Marco Pierre White at Wheeler’s of St.James’s

New Dabbler addition Luke Honey writes about food, drink and the finer things in life over at his blog The Greasy Spoon.Today we take a trip to the revamped Wheeler’s, one of London’s most established fish restaurants, where Luke is wondering about the decorum of the decor…

I had been looking forward to eating at the new Wheeler’s for months. The old Wheeler’s was an established fish restaurant (beloved by many) but in latter days a chain, which died a slow death after it decided to serve up pre-cooked dishes, manufactured in a warehouse somewhere, delivered by White Van Man and then re-heated in the restaurant kitchens. Marco Pierre White launched the new brand in 2009 in a joint enterprise with Sir Rocco Forte of hotel fame. The new Wheeler’s incidentally, is on the site of the old Madame Prunier’s fish restaurant in St James’s Street.

Now I happen to have my golden Fauntleroy locks shorn next door at a vast expense, and over the last year or so, had often sauntered past Wheeler’s of St James’s. It looked dreadfully smart from the outside, and dreadfully expensive. It turned out that I was to be utterly wrong on the first count, and utterly correct on the second.

A few weeks ago, Mrs Aitch very kindly decided to treat me to dinner for my birthday. We decided to head for Wheeler’s. The front of the restaurant looks promising- a tiled, fin de siècle style oyster restaurant of the old school, albeit empty; although our faces were to fall when we led into the main restaurant: a cavernous hanger, painted in a shiny red gloss (worthy of a tart’s boudoir or a 70’s Strikes 1926 burger joint), uncomfortable black lacquered cane seated cafe chairs, and decorated with semi-pornographic Bob Carlos Clarke photographs, of gigantious proportion. Look, heavens, I’m no prude, but there’s a time and a place for everything, and I have to admit that I found the prints utterly distracting. There I was supposed to be looking at the lovely Mrs Aitch, but instead, found my eyes drifting towards nubile derrières, clad in oh-so kinky, skin-tight shiny black rubber.

I suppose the two big celebrity chefs of recent years have been Marco Pierre White and Gordon Ramsay. Rock n’ Roll Aristocracy versus Footballer’s Wives. Of the two styles, I infinitely prefer the former: all Wiltshire long barrows, covert coats with velvet collars and Bristol motor cars. And St James’s is very much my sort of place. There’s that endlessly fascinating warren which is the London Library, the understated Budd of Piccadilly Arcade (where you can buy those knitted silk Mad Men ties and super smooth pajamas), Christie’s in King Street, that slightly naff bronze statue of Beau Brummell in Jermyn Street, the impeccable shoe and shirtmaker, New & Lingwood and probably the greatest bookshop in London (and quite possibly the world), Hatchards, where, under the addiction of some form of bibliomaniacal crack-cocaine, I  have spent my inheritance over the last twenty years.

The potted brown shrimps were good. Mrs A thought her smoked eel a trifle bland, and her Halibut Provençal “passionless” (her words). My halibut was reasonable, if a trifle dry. The caulifower cheese was fine, and the braised red cabbage, excellent. We ordered the Gavi de Gavi and were told by the sommelier that it wasn’t cold enough, and that they wouldn’t recommend it. I found this slightly annoying. Why have a wine on the list, if you’re incapable of selling it?  Am I being unfair?  But service was fine, and the sommelier was charming- a substitute Italian white was conjured up immediately at the same price.

The restaurant was more or less empty apart from an odd looking clientele. To our left, a silver-haired military type (in dubious regimental tie) entertained a svelte gentleman with a David Niven moustache (possibly Nigerean?). They moved tables to be out of ear-shot. Were they planning a parachute drop on the former Nyasaland? Otherwise, there were some nonagenarian Teutons with bulbous girths, reminiscent of Baron Bombast in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. And a sprinkling of goofy-looking American tourists. Swinging London it wasn’t.

It was all a terrific shame. It wasn’t bad, but it wasn’t especially good, and for the money Scott’s or J. Sheekey would have been a better choice. And Mein Gott, Wheeler’s was expensive. Jaw-droppingly expensive. It came to £162 for the two of us. This didn’t include a pudding, and we stuck to the less expensive items on the menu. Dressed Cornish Crab with sauce mayonnaise cost £15.50, Wheeler’s Classic Fish Pie is £15.50, and Terrine of Foie Gras is £14.50. Mrs Aitch found it all a bit formulaic, and I think she is right: I’m not entirely convinced that Marco has had much to do with the restaurant, apart from lending his name to the enterprise and dropping by to say “hello” from time to time. Four and a half out of ten. Sorry.

Wheeler’s of St James’s, 72-73 St James’s Street, London SW1A 1PH (020 7836 651)

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17 thoughts on “Marco Pierre White at Wheeler’s of St.James’s

  1. Gaw
    March 1, 2012 at 08:02

    Can anyone recommend a London seafood restaurant with reasonable prices and which isn’t up itself? London seems to lag other major cities in this area. The Loch Fyne and Livebait chains have really gone off since their early years, at least in my experience and that of friends. I recently spent an evening gorging at the Oyster Bar at NY’s Grand Central Station. Not cheap but wonderful value, not least for the surroundings and brisk but friendly service (I sat at one of the barstools). If only…

      March 1, 2012 at 09:57

      Isn’t the Grand Central Oyster bar fabulous? The old Criterion restaurant in Piccadilly Circus had/has similar Byzantine mosaics- but haven’t been there for years- not even sure if it still exists. I suppose the whole bustling seafood joint is very much an East Coast American tradition…

      March 1, 2012 at 10:17

      I’ve been thinking about this. The bustling seafood brasserie thing isn’t really part of our culture. To eat decent fish, I think you need to visit places like Whitstable. One new find I would recommend one hundred percent is Le Petit Poisson in Herne Bay. It’s relatively easy to get to from London, has truly wonderful fish at very affordable prices and professional service of a high standard. I’ve reviewed it on The Greasy Spoon:

      • Worm
        March 1, 2012 at 12:32

        Wheelers in Whitstable (the original one!) has a cool downstairs oyster bar at decent prices.

      • Gaw
        March 1, 2012 at 17:33

        Thanks for the reco and the great review.

        I do love the shacks at the business end of Whitstable. I tend to get through a shamefully large number of wooden forks and polystyrene trays.

          March 2, 2012 at 10:26

          Couldn’t agree more. There is something curiously romantic about the sheds at Whitstable…standing on the wet concrete floor in your gumboots eating oysters from those polystyrene trays, the plastic spoons, the smell of fresh fish…reckon I’ve had probably some of the best oysters there, ever…

      March 1, 2012 at 11:45

      Thirty, even twenty years ago Manzi’s off Leicester Square filled the bill. It then degenerated to unpalatable levels (lit. and fig.). It reopened in the last few years but a brief overview of the Net only seems to bring up references to the defunct one. There ought surely to be some reviews of the reincarnation and it might be worth checking. But maybe that has failed too?
      Refs to the glories of the Grand Central Oyster Bar almost make me reconsider my vow never to set foot in the US again.
      My failure to visit Prunier – too young, too poor – is something with which I berate myself on an almost daily level.

      • Worm
        March 1, 2012 at 12:25

        my father always raves about the old Manzi’s

        March 2, 2012 at 10:35

        My father took me to the old Manzi’s (off Leicester Square) back in the 80’s. Sounds like this was a rights-of-passage thing, along with the legendary Peter Dorelli’s Dry Martinis at the Savoy American Bar. Having said that- he wasn’t too keen on Manzi’s- nothing to do with the quality of the restaurant; more to do with the lingering memory of a vist there back in the 60’s: apparently a diner sitting at the next table threw up all over the red and white checked tablecloth.

  2. Worm
    March 1, 2012 at 09:10

    Good question Gaw, I can’t think of any decently priced informal places in London, as far as I know it’s either fish and chips or full on restaurants like Scotts or J Sheekeys. There is an oyster bar at borough market called Wright Brothers

    I would recommend a brief trip out to Leigh on Sea, its only 40 mins on the train and there’s some great seafood restaurants like Simply Seafood or the Boatyard. A summer’s evening with a pint at the Crooked Billet looking out over the mudflat hulks and the canvey island oil refinery can be surprisingly lovely

    ian russell
    March 1, 2012 at 09:23

    “Mrs A thought her smoked eel a trifle bland, and her Halibut Provençal “passionless” ”

    Should’ve asked chef to bung in another Knorr stock cube.

  4. Worm
    March 1, 2012 at 09:38

    Is there any chef who has squandered their mythology more than Marco? He had this terrific rep as being wild and intense and being a ‘chef’s chef’. Then he disappeared for a while to go shooting and get divorced multiple times, but still maintained the reputation. Then he finally washed up on telly where it suddenly became obvious that he’s a bit of a mystic weirdo who wears silly turbans and makes bad adverts about stock cubes (that are obviously only agreed to in order to pay his various divorce settlements and child maintenance bills.)

      March 1, 2012 at 15:59

      My god the stock cube ads have been running over here. I’d thought it likely only over here so that nobody back home would see just what an utter whore he’s been reduced to. But no, multiple alimony seeming leaves no room for shame.

      • Brit
        March 2, 2012 at 00:08

        …Just ask John Cleese.

    March 1, 2012 at 09:59

    If only the world of food lacked pretentiousness, its end product would become palatable, even edible and affordable, Elizabeth David must be rotating in her oven.
    That other megacook, Blanc, the one with the French accent, has recently been mooching around his old stamping ground, kissing burds and drooling over tablecloths, genuflecting in the general direction of Michelin stars (the shortest route to a cash cow)

    March 7, 2012 at 19:53

    Popping my head in belatedly with a couple of London suggestions. Wright Brothers Soho is probably the best fit. It’s on Carnaby Street and it’s informal in that the staff are very cool (humble British diners may find themselves ignored. I tend to collar a waiter or waitress as soon asIi stride in) and you can perch at the bar and stare at the chefs as you eat your oysters. The bill can mount up, though they do have a set menu.

    The Fin and Flounder fishmongers in London’s trendy Hackney was running a fishy supperclub last year. They haven’t tweeted about it recently, but if they do run it then it’s worth going to. If they aren’t running it anytime soon, they they are worth going to for their potted shrimp, which is fantastic.

    I like having oysters at the Fox and Anchor in Smithfield, followed by a lovely big pie and a pint of beer in a pewter mug. It’s all lit by candles too, so you can be confident you look good as you tuck in.

    But, in general, we are a bit low on affordable seafood restaurants in London. We’re very suspicious of fish, in general. But if it’s expensive, then there must be something to be said for it, is how the thinking goes.

    • Gaw
      March 8, 2012 at 10:35

      Thanks Jassy. I’d never heard of Wright Bros and will be heading off there in the near future. Mention of Soho reminded me of Randall and Aubin, which I used to go to regularly. I can’t remember why I stopped.

      I’m keen to try the Fox and Anchor but the couple of evenings I’ve turned up it’s been full! Mid-week too. Must get there earlier.

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