55 Jermyn St
London SW1Y 6LX
BY NEAL MARTIN | MARCH 31, 2023
Smokehouse ‘London Cure’ Scottish Trout
season grouse with bacon and trimmings, peas and pea purée
Domaine Marc Colin Chassagne-Montrachet Caillerets 1er Cru
|1991 E. Guigal Côte-Rôtie La
|1991 E. Guigal Côte-Rôtie La
|1991 E. Guigal Côte-Rôtie La
Château Palmer and Wilton’s restaurant have in common?
Palmer, I allude to the apocryphal tale of General Charles Palmer’s serendipitous
meeting with the recently-widowed owner of Château de Gascq aboard a stagecoach
heading to Paris, where she intended to sell the estate. By the time they
reached the capital, the military man had turned winemaker and lent the château
his name. By the same token, did Mr. Hambro expect to become a restaurateur one
night when dining alone at Wilton’s as German bombs rained down outside? I
The Wilton's façade.
history stretches back centuries. George William Wilton opened his shellfish
mongers in 1742 and, over 28 years, earned renown far and wide for the quality
of his oysters. The business passed through his forebears, finally becoming a
when the government granted a beer and wine license in the 1840s.
Wilton’s was London’s most prestigious place to dine, permitted its first royal
warrant in 1868 when Queen Victoria became partial to their bivalves.
restaurant eventually fell out of the Wilton family’s hands. Rather than
detailing that, let us fast-forward to the Second World War when the night sky
was aglow with conflagrations as German bombers tried to pound London’s
citizens into submission. One fateful night, Wilton’s owner Bessie Leal was
serving a gentleman at the bar. Merchant banker Olaf Hambro was her only
customer. Popping out for an evening drink was playing Russian roulette -
better to stay in the air-raid shelter. Sure enough, a bomb exploded nearby and
shook the restaurant's walls. Leal, already a woman of a nervous disposition,
was understandably terrified. It was the final straw. Apparently, she folded
her towel, untied her apron and informed Olaf Hambro that she no longer wished
to run Wilton’s and wanted to move out of London. She asked: Who would buy the
restaurant? Hambro calmly replied that he knew of nobody but himself and told
Leal to add it to his bill. She must have initially thought it was a prank, but
it was a genuine offer. Leal moved to Cornwall, and Hambro, who had never come
near a professional kitchen, now found himself the owner of a culinary
institution, albeit one that could be reduced to rubble at any moment.
asked Jimmy Marks, who ran the Oysterman at Bucks Club, to join him, and within
days, they were behind the bar. Marks and his son, Peter, really established Wilton’s
reputation. They moved premises around Saint James until landing in their current
location on Jermyn Street in 1984, just up the road from Berry Brothers &
Rudd. Together with nearby Rules, they represent the bastion of
traditional English fine dining. They exist as if multi-cultural cuisine never transformed
this nation’s dull cuisine, indifferent to modernity since what they do, they
do impeccably. That is why after 280 years, people still enter its doors. It is
why my friend and long-term patron, Lord Bruce, suggested Wilton’s as the venue
for this year’s annual Grouse Club lunch, following in the footsteps of Otto’s
Wilton’s was made for long, decadent wine-filled lunches where the outside
world is barred from entering its doors.
Potted cold shrimp.
is exactly as I imagined, except that it is larger than the small façade gives
away. It’s old-fashioned. You can almost smell the oak paneling, velvet
curtains and discrete oil paintings. Initially, you get the feeling that you
could break a hundred rules, but you won’t know until the maître d’ taps you on
the shoulder and says sotto voce, “Not here, Sir.” But it’s not stuffy or
toffee-nosed, and you soon relax. Dress appropriately, don’t complain about the
lack of vegan options, don’t bring your wailing child and enjoy yourself. Yes,
waiters’ collars are starched, and the white tablecloths are freshly ironed.
Carving trolleys are wheeled out from Victorian times between tables. Yet I
must emphasize that it is not burdened with snobbery. Yes, it’s posh, but
Wilton’s doesn’t look down on you, even plebes from Essex like yours truly. The
staff is relaxed, friendly and chatty. They make you feel welcome. It’s a
restaurant, not a temple.
menu is probably how you imagine. It’s not a place where you expect exotic
ingredients, colorful foams and eye-popping presentation. I suspect that the menu
has hardly changed since Victorian times, and thank God for that. Wilton’s menu
offers simple, classic English dishes with a strong seafood slant, expertly
sourced and executed, delivered to your table with a soupçon of fanfare and
were comprised of potted shrimp and langoustines. It was little more than that.
Did they taste awesome? Of course, they did. We also ordered Secret Smokehouse
‘London Cure’ Scottish Trout, Secret Smokehouse being one of London’s finest
fish curers. The trout outstanding in purity and texture, dead simple, deadly
New season grouse with bacon and trimmings, peas and pea purée.
main course was grouse, that if I recall, had been shot in Yorkshire. We were given
the choice of eating off the bone or filleted. I chose the latter, which necessitated
a bit of what I call “game bird autopsy,” prizing every morsel from its
skeleton. The sauce is poured separately by the waiter, and mine was chaperoned
by possibly the finest bowl of peas in the world. Would I describe it as the
best grouse I have ever eaten? It was close. But it was certainly perfectly
cooked and utterly delicious. In fact, it was so delicious and filling that I
had no call for dessert.
esteemed restaurant and game bird demanded esteemed wines, and Lord Bruce
suggested that he raid his cellar to serve three of Guigal’s “La Las” so that
we could compare and contrast. We warmed up with a white Burgundy from one of
my favorite producers. The 2019 Chassagne-Montrachet Les Caillerets 1er Cru from
Domaine Marc Colin has such a pretty nose with honeysuckle and orange pith,
unfolding nicely over 30 minutes, revealing light grapefruit aromas. The palate
displays fine balance with a crisp line of acidity. Admirable weight and
density, notes of wild peach and stem appear towards the finish. I suspect it
needs more time for the mineralité to become more evident, but this is
undeniably very tempting in its youth.
the main event, a comparison of Etienne Guigal’s single-vineyard
Côte-Rôtie from the 1991 vintage. It is not the first time that I have tasted
these. A sign of the times that was over 20 years ago, inserted blind in a 1991
horizontal for the sadly defunct “Wine” magazine. The joy was not just being able
to compare them side-by-side but also over the course of the entire lunch,
which on this occasion extended to three or four hours once we had put the
world to right.
Côte-Rôtie La Landonne has a stunning nose with superb definition, scents
of black plum, sloes, iodine and Provençal herbs (sage and wild fennel). It
blossoms with aeration. The palate is framed by saturated tannins, layers of
sweet black cherries mingling with kirsch, vanilla pod and Indian spices.
Though plush, it develops more and more elegance with aeration, even if it
never quite matches La Mouline's complexity. The 1991 Côte-Rôtie La Mouline
is more exotic on the nose than the La Landonne, leaning more towards red fruit
with traces of lavender, inkwell and curry leaf. Where it really comes into its
own is in terms of structure, as if borrowing the tannins from a Richebourg,
exerting more grip with immense depth and mineralité on the finish. It
coheres magnificently with aeration and clearly possesses the most sapidity of
the three single vineyards. Magical. The 1991 Côte-Rôtie La Turque comes
across as more evolved and savory on the nose than La Mouline and La Landonne,
with hints of black truffle shavings and roasted chestnut. Maybe there is a
little more VA here? The palate is powerful and glossy, sumptuous and
unapologetically sexy. Velvety in texture with blue fruit on its lush finish,
this is a Côte-Rôtie that wants to flaunt itself.
three Côte-Rôties were thoroughly enjoyable. But we all agreed on one
thing…they are all too young. Even now, over three decades old, they remain
precocious young things and the new oak lavished upon them is not completely
subsumed, preventing you from really digging down into the terroir. These will
manifest more secondary aromas and flavors, but not quite yet. This was put
into sharp relief just a few hours later when a friend opened a 1978 La Mouline
that you could argue was just reaching its peak. Guigal’s La La’s are made for
long-term cellaring, inter-generational wines mandating decades of patience
rather than years.
asking for the restaurant to be added to the bill?
delivered. It’s not London’s trendiest restaurant. It predates Michelin stars
and will probably outlive them. Wilton’s is the epitome of a gastronomic
institution whose immutability is its strength, not a weakness. No, it is not inexpensive.
I suspect that some might claim it is over-priced. But they would be missing
the point. You pay for dining in a piece of London’s history, perhaps sitting
at the same table as royalty or political giants that covet its central
location and off-grid ambiance. If you are visiting from overseas or just fancy
a slice of old-school English decadence or want to travel back in time, then dust
off your suit and tie or put on a fancy dress, go and enjoy Wilton’s.
depart, as my friend orders a Wilton’s necktie, Lord Bruce is found in deep
conversation at the bar. I wonder…he’s not asking for the restaurant to be
added to his bill, is he?
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