Shaken... and far from stirred
The martinis at Dukes are legendary. If only they hadn’t mixed them with food
GBR at Dukes 35 St James’s Place London SW1 gbrrestaurantslondon.com ★★★★★
The martini is the greatest cocktail of them all. Because in a world of flim-flam and frippery, empty innovation and pointless reinvention, this classic combination of gin and vermouth has an admirable, decidedly robust simplicity. You wouldn’t catch a martini going on some detox retreat, or embracing its inner child. Clean eating, to this toper’s Titan, is merely dinner after a bath. And while there are a sorry slew of mountebank pretenders to its throne, the classic martini will eternally reign.
Of course, it helps that the cocktail is garlanded with A-list anecdotes. The stories have been rubbed smooth and shiny by their endless retelling. I like martinis dry, bone dry. Luis Buñuel, that master of the subversive and surreal, liked them more arid still. He suggested ‘simply allowing a ray of sunshine to shine through a bottle of Noilly Prat before it hits the gin’. Winston Churchill found that a mere glance at the vermouth while you’re pouring the gin was better still.
Then there’s the number one should drink. ‘One martini is all right,’ drawled James Thurber, ‘two are too many, three are not enough.’ Dorothy Parker concurred. ‘I like to have a martini, two at the very most. After three I’m under the table. After four, I’m under my host.’ And at Dukes Hotel, in St James’s, London, a place of martini pilgrimage, they have a strict rule. No more than two per person. And no exceptions. Ever.
Stuff and nonsense, I hear you cry, and the nanny state be damned. But Alessandro Palazzi, the immaculate boss of Dukes Bar, is a martini master. The gin (and remember, only gin makes a martini. Switch to vodka and it’s a vodka martini, an entirely infeshow rior beast) and glasses are frozen. He makes his own vermouth, and uses an atomiser to diffuse the precise amount, no more than a winsome sigh. And those glasses are exactly the right size. Neither too small to be mean, nor so large that the cocktail goes warm. Four gulps of icy bliss. After one, the world seems a far warmer, more civilised place. After two, things get nicely fuzzy. A third would consign even the hardest of heads to oblivion.
So a new restaurant at Dukes is exciting news. Their martinis, after all, are the stuff of legend. But they stumble at the first fence with that name, GBR, an awful, clunky and ugly moniker which is more suited to a daytime cookery on ITV4 than a restaurant in a very good hotel. They’ve certainly spent money on the room – tables are lavished with marble, banquettes clad in suede, the floor a smart parquet, plus thick linen napkins monogrammed with those inelegant initials. There’s also a photograph of the late and very great Sir Roger More, sipping a drink, fag clasped manfully in fist. A good thing, of course. And to be fair, GBR is the sort of place James Bond could come for the most discreet of meetings. Because there’s no one bloody here. I go with my uncle Simon, a restaurateur of the old school, on a Wednesday lunch, and only two other tables are taken. It has all the atmosphere of a Soviet morgue. A Soviet morgue with jazz muzak.
The food is OK, ticking off all the British classics without ever creating anything even
remotely memorable. Potted shrimps are fine, but icy cold. Pressed ham hock is similarly marred by the fridge’s chilly grasp, and woefully underseasoned. There’s a decent slab of black pudding plonked on top, and a lonely floret of pickled cucumber. But it’s a dull, uninspired plate.
More black pudding, this time mixed with venison, in a perfectly decent Scotch egg. Shepherd’s pie is OK too, if weighed down with too much mashed potato. While steak and kidney pudding sees dryish beef tumbled in mediocre gravy with not enough kidney. Again, the sort of thing you’d expect in a chain pub, rather than a Grande Dame of St James’s. And despite there being fewer people in the room than fingers on my hand, the food took an age to arrive.
Service, though, is lovely, but even this doesn’t make up for the general sense of melancholy mediocrity.
‘Such a wasted opportunity,’ sighs my uncle. ‘A great hotel, a good room, but so sad to see it performing so badly.’
The place is open all day, and perhaps the mainly American clientele are impressed. But probably not. We leave, depressed. The place is well meaning, but a crashing bore. Still, looking on the bright side, at least there’s now somewhere to sit while awaiting a table at that brilliant bar. Lunch for two: £60
Clockwise from above: hake; the restaurant; cod cheek, raspberry trifle