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What's the deal?

What's the deal?
Shepherd's pie is one of the classics on the menu

For most, the idea of dining like a Victorian holds little appeal. Though the era’s upper-crust got a lot of things right about eating – post-meal naps were common, for example – they also ate things like spinach ice cream (boiled spinach folded into custard) and brain balls (what it sounds like). But Charles Elmé Francatelli wasn’t about the kookier side of Victorian dining – he was a British chef of Italian extraction who arguably became one of the celebrity chefs after the publication of his book, The Modern Cook. Having trained in France under the legendary Antonin Carême, his 1846 opus brought more complex Italian and French techniques into British kitchens. Despite his propensity for a vol-au-vent and his time spent as Queen Victoria’s private chef, Francatelli was a culinary economist at heart, espousing two courses rather than the traditional seven preferred by the bourgeoisie, and later publishing a more frugal cooking manual aimed at the working classes.

Why are we talking about a man who was cooking bechamel 200 years ago? He’s the inspiration behind chef William Drabble’s new venture in the swank St James’s Hotel and Club. The restaurant – fittingly named Francatelli – and is an ode to Drabble’s culinary idol and a paean to classic British cooking. Drabble needed a hero at this point in his career: until recently, he was head chef at Seven Park Place, the St James’s old restaurant which lost its Michelin star while under his stewardship. It was a devastating blow, especially given that Drabble first earned the restaurant its star and helped retain it for 24 years. So it’s no wonder that, at a career low, he’d turn towards his first role models for inspiration.

And, as many do in times of strife, Drabble decided to go back to the basics, returning to those classic British comfort foods championed by Francatelli. You’ll find homespun delicacies popular in the Victorian era like shepherd's pie and a rump of glazed ham – here with a decadent foie gras gravy rather than the Cumberland sauce customarily enjoyed by the 1800s. But there are also those continental dishes that were ushered into Britain by Francatelli: open ravioli smeared with lemony feta and summer vegetables, tarte tatin a la mode. There’s an a la carte menu as well as a tasting option – six courses for £65 – and a rather good-value set lunch (£25 for two courses, £30 for three). 

The St James’s is a fitting space for the whole endeavour, given that it was itself established in the Victorian era (1857). Hidden away down an unassuming cul-de-sac in glitzy Mayfair, the facade is impressive – fat marble columns and red-carpeted steps lead you to the entrance; inside the dining room, however, things take a turn for the 90s, where chinoiserie wallpaper and geometric carpets telegraph that the restaurant is due for a facelift. Putting the aesthetic missteps aside, the food is admirable for what it accomplishes: a time-capsule meal that manages to feel nostalgic not just because most of the dishes are 200 years old, but because their familiar flavours are what birthed modern British cookery. A crunchy side of potatoes or fatty slices of ham will light up diners’ hippocampi, recalling boozed-up Christmas dinners made ever more vivid as you make your way through their elegant wine list. It’s an intimate, personal tribute to one chef’s culinary hero, and a fascinating window into an oft-misunderstood period in Britain’s culinary history. Don’t expect fireworks; instead, come for heart, soul, and not a whiff of spinach ice cream.

What should I eat?

What should I eat?
The tarte tatin is the best thing on the menu

Artichoke beignets might sound relatively odd, but these batter-coated half-moon artichoke pieces resemble the sugar-coated desserts in name only. They are closer to a tempura in spirit – light, filigree, and served alongside a daffodil-yellow honey mustard dip.

The familiar comforts of a slow-cooked chicken are lent a bit of intrigue with a sherry jus and earthy morells. For veggies, the pithivier – an island of puff pastry in a pool of salty gravy, scattered with pieces of root vegetable – is delicately constructed and overflowing with a festive filling. 

The tarte tatin is to French people what apple pie is to Americans: a national treasure and the ultimate home comfort. And Francatelli’s version is worthy of being so vaunted, with its Glossier-shiny, caramelised top layer; crisp puff pastry underlayer; and gloopy caramel sauce, served in a generously-portioned mini-jug. 

Why should I go?

Why should I go?
Francatelli is in a snug corner of the St James's Hotel

For a time-capsule meal that strikes a nostalgic nerve.  

7-8 Park Pl, St. James's, London SW1A 1LS