city. If he can make it here…

I’m sure he can, but the room isn’t doing him too many favours. It’s a dull, ho-hum, awfully polite space with all the romantic intimacy of a conference centre. Genteel little pictures on the walls, orange-pink chairs, old-fashioned silver platters, not a lot else – it’s a space that lacks spice. It needs some big artworks, flowers, foliage, charm, pizzazz, something – a flickering tea-light on each table doesn’t cut it.

Anyway, there’s time for all that – it only opened last week, and the star of the show is Mendham’s cooking. And so to the menu, which is whoppingly expensive. There’s no a la carte option – you can either go for the eight course, £95 tasting menu (£150 with matched wines), or a set menu that’s £49 for two courses or £60 for three.

It keeps fuss to a blessed minimum – there are no adjectives, prepositions, pan frieds or slow roasteds – just prime ingredients. “Scallops, cauliflower, smoked eel, red sorrel”, for instance, or “brill, rib of beef, watercress, native oysters”.

The latter surf’n’turf oddity, incidentally, gives a clue to Mendham’s cooking style, which is of the deconstructive, dab-of-foam-here, swish-of-jus-there variety.

The minimalist descriptions make the arrival of each dish a bit of a surprise, though I suspect stoic St James’s traditionalists may splutter when their lemon sole turns out to be a pair of crisply caramelised fillets, rather than an ovoid fish in a pool of brown butter. However my guest, who chose the dish over the aforementioned brill and beef affair, spluttered more at the fish’s lack of discernible taste. He swooned over the langoustine tortellini accompanying it though – bits of prawn cased in the lightest, most translucent pasta, and each wearing a hat of fishy white foam.

Before that, there were starters. I had some delectable scallops – huge things, beautifully browned on the outside but with a texture as light as cotton wool – that sat alongside sugar lump-sized cubes of deeply smoked eel. My friend had the softest pork cheek served with a Waldorf salad that was like the refreshing, distilled essence of Basil Fawty’s culinary nemesis: a quenelle of celery sorbet, surrounded by tiny bits of caramelised apple and spiced walnuts. It was perfectly lovely.

While my pal struggled with his lemon sole main, I had some spot-on venison – red slithers of rosy rich meat accompanied by spatzle noodles (a kind of itty-bitty egg noodle the Germans are fond of) cooked with bacon. Alongside was a whispy fondant of butternut squash, upon which sat a little, foam-topped savoy cabbage leaf in the shape of a shower cap. It contained a magical veal shank melange – Mendham’s take on ossobucco, and a delight.

After that, my trio of apple and bramble crumble, brulee and sorbet was fine, particularly the subtle brulee, while my guest made appreciative noises over his cheese selection.

Mendham can certainly cook. His style isn’t revolutionary, but it offers intrigue and imagination. Most importantly, he knows all about flavour and texture combinations, and he’ll try out interesting things with them.

The restaurant, by the way, is called Thirty Six, which could be confusing when Caprice Holdings opens its new Grosvenor Square place, 34, later this year. But Mendham may well have got himself established by then, and hopefully the powers that be will have thought a little more about the room.