Review: Sofitel St James offers character and chic in the heart of London
It doesn't need to be this good. Sofitel St James could get away with being a perfunctory sort of place, merely ticking boxes and doing the bare minimum. It's a couple of minutes down from Piccadilly Circus, just around the corner from Buckingham Palace in one direction and Trafalgar Square in the other, and in one of London' s most majestic locales. They could charge a lot more, offer a lot less and the punters would still flow steadily in.
But this is not a hotel that is merely content to cash in on its location. It has its own character and friendliness, a distinctive style and a personal touch that belies its corporate ownership and the building's history (an imposing, cavernous bank). It also happens to have one of the finest hotel restaurants in the neighbourhood.
Sofitel's Gallic identity is evident from the outset: guests are greeted with hearty bonjours, and there is an understated sense of style throughout. There are minty greens and earthy browns and appley reds. A lounge has a rather unexpected exuberance; otherwise there is a coolness but never a coldness.
Our room had touches of imagination that lifted it above the ordinary. Decorative vases and beautiful books adorn gracefully lit shelves; even the bathroom doors have a quiet grandeur. The television is certainly large enough but knows its place and does not dominate. The mattress, duvet and pillows are somewhere between marshmallows and clouds in their softness. All is done with thought and care.
There is little point in dwelling on what one can do during a stay at Sofitel St James. After all, it's right in the heart of one of the world's greatest cities. World-class theatre, world-class art, world-class architecture, world-class shopping, world-class cuisine, world-class parks - all are just a stroll away. But there is a pretty great time to be had even without leaving the hotel. For the virtuous, there are award-winning fitness facilities; for those seeking indulgence, there are skincare and beauty treatments; for those seeking decadence, there is the intimate and playful St James Bar.
But the real jewel here is its restaurant, Wild Honey St James. It has recently been awarded a Michelin star but it doesn't take a gourmet to know that this is a remarkable place. First off, it is plainly an ideal room in which to eat food: smart enough to feel special, informal enough to feel relaxed. Our dinner began with cocktails: a Wild Honey (Chase GB gin, Picon Biere, honey and lemon juice - aside from anything else, the most delicious cold remedy ever concocted) and a St James Punch (pineapple juice, apple juice, lime juice and orgeat syrup - more fun than many liquor-laced drinks).
Then there's the food. Chef Anthony Demetre is clearly some sort of sorcerer, packing more flavour into a square inch than most would manage across a banquet. Eating his food is like discovering new colours; you find you have tastebuds you never knew existed. My starter was salsify cooked in salted butter with a salad of Italian leaves and pear with - and here's where the genius comes in - Christian Parra black pudding, widely regarded as the best in the world. The result is a dish of seemingly infinite depth and height. My companion had fricassée of wild mushrooms with hazelnut sabayon; if fungus could ever fly, this is what it would taste like. My main course of Denbighshire Welsh lamb, January king cabbage, fresh sheep's ricotta and the restaurant's own wild honey (it's not just a name - it actually collects its own) similarly ran the gamut like a perfectly composed symphony, perfectly conducted: sharp, sweet, bitter, mellow, sometimes broad, sometimes pointed. Across the table, the Isle of Gigha halibut with grey shrimps, parsley and lemon Dieppoise, leeks and Charlotte potato was received with similar rapture, the acidity and creaminess dancing with rare grace.
My dessert of wild honey ice cream and Bermondsey raw honeycomb came with a warm honey and lemon Madeleine that should become a new reference point for lightness; it made air, feathers and the like seem heavy by comparison. I have long attested that the combination of lemon and sugar cannot be bettered, and here it was, in its ideal form. A blood orange sorbet with crisp wafer was likewise a delight for my companion, offering a bracing blast of intense citrus and ice. It all made for a meal that will live long in the memory, served by diligent, knowledgeable and personable staff, whose wine recommendations were faultless.
A peaceful and deep night's sleep was followed by breakfast of vibrant fare. An array of pastries, cereals and so on were available, but I contented myself with mixed berries on toasted sourdough with maple syrup, almonds and goat's curd, which took the edge of the sweetness. My companion's organic Scottish oat porridge with freeze dried raspberries and maple syrup was given an intriguing twist by the addition of coconut and dukkah spice.
And then it was time to say goodbye to a hotel that does what it does with warmth and elan. This is no bland, faceless, anonymous pit-stop, but a hotel that makes this part of London even better. Chapeau, indeed.
* Visit sofitelstjames.com to book.