Shaken... and far from stirred

The mar­ti­nis at Dukes are leg­endary. If only they hadn’t mixed them with food

The Mail on Sunday - Event - - FOOD - TOM PARKER BOWLES

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

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