St James’s has long been associated with English upper crust luxury and elegance. Amongst its handsome Georgian and Victorian buildings are historic gentlemen’s clubs, internationally renowned hotels, exclusive department stores and specialist wine merchants. History and convention are almost palpable, making the area more resistant to change than other areas of the West End.
Nevertheless, over the last twenty years there has been a flowering of fine dining restaurants. Whether independent establishments or in hotels, their chefs have raised the reputation of this once gastronomically barren district.
One establishment to benefit from this long term trend is the Stafford Hotel. Discreetly tucked way in St James’s Place, it has undergone a major renovation programme which includes a restyling of its restaurant, renamed the Lyttelton, and the recruitment, in January 2011, of a new executive chef, Brendan Fyldes
With a reputation as a bastion of tradition and formality, the hotel has nevertheless decided to adopt a “casually elegant” approach in its restaurant, “as if dining in a friend’s home.” However, this assumes a grandiose residence complete with elaborate plastered ceiling cornices, a custom made chandelier, eclectic artwork and a backdrop of rich fabrics. Such is the sumptuous décor of the Lyttelton, with its ivory and grey colour scheme, floral carpet and chinzy low back chairs. Unfortunately, the dining area is not enclosed, being separated from the lounge by a row of arches. Thus, diners are distracted by the regular flow of guests passing from reception to the American Bar and courtyard rooms. Whether the planned screens will rectify the
problem has yet to be seen.
With a CV that includes being Head Chef at Richard Corrigan’s Bentley’s and experience in the Michelin starred restaurants of Nigel Howarth and Paul Heathcote, Brendan Fyldes’s pedigree is impeccable. At the Lyttelton, he has found the ideal home to construct a menu which showcases British cuisine with his own rustic imprint. His use of imaginative combinations of high quality ingredients in a seasonally changing menu has injected new life into the kitchens of the Stafford.
Given the essential traditional nature of the menu, many of the features of contemporary cuisine were refreshingly absent: no amuse bouches, pre desserts or petit-fours; no smears, foams, purees or coulis; and no slow cooked or sous-vide dishes. Instead, portions are large and conservative cooking methods but produce clear, deep and often robust flavours.
On the autumn menu conventional starters such as Maldon Oysters and Smoked Salmon, feature alongside more unusual Lancashire Goat’s curd and Oysters with Crubeens. Main courses were garnished imaginatively: rack of Welsh lamb with haggis, ‘neeps and tatties; Old fashioned English duck with chargrilled autumn squash, plums and quince; and Wild sea bass with chickpeas, chorizo and sea vegetables. Savouries such as Lancashire rarebit or Blue Monday with Harcake and beer jelly are offered as alternatives to classic British desserts such as rice pudding or Autumn trifle.
fine-dining-guide visited Lyttelton on a weekday evening in September and found much to admire in the food and service.
English crab was wonderfully fresh, with a good balance of sweet white and rich, creamy brown meat. It was correctly dressed with chopped egg, mayonnaise and lemon wrapped in muslin. Here was a simple dish the success of which rested on the essential quality of the main ingredient.
Lyttelton Cocktail was a very generous combination of shellfish: the lobster was perfectly cooked to retain its delicate succulence; white crab meat was sweet and mild whilst small brown shrimps added a briny note. These were not drowned in the well made Marie Rose sauce and the lettuce was noticeable, unlike many inferior versions, by its relative absence. The whole langoustine perched on top gave a spectacular look to the dish. (Wine with first courses: Puligny Montrachet Domaine Henri Boillot 2009)
Yorkshire Grouse proved to be the highlight of the evening, rightly so for a hotel noted for its game cookery. The young bird had been precisely roasted, but, discarding tradition, its breasts and legs being taken off the carcass. The breasts were beautifully tender, sweet and delicately gamey, whilst the legs had a more pronounced flavour. The strongest taste came from its cooked offal, spread on a fried crouton. A rich grouse jus, smooth bread sauce and crisp game chips completed this deliciously robust meal.
Less successful was Gloucester Old Spot suckling pig. Served without crackling, it deprived the diner of main joy of this porcine treat. The flavoursome loin, home made black pudding and forcemeat croquette which comprised the three elements of the assiette worked well together but needed the thin crisp skin to lift the whole dish. However, the rich cider jus provided the acidity needed to cut the richness of the meat, whilst Savoy cabbage and celeriac puree were suitable garnishes. (Wine with the main courses : Red Burgundy.)
Of the six puddings, which were less complex that the starters and mains, Burnt Cambridge Cream had a lighter texture than the classic crème brulee. Autumn trifle was similarly less heavy than traditional versions of this British dessert.
Service at the Lyttelton is as highly polished as the furniture and fittings. Staff are knowledgeable, solicitous and unobtrusive. Outstanding amongst these is the engaging Gino Nardella, Master Sommelier. His forty years’ experience in the profession has given him an encyclopaedic knowledge and deep understanding of wines. This is communicated with a dedicated passion and infectious enthusiasm that can only come from a master of his craft.
A tour of the wine cellars proved fascinating, dating back some 360 years, with not only racks for around 6,000 bottles but also space for an atmospheric, cavernous room replete with a long dining table to seat up to thirty for special occasions. Elegantly set up wine tasting arrangements were found in another, arched, adjoining room and further a small museum dedicated to the time the cellars spent as an air raid shelter during world war two. Mr Nardella, you might imagine, would prove the most charming host to evenings well spent in these cellars.
Overall, there is much to recommend in the food and service at Lyttelton. Whilst some might not be enamoured of the room or the concept of “casually elegant” dining, there is no doubt as to the potential of the reinvigorated kitchen. For those seeking traditional British dishes with a contemporary twist, this restaurant will more than satisfy their needs.