The Stafford is a boutique hotel tucked away in a quiet road off St James Street. The hotel was originally a series of private residences built in the 17th century, and the modern hotel is a series of three of these properties, operating since 1912. In late 2016 James Durrant became the executive chef of the hotel and converted the main restaurant into “The Game Bird” in March 2017. James worked with Gordon Ramsay as a junior sous chef before spending three years at the late lamented Juniper in Altrincham under Paul Kitching. He came back to Royal Hospital Road as a senior sous chef and then worked as head chef of Maze, becoming executive chef there in a three year stint before opening The Plough in Hampshire, then becoming executive chef of The Bluebird before moving here, where the menu is very much about British classic dishes. The dining room has duck-egg blue walls is partly carpeted, with quite high ceilings and well spaced tables. There are no tablecloths and there a bar on one side of the room, so although there is a hint of a gentleman’s club about the décor, it is more casual than that.
The wine list featured labels such as Stella Bella Suckfizzle Semillon/Sauvignon Blanc 2005 at £39.50 for a bottle that you can find in the high street for £26, Chateau Bernadotte 2009 at £59.50 compared to its retail price of £20, and Bernard Moreau Chassagne Montrachet 2014 at £99.50 for a wine that will set you back £40 in a shop. There is considerable depth in Bordeaux and Burgundy in particular, with prestige bottles including Mouton Rothschild 1995 at £790 for a bottle that retails at £472, and Trotanoy 1982 at £920 for a wine whose current market price is £426. The cellars are impressive in scale, containing around ten thousand bottles; the cellars themselves date back to the 17th century. A section of the wine cellar houses World War II memorabilia, reflecting the property’s role as an air raid shelter during that conflict. Another section of the cellar is set up for wine dinners.
The menu was very appealing, with a broad range of traditional dishes including old British favourites like prawn cocktail and fish and chips. No carefully tweezered wood sorrel or ant larvae appear on this menu. Bread is supplied by a bakery called MARC (in Perivale) and was pleasant, both white and brown sourdough being quite good.
Venison tartare was spectacular, the fallow deer coming from the Rhug estate. The tartare had a beautiful blend of flavours and textures, with croutons adding a crisp contrast to the deer meat, which was mixed with Worcester sauce, egg emulsion and charcoal mayonnaise. The meat had terrific flavour amd the seasoning balance was superb (easily 17/20). Dressed crab is a dish that it is hard to really excel at, given its simplicity. It is all about the sheer quality and freshness of the crab, in this case from Devon, attractively presented and served on ice with home-made mayonnaise and a layer of parsley sauce. The crab was genuinely top notch, the mayonnaise pitch-perfect. It is hard to score something like this but it was lovely (easily 16/20).
Scallops from Orkney came with roasted cauliflower, smoked roe and gremolata sauce. This was pleasant but not in the league of the starters, the texture of the scallops just a touch flabby, the cauliflower decent but the gremolata lacking enough lemon zest to bring the freshness to balance the inherent sweetness of the shellfish (just about 13/20).
Haddock and chips is a classic British dish, but how often is it made well? This was a classy version, the batter crisp and golden, the fish carefully cooked and having good flavour, the tartare sauce zinging with its sweet and sour tastes, the chips also good (15/20). Chicken Kiev was a large slab of deep-fried meat that had garlic butter right at its centre, though the shape of the chicken slab meant that this only became apparent when you cut through the middle of the chicken. This was fine, the Norfolk chicken being cooked well, though for me more garlic butter relative to the meat would have been better (14/20). Red cabbage on the side was tender, though perhaps a more sweet and sour effect with vinegar and sugar would have lifted the dish.
For dessert, pistachio soufflé was top notch; light and cooked evenly through, the pistachio flavour coming through well (17/20). Strawberry trifle came with vanilla custard, strawberry granita and Jersey cream, the fruit coming from Kent. this was very good (16/20) but the star element was a pair of almond financiers with fabulous texture, that could have emerged from any multi-starred French kitchen. The pastry chef (Magda) more than earned her salary just with these. Finally there was coffee, which sadly was Musetti, a brand beloved of UK hotels due to its low price, but ordinary in flavour. Service was excellent throughout, with careful topping up, a nice pacing of dishes and a charming Italian sommelier.
The bill, albeit with some pre-dinner drinks and classy white Burgundy, came to £148 a head. If you ordered a more modest wine, of which there were plenty, then a more typical cost per head might be around £85, much less if you went with the £30 set menu. This is not cheap but then again the food here is very good indeed, with the best dishes like the venison tartare being quite special. This above all is a very comfortable restaurant. The service is slick, the room attractive, the menu appealing. It will not attract the Instagram teenage crowd but for the rest of us that is a blessing rather than a drawback. There are so many disappointing and overhyped restaurant openings in London at the moment but this is not one of them.
A few days later I tried their set lunch offer, at £30 for three courses. Some restaurants do these cheaper lunch menus very much through gritted teeth, and they can be dramatically less good than the offerings on the dinner menu. I tried a good pea veloute with a mousse of Tunworth cheese (which is rather in the style of Brie). The peas had good flavour, the soup nicely seasoned (14/20). Wild mushroom risotto featured girolles and summer truffles, the stock having plenty of flavour and the rice having good texture; on the side was a capable rocket and Parmesan salad (15/20). For dessert, custard tart had very good pastry and a suitably rich filling, the tart accompanied by dots of raspberry coulis and a nicely made raspberry ripple ice cream, which brought enough acidity to balance custard (15/20). The bill was just £39 all in, and service was again excellent. I highly recommend The Game Bird to you. It is a very civilised experience – dining for grown-ups.