It’s 5pm on a Wednesday evening and the Veuve Cliquot is flowing along with canapés that set a whole new standard for finger food. And that’s even before the rum punch and margarita cocktails reception gets going. We’re in Townhouse Eight event space which has a wraparound terrace illuminated by the full moon of St Pancras’ clock and the fireworks display of King’s Cross’ cranes.
Our host is Elli Jafari, Managing Director of The Standard, London. That’s her métier (profession) and that’s her métier (talent). The glamorous Iranian-American tells us, “Our London hotel has many layers, some naughty, some sweet!” The phallic sculpture rescued from an Italian vintage fair welcoming guests to the top floor private dining room certainly falls into the former category. There’s lashings of the latter too.
“We’re pleased to announce two new hotels: The Standard, Ibiza and The Standard, Hua Hin. Our Ibiza hotel will have a sexy bar with amazing music. The 67 bedroom hotel is in the famous and historic Old Town and you’ll be able to hire one or more of our many private villas too. It’s very rare to be able to rent a private villa in the Old Town. Our resort is next to the marina so all the super yachts will be there for your arrival!”
“The Standard, Hua Hin resort with its accompanying private beach villas is Thailand’s answer to the Maldives. The resort will include a 171 bedroom hotel along with 28 villas creating a poolside vibe reminiscent of The Standard, Miami. We have more signed deals in Europe: Brussels, Dublin, Lisbon and Milan. Each destination is eclectic and individual – each of our hotels is completely unique. Our Dublin hotel, due to open in 2025, like all our hotels will have various restaurants. Something for everyone! We want to embrace Dublin culture and all the energy the vibrant city offers.” It’s not so much about creating a new standard of living as a new standard of staying. And eating. And partying. And being.
Our guide relates, “The ground floor reading room is a homage to the Council library which used to be here. It’s stocked with vintage sourced books from the Fifties to the Eighties. It’s all a bit tongue-in-cheek!” ‘Chaos’ and ‘Order’ bookcases are cheek-by-jowl; so are ‘Politics’ and ‘Tragedy’. “We have drag races in the bar on Sundays. There’s always a unique shop in Standard Hotels where you can purchase weird and wonderful goods sourced from all over the world.” Snatch Game Brooches by Lou Taylor and Trip Wild Mint and Camomile Oil are two quirky gifts on display in the London shop.
We’re on the 10th floor now. “Decimo is our Michelin starred Hispanic Mexican restaurant. Alexander McQueen held their afterparty here. The theatre of the kitchen is on full display. There’s definitely a bit of an LA party feel to this hotel.” That’s true for sure: there’s nothing standard about our evening. “You must finish the night in Double Standard, our New York style bar for highflyers. It’s famous for Aperol spritz slushes!”
A few days later, suddenly, sharing a waiter with other guests seems rather déclassé, or would be if we weren’t dining in classy Aquavit. Lady Diana Cooper once described Vita Sackville-West as “all aqua, no vita”. Not so this restaurant: aptly named after the Scandinavian spirit, it’s full of life. We’re here, for starters. Not just desserts. A Nordic invader of the New York scene in the 1980s, sweeping up two Michelin stars, it opened an outpost in Tokyo and has now come to Mayfair.
In 1989, Country Life reported: “Until quite recently London lacked continental style brasseries. There has always been a wide choice of restaurants but the alternative to an expensive meal has been the ‘greasy spoon’ café, the pub or various questionable ‘takeaways’. Traditionally the City provided dining rooms, now almost extinct, together with a diet of boisterous restaurants such as Sweetings, the catering world’s equivalent of the floor of Lloyds or the Stock Exchange. But greater sophistication was demanded by a new generation keen on modern design, New York and cuisine, as opposed to cooking.”
That all changed with the arrival of Corbin + King and Richard Caring who have filled Mayfair and beyond with brasseries. Aquavit fits into the higher end of that mould. CEO Philip Hamilton says, “Our aim is to create a relaxed morning to midnight dining experience.” Handy, as we – the Supper Club (Lavender’s Blue plus) – all have Mayfair offices, from Park Lane to Piccadilly Circus. Scandi style has been ripped off so much by hipster hangouts but this is west, not east, London. Pared back lines allow the quality of the materials to shine (literally in some cases) through: marble floors climb up the dado to meet pale timber panelling, softly illuminated by dangling bangles of gold lights.
Sourdough bread and knäckebröd (Swedish rye crisp bread with a hint of aniseed) come with whey butter. “The whey butter is from Glastonbury,” explains our waiter. It’s all singing all dancing. Chillout music is playing in the background. We’re experiencing what the Scandinavians call ‘hygge’, that cosy relaxed feeling you get when being pampered, enjoying the good things in life with great company. All the more reason to sample Hallands Fläder (£4.50), an elderflower aquavit. A continuous flow of sparkling water is (aptly) plentiful and reasonably priced (£2.00). Ruinart (£76.00) keeps our well informed sommelier on her toes.
Our dedication to reportage ever unabated, is it a dream sequence or the following day do we return for a smörgåsbord of diced and smoked mackerel tartare, sorrel and lumpfish roe (£7.00) in a salad bowl, sitting at a timber table on the polished pavement? Not forgetting the unforgettable Shrimp Skagen (£9.00)? Skagenröra isn’t just prawns on toast, y’know. Named after a Danish fishing port, other essential ingredients are mayonnaise, gräddfil(a bit like soured cream) and some seasoning. Grated horseradish, in this case, adds a bit of spice. Best crowned with orange caviar. It’s Royal Box treatment all over again as we have a dedicated waiter to our table. Or maybe that’s because we are the only alfresco brunchers braving the elements outside the box. By Nordic winter standards, it’s a positively balmy morning. We’ve a love | hate relationship with Aquavit. Love here | hate leaving.
With the rhetorical daring of Mrs Merton’s interrogation of the millionaire Paul Daniel’s wife Debbie Magee, what first attracted us to the lovely Belcanto? Answer: wherever there’s a Michelin star there’s Lavender’s Blue. Make that two and we’re there with bells on ding-a-ling. Belcanto is the first restaurant in Lisbon to receive two Michelin stars. José Avillez is the first Portuguese chef to achieve this accolade. The hot to trot 36 year old has created a paradise for pescatarians with sophisticated palates. He does, after all, have over 1,000 miles of coastline to explore. Piscean provenance ain’t ever a problem. In his own words:
“My life is cooking. Because of that, many of my memories are tied to tastes. I was born and raised in Cascais, near the sea. The memory of being that close to the sea is very strong and is really a part of me – it defines me. I truly love cooking fish and seafood. Let me say I believe that in Portugal we have the best the sea has to offer in the world. I love creating dishes with the taste of the sea. At Belcanto, we use algae codium which has a very strong taste of the sea. I loved eating it on the beach at Guincho.” Such joy, joy, joy.
Belcanto is in Chiado, Lisbon’s most exhilarating neighbourhood. Chiado is a cultural mix of the old and new, the traditional and the adventurous, a distillation of the best. Easily a metaphor for José’s cooking. Outside may be sweating 30 degrees but inside a coolly slick gastronomic and sensory performance is underway. There are just 10 tables for the chef to impress with his pedigree. Table to tableau. Thank goodness for the high waiter to customer ratio as we eat more courses on the tasting menu than Henryk Sienkiewicz’s novel Quo Vadis has had film versions. The bill comes to €759.50. Say bon. Not exactly cheap as frites, but it’s a special occasion, a Lisbon treaty.
Behind an unassuming white exterior lies the understated white interior. A blank canvas. It’s the food that delivers the colour | shock | humour | art. Palette to palate. An exploding olive, “a tribute to the great chef Ferran Adrià” explains our waiter, sets the scene. José trained at elBulli, Ferran’s legendary triple Michelin starred Catalonian restaurant. Said olive is served in a 2cm diameter frying pan. Similarly, caviar topped edible stones crack open in a flow of volcanic lava. Textures and tastes and experiences and expectations are reinvented. Foraging in flowers for tuna tartar cones for starters. “You tell me!” smiles our waiter when asked what the indefinable taste is in the pudding. “How is your mushroom?” he later laughs. Rosemary ash butter tastes like fag butt ends. This is haute haute haute cuisine. And we’re loving it. All 3.5 hours.
Birthplace of fashion designer Cruz Bueno, it’s good to see the cool cool cool citizenry of Lisbon that have hung around in the sizzling heat live up to our soignée sartorial expectations. And there’s not a pickled dead sheep in sight. There’s more art in simply eating. Portugal is having a fashion moment according to Knightsbridge’s top kitchenware store Divertimenti. This Christmas’s essential stocking filler is a cabbage bowl designed by Portuguese artist Bordallo Pinheiro. Caldo Verde, cabbage soup, is a national dish. Our Divertimenti bowl is purely ornamental, unused of course. Bathos to pathos.