The Pem is tucked away at the back of the Conrad London St. James, a hotel by St James’s Park, which was briefly an Intercontinental before morphing into its current ownership. The name may conjure up images of clubland, Duke Street and expensive shirts on Jemyn Street, but this is the other side of St. James’s Park – nearer to the Palace of Westminster than White’s. More George Smiley than Beau Brummel.
The hotel is to be found opposite the gigantic, art deco, Orwellian leviathan that is 55 Broadway, formerly headquarters of Transport for London and now also to be turned into a hotel, and whose heft almost threatens to crush poor little St. James’s Park station that hides beneath it. Very handy for getting to The Pem in the rain though as it’s straight out, over the Pelican crossing and you are in.
It strikes me that this older, more serious London is apposite for a restaurant that has both serious pedigree and purpose. Head Chef is none other than Sally Abé, late of the Harwood Arms and the Ledbury. Pedigree simply does not come better than that. Most of the team are female, and in case the point has yet to register the restaurant is called The Pem as a salute to the suffragette martyr Emily Wilding Davison, whose nickname was Pem. For the act of keeping her name alive alone, this restaurant deserves your custom.
The dining room itself takes every advantage of the budget that top-end hotel chain can bring to a project: Dark red booths, tables well-spaced and intriguingly arranged, the requisite surfeit of mirrors and expensive art all combining to provide an atmosphere of power and luxury.
After Bollinger and canapes, we sat back ready to enjoy the exuberant Taste of the Pem menu. First up was Cumbrian rose veal tartare with button mushrooms, wild garlic capers and Exmoor caviar. The dish set the tone for the dinner – an assured touch of supporting ingredients brought together with precision to bring out the best in the principal star of the dish. The veal was exquisite and the flavour was enhanced best of all by the capers. Really expert cooking.
Next up was dressed Dorset crab with violino pumpkin, vadouvan and buttermilk. One of may favourite ingredients made decadent and luxurious. Then chestnut spätzle with St. Ewe rich yolk, black pudding and Wiltshire truffle. Oh my goodness. I love spätzle and this dish yanked them from their German roots into a proper British dish where blood and earth and egg combined in an almost childlike sense of the farmyard. Loved it, loved it.
Then finally of the savoury dishes Lake District Shorthorn & Porthilly oyster with roast sirloin, purple sprouting broccoli and mignonette. To my taste not as interesting as the previous dishes but I did, perhaps for the first time, appreciate how beef and oysters can work together, a combination to which I have been stubbornly resistant hitherto. To finish a lemon meringue with yoghurt sorbet, caramelised white chocolate and toasted hazelnut, which was far too perfect for me to do anything other than scrape every last morsel.
This is, as hoped, cooking of confidence and precision unrivalled on the Parliamentary side of the park, in a beautiful room with expert staff. Almost the definition of destination dining. It’s a tribute to the talent of Sally Abé and one which she repays many times over with the beautiful, delicious food, and at prices (£95 for the Taste of the Pem menu, to a two-course lunch menu for £35) that are more than reasonable for the quality on offer. There must be expense accounts across Westminster bracing for the onslaught, I just hope the politicians and civil servants don’t just keep The Pem to themselves.
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