by Mort Hochstein
August 25, 2008
The Milestone Hotel
1 Kensington Court
The Chesterfield Mayfair
35 Charles St
The Montague on the Gardens
15 Montague St
I regret it. I never tasted Bea’s chicken noodle soup. It’s a favorite recipe of Bea Tollman, founder and president of the Red Carnation Hotels, and it’s a standard on Red Carnation menus throughout the world.
On a recent survey trip, I dined at three Red Carnation hotels in London. The Milestone is a five star operation, and the Chesterfield Mayfair and Montague on the Gardens are rated four stars. Having once been a Mobil guide inspector, I know the vagaries of the rating system, so I am often skeptical of the minuscule differences between four and five stars. There was no fault in the amenities of any of these three hotels.
I certainly appreciated the food, ambiance and service at Cheneston’s in the Milestone. The hotel, which draws top ratings in all the guides, overlooks Kensington Palace and Hyde Park and is just a few minutes up the road from Harrods and Harvey Nichols in the shopping mecca of Knightsbridge. It is also within close walking distance of the Royal Albert Hall and several major tourist attractions, including the Victoria and Albert Museum.
The Milestone, a Gothic looking structure, is completely posh old world in its furnishings and certainly in its attention to detail, which includes butler service. On our final night in London, we drank aged Port in a secluded lounge before going into its acclaimed restaurant, Cheneston’s, and were so comfortable we found it difficult to leave our elegant corner table overlooking the park across the way. Cheneston’s wood paneled dining room, complete with fireplace and tuxedoed staff, features biting caricatures by Georges Goursat, turn of the century French artist best known as Sem.
We started with a terrine of Belgian endive, Gruyere cheese and Parma ham, flavored with aged balsamic vinegar striking a perfect balance between sweet and piquant. I had spotted turbot on the menu and intended to build my meal around it, until I saw an even more enticing veal dish.
Chef David Smith sent out succulent pan-fried medallions of veal accompanied by tender calves sweetbreads (the real reason I switched main courses), roasted organic tomatoes, cocotte potatoes and further embellished with a lush Madeira and thyme-flavored sauce. Rolaine, my wife, went to the fish side, choosing the Dover sole, plated with fresh new potatoes and broad beans. It was her second gustatory encounter in six days with her favorite fish, and it was hard to make a distinction between the two. Both, we agreed, had been worth the journey across the Atlantic, as it would have been hard to match either of them back in New York. With dinner, we shared an outstanding 2003 Galpin Peak Tête de Cuvée Pinot Noir from Bouchard Finlayson of South Africa, whose wines I had enjoyed previously on a visit to Cape Town and have since located at quite reasonable prices in New York.
For dessert, we tried an imaginative raspberry and mango soufflé with ginger ice cream. Delightful it was, but we’ve always favored Capsouto Frères in New York whose towering, deeply flavored soufflé we regard as the culinary peak for that specialty.
On another occasion, we were spoiled silly by lunchtime service at Butler’s in the Chesterfield Mayfair, a much more modern hotel, which retains the elegance and ambiance of a history dating back to the mid-eighteenth century. In its splendid dining room, overlooking the gardens of the English Speaking Union, we put ourselves in the hands of Restaurant Manager Loris Lucchini.
Well, we didn’t abdicate total responsibility. Mr. Lucchini suggested Bea Tollman’s chicken consommé, but we opted instead for servings of Scottish and Irish smoked salmon. Lucchini carved portions of the two varieties at tableside, more than one serving, I will admit, matching them in traditional fashion with onions, capers and egg, and explaining to us the subtle differences.
We would have been happy with little more, but he then led us to a pair of his favorite plates. The first was Rolaine’s other encounter with Dover sole, which was perfectly grilled and served with fresh new potatoes and wilted spinach. The other, fleshy, yet delicate lamb cutlets, was accompanied by sautéed potato, asparagus and mint-tinted hollandaise sauce. After all this, we said a firm ‘no” to any discussion of dessert and his suggestion that we return later to enjoy a traditional afternoon tea. Delightful as his recital sounded, we had to decline because our schedule would not permit a teatime intermission.
We stayed at Montague on the Gardens, around the corner from the British Museum and in the heart of Bloomsbury, home to the famed literary group whose members included Virginia Woolf, Clive and Vanessa Bell, E. M. Forster and Lytton Strachey. Though it is within walking distance of teeming Soho and the theater district, the area is serene and little trafficked.
The accommodations were five stars in our estimation. The rooms and suites, each decorated differently, were large and stylishly casual though elegant and comfortable, definitely more homey than hotel-like.
Breakfasts were bountiful, with an overflowing table of egg dishes, fruits, cheeses, meats, breads and pastry. It was here that we had planned, finally, to try Mrs. Tallman’s chicken soup, but on this final afternoon, we landed matinée tickets and had to be satisfied, instead, with a quick sandwich in the theater district. We shall have to defer the pleasure until our next visit to London.