Archive for May, 2017

Chef Interview: Atul Kochhar (May 2017)

Posted on: May 30th, 2017 by Simon Carter

In 2001, Atul Kochhar was the head chef at Tamarind, when it became the first restaurant of its kind to be awarded a Michelin star, within a year he had moved to establish his own eaterie (the now iconic) Benares, which achieved the same accolade within a few years of opening. Chef Kochhar has progressively and carefully expanded his business interests, while maintaining a dedication to his family values alongside an astute understanding of the demands of an ever evolving customer base.  The interview took place in the bar at Benares restaurant in May 2017.

Atul Kochhar

Tell us some background as to how you originally became a chef.

My grandfather was a baker and my father had a small catering business so I grew up looking at- and experimenting with- food! At a time where my friends were aspiring to go to engineering or medical college, I instead wanted to go to a school of hotel management, and luckily, my father was very supportive of that ambition; my father thought I was very bright and could achieve a great deal in the industry but should get the qualifications behind me first. That proved to be great advice.

How did your time at Tamarind evolve?

As a young man, I was working in India at the world-renowned Oberoi Hotels. They have their own training school into which they take a maximum of 12 to 15 students each year. Considering the country might have hundreds of thousands of school graduates each year, competition is high and the entrance to that training scheme is something of a lottery. I had the privilege of being a part of that programme.

Whilst cooking at one of the Oberoi Hotels, the owners of Tamarind were regulars there, I was asked by Mr Oberoi himself if I would ‘meet with his friends as they would like to have a chat with me’; he was referring to the owners of Tamarind. Nothing more was said so I was worried that I was about to get a telling off but in actual fact there was a job offer! I was 24 years old at the time and excited about the idea of getting out and traveling so I said yes. It was something that I had wanted, either travelling to the US or Australia, to further my training and career so when Tamarind in the UK came up it felt right.

I joined as Head Chef and was Head Chef for the full nine years; in 2001 Tamarind was the first restaurant of its kind to be awarded a Michelin star.

Diagonally opposite was Marco Pierre White at Mirabelle and across the way, the old Curzon building housed Jean-Cristophe Novelli, while just down the road was the Roux’ dynasty at Le Gavroche; these chefs were like idols who I might have spoken to occasionally, it was completely surreal to suddenly have achieved a Michelin star with Tamarind. I loved every minute of it!

How did Benares come about and how did your wider business interests develop?

After achieving the Michelin Star in 2002, I admired people like Gordon Ramsay and Marcus Wearing in how they had developed business opportunities. The natural next step was to ask my employers if they were considering growing their restaurant portfolio and whether I could have some equity in that process. They explained that it was purely a family venture so I asked if they wouldn’t mind if I stepped away from Tamarind to start up something of my own.

I quickly found a couple of partners who helped me to set up Benares. I currently employ about 58 people at the restaurant. In the kitchen there are 14 chefs, two shy of where we want to be (getting the right chefs is really tough in the market at the moment). Front of house, we have about 28 staff, this is because the venue is quite spread out with 4 private dining rooms, including a chef’s table, a lounge and bar, the main restaurant and a reception area on the ground floor. We serve a very popular ‘street food’ menu in the bar, which is quite a nightspot in itself. The main dining room seats up to 80 covers and has its own menu structure (See review here).

Generally I have found that with growing a business, in particular starting any new project, you must sit down and understand the motivations of the people involved; everyone is different and so each venture has a separate spirit or ethos and I think it is important to get that right as early as possible in the planning process. What defines success for people? What does happiness mean? Investing money? Making money? Working longer hours? Working shorter hours? Accolades? Respect? Long term? Short term? And so on. We also look closely at the target audience of each venture and how we can bring them to our restaurants.

So with these ideas in mind, around ten years after starting Benares, I sat down with my wife’s brother-in-law to discuss what was to become Indian Essence restaurant. There was an initial disconnect with our expectations of what could be achieved sensibly, given the set of factors presented to us. What we needed was to devise an identity, one that represented the providing of good quality and great tasting food to a strong neighbourhood market. This market may be discerning enough to want the higher end of the middle market regarding quality of food provided at a certain benchmark price point. The end result has been very successful!

In 2010, P&O approached me with the possibility of collaborating with a restaurant aboard on of their ships that was in development. To conduct some key research, I went on a cruise to Norway with my young family. The main goal of this research was to understand whether or not the ship could deliver quality Indian food with the kitchen environment they had on board. Satisfied that we could, we then went into further detail and worked out how to induce the smoky flavour of the food from traditional charcoal Tandoor Ovens using electric ovens only. There was naturally an additional repertoire of food that I might suggest which leant itself to all the kitchen facilities available on ship. In 2010, the first Sindhu restaurant aboard P&O Cruises launched, there are now six and a seventh will launch in 2020.

Sindhu is a feminine Sanskrit name meaning river or ocean. We now have another beautiful Sindhu Restaurant located on the banks of the River Thames, at the Compleat Angler Hotel in Marlow which has been a great success.

One day, my business partner at Benares came to me with the idea of opening a restaurant in India, this was something I had dreamed of doing successfully for some time. It wasn’t necessarily a money making venture but more to give back to the society that had given me everything in life. There were many young chefs and hospitality individuals who wanted to work with our team but coming to the UK was not possible, so taking restaurants back to India was something very special to me.

There are now two restaurants in The Bandra Kurla Complex in Mumbai. One is called Lima and the other NRI: I love the multi-faceted nature of Peruvian food and wanted to bring a new cuisine to Mumbai and we were proud to be the first to introduce that to the country with the Lima restaurant: NRI is an acronym that offers a play on words, the Indian Government describes Indians that live abroad as Non Resident Indians whereas NRI restaurant actually stands for Not Really Indian food. What does this mean? Well it is the food that has exported from India and propagated around the world while (in part,) turning into a kind of fusion between Indian cuisine and the destination country. Examples of this are found in the Caribbean, Malaysia and UK where local dishes identified as Indian would be goat curry, murtabak bread or chicken tikka masala. At NRI restaurant in Mumbai, we replicate these dishes and the local Indian diners love them, however quirky or unusual they may be to their palate.

The group also features a Benares restaurant in Madrid and Rang Mahal Restaurant at the JW Marriott, Dubai.

An opportunity for a further UK restaurant venture occurred recently: having lived in Britain for 23 years, I thought why not deliver a British-led cuisine restaurant, this has come about through Hawkyns Restaurant in Amersham. Originally I was looking at a small Indian Restaurant space there in the town of Amersham, when I was approached by The Crown to look at their restaurant. It is such a quintessentially British sixteenth century coaching Inn where there was natural expectation for a ‘strong British cuisine’, so for the first six months we stuck to that concept. At the same time, we quickly introduced ‘an Indian night,’ which has always sold out with a waiting list to boot. Gradually through conversations and trialing with guests we’ve been introducing the idea that British cuisine cannot be fully defined so why not have it all (smiling): We have duck with oriental spices and noodles as well as the chicken tikka pie that I love cooking. These will sit alongside traditional dishes such as bangers and mash and a proper beef Wellington.

Tell us about your latest book?

I have a new book called 30 Minute Curries – there is general misconception that a curry takes a long time to cook, armed with the right cuts of meat or fish and the right vegetables including all preparation and cooking time, 30 minutes is more than achievable. I did a timed video test run of the recipes and it worked very well. Some of the clips from this will be appearing on social media, however, the filming was done at the time, purely to aid the recipe development of the book.

Tell us about your one night only chef collaborations for 2017?

I have many friends who are chefs that I don’t get to see and felt I really should. So on New Years Eve I sent a message to about thirty friends saying Happy New Year we must cook for one night at your restaurant or mine! All of them replied and fine dining guide covered the press release of the result:

You make good use of the web and social media – what do you think of these platforms?

I think they’re fantastic and represent a strong way forward; people are connected instantly no matter where they are in the world. With anything that is so powerful it needs to be handled with care and attention.

What are your ambitions for the future?

I don’t plan massively – maybe three to six months or a year in advance but generally, while remaining a pro-active person, I will take opportunities that suit me as they arise. I make my schedule around my family, so they come first when I’m planning any opportunities. No matter how potentially lucrative a new venture may appear I will first think how it can fit around my family life – in a few years my children will be off living their own lives, it’s important for me to spend time with them right now.

What legacy would you like to leave for the aspiring chefs of tomorrow?

Over a long period of time many chefs have ‘grown up’ through my kitchen and I feel proud of them as professional protégés. I would hope that people remember me and perhaps think that I was a good chef who had the right priorities as a human being.

Restaurant Review: Benares, London (May 2017)

Posted on: May 28th, 2017 by Simon Carter & Daniel Darwood

Benares-Mayfair-LogoAtul Kochhar, chef patron of Benares in Berkeley Square, is renowned for combining traditional and contemporary elements in his innovative take on Indian cuisine. Having gained a Michelin star first at Tamarind in 2001 then at his current restaurant in 2007, his unique blend of regional Indian cooking with a modern British twist has been frequently imitated but never matched. At the heart of his cuisine is the balance of flavours and textures in sometimes unusual combinations, where spicing, for warmth and aroma rather than heat, is acutely judged, thereby enhancing, rather than overwhelming the true flavour of top quality British produce. Minute attention to detail and elegant presentation do full justice to a seemingly inexhaustible creativity which has elevated Indian cuisine from curry house staple to sophisticated fine dining

Benares Interior

The restaurant itself also bears signs of traditional Indian and modern British design and décor. The stylish interior, especially in the mural of rowing boats on the Ganges in the reception area, hand-crafted furniture and the lily pond water feature speak of the subcontinent. On the first floor, the elegant bar and glass-walled wine cellar are thoroughly modern British. So too is the low ceilinged 120 seat restaurant with five private dining areas. Decorated in tones of black and white, with dark wood screens, textured walls and extensive spotlighting, the spacious room exudes understated luxury and sophistication. Well-spaced, albeit small, tables are dressed in fine napery, whilst comfortable seating is provided by low chairs and banquettes.

A variety of menus includes a good value three courses set lunch at £35 and a carte where starters range from £14 to £27, mains from £26 to £36 and desserts £9.50 to £12. A Street Food Menu, designed to be eaten by hand” are priced individually or £30 for five sharing dishes.These prices are realistic given the impeccable quality and provenance of the ingredients, the skill and flair shown in cooking, the generosity of the portions and the artful presentation, not to mention the luxurious dining room and prestigious location in the heart of Mayfair.

Fine Dining Guide visited on a busy lunchtime in mid-May, opting for the seven course tasting menu with a flight of “Captivating” wines. Pairing Asian food with wine has always been a challenge for even the most experienced of sommeliers. That Benares offers flights of either “Captivating” or “Prestigious” wines chosen from their extensive list is a testament to the confidence it has in its offering.

Famed for the inventive yet judicious use of spices, this expertise extends to the two vodka based signature cocktails. The first, a green martini with coriander, chilli and tamarind marinade balanced spicy and sour flavours. The other, mixed with a homemade chutney of passion fruit and chilli flakes was equally refreshing. Both were enjoyed between nibbles of mini lentil popadoms with freshly made apricot, tomato and gooseberry chutneys.

benares cocktails

The amuse bouche which opened the tasting menu elevated a staple of North Indian street food to a sophisticated fine dining starter. Potato and sweet potato chaat, enveloped in yoghurt foam and scattered with marinated pomegranate seeds, was lighter, sweeter and more refined than humbler versions.

Benares Chaat

An aromatic shellfish course featured a plump seared scallop, with a sesame and coriander crust and soft, succulent flesh, paired with a succulent king prawn pickled in five spices including cumin and mustard seeds, fenugreek and fennel. Tomato chutney and slow roasted tomato gave sweetness to balance the subtle spicing – which also included a fragrant pine nut podi – allowing the natural flavours of the shellfish to shine. This composite dish of contrasting textures, temperatures and flavours was a tour de force for creativity and invention.  Wine: 2014 Viognier, Clay Station, Lodi, California, USA


Tandoori Chicken Tikka pie for two – a playful Indian take on the French pithivier? – had delicate domed pastry case surrounding a creamy, mildly spiced filling. Mixed berry chutney, perhaps a little too sweet – proved a good foil, enlivening the whole dish.  Wine: 2014 Soave La Rocca, Pieropan, Veneto, Italy

Benares Chicken Pie

The fish course saw a tranche of marinated Scottish salmon cooked in charcoal tandoor. The gentle smokiness enhanced the rich flavour of this oily fish, which retained its moistness despite being cooked at an extreme temperature. Finished with a moulee sauce of coconut, curry leaf and mustard seeds poured at the table, the Keralan influence was clearly in evidence. In contrast, the accompaniments of Cornish crab croquette perched on tomato chutney, spiced vermicelli and a swirl of beetroot puree revealed some modern British influences. Overall the components worked well together, making this a well-conceived, skilfully executed and elegantly presented dish. Wine: 2013 Gewurztraminer Atul’s Signature, Jean Claude Gueth, Alsace, France.


Sorbets as an intermediate course have lost favour in modern European tasting menus. How pleasing it is to see them in Atul Kochhar’s repertoire. Indeed, the lime sherbet with fresh mint and roasted cumin embraced mainly citric, with hints of herbal and spice flavours, proving to be a most refreshing palate cleanser.

Compared with the preceding dishes, the main course was relatively simple but no less accomplished. Two cuts of English lamb treated in different ways: rump, arguably the most flavoursome, was simply roasted whereas the cutlet was marinated in Kashmiri red chilli and cooked in the tandoor. Again, accurate timing in the cooking and resting maximised the rich flavour and tenderness of the meat. The accompanying mildly spiced Rogan jus set off the meat perfectly.

benares lamb

Side dishes were also carefully rendered. Pilau rice was fluffy and fragrant, parathas flaky and buttery; and Dai Makhani, (the black lentils cooked for 12 hours in cream and butter) being slightly sweet, thick but not mushy. Wine: 2013 Pinot Noir Muddy Water, Waipara, New Zealand   savour, leather – perfect match

benares sides

Finally, for dessert, chocolate lava cake with its molten filling worked well with an intense raspberry jelly and Bhapa Doi, the steamed yoghurt being delicately lifted, not overpowered, by rose water. Wine: 014 Eradus Sticky Micky, Late Harvest Sauvignon, Marlborough, New Zealand.

benares dessert

Overall, this was an outstanding tasting menu. The experience was enhanced by the highly professional front of house team ably led by restaurant manager Mukesh Pandey.


Welcoming and attentive but not intrusive, informative without being condescending, the carefully timed, seamless service ran like a well-oiled machine, but one with personality and good humour.

It is hardly surprising that Benares remains the leading gastronomic Indian restaurant, having retained a Michelin star for ten years. Fine Dining Guide is confident in its continued success and will follow its future progress with interest.

Interview: Peter Harden (May 2017)

Posted on: May 27th, 2017 by Simon Carter

Right from those early days, it was clear that a restaurant industry related career beckoned for Peter Harden: From being a discerning young foodie at Cambridge University through to his early experiences in Manhattan using the Zagat Guide, Peter (and his brother Richard) were destined not to spend a lifetime in city based banking.  The formation and evolution of Harden’s Guides tells of a fascinating journey, along with many razor-sharp insights into the restaurant industry landscape, Peter Harden here shares his career stories and observations with Simon Carter of fine dining guide in an interview which took place over a memorable lunch at The Waterside Inn, Bray in early May 2017.

Peter Harden

Tell us some background about yourself and also about the formation of the Harden’s Guide.

I’ve always loved food, in fact, I was a portly teenager. When I arrived at Cambridge University my nickname was ‘Hoover Harden,’ I went on to do a lot of rowing which helped me lose a significant amount of weight but did not diminish my love of food. I was food and drink secretary for my college May Ball and at that time saw myself as a more-discerning-than-most (of my peers) dining out person.

My father loved to travel, nowhere particularly exotic, but he would always enjoy finding a restaurant that he said had a bit of fun and a bit of life about it. For his 65th birthday, he came down to London to visit my brother and I and tasked us with finding a celebration restaurant that cost no more than £10 per head! We went to the Alounak (Persian), which was one of London’s first pop-ups in a Portakabin in a car park by Olympia station. We had to cheat a little and do BYO on the wine but it was great fun. People would not think anything of that type of informal pop-up nowadays, but it was both special and unusual at that time.

As to the formation of Harden’s Guide: I was working in New York as a Junk Bond Analyst and my brother was working in Germany as a banker. In Manhattan, the Zagat Guide was a handy pocket size guide and based on reader feedback, which had been around for about five years and was taking off in New York. There was also a similar, pocket size series of German restaurant guides based on reader feedback called Marcellino’s, which my brother Richard had used when dining out.

After 3 years in New York, I was looking to move back to London and met my brother in Chester (where we grew up) for one of our father’s birthdays. We discussed the absence of useful reader feedback restaurant guides for London produced in a similar way to those that we had found so useful on our travels. My brother Richard suggested we start our own guide and it took me about 30 seconds to say yes! We started Harden’s Guides on New Year’s Day 1991 and launched our first book on 10th November of the same year. My brother had continued working in banking for the initial period to help fund the setting up of databases and the necessary research processes, which included a lot of eating out!

What are the key moments in the evolution of Harden’s Guide.

Today the buzz around entrepreneurialism, the availability of information on the web, and the high profile of dining out would mean a couple of brothers starting a restaurant guide would be a quite natural thing to do, but back in the early 1990s, it seemed more unusual and adventurous. Essentially our first survey was made up of 110 friends’ restaurant experiences.

The fact that affordable desktop computer technology had just been invented facilitated the whole process of research management through to publication and we were at the forefront of using such technologies. In fact, once upon a time, we had a Psion 5 app, which was very bleeding edge (and prescient) by today’s ubiquitous technologies standards.

After our first year of publication we were briefly in competition with Fay Maschler’s Evening Standard Restaurant Guide, a situation which lasted for a couple of years, and the reality was that retail book publishing was not the most lucrative space to inhabit. A breakthrough happened through an introduction to a leading city figure whose company ordered leather bound customised editions as Christmas gifts to employees. This opened up the market to bulk sales to city and property companies. In addition, the kind of people that business leaders wanted to give away copies of the book to were likely to be discerning diners, this fact had the dual effect of creating an ideal reader audience plus an ideal potential market for restaurant surveys. As this market has always represented two to three times the volume of sales via retail stores then the quality of the guide benefited in a positive cycle.

The Harden’s Guide has been published for 27 years but only for the last dozen or so of those years has social media provided a vent for “real people” to share their opinions with those who really wanted to listen. By a kind of happenstance, from an early stage, the Guide marketed itself virally before viral marketing existed – The deal remains that if you submit five reviews of different restaurants you receive a free copy upon publication. Back in the 1990s, largely city workers, who were spending as much as six figures a year on dining out had the cathartic experience of sharing their dining experiences while naturally growing the circulation and credibility of the guide to experienced diners.

We had a big business opportunity with the 1997 General Election when the New Statesman magazine wanted to move with the times and align itself more with champagne socialism than the labour movement’s traditional diet of beer and sarnies, and as a result purchased 30,000 cut down copies of Harden’s Guide to put on their front cover. The Guardian picked this up and purchased 250,000 of our Cheap Eats Guide and then The Observer sponsored the first national survey, from which we completed six regional results packages, with the result that the paper circulated half a million copies of the National Harden’s Guide.

Harden's Guide 2017Later on we had a ten years sponsorship relationship with Remy Martin from which we developed a five year arrangement with the Sunday Times: Harden’s data was used to produce the Sunday Times top 100 restaurants list. This relationship came to a conclusion this year.

Our aim remains to be the most accessible Guide as it is focuses acclaim on restaurants giving real value at all price levels, rather than just lauding the most expensive establishments. Overall we remain proud that discerning diners are a key audience for the Harden’s Guide. The fact that it is so price sensitive is a reflection of a market where consumers quickly vote with their feet to find optimum value!

How would you describe the marking system of the Harden’s Guide?

Our survey asks for unprompted nominations of favourite restaurants visited in the last twelve months in different categories, together with marks and comments. The qualitative nature of the resulting data is far higher quality than saying “what do you think of such-and-such a restaurant”. As well as the customer survey of restaurants visited, Harden’s conduct telephone and web research to produce benchmark prices for the restaurants featured. These prices are then used to divide restaurants into five league tables.

So let’s say that there is a premier league of around 100 restaurants at over £90 per head and you are wanting to work out that given your (larger) budget, where can you eat that gives the best value for money for that spend? In each table, we average the raw marks achieved in the survey, directly awarded by our readers from 1 to 5 for each of the three attributes on our survey form: food, service and atmosphere. We then take those average marks and rank the restaurants for each of those three attributes. A given restaurant’s ratings depend on the positions that restaurant achieves in the premier league table. This process goes on for the further four league tables of decreasing benchmarked price to determine relative quality and value against food, service and atmosphere.

It may sound complicated but it is actually completely logical and provides valuable information from otherwise raw and unstructured data.

How has the rise of the web affected Harden’s Guide?

The web now offers us a significant opportunity, having presented as such only after initially appearing as only a threat. Actually, although the web was a threat to print media publishing it was not necessarily an existential one, but the smartphone was. I would say 2007 and the advent of the iPhone was a big milestone for consumer publishers and more significant than that of the web per se.

At the same time, there has been a cultural shift in dining out habits around the world – dining out is now something that touches far more people everywhere. In the UK in particular it is no longer viewed as elitist. Today, a journey to a restaurant of any cost probably starts with half an hour’s on-line research. Opinions are sought after and considered carefully. This is a big opportunity compared with 20 years ago when interest in dining reviews was seen as being very niche.

Probably the largest threat to Harden’s Guide pre-web and pre-cultural shift was that no-one would bother to buy a Guide of any kind and that publishers would see the occupied market as tiny, inaccessible and snobby. Not so anymore, everyone is eating out and so many also take advantage of the empowering social media platforms to be a reviewer. People are generally engaged in the whole process of seeking out feedback, dining out and providing their own feedback – this can only be good for Harden’s! The business case is more-and-more solid for a geo-located mobile app that includes subscription access to quality current data in line with the Harden’s model of restaurant assessment. We aim to publish the latest iteration in around October 2017.

What are your views on on-line reader-led websites such Trip Advisor, Google Reviews and Bookatable?

There exists a lot of accumulated unstructured data without much in the way of credible information. While all the eyes are on-line, the actual credibility lies elsewhere. My local pub The Andover Arms was rated number two out of 17,500 restaurants for much of last year on Trip Advisor – In fact it wasn’t the second best out of five pubs within half a mile of where I live. This shows the huge limitation of such measuring systems. While web reader on-line sites have gained reach they have yet to make headway to pick apart data and make valuable information. Overall big unstructured data equals confusion by comparison to more focussed approaches such as that followed by Harden’s.

What are your views on the rise of blogs, digital media sites and social media.

I’m full of admiration for the insights and entertainment value of bloggers, particularly specialist ones. But when it comes to creating a guide, the weaknesses of the blog or journalistic model is that the perspective is as strong as the amount of comparative data; an individual only has their own dining experiences to rely upon and no matter how discerning, grounded, knowledgeable and eloquent an individual may be this will always be the limiting factor. This is not to say that opinion formers, as individuals, don’t exist but even where they do, their opinion will be limited compared to a collective. The collective will always represent the tide even where the individual may witness the turning of that tide with a given view of a particular restaurant. The nature of the restaurant market is such that the inverse also holds, in that collective data will demonstrate a change in preferences that individuals (journalists/bloggers) have not seen or been unwilling to highlight due to pre-existing relationships or fear of promoting a view that sticks out too much from accepted wisdom.

Tell us your insights into the high-end dining marketplace in 2017?

Leaving Brexit to one side, the market will get bigger and probably better through the seemingy limitless interest of private equity in the restaurant world; social media offers a visibility instantly and the moment you get any traction there’s a queue of private equity or crowdfunding to back your idea. Pop-ups are a well-established route by which to test run a concept in search of backing. Previously, the time required to build a reputation and develop a concept and build a business was decades, now it can be measured in quarters.

Another area is the continued rise of provenance as the field to fork mentality is the best mechanism for producing an identity for a chef, the cuisine and the customers.

What are your thoughts for the future?

We have a 60,000 strong high-quality mailing list so we can explore various avenues – We are moving into events. We did Harden’s Invites to Le Gavroche and Harden’s Invites to Le Manoir, so expect more of those. I’m hoping to get a Harden’s Club off the ground but it’s too early to announce the details.

The Guide continues to move with the times regarding technology and will continue to do so in the print, post-print and mobile app world.

We now also offer restaurants an enhanced listing (such as images, biogs of the chef and other extended information) or sponsored listings in regional searches. While the restaurant cannot change the survey results, owners and marketeers do have the opportunity to affect their presentation. Overall I expect the continuation of a 27 years adventure in one of the most thrilling market spaces around – and you get to eat out in the process!

Restaurant Review: GBR, London (May 2017)

Posted on: May 24th, 2017 by Simon Carter & Daniel Darwood

gbr restaurant sign

The Great British Restaurant (GBR) is the new incarnation of Thirty Six by Nigel Mendham at Dukes, London, (2011 to 2017). It has undergone a radical transformation in design and décor accompanied by the equally modern food offering of all day dining. Remodelled, with the removal of the PJ lounge corridor wall, it now features two smaller areas. Gone is the orange and cream of the traditional, conservative feel, to be replaced by a more casual yet luxurious look, featuring tones of blue, black, white and grey.

Antique mirrors, lining the low ceiling and part of the walls, increase the sense of light and space. Equally glamourous is the black granite top bar with upholstered bar stools for seven. Well-spaced granite topped tables have classic leather and velvet banquette or more traditional dining chair seating. Black and white reportage photography line the walls, evoking the hotel’s celebrated past and the guests who frequented it.

Executive head chef Nigel Mendham has now diverted from a career noted for hotel fine dining, including leading the kitchens at the Michelin starred Samling in the Lake District. This is a bold move indeed, necessitating the oversight of three services a day, seven days a week. Diversity in the main lunch and dinner menu is another prerequisite, hence the need for traditional British classics alongside more contemporary, casual and fine dining dishes. Few restaurants would offer, say, confit duck egg, duck liver parfait, fish and chips, treacle sponge and jam rolly poly on the same menu.

The carte includes six starters ranging from £5.50 to £11.50; “A taste of Spring” featuring charcuterie and smoked dishes to share, both at £16; four salads, £14.50 to £18; “Signatures” of chicken pie, GBR burger and sausage roll, £18 to £6; mains from £10 to £28 with sides at £4.50 and five desserts at £6. Overall Prices are reasonable given the quality of ingredients and the large portions. Not forgetting this is St James’s!

The drinks list avoids greedy markups. Signature cocktails are priced £2 to £14; craft beers £6 for 33cl, 13 white and 13 red wines are offered, 7 of each by the glass.

Fine Dining Guide was invited to visit for lunch in mid May, before the official opening.  Restaurant manager Robert Dokler was welcoming and informative, and the service itself was well meaning, if occasionally in need of fine tuning.

Four starters were sampled.

Duck liver parfait was suitably light, smooth and deeply rich in flavour. A crisp Yorkshire pudding added a contrasting texture and proved a novel and memorable idea. A quenelle of caramelised onion, which cut the richness of the parfait, helped balance the dish.

GBR Duck

The beautifully sweet, fresh white meat of Norfolk crab was presented on a light mayonnaise. Rye bread melba toast added an element of crispness, and overall the dish worked well, although perhaps not needed was the addition of the cubes of compressed apple.

GBR Crab

Wye valley asparagus was accurately cooked al dente. The accompanying hollandaise made this an enjoyable summer dish.  The breaded quail eggs provided a pleasing combination of tastes, while to be completely satisfying, more accurate timing would have produced runnier yolks.

The best of the starters sampled, more suited to a fine dining menu, was the slow cooked confit duck yolk with a smooth, vibrantly flavoured pea veloute and earthy morels. This refined dish allowed the sweet and savoury elements to speak for themselves.


Two contrasting main courses were ordered.

Free range chicken pie had a classic filling of cubes of chicken breast in a white sauce. Generous in size – the dish was enough for two – and rustically presented, the filling perhaps needed a little more seasoning to lift it. The herbed hot suet top crust had striking flavour and with a little tweaking this will prove a popular dish with regulars.


By way of contrast, new season lamb rump was more refined, the quality of the meat was clear – packed with flavour, tender, cooked to retain its moisture and enhanced by classic garnishes of smoked aubergine, confit tomatoes and wild garlic.

GBR Lamb

Of the side dishes, triple cooked chips had the delicious, moreish quality expected from the preparation. Both the broccoli (with pancetta and almonds) and heritage carrots showed strong produce but demonstrated some cooking inconsistencies that might be expected of a pre-opening kitchen, which can easily be corrected with a sharper focus on timing.

GBR Sides

To finish, there was a refined lemon based dessert: a base of lemon curd accompanied lemon parfait, which, topped with confit lemon zest, had perfect texture and a good balance of sweetness and acidity. Lime leaf cream added extra fragrance and softer texture, contrasting also with crisp meringue shards giving a light crispness.

GBR Lemon

Yorkshire rhubarb dessert was cooked sous vide, in this case it remained too firm and stringy, the ginger crumble was well made, the rhubarb gel was not too sweet and the smooth vanilla ice cream added a contrast of temperature.

GBR Rhubarb

Overall, this was a lunch of highs and lows, but it must be remembered the visit was in a period of pre-opening, during which inconsistencies are identified and ironed out. This bold new venture deserves success, and, given the reputation of the chef and hotel, these are likely to be rectified sooner rather than later. Fine Dining Guide will follow the GBR’s progress with interest.

Michelin GB&I Star Restaurants Set Lunch Pricing (May 2017)

Posted on: May 8th, 2017 by Simon Carter

Infographic below reproduced with permission from Vouchercloud, the original image is found here –

MIchelin Lunch Prices Infographic