Certain restaurants linger in the psyche long after they have served their last dish. Some are more missed than others. I have lambent memories of the visual extravaganza that was Mash in Great Portland Street, designed by Marc Newson and run by Oliver Peyton in the Nineties. It brought nightclub vibes to casual dining, with futuristic silhouettes and bonkers backlit artworks by American painter and photographer Richard Prince.
When Mash closed, the Newson interior was gutted instead of listed, and today it is a branch of Vapiano. I plot routes to avoid passing the place. It makes me melancholy. Two other restaurants I miss deeply are Arbutus and Wild Honey, chef Anthony Demetre’s West End double whammy of supercharged, superchouette bistro perfection. Casual, cool and delicious, they were everything. But Arbutus bit the dust in 2016, and Wild Honey at the start of last year.
Like many Londoners, I numbered those among my favourite dining rooms, and I had history with both. Thirteen years ago, I went on one of my first dates with my husband at Arbutus, and we went on to dine at Wild Honey regularly. We never had anything other than a great evening.
Last summer Wild Honey was resurrected, and took over the space previously occupied by The Balcon, and Brasserie Roux before it, at Sofitel London St James. At the same time, the whole hotel underwent a costly refurb. Demetre’s ‘insider’ status feels slightly at odds with cooking in a hotel dining room, but with profit margins and London rents the way they are, this is a smart way to stay afloat as a chef and focus on the cooking.
On two recent visits – one for lunch and one for dinner – I found Demetre’s cooking to be as fantastic and comfort-focused as ever. There’s a super-soft grilled octopus starter, a classic bouillabaisse, burrata with pears and walnuts, partridge with potted cabbage and bacon, and a Middle Eastern-style baked aubergine. Among the puds: warm chocolate soup with toasted rice ice cream.
This isn’t a place to eat light. After a few sips of a vermouth-forward aperitif, served in a pretty little stem glass, entitled “I am very specific with my Negroni”, I started an evening-long journey of acid reflux that ended in an emergency dash to Tesco for Gaviscon. But, martyr and pig that I am, I ate through the pain – that roast beetroot with black pudding and boar cheek, and the Scottish venison ragu with hand-cut rigatoni, are dense dark plates that represent the best of modern British cooking.
This being a five-star Sofitel, the hotel has an interior flasher than Demetre’s previous ventures – just one light fitting here would probably pay for the whole of the interior of Arbutus. But it’s a pleasant room, and the service is good.
There’s a bar behind a thick curtain that acts as a kind of sexy, windowless decompression chamber from the lobby to the restaurant. It’s nice, in a kind of oil-paintings-on-the-ceiling and fancy-vessels-for-themed-cocktails kind of a way, but you probably won’t go there unless you are dining or staying upstairs. And the new-look Sofitel is well worth booking if you want something luxe but not ruinous this close to Her Majesty and Dover Street Market.
There’s a fancy lounge area for afternoon tea, and the spa is rather fabulous – with a double-height communal area and a separate entrance that flags it up, like Wild Honey, as a destination in its own right. I also liked the gym, which feels fresh and light, despite the customary absence of windows – a set of living green walls, encased in glass, set a nice tone. I’d rather work out here than the soul-sapping Equinox up the street.
What is upstairs somewhat threw me. I would have put a substantial bet on the rooms being vanilla with a twist, but actually there was a lot of sauce. Red is a strong look for a hotel room, but red my room was. Red, red, red. It might be racy, but it’s not a particularly soothing part of the Pantone chart to find yourself lost in, in the midst of insomnia or jet lag.
There was a print of Twiggy that looked like one of those bad faux silkscreens that Instagram adverts constantly try to flog you, a sort-of-plaid carpet, and some white acrylic shelves and a table that I suspect were here as a nod to the Verner Panton pop-furniture theme that seemed to be going on.
The whole thing came off as a kind of mid-range hotel somewhere in southeast Asia with some pretensions of opulence. Which it doesn’t need, because the bones (great bed, bathroom) are solid. But you might like it. Maybe it’s a good place to end up after a first date at Wild Honey. Or maybe save it for the third.
Rooms from £395 per night. There are six accessible rooms.
Read the full hotel review: Sofitel London St James
Source: Telegraph Travels