In Midtown Manhattan, beneath the skyscraping behemoths that process and store the wealth of America, I’ve always had a soft spot for the parklife. Planning enforcement for public space where bushes and token gestures towards greenery give the impression that there might just be a little more air to breathe over a lunchtime sandwich. Sometimes there’s even a splash of art.
In the piecemeal landgrab development of London, not so much. Developers of luxury flats for oligarchs don’t really do public space. They do gates and doormen.
The mien is principally casual, ladies taking a break from shopping for cappuccino and selfies
But the new ‘St James Market’ , a £400million commercial precinct with architectural flourish and curvaceous lines, is as tony as anything to be found in New York, if a tad more compact. Until recently it was one of the scootiest little rat runs for black cabs, covertly connecting Haymarket to Lower Regent Street just south of Piccadilly Circus. Traffic Management has seen off most of these shortcuts (boo!) plus there’s more money to be made in office blocks and luxury shops than down dark alleyways. Honest.
At ground level, the public offering is a little piazza with added curiosity, a wood carved cabinet about the size and shape of a coffee stall or florist, a pavilion in which Stephen Fry tells the story of The Handsome Butcher of St James, a bawdy ballad from 300 years ago when all this really was a market. It “connects” with the past. One day all former high streets will have plaques and artistic interpretations commemorating where we used to shop. The nearest actual butcher to this installation was, until recently, Allens in Mount Street, Mayfair, now closed to make way for a Dean and Deluca coffee shop.
Overlooking this oddity are two exceptionally smart looking restaurants. Veneta, from the Salt Yard Group, which glints and shines unlike anything I’ve ever seen in Venice, and Aquavit, which resembles every restaurant I’ve seen in Stockholm, which is just as well as it’s kinda Swedish. It’s elder sibling earned two Michelin stars in New York, (now there’s one in Tokyo), and here tall glass windows afford passing shoppers glimpses of smorgasbrod being offered from breakfast through supper.
With bravado in these sober times smorgasbord and starters are paired with various aquavits
It’s not often restaurants get to inhabit brand new, custom built spaces, with wide stairs and lifts down to fetching facilities; generally they’re too busy polishing up the brass rails and blond wood, very much in evidence here, to conceal a former life of bank telling or car selling or something. The mien is principally casual, ladies taking a break from shopping for cappuccino and selfies, but there’s a full lunch and dinner operation which promises much.
With bravado in these sober times smorgasbord and starters are paired with various aquavits, the fiery Scandinavian spirit generally flavoured with dill or caraway. Miguel, our smooth sommelier, tells us that the venison tartare is best matched with Otagardsbrannvin which has notes of rosemary, thyme and lemon, and that a fragrant crown dill broth afloat with plump langoustines and smoked eel is enhanced by a small glass of Anderson Petronella bearing notes of cumin and apple. Miguel is from Barcelona and I’m British. Spirits with starters are not my natural home, nor his I suspect.
However, all was forgiven and forgotten at the mains, which I won hands down. The other side of the table chose a succulent best end of lamb, thick and pink as a Bash Street Kid, adorned with cabbage, lingonberries and a heavy pea puree, terrific. My turbot, a weighty square dressed with a sharp, lemony brown butter was astonishing, quite unlike all turbot I’ve had in living memory. I did that thing where you cut smaller and smaller slices to eke the pleasure out as long as possible. Turbot has a meaty demeanour at the best of times, but this was also light, flaky, and luscious. It came with a fiery mound of freshly grated horseradish (too hot for me) plus sides of almond fried potatoes (yum) and broccoli with smoked anchovy (yum yum). We chose a Navarro ganache and a Central Coast chardonnay and both ticked the boxes of aroma, taste and alcoholic restraint.
I’d had sharp pickled vegetables to start while waiting, when the table top was neat and tidy, the butter (from Glastonbury) soft and sweet, the bread crusty and savoury. Elegant Swedish cutlery and modern silver accoutrements are more Skandium than Ikea. The furniture is of a thoughtful, comfortable design, soft leathers, warm woods, and smooth surfaces, the only woven texture being a wall-hanging, a strikingly modern tribute to the art of Scandinavian rug making which subtly catches the eye.
Outside, St James Market may be a slice of New York City masquerading as central London, but inside it’s smartly Swedish. I might even have another Aquavit. One day. C
Aquavit London, St James’s Market 1 Carlton Street, London SW1Y 4QQ
020-7024 9848; aquavitrestaurants.com