I’ll admit it: when it comes to restaurants, I’m a bit of a judge. With the ruthless, seemingly one-in-one-out churn of the capital’s restaurant circuit, I find myself making sweeping assumptions about places before I’ve even gotten near the threshold. As with so many to choose from, you got to have some system of elimination, right? No-reservations joint without a queue snaking round the block? Must be something wrong with it. Signature menu item failed to cement itself in London’s dish hall of fame after a few months? Can’t have been the plate-of-dreams the chef so thought. And one other thing that gets me a little jittery: the hotel restaurant. Whereas a standalone restaurant pumps every ounce of energy into refining its offering, a hotel has that little thing of needing to throw a sleepover worthy of paying hundreds (and often thousands) of pounds for. So who wouldn’t blame some of them for missing the mark?
But enter The Game Bird. This relatively new dwelling within The Stafford hotel has pretty much taken off and soared since it opened back in March, with covetable 5-star reviews aplenty. First off, the chef at the helm is none other than James Durrant, who counts Gordon Ramsay and Jason Atherton as former mentors. And as well as having a solid team behind the scenes in the kitchen, The Game Bird’s cracked it front of house, too. Heaven-sent waiting staff who strike a perfect balance of relaxed and efficient, while the dining room shuns the ‘normal’ uniform upholstery and muted decor for clashy Sanderson-style prints, huge blue fresh flower displays, a 1920s-style bar and a glass-encased display of hung wood pigeons, and a tank of frankly the biggest crabs we’ve ever seen. A hint of eccentricity and uniqueness is clearly key to the ethos here.
Tabasco, egg yolk emulsion
Our first hint of how differently things are done at The Game Bird is when a cloche-covered, dry-ice clouded cocktail is presented to a trendy-looking young couple behind us, revealing a divinely scented swirl of smokiness.
Our starters arrive: a gamey, purple-hued deer tartare with delicate little dots of Worcester sauce, more of that heady smokiness in the form of charcoal mayo, and wafer-light crostini. The mix of punchy, bold flavours came together like they were destined to be in this dish, and with the skill of this creation. A bit of lightheartedness comes in the form of a miniscule bottle of Tabasco, and a squeezy tube of egg emulsion so you can do some cheffy decorating of your own.
What would have been a soaring highlight of most meals, but remained simply ‘up there with the rest of them’ here, was tender, coal-cooked celeriac with crunchy walnuts, creamy Shropshire blue and a kick of mustard. Laid out in a pathway across the plate, the ingredients were arranged in perfect ‘eat me together’ succession.
Mains included a royal-family-member of the chicken dish community: majestic chicken Kiev. A huge, golden-crumbed boulder of some of the juiciest chicken I’ve ever encountered gave way to a river of truffle butter, served aside smooth-as-silk mash sprinkled with pencil shavings of truffle. Main course fun time: the arrival of a weighty black leather bib (which I initially thought was the season’s latest handbag) was draped over the Kiev-eater to catch any spurts of butter. We told you it was juicy.
Pigeon (‘The Game Bird’)
The Game Bird’s signature main, evidently freshly plucked from that display case of wood pigeons, showcased gorgeously rouged breast meat, charred hispi cabbage, onions & turnips. A hip flask of rich sloe gin jus was playfully sloshed over the plate and sticky-juicy-sweet legs as a side dish: again a perfectly curated pathway from one side to the other.
Lemon Meringue Parfait
For dessert, a zingy cleanse in the form of divine, macaron-shaped pieces of soft-centred meringue with basil sorbet and lemon gel.
Next, a glossy curl of tempered chocolate concealing juicy prune-sized cherries, Chantilly cream and chocolate mousse. On the side, more palate cleansing in the form of a quenelle of cherry sorbet.
We finish with petits fours presented in a covetable hand-carved box: mouth-melting fudge, salted caramel truffles with a subtle hint of whisky, and candied blackcurrant.
The reviews that originally piqued our interest weren’t wrong. This is a hotel restaurant that would stand alone as a pillar of London dining: it’s doing things few others are, with skill not seen in many. The game’s truly been raised.
The Game Bird
The Stafford London, 16-17 St. James’s Place, London, SW1A 1NJ