On my way to Thirty Six, the restaurant at Dukes Hotel, I stared at the back of the taxi driver’s head and fantasised about James Bond. The bar is, indisputably, famous for its martinis and, allegedly, the place where the phrase ‘shaken, not stirred’ was coined. I’m no martini expert, but I do feel I missed my calling as an international spy so I was excited to belly up to the bar, nod to Lloyd (my imaginary barman, of The Shining fame), and order a Vesper.
However, my plan was to be thwarted. It took me a few minutes to find the Hotel itself, covertly tucked between two tiny side-streets and, once inside, the famous bar was prohibitively busy. Glancing around, I whispered the code words I have a dinner reservation and was instantly whisked through winding corridors to the sanctuary of the Champagne Lounge. I made a quick call to the contact I was meeting, Lady of Mystery Charlotte Lynham, to make sure she found me and, once she arrived, we sat back to enjoy a chilled glass of Perrier-Jouet. We were served some very tasty canapés; smoked haddock arancini (my favourite, but quite difficult to eat from a Chinese spoon with dignity!), caramelized onion and goats’ cheese Gougère and Forman’s smoked salmon with caviar.
We moved into the dining room to continue the meal and found it well lit and with a pretty centre table holding a flower arrangement that matched the peachy furnishings. In accommodating this display, we were told, some space was lost which meant that Thirty Six ‘accidentally’ became a thirty-six cover restaurant. I suspected intrigue but, before I could pry further, we were presented with an amuse-bouche of root vegetable broth, decadently creamy and a little sweet, under aromatic rosemary foam, which kept me from asking further questions.
The menu lists dishes by their main ingredient, with their other components underneath, but restaurant manager Leni Miras also explained each dish to us and talked through her choices for our wines once we had made our selection. Our first wine was a Beaujolais St Amour 2010, Domaine de la Porte du Paradis, which was full of cherry with a touch of spice. This fruity choice was a nice companion for the pickled beetroot and lentils that came with my delicate, dry aged beef carpaccio, truly a beautiful start to the meal. Charlotte enjoyed the quail; both leg and breast were presented on a slate with terrine forestiere, mushroom sauce and quail jus. The accompanying bread was in the form of tiny whole loaves, suggesting these are baked to order, with the benefit of as much crunchy surface area as one could wish for around the light, hot centres.
I had almost forgotten my spy fantasy until the wines for our mains were brought out. For Charlotte, Leni had selected a 2009 Shiraz, from McLaren Vale in Australia, called ‘Mr Smith’. The story goes that ‘Mr Smith’ is an alias for a producer who had fallen out with the vineyard but still wanted to buy their grapes. The bottle has very faint, grey text on a black background, which makes you squint as you try to decipher it, and the wine was similarly dark; spicy, chocolatey and rich. My wine, a Pinot Noir Mudhouse 2009 from Central Otago, New Zealand, might not have had a story but it was, in my opinion, the tastier of the two; bold with a hint of lychee and a deep, ruby hue.
The food at Thirty Six is wonderfully presented and our mains were no exception. Charlotte had chosen Highland venison with butternut fondant, ossobucco and bacon spaetzle. The venison was perfectly medium-rare, just as the Lady likes it, and she enjoyed the contrasting texture of the crunchy bacon spaetzle. However, the ossobucco was the star on the plate; a little hidden surprise of shredded veal shank wrapped in a steamed leaf.
I had chosed the Chef’s interpretation of ‘surf‘n’turf’, which consisted of a substantial fillet of well seasoned turbot, smoky rib of beef, rosti and deep fried native oyster. The combination was delicious and interesting, the balance really showed the thought which had gone into this ‘classic with a twist’. I was only a little disappointed that the ball of leaves on my plate turned out to be just spinach with no secrets inside!
Ever the fromage fans, we enjoyed an excellent array of British cheeses with malted, sultana loaf and squeezed in an additional mid-course margarita sorbet, which had fresh flavours of sharp marmalade and tequila, to prepare our palates for the sweet.
Dessert was the most visually stunning course yet; Charlotte was very impressed by the iced coffee dish, which came with mini orange donuts and liquid chocolate dotted across the plate as if designed by Yayoi Kusama. I chose the dark chocolate fondant, which was wonderfully smooth and very naughty, with pear panna cotta and tea gelée. Again, the textures had been carefully considered and the flavours arrived in stages, reaching a fabulous culmination. Sensibly, since we were rapidly approaching a state which can only be politely described as replete, we succumbed only to minimal dainties from a tray of petit fours and rounded off the evening with a light and refreshing green tea.
Secret agents, foodies, everyone, should come in from the cold and have dinner at Thirty Six, which is a masterclass in modern dining. We were content to stay forever but eventually, with longing backwards glances, we turned up the collars on our overcoats and moved into the shadows of the anonymous night.
St. James’s Place
London, SW1A 1NY