The boutique Dukes Hotel is tucked away in a side-street towards the bottom of St James Street. In its basement is its main restaurant, now called Thirty Six. Its chef, as of November 2011, was Nigel Mendham, who gained a Michelin star for the Cumbrian boutique hotel The Samling in the Lake District. That hotel was sold to The Bath Priory company (who own Gidleigh Park) after von Essen hotels went bust in April 2011. The cooking style at Thirty Six is fairly classical, with British ingredients and French technique; Mr Mendham was in the kitchen on the evening of our visit. The dining room itself had a tranquil feel, with heavy carpet rather than a wooden floor keeping noise levels down, comfortable chairs with orange upholstery, well-spaced tables, cream walls and a view out onto the courtyard. Somewhat intrusive and unnecessary muzak played in the dining room, detracting somewhat from the calm. The menu was priced at a chunky £60 for three courses, with a tasting menu at £75.
The wine list was quite short at around 70 bottles, but had some good growers, and was refreshingly priced given the St James location. The list ranged in price from £24 to £600, with an average price of £49 and a mark-up average of just under 3.1 times retail, which seemed fair to me given the area. Please take note, other smart restaurant venues in Mayfair. Example wines were 2011 Viognier Tabali at £25 for a wine that retails at £7, Nuits Saint Georges, Domaine Faiveley 2007 at £58 for a wine that you can find for £24 in the high street, up to grander choices such as 1995 Sassicaia Tenuta San Guido Bolgheri at £260 for a wine that will set you back £131 in the shops. We drank the excellent Marques de Murrietta 2004 Rioja Ygay Gran Reserva at £85 for a wine you can buy in the shops for £29. Mineral water was £3.45 a bottle.
Initial nibbles were a mixed bag. Best were little balls of deep fried haddock, with a crisp exterior, while there was also smoked salmon with sour cream where the salmon had been shredded very thin to no obvious advantage, and goat cheese gougeres. The latter had pleasant texture but were, bizarrely, served cold – this is not a good plan for a gougere, in my view (overall (13/20). This was followed by good potato and cheese croquettes, with a haddock velouté that was distinctly lukewarm (13/20 average given the good croquettes). The almost cold velouté should have been intercepted on the pass; there were only three tables taken this evening, so the kitchen was hardly stretched.
The meal reached more solid ground with the starters. Red mullet did not have great flavour but was correctly cooked, served with tomato puree, potatoes with mayonnaise, quail eggs, green beans, deep-fried anchovies and tapenade, a logical combination of Nicoise flavours; I actually preferred the garnishes to the fish itself (14/20). Bread was made from scratch and consisted of a pair of miniature loaves, one white and one brown – a nice touch (15/20). Better was quail, served as both breast and leg, alongside ham hock terrine, quail egg with brioche, with a line of mushroom puree and blobs of quail jus. The quail itself was very good, the leg in particular having deep flavour and being well seasoned, though it would have been nice to have had more than just a token blob of the good jus (15/20).
Lemon sole was pan-fried a little too long, served with blobs of carrot puree, caramelised onion, tomato, lentils and spinach. The puy lentils were a little too firm, and overall there seemed to be too many elements for the dish to be completely harmonious, though it was certainly pleasant enough (14/20). My venison was cooked medium rare and had excellent flavour, served with a reduction of the cooking juices that this time was in sufficient quantity to enjoy. This was served with Parmesan foam, ossobucco and bacon spaetzle. The latter was the weak point of the dish, the dumplings slightly chewy and not having enough bacon flavour; this was a shame as the venison itself was lovely (14/20 overall).
A pre-dessert of cranberry, tonic and vodka granita had excellent texture, though was just a little too sour, the granita resting on a bed of cranberries (14/20). Iced coffee with orange donuts and chocolate parfait had pleasant iced coffee but heavy beignets that needed more citrus bite. The parfait was made with Amadei Toscano Black 70% chocolate and its high cocoa content, with nothign to balance, resulted in an over-bitter taste. This dessert seemed to me somewhat unbalanced (13/20). “Apple with brambles” comprised a small apple crumble with blackberries, apple brulee and blackberry sorbet. Although the crumble had fine texture there was too much crumble relative to apple, though the brulee was fine and the sorbet had both good texture and flavour (13/20). Coffee was pleasant, served with a few petit fours: a dry saffron Madeleine, a blackcurrant jelly that was also insufficiently moist and lacked enough fruit flavour, a rather dull chocolate macaroon with toffee and lemon meringue whose pastry was too hard and needed more lemon bite (barely 11/20).
Overall this was a meal that showed some promise in places and was an enjoyable experience, but was not consistent enough. There was a tendency to over-complicate, adding just one more element than was really needed, and this approach itself added an extra level of difficulty for the kitchen. Other than a couple of temperature issues the savoury dishes were mostly executed quite well, but the pastry section needs quite a lot of work.
Service was good, our Polish waitress in particular being helpful and friendly. The bill came to £124 a head with one of the better bottles of wine, and at this price point customers will expect a greater level of consistency than was on show tonight.