24 Dec 2008

Pulling Rank

‘Tiny in stature but large in personality, Sally Bulloch could often be seen lunching with Sir Denis Thatcher, Richard Dreyfus or Albert Finney, or enjoying Champagne with Joan Collins, Dionne Warwick or Marti Pellow. Michæl Douglas once remarked: “Knowing Sally Bulloch is like getting your raincoat caught in a fast-departing roller-coaster…”’
[Daily Telegraph]
‘The Athenæum’ is a gracious, feminine, family owned five star hotel overlooking Green Park. It has a well-qualified reputation for courting the stars. The Rank Organisation bought it in the 70’s, exploiting links with Tinseltown so successfully that the ‘Hollywood Reporter’ noted ‘…there were more movie stars to be seen in the Athenæum than the Polo Lounge of the Beverly Hills Hotel…’ Child actress turned Executive Manager and “fixer”, Sally Bulloch helped stroke this ranking by recruiting ‘resting’ actors to front of house roles.
It must have been great fun in those glitzy days: glamour, gossip and free flowing bubbles. Five years following Bulloch’s departure, on a crisp December afternoon, my breath condensing, I found a cosy haven rather than an artiste’s clubbyhole.
In culinary terms, it is the hotel’s tea ritual that pulls the plaudits, indeed the U.K. Guild awarded it ‘Top London Afternoon Tea ‘08. Rather than indulge in colourful macaroons, I was in the mood for something more substantial that chilly lunchtime, however. Undeterred (maybe even spurred) by Michæl Winner’s review entitled ‘the worst meal of my life’, I headed to the restaurant, ‘Damask’ (formerly ‘Bulloch’s’). A line of tall, tactile banquettes scattered with silk cushions snakes the centre of the room. Tabletops are a kind of découpage of real onionskins. Pillars are made of buttons. A kitsch formica cabinet looks like it was salvaged from a car boot sale. Origami flowers are made of newspaper. A couth, gently lit whisky room ajoins, appetisingly equipped…
The broadly British menu opens with a well-worn but still amusing Orson Welles quote: ‘My doctor told me to stop having intimate dinners for four. Unless there are three other people.’
For (as is written) ‘First Things First’ I enjoyed excavating plentiful, fleshy bivalves from mussel and delicately scented saffron broth. Custard coloured, it tasted like metallic honey. My companion’s carpaccio of oak smoked venison with cranberry compote and nest of fresh cress had actually been briefly cooked, which rather undoes the description. It was tender, seriously tasty meat, however, and the clementine flavoured cranberry did more than use up leftover ingredients from the Norfolk turkey (manœuvred around to other diners on a big silver cart).
‘The Main Act’: meaty Cod Steak wrapped in Smoked Bacon with Creamed Leeks, Crisp Potatoes and Chive Butter Sauce. I have frequently prepared this ‘Act’ at home, applying an almost indecent amount of versatile vermouth, Noilly Prat to the sauce. This version was certainly no worse than mine: thick, crispy bacon insulating moist fish with almost game chips and lovely, comforting leek barks. I mopped the simple sauce with excellent warm bread.
The Spiced Crème Caramel with Cider Stewed Plums was (as advertised) ‘Delectably Delicious’. Two sweet islands swum in a rich, soothing alcoholic sauce, separated by a dark sprig of mint. Homemade clotted cream ice cream with white and dark chocolate straws, was grand and voluptuous.
A glass of sleek, five puttonyos Tokaji followed. This luscious kumquat and caramel scented elixir came from the legendary Oremus vineyard (revitalised 15 years ago by the minds behind Ribera del Duero, 'Vega Sicilia'). Glycerous, mouth-watering, and made with a certain lightness of touch.
At £25.50, three courses cost less then adopting an otter (and certainly provided more pleasure). This included fresh mint tea, poured from stout silverware into elegant bone china, and filo mince pies. If I must be critical, the latter were a little pathetic: a duo of crusty twee smudges. We also gleaned flutes of reasonable Champagne by booking through Top Table. Abnormally, no automatic service charge was mounted.
Despite a lavish refurbishment, it feels like the luminaries checked out of The Athenæum long ago, drawn like fireflies to the marble splendour of the grand café at 160 Piccadilly (with its reassuring ‘no photographs’ policy). Nonetheless, Sally Bulloch’s presence is still palpable: her obituary is framed in polished silver in reception.
Maybe the new year will bring a new stage manager to ‘catch another raincoat’?
Wishing a deliciously happy, stylishly marinated Christmas to my readers…
'Damask' at the The Athenæum - 116 Piccadilly, Mayfair, London. W1J. T. 020 7499 3464
Nearest Tube: Green Park
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