Tuesday, 18 February 2014

Sketches from a Cigar Smoker's Album: The Duke goes to Bunga

It’s Not Unusual...

I think it was Jackie Chan who once asked that great life question ‘Who am I?’, as a kung fu proficient amnesiac searching for his identify, I don’t think anyone can really know who they are until they have take a trip to Italian-themed night club-come-den-of-iniquity, Bunga Bunga. Waking up the morning on a mate’s sofa, indeed I asked myself that very life searching question, as I cradled my head in my hands and limbered up for a relatively long journey home. My cranium smarted as each drop of rain crashed upon it on my walk to the station. By Fulham Broadway I had just about reconciled my brain with my body and started to piece together the pattern of the previous day of drinking and debauchery. 

First the memories of the previous night came in a trickle and then flooding back in torrents as I tried to negotiate the wet and windy streets of Fulham, back to the station and on to the comfort of my own home. I passed plenty of artifacts left by scores of drunken revelers, now probably entombed in a darkened room or wrapped around some loved one (or a casual acquaintance): Chunky vomit up the side of a wall, a used prophylactic, a coke bottle filled with urine on a wall outside a Methodist church... this was the city at its Sunday morning best, the seedy frame through which I was able to remember some of my activities. 

It all began with a few drinks at The Lighthouse on Battersea Park Road a very agreeable pub serving a range of craft ales along with the usual suspects. I was making the long trek to the establishment from Queenstown Road when the heavens opened and unleashed a deluge upon my person. A veritable gale howled and I barely made it through the door and to that first pint intact, I looked more drowned water rat than man about town. Leaving a trail of rainwater behind me I made my way to the bar and to a very welcome, crisp lager that had been purchased by the friend I was meeting for a few cheeky snifters before a night on the tiles and the celebration of a good friend’s birthday. 

Time marched on and I had suitably dried off before I thought that I would brave the elements, and head down to the foot of Battersea Bridge to Drafthouse where we were all meeting. Just in case you thought that I was at all shirking in my duty to provide a cigar based anecdote, I smoked a couple of the ever reliable Villiger’s Grosseformat Exports (pressed) on my way down there. In this case the smoke was more incidental to the evening that the main topic of focus. 

Tobacco cravings satisfied I stepped into Drafthouse, a fun, lively venue packed to the gunnels with the greater good of South London, wall-to-wall with lads and glamour-pusses. I felt rather out of place, but did my best to fit in with cooler surroundings than I was used to, I held my own and soon I was supping a pint of some Belgian lager with the best of them. I was a little early, so indulged in a little people watching before my friends arrived and we moved onto Bunga Bunga. 

Already packed when we strode over the threshold, we made our way to the table, which my mate had thankfully reserved as it was it his birthday and we sat down to an evening of jolly banter, great pizza, gutsy red wine and rather astringent white. Then the real excitement of the evening, it started with dancing of which my moves where usual silky mixture of drunken-uncle-at-a-wedding and drunken-uncle-at-a-wedding-who-thinks-he’s-in-Saturday-Night-Fever. Bopping away to the tunes I noticed my very own Pandora’s Box... karaoke. Having once been something of a competitive singer I just couldn’t resist a chance to drunkenly get up on stage and serenade the club audience with a belting rendition of Tom Jones’s ‘It’s Not Unusual’. 

Even if you had shut your eyes I am sure you would have notice the difference between me and Wales’ finest son, but at the time I was holding court and the attention was deliciously satisfying... I can see why the great man does Vegas, but he needs to try the clubs of Clapham.  I thought I had been greeted with the sound of clapping, but i’m sure that it was more the sounds of breaking bottles and calls to ‘get him off’ as the infamous shepherd’s crook lurked on-hand to drag me from the stage and cast me back with the mere mortals on the dancefloor!

As I sat on the sofa that Sunday afternoon remembering my turn on the mike, I chuckled. A cracking evening, with great people and of course, that cruel mistress... karaoke! 


At Duke’s Place...

We all make mistakes in life and I made a very minor one the other day, in the grand scheme of things, nothing scandalous, nothing major, just the wrong thing sent at the wrong time. 

There was regret, recriminations, a chance to put things right - which I did, thankfully - but even when you do manage to rake the leaves which disperse over the proverbial garden it is very easy to feel down, as indeed I did that evening, and, in need of a little alone time and some relaxation to take my mind off it, I found myself in the bar of Dukes Hotel, looking for some peace after being dragged over the coals by a couple of rather irate people. 

There's nothing like a little retail therapy for the mind and i eyed up the humidor longingly knowing that a great cigar would be a perfect antidote for my frazzled and weary mind. There was a fantastic selection to choose from: Hoyo del Rey, Cohiba and of course, my standby, the decadently delicious Montecristo No.2! 

Sitting outside under the glare of the fan heaters and a waterproof tent, in a very cosy armchair I reflected on the day while the rain pita-pattered all around me, and was able to put things into some context. 

I was finally starting to relax after the tense day and, although it can sometime be nice to be surrounded by the chatter of various fellow smokers, sometimes a bit of alone time with an expertly made Negroni (with my favourite, Plymouth gin) can be an absolute joy. The cigar was an old favourite, medium-bodied, it started light and got deeper and richer as it smoked through. There was a good length of ash, burning at a steady speed, indicating the cigar had been kept in a well maintained humidor (not as common as one would think). 

Let me point out thought that all this finery comes at a premium. Dukes is not cheap, with cocktails costing between £15 - £20 and expensive brandies, some which cost thousands of pounds a bottle, it is not your Sam Smith’s pub to be sure! Cigars are set at standard London prices (£15 - £30), so this is not somewhere to go every evening, more an occasional treat. 

However, the real thing that makes Dukes special - apart from that it is by far the best place to get a Martini in London (after all it was where Ian Fleming apocryphally created the renowned ‘Vespa’) - is the incredibly high standard of service, no request is too much for the highly courteous and charming bar staff and waiters. It is a great example of a level of hospitality that people should expect when paying such high prices, but is sadly lacking from so many high-end establishments. 

If you happen to be in the St. James area any time soon, I would thoroughly recommend ducking into Dukes for a perfectly-mixed cocktail and a most delicious smoke. 

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