Tuesday, 13 November 2012
Sketches from a cigar smoker's album 5: Night at the Lanesborough
It is a very rare occasion for me to feel flush. I had just had a pay check come in and looking to my balance I saw I had more than I had at first thought. I started to get very excited, culinary and gastronomic possibilities opened up before me. There would be new recipes to try, new restaurants to visit and fresh drinks to sample in order to keep both my blog readers satisfied and material for my book-in-progress fresh.
I had a free evening last Thursday (something that seems rarer and rarer as the weeks go by!) and so I decided to check out the Garden Room at the Lanesborough. A number of websites and critics had sung the praises of this establishment pointing out to the discerning, if inexperienced cigar enthusiast that this was one of the only public places that you could smoke underneath a semi-permanent roof with the same comfort of an indoor bar. I was hooked, the reviews were dazzling – they talked of glamourous ‘Mad Men’ like women and suave men in sharp suits and dark glasses similar to modern day Dean Martins all supping on Martinis and Manhattans! I made a call to one of my close friends who was only too happy to join me on a journey to see how the supposed ‘high society’ spent their evenings!
Meeting my chum outside Hyde Park Corner tube, my wallet was bulging with notes. Having been to smart hotels before I am well aware of the prices that their drinks command and so I had come prepared. A Cohiba Siglo IV was pressed against my right breast by my perfect fit 1938 three-piece suit as we both entered in over the threshold. Ushered this way and that by an attendant through carpeted corridors, marble staircases and brass railing we finally made it to the Garden Room. We were greeted by a very professional but jovial fellow who I surmised by the receipt was called Pasquale who informed us that the room was fully booked and that we would have to wait about 45 minutes to be seated. Seasoned men of the world, this did not bother me or my mate who were lead by yet another attendant to the Library bar so that we could pass the time in style (although I think their business acumen presupposed that we would have at least two drinks in the upstairs, non-smoking bar before decamping downstairs).
We were taken to a bar which was smart, but which was decorated in a style which I think was more international than national. I had the feeling that they were trying to create the feel of a London Club but it lacked the eccentric characters that one associates with such establishment. True it was full of glamorous individuals, but I consistently got the feeling that we were the only Brits in the room. I joked that I hoped that the other patrons were looking at us as if we were big business (as we must have been the youngest people there by about 10 years) dressed as we were in City suits and silk ties.
One glance at the drinks menu told us that we weren’t in schoolboy territory. At first I stammered over the hundreds, even thousands of pounds being asked for vintage Cognac, Scotch Whisky and Port. Luckily a quick flip through six pages of currently unaffordable luxuries revealed that they made a range of classic cocktails which were more in our price range…
When I was at my very liberal boarding school, I was asked – at the tender age of 16 – by one of my tutors what my favourite alcoholic drink was? Of course, I had tried a few different liquors up to that point but I had become a big fan of Campari and Orange. Duly informing my tutor (for I was never one to mince my words) that I was partial to this particular tipple I was met with incredulity and insult: ‘my god!’ he exclaimed, ‘you might as well grow a pair of breasts whilst you’re about it!’. Typical oaf behaviour! But not to be unexpected and I have gone on enjoying my Campari ever since all the more certain in my cultural superiority to this tutor for it is indeed a delicious drink to the discerning palette!
Dear reader… I apologise for my slight digression. I hope that I haven’t lost your attention (as many of you will be wondering why I have mentioned this little episode from my past)! I felt that I had to justify my ordering of that classic cocktail, the Negroni. A potent mixture of Gin, Campari and Red Vermouth this is a drink suited for those with a good tolerance for the bitter. The rewards for disciples are great, a burst of aromatics and a real alcoholic kick make this a cocktail for champions and is a must for anyone looking to give themselves the airs and grace of the 1920s and those halcyon days of cocktail drinking!
My friend ordered a Caipirinha which tasted fantastic but I am not much of an expert so I cannot comment with any authority. My Negroni was perfectly made and slipped down far too quickly for the liking of my sobriety! After one more apiece we were informed that a table had become free in the Garden room. Full of anticipation with my cigar, cutter and matches metaphorically burning a hole in my pocket we made our way to what, for the last few months, was one of my most hotly anticipated drinking spots.
As we sallied forth into this rarefied venue we were once again greeted by Pasquale who gave my hand a warm if ultra-firm clasp and said how glad he was to have ‘Mr Rubinstein’ as a guest – the once and only time I feel that I will ever be assumed as a Russian Oligarch. Once seated in this lively if a touch overheated room, a comprehensive menu was thrust into our hands. The drinks here were even more expensive as if to challenge morons with more money than sense to order a bottle of Croft’s 1900 port at £1200. On first glance at the cigars I was thoroughly glad that I had taken my own. I saw make, then date, then price and my eyes started to boggle! I had always thought that Davidoff on St James was pricey but nothing had prepared me for this. Like the booze we flicked over page after page of special smokes until we came upon the affordable page (which still wasn’t cheap but not ruinous). I’m glad the waiter didn’t hear the fluctuating sighs of horror and then relief that emanated from our small area as we flicked page after page of ascending and descending prices!
Luckily I had my own cigar so I was quite content with arranging my own affairs and cut the smokable to tried and tested methods with my NUB (another cigar make) cutter. My compadre ordered a Davidoff Short Robusto which was skilfully cut and lit by one of the waiters and we settled back with a fresh round of drinks to enjoy a lengthy smoke with two very formidable cigars.
Politics was discussed at lengths and, as I’ve made it a pledge to myself never to descend into such subjects in my blog, I will leave you guessing as to the general gist and the outcome of the discussion! There was food chat, banter about women we fancied from acquaintance and celebrity (then realisation that they were well out of our leagues!) and general outlandish statements that accompanies all serious drinking. The cigars kept getting shorter and the drinks coming. Tiring of Negroni and its formidable price I got a craving for a cool lager. This was the first of a couple of stumbling blocks for the establishment, The lager wasn’t chilled enough and didn’t have that refreshing bite that I like in a good quality version of the product – but that is just me. I noticed the couple across the room enjoying theirs so I feel that this is a bit pernickety.
Don’t get me wrong, I had a fantastic time at The Lanesborough (and the two respective bars that I attended) but there was one aspect that bothered me. I felt that my experience at The Lanesborough would have been perfect if it was not frequented by obnoxious people. Of course this is a pipe dream, if people are prepared to pay the money they are entitled to the service, here lies the root of my complaint.
Both my friend and I were shocked at the appalling behaviour of the fellow guests at both the Library Bar and the Garden Room. The majority were rich foreign businessmen and I was disgusted by the way they treated the hotel staff as if they were lesser people. I feel that many – and it goes for a number of fellow countrymen as well – think that it is fair game to regard very hard working staff (especially at somewhere like The Lanesborough) with contempt. I was especially shocked to see two Italian men being incredibly, verbally rude to the fellow Italian who was serving their drinks, then laughing about their hilarious joke as the sullen waiter walked away. For a handful of the guests it was embarrassing, others shrugged indifferently, some shared the joke. Treating staff badly is not on! They have a hard job and as the customer – while it is our right to demand good service – it is also our duty to treat those who serve us with proper respect.
In spite of this minor setback I would urge you to go, especially if you are a smoker. It is one of the last bastions where tobacco aficionados can enjoy their favourite pastime and they make a damn fine Negroni!