2 Feb 2009

Between Buck. Palace and Piccadilly

FROM THE moment my taxi turned into the private road, ‘Dukes Hotel’ swathed me in calm luxury. A commissionaire opened the door into the classy, red brick building, cascaded in vividly scented flowers. A union jack, size of a bed-sheet, billowed above the slender Edwardian canopy. Opposite, the gas mantel of a lamppost glowed. The marble floor of the lobby is mahogany trimmed into squares and leads into a warren of deeply carpeted, creakingly reassuring spaces. A sculpture of a sausage dog stands squat beside pressed broadsheets.
It was my birthday (29). We had a lazy lunch before us, downstairs in the dining room, a bright collage of tangerine chairs, canary roses and slate grey, silk drapes. Interesting art glazes all walls here, as throughout. Three courses with fizz cost fewer than £20 (until we ordered more wine). The vinous highlight was a relaxed, barrel matured, wild-berry spiced ‘Cannonau’. The Sardinian native is quite possibly the Mediterranean’s oldest grape variety. This example was rusty red with a tenderly fading nose and a poised, savoury palate suggesting scorched earth and black bacon. The texture was at once rustic and velveteen.
My neatly prepared, lightly gamey guinea fowl was moist and compliant with the wine. I followed it with a fluffily cosseting but daringly spiced gingerbread soufflé. This was served with a birthday candle impaled like a tee in an utterly hedonistic, deep dollop of cream. A little girl, looking on, volunteered a birthday chorus, pausing at the point where we needed to fill-in the blank of my name.
Some hours on we headed to Dukes bar, an elegant but relaxed haven. Double doors were swung open onto a hush-hush space with jauntily fringed navy chairs. Banded lampshades cast warm pools of light onto darker framed drawings. An antique silver pail of iced ‘Gosset’, the trade’s Champagne of choice, hinted at decadent authorship beyond the cosiness.
Clubby rather than chic, Duke’s was gently updated a couple of years ago by Campbell Gray (of ‘One Alwych’ fame). Fit for a King – or even a well-presented pauper like me, the small bar has a big reputation. It is globally renowned by discerning dipsomaniacs for one thing above all - its superior martinis. According to Alessandro Palazzi, debonair, white jacketed, black tied, silver haired mixologist, “Mr. Fleming” coined the term ‘shaken, not stirred’ within these walls (although Palazzi prefers to stir rather than risk “bruising” the spirit).
A small operating tray arrived at our table. Into a frosted glass triangle Alessandro sprayed an atom of Lillet from a glinting, crystal atomiser, foreplay to the oily slug of faintly nutty Polish Potocki vodka poured from an ice-crusted bottle held at 28°. Finally came the twist, a long skin of unwaxed lemon from plump Amalfi coast fruit famed for its role in Limoncello. The result: blotter dry, gripping, balanced, but unbalancing and dangerously drinkable…
When I asked for an encore, I was gracefully cautioned about the drink’s power – an iron fist in a velvet glove – although I vetoed, ordering Ian Fleming’s Classic Vesper. The glass was rinsed with orange bitters and the Potocki joined by Beefeater’s triple-distilled ‘Crown Jewel’ (50p/c). I should have listened. Shortly after the final sapid sip, my speech spurred, then slurred…
‘Dukes Hotel’ - 35 St. James’s Place, London. SW1A 1NY. T. 020 7491 4840
Nearest Tube: Green Park
Dining Room at Dukes on Urbanspoon
As 'Fishworks' entered administration, one of my favourite capital destinations, Bentley’s (Swallow Street) rolled out an appetising deal: ½ dozen Maldon Rocks and nervy Muscadet for fewer than £10. I 'shelled out' a fortnight ago. A thoughtful feature of the counter is the rolling napkin rail provided at knee height...

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