If you are a visitor to London, then Christmas is probably the worst time to go. On Christmas Eve, most restaurants are shut because the chefs and waiters prefer to be at home with their families. The shops are all closed. The streets are largely pedestrian-free. And you feel like an outsider, far away from your own home.
If, on the other hand, you visit in the fortnight before Christmas, then you’ll end up having a great time. Hotels are not as full as they were in the summer so rates are low. There is no shortage of black cabs or Uber drivers. Restaurant reservations are not that hard to get. The streets are lit up and the public areas have a festive air to them.
I’m not big on Christmas but I like London in December, especially when the weather is mild as it was this year. Maybe it is the power of suggestion but optimism is in the air. Somehow, everything seems just a little bit nicer.
I’ll start with The Bombay Brasserie, which I first went to in 1983, soon after it opened. At the time, it was the first trendy Indian restaurant in London. There had been upmarket Indian places before (such as Shezan in Knightsbridge – though that was Pakistani-owned) but they all fell into the ‘ethnic-eating’ category. The Brasserie’s great achievement was that it attracted the sort of people who might not otherwise have gone to an Indian restaurant.
It was owned by the Taj and conceived of by Camellia Panjabi, who patterned it (very loosely) on the then fashionable Langan’s Brasserie. There was a slight Raj-revival air to the décor (this was the era of The Jewel in the Crown, The Far Pavilions etc, after all) but the vibe was decidedly modern and cheerful.
The menu was based on the cuisine of Bombay, which gave Panjabi a licence to serve whatever she liked because Bombay is so cosmopolitan. It was the first time I saw sev puri on a smart menu, and many classics (such as tandoori scallops) were invented in that kitchen.
Then, Panjabi left the Taj and the Brasserie lost the plot. As fancy new Indian restaurants kept opening, the Brasserie languished. It soon became a has-been sort of place; nobody of consequence went there; the menu was rubbish and the food even worse.
Then, around three years ago, the Taj called in Sriram, its Michelin-starred chef (at Quilon) and one of the fathers of Bangalore’s legendary Karavalli restaurant and asked him to perform emergency surgery before the Brasserie finally died. It seemed to have worked. The numbers went up, the losses disappeared and Brasserie appeared to be getting its magic back.
But I was sceptical about the food. At a time when every second Indian restaurant in London is doing sev puri and keema pav, is there any room left for a place whose claim to fame is Bombay cuisine?
I suspect Sriram had the same doubts. So his menu for the Brasserie is less Bombay and more basic Indian. You’ll find seekh kababs, raan, chicken tikka as well as Chilean sea bass and hand-dived scallops in a south Indian masala. Because the Brasserie is twice the size of the average Indian restaurant in London, Sriram has kept the prices at sensible levels and focused on doing solid Indian food with no Frenchified presentation.
I liked the restaurant (which was doing well the night I went) and I thought it was in keeping with the spirit of Christmas that this previously sad story had taken a happier turn.
More joy was around the corner. After the success of the Brasserie, the Taj opened the St. James’ Court hotel in Buckingham Gate, taking a third-rate property (I know; I stayed there in 1982 before the renovations) and turning it into a five-star hotel by using Indian ingenuity (engineers, designers etc) to create a luxury property at a fraction of what it would cost the company to buy a deluxe hotel. (As the Taj is now discovering in New York, Boston etc, it is easy to pay big, but hard to recover your investment.)
St. James’ Court was nice enough. I stayed in one of the apartments in 1987, soon after it opened, but it always seemed to be teetering on the financial edge because, in those days, the Taj could not send money out of India and depended on local financing. (Among the early investors who soon exited were the Hinduja brothers.) Because the Taj never had the money to market the hotel properly or to upgrade the suites and rooms regularly, St. James’ Court never found the success it deserved.
Then, in the late Nineties after the laws changed and the Taj could fund the hotel from India and things should have gotten better, they got worse. A new Taj management took the foolish decision to rebrand the hotel as a mid-market Crowne Plaza, while focusing on the apartments that were separated from the hotel, and called 51 Buckingham Gate. I stayed there for a bit, but after 2009, when the service had collapsed and the apartment block served only as a dharamsala for rich and influential Indians in the summer (who loved it when staff arranged paan for them or let their children run around the courtyard), I deserted the property.
A good general manager can turn any property around. And fortunately for St. James’ Court, the Taj has finally sent one of their best guys, Digvijay Singh, whose last great achievements were the revival of the Taj Man Singh’s F&B and the resurrection of the Lake Palace.
I stayed at St. James’ Court after many years and though I went prepared to be critical, I was blown away by the air of quiet and discreet luxury 51 Buckingham Gate now exudes. Even the food – overseen by chef David Tilly, best-known in Delhi for his stint at The Orient Express – is excellent.
Once again, this is a Christmas story with a happy ending. The dreaded Crowne Plaza branding is gone, profits are up and St. James’ Court is the one international Taj hotel that makes lots of money.
Some more happy Christmas stories: last summer I went to Le Chabanais, the London outpost of the famous French chef Inaki Aizpitarte. I went with Fay Maschler, London’s most influential critic, who is a fan of Inaki’s food. But both of us were disappointed by the horrible décor and the very mediocre food.
I’m guessing it was Fay’s review that finally convinced the owners that Inaki had failed, and the restaurant closed soon after. It re-opened a couple of months ago as 8 Mount Street and this time, one of the partners, Dinesh Nair of our very own Leela group, had taken firm control. Dinesh was stuck with the room (designed to Inaki’s specifications) but his wife Madhu, who designed the Leela hotels, has worked wonders at softening out the rough edges and adding sophistication to the ambience.
The day I went, the cooking was fluent. A salad of lentils, roast venison and sea bass were all excellent. The wild mushroom pasta was just about passable (too creamy and too much truffle oil – let the mushrooms speak for themselves!) but that was the exception.
The service was warm and the restaurant was doing well. So yet another happy Christmas ending.
And then, there’s Corbin & King, who have long been my favourite London restaurateurs. I wrote last summer that I wondered if they had lost their touch after a series of bad meals. In particular I was unimpressed by the Brasserie Zedel. But this time, when I went back for lunch, I was pleasantly surprised by a) the efficiency of the service b) the high quality of the food – a steak haché, cod, and a floating island and c) by the pricing that was so reasonable as to border on the absurd.
But of course, even during the Christmas season, everything can’t be perfect. I used to go to a romantic, old-fashioned French restaurant called La Trouvaille just off Carnaby Street. It was tiny but supremely atmospheric.
Now the owners have enlisted the services of Mikael Jonsson of the trendy Hedone in Chiswick and turned it into a minimalistic place called Antidote. Nothing wrong with that, (Hedone has a Michelin star and a place on the San Pellegrino list) except that the food was really disappointing.
There were four of us and the menu is quite small so we ordered every single dish on it. Nothing was very good, much of it was only so-so, and lots of it was just rubbish. Even the cooking was poor – a fish was overcooked to the point of mushiness.
My guess is it won’t last. It works as a wine bar (great list, good sommelier and good cheese) but you’d have to be mad to eat dinner here.
Still, every Christmas story can’t have a happy ending!
From HT Brunch, December 27
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