Hidden away on a quiet side street bordering Green Park, you wouldn’t be likely to just stumble across Dukes Hotel, or its rather smart restaurant, Thirty Six by Nigel Mendham. I discovered it when searching online for a well-priced set lunch to enjoy when catching up with a couple of old friends. With one vegetarian and one semi-vegetarian (a fish-but-not-meat-eater) to cater for, Thirty Six’s veggie friendly menu seemed an obvious choice and an interesting one to feature in a restaurant review. The first thing that struck us when we arrived for our Saturday lunch date was how empty the restaurant was – only one other table was occupied in the quiet, spacious dining room, with the result that the atmosphere was somewhat lacking. Still, we were made to feel welcome by the waitress who greeted us with a smile and showed us to our table, where we sank into chairs that were almost more like plush armchairs than dining chairs.
After placing our orders, we were treated to a complimentary amuse bouche. Served in a china coffee cup, this was an interesting liquid concoction of sweet apple and bitter celeriac flavours, topped with a creamy but slightly non-descript foam. It was by no means unpleasant, but my dining partners and I weren’t quite sure what it was supposed to be (and the waitress who brought it over to us had spoken so quietly that we hadn’t quite managed to catch her explanation). We were rather more excited by the extremely cute miniature loaves of sliced bread, one white and one wholemeal, served hot from the oven with a generous portion of delectably salty butter. The crust was perfectly crispy and it was difficult to restrain ourselves from filling up on bread as we waited for our starters.
To start, all three of us went veggie and opted for the goat’s cheese flan with variations of beetroot and celery sorbet. This was beautifully presented, with wonderfully vibrant purple beetroot standing out against the creamy white goat’s cheese flan. Sadly, the flan was rather on the bland side and its wobbly texture made me think of an old fashioned blancmange. The rest of the dish, however, was extremely tasty. The variations of beetroot were an intense purple puree, piles of delicately pickled miniature pink spheres and, incredibly, mounds of thinly sliced pale yellow beetroot. This was the first time I had seen beetroot in a colour other than pink or purple – it tasted much the same as the normal stuff but was a quirky novelty nonetheless. We all agreed that the best bit of the starter was the goat’s cheese croquettes, which had a brilliantly crisp breadcrumb coating and a classic slightly acrid but still creamy melted goat’s cheese filling. I have to confess I never quite located the celery sorbet on my plate though.
For main course, my dining partners both went for the vegetarian option of butternut squash fondant, puree, savoury granola and broccoli. The flavours went down well with both of them, although they did feel that as a dish it was a bit of a mish-mash of separate elements rather than a harmonious whole. I opted for the Pollock with salsify, parsley and foraged mushrooms. This was a glorious dish – the Pollock was cooked to perfection with a fantastically crisped skin and soft, flaky flesh, the salsify (an unusual root vegetable that I grow to like more and more every time I try it) tasted like a more delicate version of asparagus and had a luxuriously fondant texture, the parsley added a subtle freshness, and the foraged mushrooms brought a delightfully nutty, earthiness to the dish. While some diners might have wished for a larger portion, or an accompanying starch (mashed potatoes would have gone well), I appreciated the lightness of the dish, and the fact that it left me with just enough room for dessert.
As for this last course, I should note that the tantalising dessert menu that’s displayed online is not the same as the one we were offered on the day. That’s not to say we were disappointed by our desserts though – far from it – and between the three of us we managed to try each of the three dishes on offer. One of my dining partners enjoyed a rich, dark chocolate pave accompanied by caramelised banana and hazelnuts and a chocolate ice cream. The other savoured a dish of “rhubarbs and custard”, which included a miniature rhubarb crumble, poached rhubarb and rhubarb sorbet. And I simply adored my dessert of blood orange jelly with coconut sorbet and fruit and nut granola. It was an unusual combination, and the granola pieces did make the dish a little breakfast-y, but the intensely sweet blood orange jelly, peppered with pieces of delightfully tart fresh orange and blood orange, was a real treat for the taste buds with the creaminess of the coconut sorbet lending a wonderful contrasting flavour.
As for drinks, Thirty Six has a fairly extensive wine list, with a respectable offering by the glass. However, I had spotted an offer on the website which allowed us to add two glasses of a pre-selected wine to our meals for just £7. This seemed too good an offer to pass up, so we duly asked our waitress about it. Her initial response was confusion, but she politely said she would enquire and come back to us. She returned to say that this was an offer we should have booked through toptable.com (if true, this is not made clear on the website), but that they would let us have it on this occasion nonetheless. We were offered the choice between red and white, and opted for the latter – a refreshingly crisp Picpoul de Pinet with a light floral aroma.
After our meal, we were pleasantly surprised to hear that the three course set menu included a tea or coffee to finish. While one of my dining partners sipped on a strong double espresso, I was somewhat overwhelmed by my simply enormous silver pot of fresh peppermint tea. The only shame was that we had by now been at the table for a little over three hours, and the third member of our party had to dash off without a hot drink as she had an appointment to get to. I’ll freely admit that we hadn’t really noticed the slow pace of service during the meal as we had been so engrossed in catching up on each other’s news, but we were far more aware of it as we struggled to get our bill.
When the bill did come, it appeared eminently reasonable – three courses, two glasses of wine and a coffee or tea for £39 in Mayfair is definitely not to be sniffed at. Add service and you end up spending around £44 per head. It’s a fairly pricey lunch but by no means outrageous if you fancy treating yourself. But is Thirty Six’s lunch menu enough of a treat to be worth the money? Its website describes its offering as “traditional British food with a contemporary twist”, and proudly states that Head Chef Nigel Mendham prefers to “keep technology out of the kitchen”, focusing instead on “using time-honoured techniques and the very best British ingredients to create mouth-watering meals.” While we thoroughly enjoyed most elements of our meal, we did feel that some of the flavour combinations were a little hit and miss – perhaps because the kitchen had tried too hard to inject that “contemporary twist”. When you factor in the restaurant’s emptiness and the slow service, you may be left wondering whether you’d have got better elsewhere. So, adopting my dining partners’ comments, we’d give Thirty Six a “worth a visit” but “slightly wobbly” three Forks-Up.Thirty Six by Nigel Mendham Dukes Hotel St James’s Place London SW1A 1NY T: 020 7491 4840