Smith & Whistle review: London restaurant does a mean butter chicken and fish and chips

Open to Piccadilly and the charms of Green Park, the restaurant offers an entry point to chef James Dugan's culinary portfolio

Dishes at Smith & Whistle lean towards the casual but are extremely well executed. Photo: Seven Media
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It is a short walk from the arcades that have provided London’s flaneurs with a historic shopping hunting ground. Hyde Park Corner and Park Lane are seconds away. Smith & Whistle at the Sheraton Grand Hotel Park Lane has to be one of the most accessible venues to experience the cuisine of a chef who has worked in Michelin-starred establishments for two decades.

James Dugan runs the hotel's signature Mercante, a modern Italian restaurant; the Palm Court where the art deco hotel offers afternoon tea; and, for a break from the formality, Smith & Whistle, which has an open-air terrace on the Piccadilly side of the hotel.

What to expect and where to sit

The banquettes of Smith & Whistle provide a cosy option to enjoy lunch, weekend get-togethers and dinner. There is a strong sports element to the venue. When I visited, there was a special menu themed around the Six Nations rugby tournament and dishes from each of the participant countries.

Five-star hotel service is on hand with professional and attentive at-table service that is quick and with staff ready to discuss any bespoke requests. The clientele is a mix of the Mayfair workforce from the financial institutions and other consultancies that typically operate from the area, plus international travellers.

The terrace is quiet, as would be typical on a midweek evening during a chilly winter spell. At other times of the week, the people-watching is a definite attraction.

The name Smith & Whistle is inspired by a comic series from the 1920s, which paired a Detective Inspector Smith, guardian against crime in upmarket Mayfair and beyond, against a nemesis, the international “socialite scoundrel” William Whistle. The twist being that the pair were both patrons of the Park Lane hotel. And would occasionally swap observations clandestinely there.

Facing inwards, the ambience is soft and mellow, set up for late-night jazz.

The menu

The full special menu seems perfect for a shared table, but there are no games on and my dining companion and I plump for the a la carte. With the advantage of the head chef at the table, we are able to choose some dishes that we would not have expected to order.

We start with a mix of small plates that provide the opportunity to graze ahead of some heartier main courses. The padron peppers (£9) glisten under the lighting and avoid the pitfalls that some kitchens fall into with this option. They are en-pointe scorched, not too greasy and have not collapsed into a shrivelled mass.

Alongside to provide some crunch with the conversation, we devour crispy and aromatic mini poppadoms.

The main course, which at our request is served as it comes, is a very British favourite that tastes of freshly caught ingredients and an imaginative reworking of ingredients of a well-known dish. Fish and chips (£19) have their role in the meal enhanced with a light batter.

For those who prefer an alternative approach there is also breaded cod 'n' chips. A not dissimilar offering is the katsu 'n' chips.

At the staff's recommendation, it was the butter chicken with light-as-a-feather jasmine rice (£27) that offered some star power. The sauce was ideally composed and the quality of the chicken meat noticeably top notch.

Stand-out dish

If the offerings so far tend towards the casual but extremely well executed, desserts were a step beyond the relaxed approach. Listed on the menu as loose ends, these were was anything but hashed-together sweet endings.

The spiced apple, Yorkshire rhubarb and macadamia nut crumble with vanilla creme Anglais (£8) was a riot in every mouthful without being demotic or hitting a wrong note. The dark chocolate and passion fruit mousse (£10) similarly worked at several levels of light and shade to make for a delicious and engaging dish to finish off.

A chat with the chef

Dugan talks with pride about his role as the master of the catering at a London grand hotel that hasn't joined the trend of outsourcing outlets within its domain.

The kitchens he runs therefore seek a uniform standard throughout. This can mean providing rapid and casual meals as well as multi-course offerings for hundreds of people in the ballroom at functions. Having attended one such gathering that featured Queen Camilla as guest of honour late last year, I can attest to the high standard of the food brought to the table on that occasion.

At Smith & Whistle, he sets out to ensure the dishes are built from the start. He likes to engineer food rather than rip up the menu and start again. In fact, the butter chicken was overhauled, having been pulled from the menu. That involved talking with a member of the kitchens from Mumbai about its authenticity and consulting with specialist suppliers for just the right elements of coriander and fennel seeds as well as selected chillies.

His own life journey has informed the fish and chips on offer. “I like my fresh fish and I have a nostalgic trigger with it. For me being a kid at home in Portsmouth, it's been my thing,” he says.

At the same time Dugan is committed to easy access that Smith & Whistle offers diners if they “want to take a break from the formal dining at Mercante or in the ballroom. It's your comfort food. If you want something a bit rich, grab the lobster roll or a burger, for example”.

And how does he explain those desserts holding their own so well? “The desserts are where we try different sorts of things and different places. So we did gelato carts in the summertime in Mercante and then we brought them down to Smith & Whistle and even got a cart out on the street.”

The dynamics between the fine-dining destination restaurant and its siblings are in constant evolution, according to Dugan. “If 20 years ago I'd said I'm going to do a shepherd's pie and a cottage pie in a Michelin-starred restaurant, I'd hate to think what would have been said about me,” he says. “Nowadays you can do these things because the food is moving in that direction, especially with the pop food and the concepts on offer here.”

Experimentation even in the large-scale banqueting operation, which can end up catering for royalty as well as trade associations' annual functions, is not off bounds. “We've done street food stations, with offers such as Indian street burgers made out of potato with an amazing umami of flavours that hit your palate,” he says.

Dugan prides himself on locally sourced products. “As much as we may source produce from Italy, the fundamentals of each restaurant here have to be British produce sourced within the British Isles.”

Price point and contact information

The seasonal Six Nations menu has main courses that are set at £16 (about $20). The a la carte menu has appetisers that range from £4 to £12, mains from £12 to £38, and desserts from £7 to £10.

Smith & Whistle is open from 4pm-11.30pm on Monday, noon-11pm on Sunday and from Tuesday to Thursday, and noon-1am on Friday and Saturday. Reservations can be made at smithandwhistle.com, opentable.co.uk or thefork.co.uk.

This review was conducted at the invitation of the restaurant

Updated: April 02, 2024, 5:18 AM