London is often said to be nothing more than an interconnected series of villages, each with its own personality, demographics and quirks – and I wholeheartedly support this notion. Try, for example, strolling through leafy Richmond, then boarding the District Line and riding it all the way to Upt9on Park to emerge in the bustling Queen’s Market. Never mind two villages – it seems like two different cities! But in Central London it is easy to slip from one neighbourhood into the next without even knowing you have crossed some invisible border. It’s quite possible to walk out of Charing Cross Station and wander through Soho, Fitzrovia and Marylebone without knowing that you have done so, because nobody but trivia geeks really knows where there borders lie. But nearby St James’s is a different story: it is a perfect rectangle with borders made up of Regent’s street to the east; Pall Mall to the south; Piccadilly to the North; and St James’s Street to the west.
Sandwiched neatly between Trafalgar Square and Green Park, St James’s can quite correctly refer to itself as the heart of London. The area was developed in the 17th century with residential properties for the British aristocracy and around the 19th century it became the location of choice for the development of gentlemen’s clubs, such as the famous Reform Club. It has also historically been home to some of London’s finest gentlemen’s outfitters on Jermyn Street as well as fine food merchants (London’s oldest cheese shop and the Queen’s grocery store, Fortnum & Mason) – and it was the latter aspect of the area that I was recently invited to explore by means of a food safari. Taking as its premise Phineas Fogg’s (seemingly preposterous) declaration that it was possible to travel around the world in 80 days, the safari aims to take you around the culinary delights of St James’s in a series of eight dishes, served in bite-sized chunks at some of the best food shops and restaurants of St James’s.
Our safari started at Bilbao Berria on Regent Street, which opened in 2014. The restaurant is the brainchild of three Spanish friends, who opened after having success with five restaurants in Spain. Bilbao Berria is spread over two floors and specialises in northern Spanish cuisine inspired by both Basque and Catalan tradition – but my favourite area is by the bar just inside the front door. Here, premium Jamón Ibérico is hand-carved by the restaurant’s in house ‘Jamoneros’, who manage to wield a rather large knife skilfully enough to slice the whole legs of cured ham into translucently-thin slices. We started our evening on a high note with slices of arguably the finest Spanish ham that money can buy: acorn-fed Jabugo ham from iconic producer Cinco Jotas, paired with a glass of bone-dry Manzanilla sherry.
From Spain, we engaged warp drive and within minutes, found ourselves in Japan – or at least in inamo‘s Japanese ambience a little further along Regent Street. Despite the greenery of the bamboo room dividers and vertical plant wall, inamo is deceptively high tech in that they use E-Table™, the world’s first interactive food ordering system with overhead projection technology to give the customer complete control over their dining experience via a built-in touch-sensitive trackpad on each table. In addition to ordering food from the interactive table (you can see a projected image of your food right in front of you on the table before you order!), guests are also able to choose from a range of virtual tablecloths, view the inamo chefs working in real time using the ‘Chef Cam’ function and explore a wide range of practical services such as taxi booking facilities. Our excellent seared salmon sushi was rolled, cut and seared with a blowtorch at our table, and served with a small cup of excellent, subtly nutty sake.
We could have lingered longer but we still had 6 venues to visit, so soon we found ourselves walking down Jermyn Street towards Paxton & Whitfield, London’s oldest cheese shop. As delightful affineur Dan Bliss told us, the shop has been selling fine cheese matured in their cellar below the shop since 1792 when it moved there from Aldwych market to be closer to its wealthy clients. It became such an institution that even Sir Winston Churchill was said to have remarked: “a gentleman only buys his cheese at Paxton & Whitfield”. Paxton & Whitfield gained their first Royal Warrant to Queen Victoria in 1850 and today they hold Royal Warrants of Appointment to Her Majesty The Queen, and HRH The Prince of Wales. Quite a pedigree – but on to more important matters: the cheese! Dan gave us a mini-masterclass in putting together a Christmas cheeseboard (no more than three cheeses; only one from each cheese family e.g. blue, hard, soft or goat; apples as a palate-cleansing accompaniment) before we proceeded to tasting three of their cheeses. First up was some Finn, a soft British cheese that’s not runny like Brie/Camambert but rather firm and creamy with a sweet, slightly nutty and mushroomy flavour and a salty tang. Next was a chunk of 26-month old French Comté which was my favourite with its tangy, nutty flavour; and finally some British Barkham Blue – a cheese that looked as if it would be pungent enough to blow the top off your head but that turned out to be delightfully subtle and creamy. You’ll also want to spend some time in the main shop area, admiring the metres-long counter groaning under a staggering variety of cheeses including massive whole Cheddars and Parmesans.
One of my favourite shops for browsing, bringing visitors and sometimes just gawping in amazement is the Fortnum & Mason food halls. Jokingly known as the Queen’s grocery store, the store was originally founded in Duke Street in 1707 by shopkeeper Hugh Mason and the Fortnum family – high-class builders who were rebuilding London after the Great Fire. In 1738, they invented the now iconic Scotch egg, a boiled egg wrapped in sausage meat and deep-fried, as a portable meal for travellers, and when a MR H J Heinz arrived from the US in 1886, they bought his entire stock of samples and became the first British store to sell tinned baked beans. When they moved into their current premises on Piccadilly in 1840, they were the first store with plate glass windows lit by gas and to this day, the window displays are a delight to behold and a massive Christmas attraction. The store today also houses five restaurants and one of these (The Gallery) was our next stop for (of course!) glorious Fortnums Scotch eggs and a glass of their Blanc de Blanc house Champagne. On the way out we also admired a box of their seasonal griottes, Kentish cherries steeped in brandy for 3 years before being dipped in sugar fondant and then (repeatedly!) in dark chocolate. At almost £3 per chocolate, they are certainly a treat, but what an extravagant gift!
After a series of flying visits to our first four destinations, it was time for a bit of a sit down, and we had this opportunity at Wilton’s Restaurant and Oyster Bar. Wilton’s is one of those “best restaurant you never heard of” places – a discreet sign and an unassuming entrance on Jermyn Street lead you into a haven of old-school elegance, all glittering silverware, white starched tablecloths and the golden glow of little table lights. Established in 1742 as a stall selling oysters, shrimps and cockles in the Haymarket by George William Wilton, the business prospered and moved in 1805 to Cockspur Street, to be called Wiltons Shellfish Mongers and Oyster Rooms, becoming a fully fledged restaurant in 1840. The business moved around St James for years, arriving at its current premises in 1984. Their first Royal Warrant was received in 1884 as Purveyor of Oysters to Queen Victoria, and a second as Purveyors to the Prince of Wales – so oysters seemed a good place to start. We shared plates of Scottish natives and Jersey rock oysters – the first almost eye-wateringly pungent and briny and the second delectably creamy. This was followed by a plate of generous portions of both wild and farmed smoked salmon and some smoked freshwater eel with horseradish. The contrast between the wild and farmed salmon was intriguing, and despite some reservations, we all adored the smoked eel. To wash this down there was, of course, another glass of Champagne. As the charming maitre d’ explained, if Chiltern Firehouse is where celebrities go to be seen, Wilton’s is where they come to be fed.
From the cosseted banquettes of Wilton’s it was off to somewhere a little different – Café Murano on St James’s Street. Little sister to the Michelin-starred Murano, home of Gordon Ramsay protégé Angela Hartnett. The concept at Café Murano is far more relaxed than at Murano and the menu is determinedly northern Italian, served in a beautiful room full of pale marble and warm dark wooden tables. Although the menu is seasonal and changes regularly, apparently there are some dishes that they simply cannot remove – regulars stage a protest if they try. One of these is the truffle arancini, served as cicchetti – bite sized balls of crispy crumbs hiding an indulgent creamy rice interior redolent with the scent and flavour of truffles. With a glass of terrific Prosecco, they take some beating! I was also impressed with the well-priced pre-and post-theatre menus which I am definitely coming back for.
When I first arrived in London and worked briefly as a PA, my boss was quite the trendy boss and I remember endless calls to make reservations at Nobu, Vong (now closed) and Chutney Mary – and yet this was the first time I had actually set foot in Chutney Mary, our next stop. The restaurant was opened in 1990 on the King’s Road in Chelsea by Ranjit Mathrani, his wife Namita Panjabi and her sister Camellia Panjabi – two Cambridge economics graduates and a banker. At the time of opening, it was the first restaurant to focus on the seven main cuisines of India and to source recipes from all these cuisines, rather than to focus on only one area. Despite its recent move from Chelsea to St James, the chic vibe remains unchanged, from the Pukka Bar where excellent cocktails and lighter bites can be enjoyed, to the plush main restaurant, to the private dining room with its modern chandelier and framed sequinned Indian fabric wall hangings. We settled in the bar and sampled three of their cocktails: the Rangpur gimlet; the watermelon cosmopolitan; and the saffron martini – all of which were excellent but I particularly liked the flavourful kaffir lime leaves in the gimlet and the gorgeous golden colour of the martini. We also sampled some of their signature dishes, including the lobster chilli fry (think chicken nuggets but lighter, crisper and with lobster & chilli!); crispy chicken wings (deboned and reformed into little cubes before being fried to crispiness – unlike any chicken wings you have ever had); kid goat biryani (fantastically flavourful and real comfort food); and akoori on toast (scrambled eggs with chopped onion, tomato and fresh coriander – more comfort food of note!). After all these years, I can see why my boss was hooked on the place!
From there we crossed the road over to Berry Brothers & Rudd – sadly closed by that time, but still a treat to peer through the windows of this historic wine merchant with its sloping wooden floors. The shop started life as a grocer in 1698 and soon thereafter started supplying coffee to London’s wealthy, hence the outsize vintage scales in the shop (used to weigh bags of coffee and later, customers!) and the emblem of the coffee grinder which the company still uses. The business was passed down through various generations of the family and in-laws and finally became more of a wine and spirits merchant in the 1800s, pioneering things such as climate-controlled cellars and online wine sales. They have also picked up two Royal Warrants (supplying wine and spirits to the Queen and Prince Charles) along the way. We then stepped into the small alleyway next door which opens out into Pickering Place, allegedly the site of London’s final public duel and also London’s smallest public square. It’s also from here that you can slip into Boulestin via their courtyard seating. Boulestin was named after culinary pioneer Marcel Boulestin, a pre WW2 culinary pioneer who published a1923 cookbook Simple French Cooking for English Homes; was the first chef to appear on British television in 1937; and a huge influence on food writer Elizabeth David. It’s the brainchild of restauranteur Joel Kissin who cut his teeth in the Conran group and clearly knows his stuff. Perfectly on trend as far as the current longing for nostalgic foods is concerned, the restaurant offers unashamedly classic French all-day dining and we were offered a small sample of that’s available. First up was a little crostini of olive jam and cherry tomato; followed by a blindingly good soupe de poisson and a cheesy crouton; and a morsel of daube of beef on marrow and squash puree. To finish with something sweet, we had a decadent little cup of Sauternes custard with Agen prune and, fittingly, washed it all down with Berry Brothers’ Good Ordinary Claret.
As we tottered happily back out onto St James’s Street, I reflected on what a surprising night it had been – so much good food and wine in such a small area, and such variety! Had we had time, we could also have added the Ritz Hotel, The Wolesley and The Balcon at the Sofitel St James that sit just on the border of St James’s – in short, you could get lost in culinary heaven for days. The safari is not currently for sale to the public but of course you could put together your own little walking tour to retrace our steps. Or if you are quick, you can enter, before midnight tonight 13 October, a prize draw to win 2 tickets to do a safari similar to mine. Click here to enter and for terms and conditions.
DISCLOSURE: I enjoyed this event as a guest of St James’s London but received no further remuneration to write this post. I was not expected to write a positive review – all views are my own and I retain full editorial control.
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