For just over 10 years chef Anthony Demetre ran the magnificent (and once Michelin-starred) Wild Honey on St George Street in Mayfair. With the rent exceeding a City banker’s salary (with bonus on top), he decided to up sticks.
Now he’s moved to the Sofitel in St James – a short walk away from the Royal Academy of Arts, Trafalgar Square, and perhaps most importantly, the bar at Dukes. The hotel itself, being at the more upmarket end of the Accor group, doesn’t have a hair out of place and understandably most of the staff in both the hotel and restaurant are French (apart from Anthony, who on this visit was entertaining industry folk in one corner whilst in chef’s whites).
The restaurant used to be Balcon and before that Brasserie Roux. Like its predecessors Wild Honey St James is clearly designed for all-day dining – catering, no doubt, for hotel guests, tourists and business meetings – and accessed by revolving doors at two different ends (via the hotel reception or the restaurant’s own entrance on Pall Mall). The leather upholstery still has that new smell, like a new car’s maiden voyage from the forecourt, and the room is bathed in natural light.
Most of the service was attentive and friendly, which is always pleasing to see when a restaurant has only just opened. There was just one incident with a forgotten side dish: despite the iPads used by the waiters to supposedly eliminate human error, mistakes still happened. They were nice about the cock up and took it off the bill.
Wild Honey Mark II is pretty sound
To wet the old whistle, the curiously named “I’m Very Specific With My Negroni” just had to be tried. Demetre also co-owns Vermuteria in Coal Drops Yard, a cosy vermouth bar, so it’s no surprise that this features on Wild Honey’s menu too. The Negroni is also made with a French gin, so the waiter was at pains to tell me, but it seems whoever mixed it was so keen to show off the vermouth that the otherwise perfect bittersweet combination ended up somewhat off-kilter. Incidentally, you can have the vermouth by itself for £6.
For mid-afternoon snacking or apero there’s a very good cheese and charcuterie selection, reflecting Anthony’s love for all things French, but I dived in with the burrata with trumpet courgette, nasturtium and dukkah. A balanced if unremarkable dish. The crab croquettes were better despite being simpler.
Their hand cut macaroni cacio e pepe with chicken wings has been doing the rounds on Instagram for a good few weeks now. Despite the words ‘hand cut’ being clearly a menu embellishment, and macaroni itself being an unusual choice of pasta, the dish was beautiful. The peppercorns, I suspect lightly toasted beforehand, yielded great flavour and heat, the pecorino emulsion expertly made (oh the times I’ve tried to get this right myself). Chicken wings aren’t traditional either and many a Roman would pour boiling hot pasta water over your head if you dared to mess with a classic, but here they were a welcome addition and also cooked well. In many ways the ultimate comfort dish.
Still, something about latching on to Londoners’ obsession for cacio e pepe, pickling and croquettes – tropes which all started around two years ago – seems to be a bit reactive rather than progressive. Perhaps Demetre is playing it safe to start with.
The desserts in particular marry the familiar, the comfortable and, yes, the English. Cornish rhubarb crumble reinvented as a clafoutis is an inspired dish, whilst the custard tart certainly gives Marcus Wareing a run for his money. Wareing made this his trade mark after winning the dessert course of the BBC’s Great British Menu in 2006, serving it to the Queen for her 80th birthday. It’s still on the menu at both Marcus and The Gilbert Scott and remains one of the best tarts I’ve ever had. The custard tart at Wild Honey St James is – and I can’t believe I’m going to say this – on a par. Your fork takes the path of zero resistance as it glides through the set, gelatinous custard – all wonderfully eggy with additional nuts on the side for crunchy contrast. The pastry work was a wonder to behold.
Alas, the meal ended on a disappointing note. Being charged £6 for a single shot of espresso is, quite simply, a crime. Yes, it comes with a Bordeaux-style canelé on the side, but that hardly costs the restaurant anything and if you just want a quick coffee by itself, six quid cannot be justified in any plane of reality. After flagging this to the waiter it seems you can have a coffee by itself after all but this option isn’t clearly advertised. Of course it’s an expensive post code and restaurateurs are under strain but they should also be upfront about potential cheaper options available to the customer. No doubt, wobbles like these and the iPad fiasco will be ironed out soon enough. Wild Honey Mark II is pretty sound nonetheless.
8 Pall Mall
by J A Smith