Christmas Day at The Athenaeum

I enjoy cooking, truly I do. But there’s something about cooking the most significant meal of the year that leaves me quaking in my shoes – not to mention the fact that my family are all committed carnivores, while I haven’t eaten meat for several decades. I don’t much fancy roasting a turkey (wouldn’t recognise one end from the other, to be honest) and they aren’t overly delighted with the prospect of a tofu bake.

A compromise has to be found and, luckily for us, we live in the gastronomic capital of the world (don’t all shout at once). Having enjoyed a wonderful dinner at The Athenaeum earlier in the year, I was inspired to book a table to sample its Christmas fare.

I had anticipated, when the time came, writing an all-encompassing post about the glories of this family-run, Mayfair-based hotel. One which described its recently-renovated rooms and the “proud heritage, British craftsmanship and Art Deco roots” described on the hotel’s website. Somehow, however, I got sidetracked by the food (hard to believe, I know).

What I will say is that The Athenaeum is beautifully designed and has the loveliest staff you could ever wish to meet. “You will not find a friendlier lot”, says fellow guest Charlie – and I concur.

What I will also say is that The Athenaeum, at 116 Piccadilly, began life in 1850 as Hope House – the home of MP Henry Hope, visited by none other than Charles Dickens, who commented on its “extravagant” interiors. Mr Hope himself was an unassuming character and committed patron of the arts: his prize collection of Old Masters made Hope House the home of one of Europe’s finest private art collections.

Alas, however, Henry Hope’s beloved daughter Henrietta married Henry Pelham-Clinton, 6th Duke of Newcastle – and an inveterate gambler. When he died, aged just 45, Henrietta sold Hope House to the fashionable Junior Athenaeum Club, as a way of paying off her husband’s debts.

This was the Victorian era, when gentlemen’s clubs were all the rage – and “the Junior Athenaeum soared in popularity as it entertained the great and good of London”. Numerous MPs and Lords passed through its doors – particularly those connected with literature, science and art.

All good things must come to an end and during the 1930s the Club disbanded and was transformed into a luxurious Art Deco apartment block. Four decades later, The Athenaeum and neighbouring Victorian townhouses were purchased by The Rank Organisation, which renovated the apartments into an iconic hotel which could accommodate its film stars whenever they were filming in London.

Many memorable moments have occurred here, plenty featuring the hotel’s legendary executive manager, Sally Bulloch, who used to drink champagne with Elizabeth Taylor – and once scolded Russell Crowe for leaving his room untidy. Oh to have been a fly on the wall for that conversation.

Yes, yes, I hear you cry: but what is the food like? Well…

I do love a canapé and was excited by all of ours: Yellow fin Tuna with Yuzu Mayonnaise & Coriander, Colchester Oyster with Nduja and Winter Truffle Arancini. These were accompanied by a glass of Ayala brut champagne: what a great way to get the festivities underway. My favourite was the Tuna: not usually my favourite fish, these razor-sharp slices melted into the mouth. The Oyster looked pretty, but its Nduja accompaniment made it suitable only for meat-eaters – and the Truffled Arancini, whilst tasty, lacked potency.

Our starters, though, definitely delivered the wow factor. My Velouté of Jerusalem Artichoke, accompanied by Black Truffle and Brioche, was divine: velvety and addictive. So delicious was the Brioche that I had to put it to one side, knowing that there were three more courses to come.

The Pressé of Quail, Potato and Foie Gras with Bramley Apple Pureé and the Home-Cured Loch Duart Salmon with Portland Crab, Avocado and Ruby Grapefruit were equally well-received. As mentioned previously, I don’t eat meat, but could easily appreciate the blend of flavours and colours evinced by the Quail – and only said not to the Salmon because I knew I’d be tucking into fish for my main course.

I’d like to say that after we finished our starters we ignored the loaf of sourdough bread that reposed, glistening, in front of us – but I would be lying. Look, if you can’t enjoy carbs on Christmas Day, when can you?

When my Poached North Coast Halibut with Warm Salad of Native Lobster arrived, I thought I’d died and gone to heaven. If someone asked me to describe my ideal dish, this would come pretty close. My dining companions had opted for the Cumbrian Beef Wellington with Braised Red Cabbage and Red Wine Jus, which they pronounced as “sumptuous”, although one of them did express an unfilled desire for some potatoes. This, however, was the only quibble of the day.

As for the Tawny Port Soaked Colsten Bassett Stilton with Grapes and Celery: words cannot express how divine that cheese tasted. I’m a Stilton fan anyway, but the Port lent it a lusciousness that ensured it will remain in the mind for a very long time to come.

Dessert proved the “pièce de résistance”. We all chose an alternative to Christmas Pudding, two of us plumping for the Iced Clementine Soufflé with Warm Valrhona Chocolate Sauce. I could write a book about that chocolate sauce alone – and yes, the iced soufflé was exquisite, acting as the perfect palate cleanser. The Rum Roasted Spiced Pineapple with Coconut Sorbet also went down a treat and proved nearly, although not quite, as picturesque as the soufflé.

If I sound highly contented, that’s because we were. I can’t overstate how good the food was – or how warm and convivial the atmosphere in the hotel. When I’d dined there previously, it was on a Friday evening and the ambience was more formal: nicely so, in a way that befits a classic venue such as The Athenaeum, but definitely more formal. Today, the hotel was aiming for a more familial, Christmassy atmosphere – and it succeeded. I would definitely return, at Christmas and at any other time of the year; this Christmas Lunch has been one of my highlights of 2018.

P.S. The people-watching aspect was great, too. We got to witness the couple seated next to us storming dramatically out of the restaurant – leaving behind them two untouched glasses of champagne. I mean: who does that on Christmas Day? Waste champagne, that is.

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