This is one of those “London is full of surprises” moments. In the relatively subdued and in-betweeny neighbourhood of St. James’s Park, which on this particular Saturday was prey to a marching black and white army of anti-Badger Cullers, sits the shiny newly refursbished, very smart and elegant St Ermin’s Hotel – once a notorious meeting place of secret agents and spies, now the third aquisition by Marriot’s “Autograph Collection” of independent, upscale hotels. James Bond meets interior design – my kind of den, really. And within this dazzling den, quietly ticking away, is the absolutely delightful Caxton Bar and Grill.
Despite my job, I am not one for the hotel restaurant (Bouluds, Wareings and Mandarin Orientals aside). The Caxton Bar and Grill, however, I would make an exception for. The interiors are colourful, welcoming and comfortable – with squishy banquettes, flattering lighting and fresh flowers everywhere. There was also an abundance of staff – and despite the number of kids at dinner – it was pleasantly buzzing and lively rather than rocking to the beat of ear-bleedingly loud brats bawling over spilt ice-cream and whacking each other with spoons. Clearly the offspring of the St Ermin’s category of hotel guest have all been raised by exemplary French au-pairs then whisked off to all the right Swiss finishing schools.
The menu here is on the right side of imaginative without trying too hard, or being too clever. Interesting and classic flavours are married well, presented beautifully and the menu is short, easy to navigate and full of favourites. Except for “world’s fussiest eater” sat two tables down from us – who could have instigated a ten minute round-table discussion over an order of tap water – I think most would struggle to fault the selection of offerings.
Three kinds of bread came with three kinds of butter, including the moreish and likely-to-cause-addiction “chicken butter” – a salty, Knorr-cube like creamy spread flecked with bits of cripsy chicken skin. This was going to be a good evening.
I started with Picked Crab with watermelon, avocado and sweetcorn. Two quenelles of super-fresh white crab, bound with the brown meat and topped with chunks of sweet, lightly grilled watermelon – a pleasant and new combination for me. The avocado was a delicate, slightly citrussy puree with small dollops of bright yellow and super sweet sweetcorn mousse. The whole thing was artfully presented and very summery. M had fat, juicy scallops – just cooked right, with cauliflower, dates and apple. The apple cut right through the sweet scallop and the cauliflower had great flavour – sometimes a real miss. Again, presentation was top notch and quantities satisfying.
Mains were equally copious and tasty, M. had a sizzling and highly flavourful T-Bone with watercress and triple cooked chips. I had Muntjac venison – a breed which hails originally form Southern Asia and is rich and very gamey, but also tender as anything. The gravy it came with was thick and salty and wonderful, as was the sticky – aubergine-coloured plum puree to slather it in. My only small query was the potatoes. They were dainty and divine and I only had one of them. Otherwise, flawless.
Desserts were a traditional cheese board with so many crackers I could have played Jenga and a mouthwatering, completely heart-attack inducingly brilliant Bread and Butter pudding with white chocolate and banana and a salt-caramel slick, with peanut ice cream. M delved into it like Scrooge diving into his stacks of gold. I barely got a look-in.
From here we were whisked to the bar by the charming and attentive Restaurant Manager, who left us in the capable hands of Adam – a cheeky, chatty and generally entertaining barman, the kind of whom you wish you could clone and populate so many dull bars with.
Formerly of TGI-Fridays, Adam whipped us up a “nostalgic treat” from his days there – the tooth-rotting but whimsical Bubblegum Shot, before mixing us some “proper” drinks – a summer fruit cup for me – punchy with raspberries and gin, and a super-sour, white rum-laced concoction for M, followed by the best chaser of all, a 54° – utterly insanely delectable rare Ardbeg Uigeadail – an amazing blend, winner of Jim Murray’s World Whisky of the Year in 2009. Smoky, with rich, long caramel notes and a hit of espresso at the end, this is a singular dram of note.
Just like the unassuming Caxton. To which I hope to return!