GAME BIRD AT THE STAFFORD, ST JAMES'S
BEHIND THE SCENES
The land of St James¡¯s is a place where Martin Parr would have a field day ¨C all those bowties worn in broad daylight and shops selling tassled carpet slippers. It's a surviving pocket of the London glimpsed in Mary Poppins and Path¨¦ newsreels, even though one suspects half of it must be in overseas hands by now. The Stafford hotel is a sort of genteel speakeasy, hidden away on a cobbley cul-de-sac backing onto Green Park and seemingly as immune to the ways of the modern world as a pygmy tribe¡¯s hamlet in the Amazon rainforest.
That¡¯s the caricature anyhow. While it would still be eminently recognisable to the Queen Mother, who was a regular, the hotel is no museum piece, having recently decluttered its American Bar and invited chef Ben Tish, founder of the smoking Salt Yard restaurants, to cast an eye over its menus. Head chef at the Game Bird is Jozef Rogulski, once of Tom Kerridge¡¯s Hand and Flowers in Marlowe, who has a deft way with meat, some of which are ageing with dignity in glass cabinets in the dining room ¨C a ship¡¯s saloon of a space, with club chairs sporting hothouse flower prints. This isn¡¯t one of those hotel restaurants where guests retreat into abashed silence ¨C it¡¯s a genuinely charming and approachable place to while away an evening.
The menu may have a passing resemblance to those of some gastropubs, but only in passing ¨C a Silver Ghost purring past a milk float. This is serious comfort food. You can drop ¡ê76 on wagyu and chips, or have a two-course Sunday roast for ¡ê30. Order the partridge pithivier just to hear the word roll around your mouth (the hummock of pastry is glazed as if someone¡¯s taken a chamois leather to it). If it¡¯s game season go with game. The loin of venison reclines in a velvety brown-butter sauce; order the grouse and the leg comes placed in its own little salver. (It¡¯s not all about the meat ¨C vegetables are treated seriously, a starter of barbecued celeriac placed in a platescape of celery leaves and crumbled Shropshire blue). For pudding, the souffl¨¦ is as jaunty as a Philip Treacy fascinator, with a blob of tonka ice cream on top.
There¡¯s a sense of permanence about the Stafford, the sense that you may skip a decade, then return to be asked if you¡¯d like your usual, sir. Sommelier Gino Nardella has been here 35 years, navigating the tables with the soft-voiced ease of a ship¡¯s officer, and has known some regulars for decades. He¡¯s a champion of English fizz, and will tell you all about the port in the 380-year-old cellars ¨C during the war they were used as an air-raid shelter, surely the most desirable place to find yourself during the Blitz. But for cocktails there¡¯s the American Bar, not half as famous as the Savoy¡¯s, which is no bad thing. That sense of permanence again: despite being reupholstered with a smart marble counter and brass frame, it¡¯s still under the command of Beno?t Provost, a mere 25 years into his probation.
Photographs of Michael Caine, Bill Nighy and Paul Newman hang on the walls. Other names are celebrated on the menu, with concoctions inspired by Moriarty (a bold, cunning mix of tequila, mezcal, blood orange and agave syrup), the QM and fearless wartime spy Nancy Wake, a former occupant of the hotel, nicknamed the White Mouse for her elusiveness.
Enter, stage left, the salmon trolley, a vehicle of some distinction. A classic restaurant should always have some element of ceremony, without teetering into pomp. Here¡¯s the ceremony. Watch in silence as the long knife deftly tailors soft folds of trout gravadlax onto your plate, then a mix of salmon ¨C cured with beetroot and Balvenie whisky ¨C and smoked eel. A perfume atomiser of Balvenie whisky is placed along with a palette of sauces and pickles to customise each mouthful. Some folk may have a drinks trolley at home; no one has a smoked-fish trolley. By Rick Jordan
Address: The Stafford London, 16-18 St James's Place, London SW1A 1NJ
Telephone: +44 20 7493 0111
Price: A three-course dinner without wine is ¡ê65