August 8th, 2009


St. James Restaurant at Fortnum and Mason

Location: 181 Piccadilly, south side, near Piccadilly Circus. London.

Last night, we went to see the musical Oliver. In the number "Who will buy", there was a green-curtained handcart, prominently advertising Fortnum and Mason, complete with color-coded messengers and boxes. It was the only product placement I noticed which didn't come built into the lyrics (i.e. Claridges).

We saw a lot more of that distinctive shade of turqoisey green today when we met taldragon, lazyknight, and daisho for afternoon tea at the St. James Restaurant on the fourth floor of Fortnum and Mason itself. (This wasn't us acting on the advertising; it was a coincidence.) Chair upholstery. China. Walls. More of those iconic boxes. The space was tasteful, large, and sensible: lavish displays of white orchids branching from large vases proved dusty imitations at closer look. The ceiling trim was lovely. Tables were well-spaced so that no other conversations intruded on our own.

Afternoon tea is effecient without being rushed. No grand production was made of service, but with only a little additional prompting, all teas went to the correct person, and refills on tea, scones, and sandwiches were offered when we neared the end of each. Equally, the staff let us loiter for hours into the early evening without dislodging or rushing us. I've read that refills of afternoon tea nibbles are regularly offered at venues around the capital, but this is the first time I've encountered it in such abundance.

The sandwiches were nicely done, fresh, a different, distinctly, lightly flavored bread for each of four finger sandwiches, with tasteful fillings: salmon, ham, egg salad, cucumber. The scones were small and tidy, the chocolate petit four nicely chocolately, and the pastry crisp on the raspberry cup. A minor square of salmon "terrine" and a little cup of warm creamed potatoes were almost an afterthought, tucked around the edges of the sandwiches. The food was superb, technically, and yet - and yet - much as I love afternoon tea, I wish more places did it with greater panache, less classical and more flavor and intelligent innovation. The St. James Restaurant was, however, an excellent example of food and service done Right, the classical way, and much more Right than most.