Tucked away down a cul-de-sac in charming, historic St James’s, The Stafford is a hotel that thrives more on elegance and discretion than overt showiness.
That could be why, when pushing to make its restaurant a bigger stand-alone destination, it has chosen not to wheel in a big name from abroad to oversee things like many hotels might.
Instead it has decided to work with James Durrant, a growing star in food circles, who worked just down the road at Maze under Jason Atherton before relocating to Hampshire to open his own spot, the Plough Inn in Longparish.
To mark his arrival at The Stafford, the hotel’s dining room has been elegantly refurbished. It’s lighter and brighter, though still resolutely classic. It now has its own bar area, which adds a touch of buzziness. And there are glass-fronted fridges on its far wall showing off meat and hanging game birds.
This more light-hearted look matches James’s menu, which reimagines British classics in often playful ways — and is not as game-focused as the name might have you believe.
One highlight is the restaurant’s selection of cured salmon — often a boring choice, but here an essential.
There are a handful of different varieties available, ranging from classic London Cure to a sweet and smoky Balvenie-marinated, oak-smoked number. The best bit is that it’s served straight from the restaurant’s salmon trolley — what do you mean you don’t have one of those at home — with a big array of condiments ranging from chopped egg yolk to pickles and mustard.
Other options include oysters, dressed crab and a coarsely-chopped venison tartare, which comes with a charcoal mayonnaise in a cute squeezy bottle for adding at the table.
When it comes to mains, grilled fish and meat sit alongside some gutsy pies, puddings and stews — a traditional steak and ale suet pudding comes highly recommended, as does a roast pigeon dish simply named The Game Bird.
There can be only one highlight, however: a decadent chicken Kiev.
Yep, that’s right. A chicken Kiev like your Mum used to buy from Iceland. Only it’s not like that at all. Made with Norfolk black chicken, carefully cooked so as to be supremely juicy, stuffed with as much truffle-laced butter as its cavity can hold, breadcrumbed and fried until crisp, it is a triumph of both engineering and flavour.
There are plenty of juices for the accompanying mash to soak up, although perhaps the heavy-duty, bondage-esque leather bib handed out to anyone who orders it is a little over-zealous.
Pudding could also come from Iceland, but doesn’t. A steamed syrup sponge with custard is soft, fluffy and almost light — all winner, no school dinner.
As well as the playful prevailing sense of fun, the out-and-out Britishness of the menu is one of the great strengths here.
Too many of London’s classic, oh-so-very-English hotels still insist on going full on Française when it comes to their dining rooms, but here James Durrant proves just how great British can be.
The Game Bird: The lowdown
Final flavour: Great British cooking with a sense of fun.
At what cost? The setting is relaxed, but prices less so. Most mains cost between £20 and £30.
Find it: The Stafford, 16-18 St James's Place, SW1A 1NJ.