Friday, 16 October 2015

St James' London; A food and drink walking tour

I was recently invited by the St James' Estate in London to a foodie's walk around the area. St James' is the square area bounded by Pall Mall, Piccadilly, St James' Street and Lower Regent Street.

Apparently, since the Restoration (of the Monarchy) and the time of Charles II, St James' in London has been the place to live, go out, eat, drink and be merry. The royal court of William and Mary located themselves there, and with 4 theatres, the aristocracy and many "hangers on" milling about the place, it was a place to see and be seen.

Our food and drink tour of St James was designed to symbolise a trip around the world. Our starting point therefore HAD to be on the steps of The Reform Club on Pall Mall, where Phileas Fogg began and ended his epic journey "Around The World In 80 Days". 




Our trip would be "Around The World In Eight Stops". Our guide was to be Jonathan (Johnny) Ray, Wine Columnist and Commentator for The Spectator.

BILBAO BERRIA

Bilbao Berria was our first stop, and on a wet and rainy Monday night, some Spanish sunshine was much appreciated! 





Once we had shaken off the raindrops, we were welcomed with a cool, refreshing glass of La Guita Manzanilla. Often considered as super-dry by many drinkers, this Manzanilla had a freshness which made it more quaffable. I was able to appreciate its inherent ability to encourage the appetite. Just as well, as we were shown how to slice a Cinco Jotas Iberico Jamon, the finest Iberico ham available, and treated to a generous amount to nibble with our sherry.





Founded initially in Barcelona by three friends, Bilbao Berria have two restaurants in Barcelona, and others in Bilbao and Formentera. The food is inspired by that of Northern Spain, namely the Basque region and Catalunya. However, these dishes are modern takes on those traditional recipes, being lighter, simpler and less rustic.

INAMO

Next up was the futuristic Japanese fusion food of Inamo St James.





We sampled the house sake served chilled which was an Akashi-Tai Honjozo. It's a crisp, dry, fresh sake which is extremely light; much lighter than many other more familiar sakes. Somehow it tastes floral, even though it is only made of rice, high quality polished rice. We watch our sushi chef sear rolls of salmon maki sushi with a blowtorch, which is carefully sliced into rounds and served up with a small ball of searingly hot wasabi, pickled ginger and soy.



Inamo's Asian fusion food and technological approach make it a fun and approachable place for an evening's eating. However, from previous visits, I can vouch for their excellent quality food and friendly, helpful service, making it a super place for an evening out.

PAXTON AND WHITFIELD

Paxton and Whitfield is where we stopped off to sample some cheeses and learned how to put together the perfect cheeseboard. Paxton's have origins going back to 1742, when Stephen Cullum opened a stall in Aldwych Market. His son, Sam, opened a shop in Jermyn Street, and the current name comes from the two partners he took on in the business. The shop supplies both the Queen and Prince Charles, their royal connections going back to Queen Victoria.


The cheeses we tried were a Finn, a British cheese made in Herefordshire on the banks of the Wye. When curating a cheese board, we were advised to select cheeses with different attributes; some soft, some hard, some oozy; some gentle, some strong, some blue. The secret is in the order you eat them; beginning with the most delicate first. The Finn was creamy and rich, young and fresh.



Next up was the French Comte, 26 month aged, from the Jura Mountains. This was a delectably nutty cheese with a little bit of natural "crunch". We learned that this crunch was common in aged cheeses and was caused by crystallisation of the calcium in the milk. If making a fondue, we were advised to use Gruyere as the base and only to add a small amount of a cheese like this, to avoid busting a dinner party budget!



Finally, in keeping with the idea that the strongest and most robustly flavoured cheeses should be sampled last, we tried the Barkham Blue. It is a British cheese, made in Wokingham from Channel Islands milk, and is an award winning cheese. This family made cheese was intense with blue-penicillin flavour. Great for lovers of blue cheese, but a tad too strong for me.

WILTONS

When it comes to traditional London restaurants, Wiltons is perhaps the "old faithful" you've never heard of....



George William Wilton started a seafood stall on Haymarket in 1742. It is unlikely that he imagined being so successful that the stall would become a restaurant, and that over 270 years later, it would still have his name! 


Sure, the premises have moved a few times, but there has been a Wiltons restaurant in St James since 1805. To put that in context, Napoleon had been Emperor of France for a year, and Jane Austen would publish her first novel 6 years later!

Specialising in seafood and fish, this is an excellent place to indulge in oysters with Champagne. The oysters are brought in from Mersea, Essex and the Wiltons house champagne is an superbly observed match.


In addition to the super-fresh oysters, we sampled an elegant platter of house smoked fish; smoked farmed salmon, smoked wild salmon and smoked eel. 


The smoking was light and subtle, allowing the full flavour and texture of the salmon to come through. When the quality of the fish is so high, it does not need to be overpowered. The smoked eel was a new experience for me, but its slightly nutty flavour and creamy finish made them something I will definitely order in the future. 

FORTNUM AND MASONS

The food hall of Fortnum and Mason's is like a cathedral for foodies. If you've never been, you must, and if you've not been in a while, it is always worth re-visiting. Trading since 1707 and known for their luxury teas, preserves, hampers and other delights, it is famous the world over. But did you know that the Scotch Egg was invented there? It's a fascinating fact!

Our stop at Fortnums was with the purpose of sampling their preserves, drawing from the old and new. Obviously, it's a great place to do your Christmas shopping for the food and drink fans in your life, since we will soon be thinking about preparing for the festive season.


First up was a wee tipple. This is my "Bee's Knees" cocktail being brought to me. Orange blossom honey, gin, orange and lemon juice combined in a celebration of all things citrus. 


My platter here features; Venison parfait and thin toasts; butternut squash sage and pine nut on sourdough toastie and finally sausage roll crostini.  


The versatile and flavourful preserves were an excellent flavour counterpoint to these dishes, proving that Christmas canapes can be spruced up with a little imagination!


CAFE MURANO

Top chef Angela Hartnett is known for Murano Restaurant, her luxurious Italian fine dining premises. However, Cafe Murano is like Murano's cool little brother or sister. It's a fun, informal place for chat, nibbles and wine. It's designed to be a drop in place to eat with a dining counter. 

The menu changes daily, according to the availability of good quality produce, bring freshly printed out freshly each day. Attention to detail is central; even the pasta is made from eggs from Italy. The menu on our visit was full of tasty "stuzzichini" (finger food!), and relatively reasonable prices (for such a central part of Central London). 



We were treated to some decadent truffle arancini (deep fried breaded risotto balls) with strong, superb truffle flavours, creamy rice and oozy cheese. Accompanied by a glass of prosecco, we felt transported to northern Italy!

CHUTNEY MARY

Chutney Mary has long been a high end Indian restaurant of note. Since 1990 it had been located in Chelsea, but has decided to make the move to the West End. The new premises (which are on St James' Street) are beautiful; there's a sophisticated bar (The Pukka Bar) on entering the restaurant, the main restaurant space and a number of private dining rooms.



The Pukka Bar is a perfect place for pre-dinner cocktails. Their offerings are highly original, carefully blended and well worth trying, even if they seem unfamiliar. They exude a taste of the exotic; Saffron Martini, Watermelon Cosmopolitan, Rangpur Gimlet. My Watermelon Cosmopolitan was fruity, fresh and delightful.


The Lobster Chilli Fry was delicately spiced and perfectly cooked, the lobster retaining its texture. Overcooked and chewy lobster is an insult to the king of seafood! Standards here are high, so I expected nothing less. 



These cute little cube stacks are actually made from layers of chicken wing meat. Served with a rich tamarind sauce, they were lovely little nibbles which make a great sharing starter. 





Indian style "scrambled eggs" on toast. Relatively un-set, with some smooth liquid textures, the herby, spicy egg would be great for a Sunday morning breakfast!


The biryani was a salutary example of how a noble Indian dish is often dumbed down in your typical "curry house" restaurant. The biryani here had been cooked so the rice was fluffy; each grain remaining separate and individual, deeply aromatic, and spiced with delicacy. 


BOULESTIN

This restaurant opened in 2013 under the leadership of Joel Kissin as a tribute to the legendary chef X Marcel Boulestin, whose Covent Garden restaurant bore the Boulestin name from 1927 to 1994. 


Boulestin's ethos was simple French food with a nod to the great traditional dishes of France without the pretention or fuss, leading Elizabeth David to say of him: “His intelligence, sense of taste…his ease of style, un-scolding, un-pompous, un-sarcastic, ineffusive, [sic] and to so high a degree, inspiriting and creative.”


We were served with a complete miniaturised 4 course meal on a plate here at Boulestin; Canape of tomato, burrata and olive tapanade, Soupe de Poisson (fish soup) in a tea cup, Daube de boeuf (beef stew) with bone marrow and squash puree in a large china spoon and in the small expresso cup, a Sauternes Custard with Agean prunes and Armagnac.


Whilst the whole plate of food was very enjoyable, the stand out dish for me was the delectable Sauternes Custard. Sauternes is one of my very favourite dessert wines, but I like to drink the stuff. It seemed unimaginable to cook with it! But this rich custard takes the sweet tones and aroma of the wine and makes a classy and sophisticated flavour combination. It will be hard to go back to plain old vanilla now!

My world tour in 8 stops was an exhilarating experience of superb food. Travel is said to broaden the mind, and I can truly say I have discovered some foodie haunts I will be visiting time and again. So central, so easy to get to, St James is a great place to meet, eat and have fun!

Snigdha would like to thank the St James Estate and Crown Estate for inviting her on the food walk. Snigdha participated in the food walk as their guest.

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