December 22 2010
The Albemarle is Mark Hix’s restaurant in Brown’s hotel in Mayfair. It’s neither his newest venture, nor his most buzzy, nor his most adventurous, either in terms of décor or cuisine. But much the way you fall in love with that unassuming but steadfast person who ends up being The One – subtly, over time, almost not realising it’s happening – I seem to have developed serious feelings for this dining room.
I recognise that the way I feel is, also much like love, entirely subjective. But allow me to gush in that slightly embarrassing way people do when they’re besotted and you’re happy for them.
First: the welcome. Because The Albemarle is housed in a Rocco Forte Collection hotel, the service is that wonderful sort that characterises Sir Rocco’s properties everywhere: equal parts unassailable white-glove refinement and amiable Italian insouciance – graciousness personified, but with a pronounced contrapposto. The wait staff will clock your every inquisitive glance and minuscule gesture, and respond swiftly and capably; but they’ll also josh with each other at the bar and make no effort to hide the pleasure they take in what they do. Manager Scott McCaig runs a tight enough ship that he can spend several minutes with you, say, expounding on the virtues of various whiskies to my Manhattan-drinking friend Ann (Maker’s Mark, her choice, was of course an excellent one, but would she consider giving Wild Turkey a go?).
Second: the acoustics. A totally unsexy topic, I know; but try having an intimate tête-à-tête at the Wolseley at 9pm (not that I don’t also harbour a huge crush on the very dandy Wolseley; I just don’t have it confused with a place one’s meant to actually be able to hear oneself think during the dinner hour). Wall-to-wall carpet, a surfeit of upholstered furnishings, and a long, sparsely-populated table configuration mean that I’ve never had to raise my voice to be heard at the Albemarle, even when the room is at capacity. The banquettes to the right of the fireplace, particularly insulated and at a bit of a remove from the other tables, must constitute one of London’s most private non-members’-club corners.
Third: the dining room itself. Understated, patrician but not stuffy, with wood-panelled walls and intricate Edwardian plasterwork, all brought into the 21st century with a strategic smattering of blue-chip modern and contemporary British art, from Bridget Riley to Tracey Emin to Rankin. Grafting the of-the-moment onto the timelessly traditional and having it actually work requires a very deft eye indeed; good thing the task was in the hands of Rocco Forte director of design Olga Polizzi, whose stock in trade this is.
And finally: the food. If bells, whistles and pyrotechnics are what you’re after, head elsewhere. Reliably fresh, consistently good English cuisine, elevated enough so that even the most gut-sticking of traditional dishes warrant the descriptive “sophisticated”, is the order of the day here. In other words: it’s clear that Marcus Verberne, the executive chef, has The Hix Way deeply embedded in his DNA. The wine list, especially among the Italian reds, harbours a few nice surprises, but otherwise tows a similar line: good quality, dependably elegant.
I lunch with colleagues here; I schedule business breakfasts here; I take friends visiting from New York or San Francisco for dinner, and can’t wait to bring my father for Saturday lunch (roast Swainson House corn-fed chicken with sage stuffing) when he visits from California. In fact I almost hope it’s raining, so the full cosiness of the room is his to experience. What can I say: I’m in a deeply satisfying relationship with the Albemarle, and I want everyone to know it.