'O Solitude, if I must with thee dwell
Let it not be among the jumbled heap
Of murky buildings....' – John Keats
John Keats shared lodgings with his friend Henry Stephens on St. Thomas Street between 1815-16, while they were studying at Guy’s and St Thomas’ hospitals. The street takes its name from the hospital – named after St Thomas Becket, sometime after his canonisation in 1173 – which for over six centuries occupied ground where St Thomas’ church has stood since 1704. The oldest surviving surgical theatre in Europe survives in the garret at the top of the building, now a museum.
Duddell’s occupies St Thomas’ church, a grand old building built by Sir Christopher Wren’s master mason Thomas Cartwright, its Queen Anne architecture caught against the glowering shadow of The Shard – it’s an unlikely, beautiful setting for a restaurant.
Two Michelin star garlanded at their first restaurant in Hong Kong, arriving into a building wreathed in a rich history makes me immediately inwardly mutter: ‘Please don’t f**k this up’. It turns out that they haven’t – three visits confirm that it’s rather good.
There are shades of Hakkasan, echoes of Yauatcha, flickering throughout this premium menu (this is posh Chinese, with prices to match), which makes sense on discovering Head Chef Daren was previously Executive Chef with the Hakkasan Group.
A rat-a-tat-tat hammering of visits within a week revealed highlights of Peking Duck, its skin lacquered into ravishing crispness and carved tableside, skin to be dipped in fennel sugar, flesh wrapped with homemade pancakes and mandarin and sesame dressings; textbook prawn dumplings pass the 'Har Gau Test' (nowhere to hide here for a dim sum chef), crammed with sweet bouncy prawn, gossamer casings; glutinous rice with chicken in lotus leaf, generously filled; black pepper duck pumpkin dumplings, gentle pepper heat; prawn and crispy bean curd cheung fun, a playground of crunch and chew; a playful ‘Dim Sum Symphony’ of artfully crafted seafood dumplings (fishy shapes, little eyes) including king crab, scallop and prawn.
They are not dicking around with their chicken dishes, either, using the regal Poulet de Bresse in each plate of Cantonese soya chicken (poached and then smoked with jasmine tea leaf); crispy salted chicken (to gnaw and suck off the bones, the skin a joy; roasted pomegranate chicken a favourite of General Manager Xian Ming Chen. As someone who gets excited about a great chicken – yeah, sheltered life – this all gets a massive ‘high five’.
There’s every chance that Keats would have entered St Thomas’ church while studying here (a statue of him was installed in 2007 outside the hospital building across the road, within an alcove from the original London Bridge dating back to 1176), finding solace from an area he described as ‘a beastly place in dirt, turnings and windings’. In 1815 this part of Southwark was littered with dilapidated buildings, open ditches of waste, and frequented by thieves and prostitutes.
Duddell’s is already doing a fine job of giving this building, steeped as it is in the history of the area, a renewed relevance and resonance for this part of town.