The Pem, named after suffragette Emily Wilding Davison, is the new flagship restaurant at the Conrad London St James. As with the Blue Boar pub and the hotel’s new Hedgerow Bar, the restaurant is also overseen by consultant chef Sally Abé running an entirely female leadership team (she is supported by general manager Emma Underwood and head chef Laetizia Keating, each of whom have impressive CVs). It’s quite the antithesis of The Savoy which can’t seem to get enough of Gordon Ramsay (he is opening a second restaurant there this autumn). Meanwhile, over in Westminster, Abé has reportedly vowed to stamp out the culture of harassment in kitchens and make hospitality more inclusive. After a lovely dinner at The Pem and experiencing wonderful service from her team, I can see she means it.
Unlike her role at lauded gastropub The Harwood Arms in Fulham, at The Pem Abé has had free rein to create a fun, new fine-dining concept from scratch. The bold interior design is perhaps the first statement of intent. The walls are a voluptuous red, cushions shades of pink and the soft lighting is at an appropriate level, whilst the black and white patterned floor has somewhat of a Lynchian vibe about it. I’m not sure if that was the intention but it’s a strobe light away from the Black Lodge in Twin Peaks.
Perhaps the lack of natural light and quiet atmosphere added to the slightly surreal feeling. The sparse table occupancy on a Friday night surprised me at first – on this visit there was just a small handful of tourists and a civil servant boring his future ex-girlfriend to tears about merger control investigations. Of course the desolation could simply be due to the summer recess in Westminster. As we head into autumn I suspect this will become a buzzy haven for celebrations, catch ups and liaisons. Generally this is a place you want to linger in and escape the hideousness of the outside world.
I wondered if, given Abé’s experience with The Hardwood Arms and the launch of The Blue Boar next door, the cuisine would simply be gastropub food at restaurant prices – a kind of ‘gastropub plus’ if you will. Fortunately it isn’t. Instead, she has perhaps channelled her experiences at The Ledbury and Elystan Street to offer a contemporary menu that’s rooted in classic technique and showcases British ingredients. It’s modern enough to raise eyebrows of curiosity, but also reassuringly familiar so feathers aren’t too ruffled.
The opening of proceedings set a high bar. Lovely freshly-baked bread arrived with premium olive oil drizzled over butter (yes, both), along with amuse-bouches and a perfectly-made gin Martini in a Nick and Nora glass.
A rabbit ballotine with peas, broad beans and “tarragon mustard” was a tender, beautiful dish – perfect for late summer and when you’re missing a traditional lapin à la moutarde in France – though the mustard here was vanishingly subtle. A tiny bit more would have elevated this to something very special. Meanwhile, my companion enjoyed the textures and heady flavours of the wild mushrooms with herb mousseline, truffle velouté, St Ewe egg and celery leaf. I’ll have to return to investigate the “Knife and Fork Bacon.”
The ballotine technique resurfaced in the Sutton Hoo chicken, intriguingly shaped a bit like a lobster tail. This was a satisfying main course with charred sweetcorn, spring onion and trompette and a restrained dribble of pan jus. Sticking to vegetables, my companion seemed to be pleasantly surprised by the tarte fine of Melilot courgette with Berkswell, undisclosed green sauce and borage – a revelation of both vegetable cookery and pastry work.
If I have only one issue it’s the price of the desserts, all of which are punchy at £14 a-piece (the English cheese selection is even dearer at £18). A peach melba pavlova was delightfully retro, though left us feeling a little short-changed. The Black Forest Gateau with cherry ripple ice cream, another retro dessert given a 21st century twist, was rich and luxurious with a boozy kick from the cherry marinated in kirsch. This may become a staple crowd-pleasing dish, which in an ideal world you’d keep for yourself, but at £14 may necessitate sharing.
The Pem has also recently received a ‘one to watch’ gong at the National Restaurant Awards. Well, don’t just watch them – book a table and dine there! I know I will again (though I might skip dessert).
Conrad London St. James
by J A Smith