Thursday, November 13, 2008
Duking It Out
When I told San Francisco-based spirits journo Camper English that I planned to pay a call on the Dukes Hotel in Mayfair to sample their world-famous Martini, he scrunched up his face. "What's wrong?" I asked. "Dukes is kind of whacked," he said. "It's one of those destination places."
Well, he's right about that. The destination part, anyway. The posh Dukes has made its culinary reputation on the idea that it serves the best Martini in all of London—some say the world. This is, of course, rot, because a "good Martini" is largely a matter of taste to many people. No one can be said to serve the best. But Dukes is certainly no slouch at it. Part of the allure of the drink is they prepare the cocktail at your table, using the gin or (sorry) vodka of your choice, and to the proportions you specify. It's all very pampering and seductive.
I wrote about the American version of the Dukes ritual, at Danny Meyer's Eleven Madison Park, so I decided next time I was in London I would have to sample the real deal.
Dukes has the discreet sophistication thing down pat. It's situated down a quiet side street off ritzy St. James, all cozy on its own private courtyard. There are no signs guiding your way. You have to know where it is. The lobby is small and strangely silent. The bar is so low-profile, you'd almost miss it. Only a small sign saying "Cocktail Bar" above a door frame gives it away. Entering is like crossing the threshold of someone's private library. Two small rooms divided by a fireplace, and a tiny bar make up the bar. Maybe 20 people could be seated at most. I was there at around 3 PM, so had no difficulty in getting a table.
The bartender was very deferential and appreciative of the gravity of his role (as he saw it). He listed the gins I might select, and I opted for Beefeater's Crown Jewel, since I'd never tried it and I knew it would soon be off the market. He rolled a cart up to my table. Into a Martini glass (considerably smaller than the fish bowl they use at Eleven Madison Park, I'm happy to say), he poured in a modicum of vermouth and then, with one hand behind his back, and one of the bottom of the frozen bottle (the way some waiters serve Champagne), he smoothly poured the Beefeater gin into the glass until it reached a point just below the rim. (No stirring with ice, my purist friends.) He then cut a section of lemon peel, twisted it over the drink and dropped it in the cocktail. To accompany the drink, I was given a bowl of cashews and some sort of small, spiced, cheese-flavored crackers. I ate a great many of these, so that the extremely strong drink wouldn't get the best of me. (They make a great show of only allowing guests to order two Martinis each visit.)
It was a good Martini. I'm not prepared to say it was the best I've ever had, but there was absolutely nothing wrong with it. Let's put it up there in the top five, OK?
Soon enough, I got into a conversation with a Czech journalist who was there on a similar mission. We talked gin, cocktails, the scenes in New York and Prague. The bartender was soon drawn in. He said people come from all over the world to sample the Dukes Martini. He showed me around his bar, which was well-stocked. Gin and vodka Martini customers are about evenly split, he said. Ah, so.
So, "whacked"? No. A "destination place"? Yes. But there's nothing wrong with that, as long as the place is actually worth the trip.