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db Eats: J Sheekey

db’s Lucy Shaw heads to the star-studded grande dame of theatreland for crab bisque, smoked eel croquettes and a salt-licked white from Corsica.

The concept: Along with The Ivy, Scott’s and Le Caprice, J Sheekey remains one of London’s most beloved restaurants, the name alone conjuring images of old fashioned glamour and timeless charm.

It is also one of London’s oldest and longest running restaurants, having first opened its doors back in 1896 when Covent Garden stool holder Joseph Sheekey was given permission by Lord Sainsbury to open a restaurant in the heart of theatreland so long as he was willing to serve stellar seafood to Sainsbury and his theatre going chums.

Over 120 years on and J Sheekey continues to thrive within the Caprice Holdings stable – Chris Corbin and Jeremy King sold the site to Richard Caring in 1998.

Moroccan spiced tiger prawns with lemon yoghurt and pistachio

With a bowler-hatted doorman guarding the entrance, by night ‘Sheekeys’ attracts a constellation of stars, from Nicole Kidman and Colin Firth to Vanessa Redgrave, many of whom pop in while treading the boards on nearby stages, adding a dash of Hollywood glamour to proceedings.

The décor: With its wood panelling, tiled flooring, chocolate brown leather seats, and sultry soundtrack, the understated interiors ooze Victorian charm. Monochrome photographs of stars of the stage and screen line the walls.

There’s a timelessness about the place that’s hard to manufacture – it feels like it would serve as the perfect setting for a clandestine tryst in a Graham Greene novel.

Action in the more casual (and recently renamed) Atlantic Bar is focused around a large, horseshoe-shaped, marble-topped, swivel chair-lined bar, but we opted for the secrecy of one of the booths.

As part of the recent revamp, the restaurant’s fire engine red exterior has been repainted a vivid shade of aquamarine, which seems more in keeping with its aquatic theme.

The food: J Sheekey focuses on the jewels from the sea, from five different types of oysters and whole Devon crab to abundant fruits de mer platters cascading with prawns.

Last year the Atlantic Bar’s summer menu was illustrated by Roald Dahl’s go-to scribbler, Quentin Blake. This year the cartoons come courtesy of the aptly named Kipper Williams.

Among the dishes on the new coastal menu are seared Galician octopus with smoked paprika and capers; and fat, juicy, smoke-laced giant Moroccan spiced tiger prawns with lemon yoghurt and pistachio, which were both Moorish and moreish. The majority of the dishes are small in size and designed for sharing.

Arriving with high expectations, the quality of the food was surprisingly hit and miss. Among the hits was a rich, unctuous, luxurious crab bisque served with cream and a generous glug of Cognac, which perfectly captured the intense crabby flavour you hope for in a bisque.

Also on point were the smoked eel and ham croquettes, with their feather-light batter and punchy, salty flavouring, the smoke from the eel pirouetting around the palate like an Islay single malt. Less successful were the lobster and shrimp dumplings, which promised a lot but arrived cold.

The salmon sashimi was equally uneventful and the Vietnamese crab cakes with nuoc cham dressing lacked the refinement I’d expect from such a seafood institution.

Signature dishes: The crab bisque is unmissable, the whole Devon crab revered and Sheekey’s signature fish pie is every inch as buttery and comforting as you’d hope it to be.

The drinks: In a clever twist on the traditional menu format of listing wines by region, the coastal menu groups wines by ocean, from the Atlantic and Mediterranean to the Pacific, with a small number of drops available from the Agean Sea and the Indian Ocean.

A glass of crisp, fresh, mineral, salt-licked Porto Vechio from Domaine de Toraccia in Corsica proved an ideal apéritif, while the smoky notes in Ken Forrester’s Chenin Blanc Reserve harmonised with the smoked eel croquettes, and the buttery richness of my 2015 Au Bon Climat Chardonnay from Santa Barbara stood up to the might of the bisque.

Who to know: General manager Francesco Cappucci is charm personified.

Don’t leave without: Keeping an eye out for celebrity sightings, which are plentiful at this popular theatreland haunt.

Last word: While Sheekeys is undeniably glamourous and run with the slick precision of a luxury yacht – all of the staff have gone to charm school and fall over themselves to be accommodating – I expected more from the food and fear the restaurant may be slightly resting on its laurels and relying on both its reputation and repeat business from regulars to stay afloat.

With so much competition from seriously impressive new players in central London, this elegant grande dame needs to keep innovating and fine tuning its menu in order not only to live up to its name, but to surpass expectations.

J Sheekey, 28-32 St Martin’s Court, London WC2N 4AL; Tel: +44 (0)20 7240 256

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