The number 36 symbolises good luck in Chinese, the atomic figure for krypton, the number of inches in a yard and, in association with the ‘Solar Square’ of ancient Western tradition, stands for ‘sun’ and ‘warmth’. As of September, it’s also the name of Nigel Mendham’s new restaurant, the figures on the entrance door of the cobbled St James’s Street it sits in, the number of diners it can seat at any one time and, possibly, the number of calories per second my friend and I ingested while we were at this relative new kid on the west London block.
Thirty Six aims to reflect the quintessential British character of its landlord, the Dukes London hotel. Except for the very French Perrier Jouet Champagne lounge, it does just that. It’s in this place, where bubbles mixed in classic and signature cocktail variations are supped on and bottoms are pampered by plump buttoned velvet seating, that guests are invited to settle in pre-dinner to peruse the menu and place their orders. Decorated in the same muted green and pink tones adorning the special edition painted Belle Epoque bottles, it’s a good way to shake off the day and wind down the mind in time for dinner. A wall of gilded gold framed mirrors adds to the grandeur, and a fireplace which I hope gets piled high and roars with cheek-reddening flames in the winter dominates another.
The exclusively Champagne cocktail list includes a Dukes twist on the classic, featuring a dash of Grand Marnier to soften the cognac and add a citrus lift, and a fragrant rose mix, decorated with a single snow white petal. Both delicious aperitifs, served in old-style coupe glasses kicking off the eve with a very un-Tuesday sophistication, and something to whet our appetite while we wait to be summoned to take our seats in the art-adorned dining room for dinner. Do make use of the PJ lounge mixologist before you leave, he has plenty of interesting nuggets on the cocktails’ origins and even where to buy some of the harder to find ingredients to make your own at home; in my case, the Lillet.
In the restaurant, adorable mini home-baked batch loaves, in place of the usual basket of slices, sat there winking with warm temptation until I finally gave in and ate most of them, knowing that in about 20 minutes I’d regret falling for the eating out cliché of ‘filling up on bread’ yet again, something the boy annoyingly adhered to for the first time ever. Until that moment came, we were met with a divine black truffle-topped mushroom cappuccino amuse bouche, followed by starters and mains which can summed up quite simply as ‘wow’. There were no Penn and Teller-esque displays, or Blumenthal trompe l’oeil, just nicely arranged components, more twists on the classics and simple concepts elevated to fine dining heights, smacking us in the face with flavours galore. It’s occasion dining, or at least dining which makes an occasion of eating out.
The menu offers a pleasingly equal mix of fish and meat, with most of the dishes incorporating elements of both or variants of type: sticky ribs with the lamb, bacon with the venison, lemon sole and langoustine – written up to hint at what you’ll be having, while holding back much of the surprise until it lands on the table in front of you.
‘All things nicoise’ provoked a smile on name, looks and then taste and texture, with crispy salty tempura anchovies, buttery red mullet and perfectly gooey soft boiled quails’ eggs, but confused and disappointed slightly with an unnecessary dollop of what tasted exactly of Heinz ketchup. I’m still baffled by its presence. The scallops my friend started with were perfectly matched with smoked cubes of eel and pureed cauliflower, which met with the delicious pan-fried crispy outer layer of the shellfish to emulate that winning breakfast one gets when scallops, crispy bacon and sweet chilli sauce meet up in a white crispy roll. Never tried it? You really must.
Back to Thirty Six, and my main course. Battered oysters, a slightly criminal act, perhaps, for a food best enjoyed fresh from the sea and swallowed untouched, tasted just like scampi, and with the shredded beef and pan fried turbot, produced a rich and enjoyable combination. The rosti had the perfect crispy consistency, although for my palate, was a tad too salty. Other than the slightly overpowering savoury granola, my friend found comfort and a medley of hearty flavours in the oft-championed Goosnargh duck, and enjoyed the new experience of pureed foie gras.
Margarita amuse bouche served in a salt-rimmed martini glass, chilled and renewed the taste buds in prep for dessert, with a bitter and sweet concoction of lemon marmalade, lime granita and tequila.
The carrot cake provided one of the most memorable parts of the eve. Deconstructed to include creamy purees, iced elements and soft nutty sponge, it was a successful reinvention of one of my favourites.
The food really does take centre stage here, and minus a couple of minor personal taste niggles, is certainly award-worthy. So good, it concealed the only minor blemish of our visit, and that was the lack of atmosphere in the restaurant, something we hadn’t really noticed until we were leaving. Granted it was a Tuesday night, quite soon after its official launch, and nothing a few more diners wouldn’t fix.
What one would expect as a guest of the five-star Dukes London, one of the Leading Hotels of the World, is emulated at Thirty Six, at a price worth paying too: £49 for two courses; £60 for three – especially if you factor in all the delicious surprise extras. Mendham collected a Michelin star and three AA Rosettes at the last restaurant he helmed, The Samling in Windermere; I can’t see it’ll be too long before he does that here.