55 Jermyn St

St. James's

London SW1Y 6LX


The Food:

Potted cold shrimp

Secret Smokehouse ‘London Cure’ Scottish Trout

New season grouse with bacon and trimmings, peas and pea purée

The Wines:

2019 Domaine Marc Colin Chassagne-Montrachet Caillerets 1er Cru    92
1991 E. Guigal Côte-Rôtie La Landonne 96
1991 E. Guigal Côte-Rôtie La Mouline 97
1991 E. Guigal Côte-Rôtie La Turque 93

What do Château Palmer and Wilton’s restaurant have in common?

A spontaneous decision.

Apropos 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 shall explain.

The Wilton's façade.

Wilton’s 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 fully-fledged restaurant 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.

The 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.

Hambro 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 and Hunan. Wilton’s was made for long, decadent wine-filled lunches where the outside world is barred from entering its doors.

Potted cold shrimp.

Wilton’s 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.

The 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 occasion. 

Starters 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 delicious.

New season grouse with bacon and trimmings, peas and pea purée.

Our 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.

Such an 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.

On to 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.

The 1991 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.

All 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.

Maybe asking for the restaurant to be added to the bill?

Wilton’s 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.

As we 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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