Wheeler’s is an old brand that has been passed from owner to owner since 1856, and is now in the possession of that laser-eyed-chain-smoking culinary Tommy Cooper, Marco Pierre White. Teaming up with hotelier Sir Rocco Forte for this latest venture, the St. James Street restaurant opened a little over six months ago, attracting a smattering of mixed reviews from the press. So I thought it was about time to do the decent thing and pay it a visit myself.
Waltzing through the front dining room, replete with black and white mosaic floor and gleaming metallic bar, it feels as though you have stepped back in time to the late 1930s. Indeed, this is the site of Madame Prunier’s fish restaurant, once a hotspot of French dining back in 1935. But enter the main feasting arena out back and you are transported several blocks from smart St. James and into the heart of Soho; a sunken room with red walls, antique mirrors, well spaced tables and soft-pornography creates the feeling of a clubby 1950s Dean Street hideaway, the type of hip venue where jazz musicians, ad men and gangsters hang out. And yes, you read that right: soft-pornography. Adorning the walls are large photos – mostly black and white – of naked and semi-clad women in an assortment of erotic poses and outfits. Not what you’d expect from a venue in St. James, or from any restaurant for that matter (unless Stringfellow is a silent partner). I wonder what Madame Prunier would make of that?
Service started on a good footing with the jovial Italian sommelier who looked as if he’d just stepped out of an Armani advert. We were offered a choice of three menus that evening; the standard a la carte, a set menu for £29 that was inspired by Marco’s latest television series, and a selection offered in conjunction with Top Table bookings. After much deliberation, we opted for the £29 three-course menu that included coffee. Classic old-school fine dining and brasserie dishes abound here, something that Marco is very fond of and which his restaurants, such as the Yew Tree Inn, do extremely well. For this reason, Marco’s restaurants are quite important; they are keeping something alive that once upon a time formed the foundation of a restaurant industry and food culture that today, in London, is absolutely world class.
I dived into a gigantic prawn cocktail – no scrimping on the seafood here – wallowing in Thousand Island dressing and crispy lettuce while my dining companion tackled the smoked salmon gravadlax, so sizeable that we initially thought they were serving her an orange plate with nothing on it, until it got closer and we realised it was completely blanketed with salmon. Both courses were surprisingly generous for such a reasonably priced set menu (reasonable for St. James, I mean).
For mains we both plumped for rib-eye steaks with a grilled, bread-crumbed oyster on top, triple-cooked chips, spinach and a side order of green beans. The steak was perfectly cooked and very well seasoned with an enthusiastic cracking of black pepper. To accompany the hefty steak, I asked Giorgio the Armani sommelier for a glass of house red, which turned out to be a robust French merlot.
I actually struggled to finish the main course and by the time it came to ordering desserts – an Eton Mess for me and some sort of strawberry thing for my companion – I was feeling uncharacteristically stuffed. I suppose one becomes used to the rather modest portion sizes in many London restaurants, so it was a shock to the system to come here and be shovelled up so much food. I began to wonder if I would make it through the last course, and as my gigantic Eton Mess arrived like a harbinger of button-popping doom, I started to feel worse for wear and I panicked that this lack of gastric gusto was a new, unwanted leaf in my dining constitution, signifying the beginnings of an apathetic appetite that would see me turning into a salad-eating waif. God forbid!
As I spooned the first meringue into my mouth and brought my jaws together with a satisfying crunch like fresh snow underfoot, the sugar rush hit me – a snowball in the face – my cheeks became flushed and cold and I began to spin out of control. This was too much, I would never make it. I muttered quiet words of encouragement to myself, “Come on man! You can do it! Have another spoonful!” But the more I ate the woozier I became and to make matters worse, I couldn’t help but feel unsettled by the photograph on the opposite wall of a buxom blonde dressed in a maid’s uniform, holding a whip and eyeing me rather menacingly in a dominatrix sort of way; Madame Prunier, perhaps? I began to feel a tad dizzy and like a nightmare sequence from a bad horror film, crude faces in the Eton Mess were laughing at me, leering at me, taunting me with my ineptitude to eat them, and the maid – the Madame – was chastising me, punishing me for being so full: “You’re pathetic,” she sneered in a French accent, “Call yourself a food critic? Call yourself a man? You’re nothing! I spit on you!”
So rather than fainting at the table and collapsing face-first into the Eton Mess, which really would cause a mess, I excused myself to take a breather in the bathroom and to undo my belt a few notches. My companion warned me as I staggered away, frothing sugar at the mouth, the room now spinning, that the toilet area is very dark and it’s hard to find the right door – she’d mistakenly walked into the kitchen earlier in the evening. Thankfully I made it to the gents’ unhindered, after, admittedly, touching my nose to the door in the gloom to identify the tiny “M” that signified (I hoped) Men’s Room and not Madame’s Room. To my amusement that iconic photo of Marco lying topless on a stone slab, glared at me from its sizable position on the wall. I had assumed that Marco would want that particular photo in the ladies’ room.
Sauntering sheepishly back into the dining room, belt loosened and having splashed my face with cold water, I prepared somewhat half-heartedly to tackle the Eton Mess again, and I was slightly disappointed to find that it was still on the table; I’d secretly hoped the waitress would have taken it away. But no, there it sat, staring at me, the sugary elephant in the room. And I’m sorry to admit, dear readers, that it defeated me. I tried my best, I played around with it, moving a dollop of ice cream here, a rock of meringue there, but it was too much. I was full to splitting point, Madame was unimpressed and I had to accept whatever punishment she would dish out to me.
The rest of the evening was a blur, the sugar rush still coursing through my veins, but I recall Giorgio making a few jokes and I also recollect that the restaurant was surprisingly quiet for a Friday night, though Saturday they were fully booked. My companion and I discussed the antique mirrors and the irritating fact that they appeared to be covered in finger marks (it was actually the antique effect), while a large party occupying the private dining room audibly enjoyed themselves behind closed curtains (was that the crack of a whip I heard?), and a table of smartly dressed Italians (is there any other kind?) dominated another corner of the dining room, the rest of which was composed mainly of couples.
This is an odd place and I still don’t know what to make of it. I would certainly return, but would I advise someone to bring a date here? Well it would be a good test of their prudishness but it may not reflect well on you. There is something carnal and debauched about dining on rich food while surrounded by images of naked women, and it’s probably best that I don’t mention if I found that pleasing or not. And as for its suitability for business lunches, that depends what line of business you are in and if your guests have a sense of humour. It strikes me as both strange and encouraging to find a place like this in St. James. Mr White and Sir Rocco have been brave and I do think it works. In some respects it’s better suited to a Soho crowd, but the clubby atmosphere in the sunken dining room is very St. James. And so is the maid with the whip. Do give my regards to Madame.
Summary: a quirky restaurant serving classic brasserie dishes in sumptuous surroundings.
Wheeler’s of St. James’s, 72-73 St James’s St, London, SW1A 1PH. Tel: 020 7408 1440. Website: www.wheelersrestaurant.org