Tastes of the garden in St James’s

Timothy Barber
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The Avenue
7-9 St James’s Street, SW1A 1EE

HUGE place, The Avenue. It has sat near the bottom of St James’s Street since the Nineties when its spacious minimalism was quite the thing, if hardly what you’d expect to find just off fusty old Pall Mall. Earlier this year it was given a paint job and re-launched with a kitchen run by Mikko Kataja, a young Finnish chef who happens to specialise in modern British cooking.

It’s got some illustrious company: intimate restaurant of renown L’Oranger is one door down, while Marco Pierre White’s austere fish place Wheeler’s sits darkly across the road. The Avenue is neither intimate nor austere – it’s mostly white. From a street-side wall that’s all glass it stretches far back with high white ceilings, shiny white floors, and tables with white cloths as far as the eye can see.

Even though there are maroon walls with huge, splattery paintings by an artist one hopes has an alternative day job, it’s an airy, unassuming place – not ideal for a romantic dinner but good for a business lunch or a pre-theatre meal (for which the £19.50 two course or £24.50 three course set menus seem pretty good value). With this many tables you’re unlikely to have trouble bagging one at the last minute if you find yourself in the area and hungry, but that also means the restaurant needs to get serious crowds in to create any kind of buzz. I visited on a Friday night and it was eerily quiet.

The menu is simple enough and rather enticing, with a seasonal sensibility and lack of affectation that suits the venue’s breezy, stripped back atmosphere. Not that it’s without personality – a fondue of British cheeses (for sharing) and a warm vegetable salad that’s served with garden flowers are unusual starters, while the mains – divided into meat, fish and grill sections with four or five options in each – tempt with dishes like slow cooked suckling pig with liquorice or fish and chips served in paper.

Kataja has previously worked at Mirabelle (Marco Pierre White’s old, now defunct flagship) and more recently the well-regarded Launceston Place, and our starters reflected this kind of quality. A chilled cucumber soup that had crab meat lurking within was as fresh as a spring morning, the crab adding earthy depth to the cucumber’s cleansing sparkle. A creamy pea risotto with smoked bacon, a brilliant shade of green and artfully presented, tasted marvellously of the garden.

The main courses were a let down though. Roast Devonshire duck with fennel and orange consisted of pink slices of breast flopping about in a puddle of watery sauce; a sea bream fillet was overcooked and tasted dull, the curious, brown length of braised celery that it sat upon helping little. A bowlful of soft courgette slices was laced in a butter so strongly and sweetly lemon-infused it snuffed out everything else.

Of the desserts, raspberry scones with clotted cream ice cream held a certain cheeky allure, but instead I went for a “rose set cream” – pana cotta infused with roses – with strawberries and sorbet. I can’t say I could taste the roses, but it was a beautiful pana cotta, and classy strawberry sorbet. A quartet of well-chosen British cheeses served with crackers kept my friend happy.

We were charmed by our Albanian waiter who was attentive and knowledgeable. He recommended a good bottle of merlot from a well-balanced list, and if he kept us a little too enthusiastically plied with the restaurant’s home-made bread, we forgave him – it was good bread. But while The Avenue is a well-drilled operation, it is more efficient than memorable.