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Sober Life
by Sinclair Newton



Sober Life

Christmas is coming and all our correspondents are scattered across the globe from Ibiza to Australia and New York and I’m here in Meadow Lane and so I thought I should write about a quintessentially English hotel this week, and if it has an Oriental-sounding name, so much the better.

In fact the Mandarin Oriental Hyde Park, London, was famous for nearly a century when it was simply The Hyde Park Hotel. It’s smack in the middle of Knightsbridge and my room faced my favourite grocer’s shop, Harvey Nicholls, where you can still get the best celery salt in the world, I am pleased to report.

I had been invited to London to speak at a conference on what the government should be doing about alcohol abuse and so I had to decline the free bottle of fancy French wine they had left in my sumptuous room and I didn’t dare open the mini bar because I once stayed in a hotel like this and it registered on the hotel computer if you so much as took a little bottle out just to have a look at it. And I felt obliged to take the hand-made chocolates home for my Mum, so that didn’t leave a lot apart from the pristine, but rather stiff, white dressing gowns. Mind you, there were pure Irish linen sheets on the king-size bed and cotton duvet covers from Italy and you could choose what kind of pillows you wanted (i.e., fluffy, duck down, or presumably lumpy ones). There was a fresh orchid growing in a pot and it reminded me of a friend of mine who once stayed at a health farm and ate the flower they left on his pillow because he was starving. I chose not to nibble the orchid

I felt like a poor little rich boy and consoled myself with a self-inflicted pedicure, using all the Jo Malone bathroom unguents and nail files and oh-so-soft balls of cotton wool to stuff between my toes. I felt like one of the film stars pictured in the corridors who had no doubt spent their lonely evenings playing with all the luxuries only a hotel like this can provide.

I did order a pot of tea from room service (it cost about ten Euros), but it came with delightful biscuits on a Wedgwood china plate and I wish I had one of those plates now, never mind the memory of the delicious biscuits. Now I felt like a little boy let loose in a toyshop, whereas I was merely a travelling lecturer being put up in a hotel.

It was three in the morning yet the tea came in a minute and they took my shoes away and cleaned them whilst they were about it. The service is as immaculate as you’d expect for a hotel room costing about five hundred Euros, but it’s all done with unctuous style. There’s even a guest floor manager on every floor to cater to your every whim, but I passed on most of mine. The CD player and CNN on the telly were quite enough, but then I was going for dinner down the white marble staircase.

Foliage is the Michelin-starred restaurant down there and there’s a leaf picked from Hyde Park that day decorating your stylish plates. I’ve kept mine (the leaf, not the plate, though I wouldn’t object if they sent me one) and now I don’t know where to put it. Perhaps I’ll have it framed. It was dark outside so I couldn’t tell, but apparently I had a view of Hyde Park. This palatial hotel has been a meeting place for celebrated statesmen and where Princes and Princesses, Maharajas and Sultans, Presidents and Prime Ministers have been frequent guests and I still hadn’t written my speech for the following morning.

And just by the by, members of the Royal Family have been frequent guests and it is where Her Majesty the Queen and Princess Margaret first learned to dance. They have always had their own separate entrance to the hotel from across the park and it’s where Prince Philip held his après polo cocktail parties as well as often taking the young Prince Charles and Princess Anne for tea.

Here’s the set “Tasting Menu” for a fixed £50:

Roast scallops salad, caramelised cauliflower beignet and pannacotta with aged balsamic dressing.

Caramelised endive tart tatin (sic), pan fried foie gras, hazelnut croustillant.

Pan-fried fillet of turbot, buttered leeks, mussels and clam mariniere.

Herb crusted fillet of lamb, cannelloni of sweetbread and morels, crushed cocoa bean salad, jus gras.

Hot Cuban chocolate fondant, black cherry ice cream and biscuit.

I supposed it couldn’t be bettered, but the chef added a couple more dishes anyway. There was an asparagus risotto with white truffle, I thought was a bit salty and to start three little glasses of intensely flavoured broths (lobster bisque, I think, foie gras mousse and what the waiter said was a lettuce veloute, but I think had something to do with mushrooms. They were enchanting and must have taken hours to prepare. I was just nipping down after cutting my toenails after all and thought it was sublime.

Had I been a drinking Sultan, I could have tried the 1980 Dom Perignon for £245 from what can only be described as the Mandarin Oriental Wine Library, but I noted there was a 2000 Chateau au Tours des gendres sec called Bergerac for £19.50 and a glass of Chablis was a snip at £8. Just in case you feel left out, the restaurants and stylish bar are linked with a walkway of wine, each cellar containing more than 2,500 bottles.

Have I told you about the baby vegetables? Now and again, tiny but perfectly formed carrots would nestle alongside the lamb, or other flavours would nip in like a passing Princess or two. Here a truffle, there a glazed endive… you get the culinary picture. I hadn’t eaten in such style since the Ibiza History Culture annual bash in Riax Baxias in San Antonio and I don’t know which of the two establishments should be prouder than the other being mentioned in the same garlickless breath.

The executive chef is David Nicholls who has been around and includes Chef at the Ritz in his c.v. I think it was him who came out to greet me, but I was up to my eyes in pink, herb-crusted lamb and the odd fried lump of foie gras at the time and I don’t think I was very communicative. So I hope he’ll forgive me.

But by now I was becoming suffused with service from the charming German waitress. What’s more, should even one reader write to me and complain about this excess of pageantry and gluttony, I will devote the entire column next week to the pudding sequence involving a violet sorbet, raspberry soufflé and something with chocolate dice.

I heard on the news tonight that London’s population is set to increase by some 700,000 in the next fifteen years, but I don’t think they’ll all be going for dinner at the Mandarin Oriental and I feel privileged to have been there.

Mandarin Oriental Hotel Group purchased the Hyde Park Hotel in 1996 (it was originally a gentleman’s club) and spent £50million restoring it, with the American designer Adam Tihany creating the two restaurants and dynamic bar. There’s also a place where you are welcome to smoke cigars. The astounding thing is that they have 18 other luxury hotels like this around the world and they are building more in New York, Washington D.C. and Tokyo. They have seven thousand rooms in eleven countries, with nine hotels in Asia, six in America and three in Europe. As yet, there are no plans for Ibiza, but meanwhile I think I’d like to visit them all. But I bet none of the others leaves you with a leaf from Hyde Park as a momento.

Sinclair Newton