I head to newly opened The Game Bird at The Stafford hotel in London and fall head over heels for its smoked chicken and bacon jam, gargantuan wine list and hidden stash off World War 2 memorabilia.
The concept: Offering informal dining within the grand surrounds of The Stafford Hotel in London’s St James, The Game Bird opened under the helm of decorated chef James Durrant in March, a brave move for a restaurant that so brazenly specialises in game. But if anyone is up to the challenge, it’s Chester-born chef Durrant. Having spent 20 years in the trade, his previous posts include stints at Royal Hospital Road, Gordon Ramsay’s three-Michelin-starred Maze, Claridge’s, again under the tutelage of Ramsay, and again at Maze, returning as head chef working alongside Jason Atherton. In 2010 James left Maze to pursue his ambition of opening his own restaurant, temporarily working as a Private Chef for the Rothschild family, and later launching The Plough Inn in Longparish, Hampshire, in 2012, which has since closed.
The Game Bird sits alongside The Stafford’s existing private dining rooms, its 380-year-old wine cellars, and American Bar, with Durrant working closely with Master Sommelier Gino Nardella to bring its wine and food offer together.
The décor: Sweetly sophisticated yet striking, with its grand columns, marble-top tables, intricate coving and velvet-floral tapestries, The Game Bird oozes 17th century glamour but is relaxed, comforting and not remotely imposing. A gleaming mahogany bar is the centrepiece of this small but perfectly formed restaurant, incorporating leather and traditional wood panelling. Polished and pleasing to the eye with pretty floral patterns and plenty of foliage, hearty hunks of meat and birds strung up on display in a bespoke ageing cabinet offers a contrasting rustic edge.
The Stafford is currently working with West Contemporary as their art partner, bringing a regularly changing exhibition of contemporary art The Game Bird. The first installation features commissioned pieces by renowned artists Chris Moon, Ruth Fox and Carne Griffiths, which includes ‘Afternoon Tea with The Queen’ by Carne Griffiths, which was hand-finished on site during the launch evening of the restaurant using The Game Bird tea blend and Balvenie whisky.
The food: Flying in the face of The Stafford’s typically American slant (its adjoining American Bar has been a homely haunt for US visitors since the 1930s), The Game Bird offers a menu that focuses exclusively on modern British comfort cooking and, as the name suggests, game, all sourced from the British Isles. While meat prevails, there is a decent selection of fish and vegetarian options, including Orkney scallops, Dover sole, Devon crab and a selection of in-house cured salmon and trout.
Out of the dishes sampled on our visit, the smoked Norfolk black chicken (£12) with Clarence Court egg, bacon jam and pickled mushrooms was a standout, offering a to-die-for combination of smoky, salty flavours with a satisfying crunch on the palate, afforded by a delicately crusted soft boiled egg. My partner enjoyed a perfectly pleasant Rhug estate deer tartare (£14), served with egg emulsion, Worcestershire sauce and charcoal mayonaise, giving it an intriguing mineral edge.
It’s worth noting the healthy supply of bread and salted, soft butter, as it should be, that was provided at our table. Hard butter in a restaurant in any restaurant, let alone one where you are spending decent money, is one of my pet peeves. It’s so easy to avoid, yet it’s amazing how many restaurants fall foul.
Butter aside, we entered gleefully into the second round, tucking into The Game Bird’s signature dish ‘The Game Bird’ (£38), detailed below, and the salt marsh lamb lobscouse (£26) with red cabbage and seaweed butter. For those unfamiliar, lobscouse is a stew traditionally eaten by sailors, consisting of meat, vegetables, and “ship’s biscuit”, or hardtack – a long-lasting biscuit or cracker, made from flour, water. In this case, the lobscouse was pleasing combination of flaky slow roasted lamb and a perfectly pink lamb fillet, atop a bed of cabbage, sans biscuit.
We added a side of rich and gooey cauliflower cheese and a portion of twice-cooked chips, which while delicious were a bit pricey a £5 a portion, which amounted to eight chips. We finished with refreshingly zingy, palate-cleansing lemon parfait with basil sorbet (£9), the very sweet meringue balanced by the herbal edge of the basil.
Signature dishes: The Game Bird, featuring roast pigeon with parsnips, cabbage and braised pigeon leg on the side and served with a ‘bullshot’ – made from juice of the meat and sloe gin – which is poured over the dish from a hip flask. A welcome touch of theatre, the dish itself was faultless, the pigeon perfectly tender and immaculately presented, although at £38 it needs to be.
Also adding some theatre to proceedings is The Game Bird’s trolley of in-house smoked and cured fish, sliced tableside with options including The Balvenie cured smoked salmon, Chalk Stream trout gravadlax and Lincolnshire smoked eel, all served with soda bread and garnishes of Clarence Court egg, cucumber and dill pickle, mustard dressing, and horseradish crème fraîche.
The drinks: Wine lovers would be hard pressed not to find something to their liking on The Game Bird’s 600-strong wine list, Curated by the highly-knowledgeable and approachable Master Sommelier Gino Nardella. A healthy balance of new and old world pours, prices range from a comfortable £39 for a perfectly pleasant Chilean Chardonnay from Aconcagua, to a wallet-busting £3,450 for a Château Mouton-Rothschild 1982, with the list also covering everything from vintage Champagne to Port and a robust by the glass offer.
We chose a bottle of 2014 Chenin Blanc/Viognier from Napa’s Pine Ridge, with grapes sourced from its Clarksburg vineyard in Stags Leap. Fresh lemon, peach and blossom dominate the nose, with its vibrant acidity dancing on the palate with flavours of lemon, peach and sweet lychee and a silky mouthfeel – a steal at £49.50.
Who to know: Front of house, the charms of Gino Nardella are hard to resist, talking us through the restaurant’s wine list and inviting us on a tour of the hotel’s 380-year-old wine cellars (a treat afforded to anyone that asks). Filled with dusty bottles of back vintages from Bordeaux, Burgundy and beyond, at its very depths is a ‘secret’ collection of WW2 memorabilia, left behind by visiting soldiers in the 1930s and 40s.
A legend in the trade, Nardella trained as a viticulturist and is expertly versed in the world of wine from grape to bottle. “To understand wine you have to understand the vineyard, or you don’t know what’s in the bottle,” he tells us. “You have to go and see if and understand it. You can’t just read the back label. Wine is a little bit like a book that you start reading, and you get to the final page, and the book doubles, and that’s how it should be,” says Nardella. “It’s fascinating”.
Last word: It’s not often that you find a restaurant that straddles the line between fine dining and informality with such aplomb as The Game Bird, far less often in one that has only just opened. Often, a restaurant’s fantastically fancy food, while brilliant in its execution, is off the scale pricey. There are of course exceptions to this rule, but Durrant has hit a sweet spot for quality versus value – not Michelin prices, but certainly the quality and panache to warrant it. Expect to leave at least £150 lighter, but for that you will have had a spectacular meal, with wine, and in great company. A flying start for The Game Bird.
Three courses and wine cost around £80 per person.
The Game Bird at The Stafford, 16-18 St James’s Place, St. James’s, London SW1A 1NJ, Tel: +44 (0)20 7518 1234, http://www.thegamebird.com