What’s it like? Thirty Six opened in London’s Dukes hotel in September and is headed up by award-winning chef Nigel Mendham. On arrival, I am led from the lobby down through a series of narrow, immaculately decorated corridors to a soothing drawing room. The cosy Perrier Jouët lounge, as it is known, is decked out with verdant carpeting, couches in lime green velvet dotted with raspberry cushions, fish scale wallpaper in gold and mint, heavy mirrors in gilded frames and cream leather armchairs.
At one end is a sparkling glass cabinet filled with bottles of floral-patterned bottles of fizz. Chill-out music plays softly, although I would have expected the soft overtones of something more classical, like Handel or Vivaldi, to go with the rather traditional style of the property and the clientele it attracts. I like the contrast though, and as soon as I am seated, my companion and I are offered a drinks menu by a waiter with polished shoes and slicked back hair.
There are two other groups of people in the lounge – a father with his two teenage sons (probably home from boarding school) and four well-heeled middle-aged friends – and I overhear hushed well-spoken voices. Accompanying a relaxed champagne cocktail with cloudy apple juice and Aperol (£15), and a martini with a lemon twist (another Dukes speciality) for my friend, we are served a selection of delectable canapés that included soft-boiled quails eggs on spinach, puréed tomato on bruschetta, and spiced apple gel in a china tear-drop spoon (the last was strange in flavor, concept and texture).
I looked at the online menu earlier in the day and noticed it did not feature any vegetarian options so phoned the restaurant in advance to ask if this was something the chef would be able to accommodate. After 15 minutes my phone call was returned and I was given a description of a meat-free starter and main that would be available. Nearing the end of our drinks, we are given a copy of the menu and, indeed, I find it listed. (I then wonder if they added it specially?) The waiter returns to take our orders, recommends some red wine, and then takes us through to the dining room, which is empty apart from the other two groups.
The atmosphere is cosy yet slightly stilted due to the lack of other diners (noise levels were very low) and the formal 36-seat layout with heavy white tablecloths, shining cutlery and austere drawings framed on the walls. The revamped interiors were designed by Shaun Clarkson “with warm tones of orange, gold and black that complements the classic contemporary style of Dukes and the modern cuisine at Thirty Six”.
The food and drink There are no individual prices for dishes, instead two courses are priced at £49 or three are £60, which is expensive considering the size of the portions, especially in the case of the vegetarian options, which are lacking protein and have barely a mouthful of carbohydrate. Having said that, the presentation is exquisitely artistic – so perhaps it is more about a visual experience of food.
To quell initial rumblings, miniature loaves of bread are presented as glasses are filled with wine. The waiter recommends a light easy-to-drink red to go with the meal despite my stated preference for something rich and fruity, something with personality, but he assures me he will bring me something else if I don’t like it. I don’t. I wouldn’t normally complain but it was a little too thin – like Ribena. So he graciously brought me an alternative to try, which was an improvement.
My starter is of cheese soufflé with a perfect circle of brown lentils and some blobs of beetroot purée on a grey square slat, while my main, which comes out soon after, is a strange mélange of butternut squash, miniature vegetables and chewy savoury granola. I am not convinced that it worked but it was unusual and creative. And despite the small portions, by the time it comes to choosing from the lavish selection of delicious cheeses wheeled over I do not feel hungry. That said, a good number are vegetarian so I am tempted to sample three or four. Those on offer include Beenleigh Blue from Devon and Blacksticks Silk from Lincolnshire.
For those dining from the regular menu, options range from “red mullet – all things nicoise” and “rare breed pork – braised cheek Waldorf salad” starters, to “lemon sole with roasted langoustine, carrot purée and hazelnut crumb”, and “Highland venison with butternut fondant, ossobusco and native oysters”. I don’t try a dessert (although they sound divine) but two of the five listed were “vanilla doughnuts and raspberry semifreddo” and “dark chocolate delice with crunchy pears and cardamom”.
The service Very attentive. But as the restaurant was quiet, I feel we are watched for most of the evening, which means I don’t relax as much as I would have liked for a Friday night. Overall the staff are extremely professional, friendly and confident – topping up wine at just the right moments and adding nice flourishes such as offering a choice of lemon or lime with the water and then placing it expertly in the glass.
Private dining The hotel’s Marlborough and Sheridan rooms can be booked for private dinners of up to 60 people in the former and 12 in the latter.
Verdict A drink in the champagne lounge was a marvelously civilised way to begin dinner, but the restaurant was lacking in atmosphere, as there were so few diners there. The service and quality of ingredients was very good, and the food undeniably attractive, but portions are small and vegetarian cooking is obviously not Nigel Mendham’s forte (hence there was no official meat-free option on the menu). Go for one of the complex-sounding meat dishes and you will hopefully leave feeling like you have spent your money well.
Set menus Lunch: £21 for two courses, £28 for three courses including coffee or tea. Dinner: £49 for two courses, £60 for three courses. This also includes with a glass of champagne or a cocktail with canapés in the Perrier Jouët lounge. Three-course Sunday roast from £27. Tasting menu: eight courses for £95 or £150 with matching wines by the glass.
Opening hours Breakfast: Mon-Sat 7am-10.30am, Sun 8am-10.30am. Lunch: Tues-Sun 12pm-2.30pm. Dinner: Mon-Sat 6pm-9.30pm.
Contact Thirty Six, Dukes hotel, St James’s Place, London; tel +44 (0)20 7491 4840; dukeshotel.com