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Thirty-Six at Dukes Hotel

Thirty-Six by Nigel Mendham review

by Isaac Parham 01 December 2014

Isaac Parham sampled Nigel Mendham's "Rustic" menu at London's Dukes Hotel.

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Isaac Parham is a freelance food writer and editor from South London. When not browsing Borough market or watching his beloved Portsmouth FC, you'll find him travelling the country to find the nation's best food.

We all have our own unique relationship with London - any place for that matter. Some take it for granted; others regard it with naked awe. Witness the joy tourists exhibit upon being face to face with that big clock thing, while downtrodden Londoners push their way past, quietly seething at the ground.

It isn’t just a matter of impressions, either - it’s about the places we frequent, the circles we keep and even the food we eat. Consider Dukes Hotel: I imagine if you stayed here for a few days, and ate nightly in its restaurant – Thirty-Six by Nigel Mendham - you might have a slightly different perception of the capital than the Pret-parade, or commuters as they are more commonly known. You’d probably feel like you were in a Bond movie, or at least some kind of Cold War thriller.

Yes, it’s safe to say that if, by some bizarre turn of fate, I was tasked with acting as concierge to an ambassador or some kind of commonwealth dignitary, this is where I would take them – for a cosseted slice of Albion. Because, sandwiched between Green Park and The Mall, this boutique hotel is truly something else.

Sure, it doesn’t carry itself with the same flamboyance of The Ritz or Savoy, and it certainly holds no truck with frippery, but for that it must surely be commended. Think of it as an elder, wiser sibling to an A-lister – living a quiet, dignified life as an accountant while the younger is sprawled across the pages of Heat. Dukes is an institution, and it knows how to behave itself, thank you very much.

And for a “baby grand”, there certainly is some very grown-up food to be enjoyed. Led by chef Nigel Mendham and (shh!) with a MasterChef: The Professionals contender in its ranks, the kitchen is clearly in capable hands – and mesmerises with its intricate creations on a wet and wild Monday night.

We begin with a luscious soup of broccoli, vividly smooth and a little aerated at the surface, perhaps, adorned with pine nuts and goat’s cheese – nothing too tricksy, just simple, elegant cooking.

What follows is slightly less folksy: a sultry celebration of John Dory (seriously, why is this fish not on more menus?) comes punctuated with curried elements and cauliflower and coriander.

In between, Mendham provides a solution to the age-old question of how you prettify a terrine; partnering the set pork pâté with plump-as-a-new-pillow langoustines, chilly (and compressed?) spheres of apple and pickled veg. The flavour combinations are expertly thought-out, with notes of sourness, sweetness and tartness softening the forthright earthiness of the terrine.

The mix of delicacy and indelicacy was becoming a bit of a theme, and a main course of Venison and black pudding continues in that vein – the metallic-y back-notes of the blood pudding echoing those of the venison with celeriac offering a dutifully astringent foil. If this is the chef’s idea of “Rustic” – the name given to the current menu – then take me off to the woods, tie me to a tree and leave me there, because I’d be more than happy to enjoy more of this.

We finish up with a dusky chocolate fondant, its classically dense, rich flavour assuaged by a pumpkin ice cream and hazelnut brittle. A sweet wine adds to the course’s appeal, pleasing the palate with its notes of vanilla and winter fruit. While I’m on the subject, it would be remiss not to mention the drinks: Bar Manager Alessandro Palazzi is a bit of a legend and the potent Martini (it had to be, Dukes bar is said to be the inspiration behind James Bond’s tipple of choice) upon arrival certainly hits the spot. As do the matched wines with every course, covering vintage reds, crisp whites and the aforementioned sweetener.

Nigel Mendham arrives with the coffees and talks us through his career-to-date. Originally from Norfolk - where he spent his early years catching crabs on the beach - the chef made his name at The Samling in the Lake District, working with local producers to conjure countrified dishes. Since moving to Dukes, however, his style has had to change – and he speaks assertively about his desire to harmonise his background with his surroundings. To my mind, the “Rustic Menu” achieves this quite nicely.

What’s more, the service led by General Manager Debrah Duggah (the kind of person you’d want around if someone ran over your cat - that perfect mix of reassuring and assertive) shares many of the same qualities, and gladly things never feel awkward or stilted as they sometimes do in similarly illustrious premises.

I think I’ll be back. Now where can I find me a dignitary…

 
 
 

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