28 Jan 2013

Spirits: Porter, No Stout: The Luggage Room

LUGGAGE porter, Dan, leads me to a small, unmarked door flanked by flames. "You'll be impressed by the first sight you see," he says. "Some places have women. But we have goddesses."

On Dan's instruction, I boldly knock. Immediately, an accurately striking face appears from beyond a sharply slid window. "Do you have an appointment?" purrs its owner.
My appointment is with the Luggage Room, a considered take on a roaring 1920s speakeasy at the five-star Marriott on Grosvenor Square. Homage to speed kings of the epoch, the Bentley Boys, it features a silver model of the supercharged Bentley 'Blower'. It gleams beside silver tea and coffee pots, which I imagine could have once concealed stronger libations. The original car was produced by Le Mans legend, Joel Woolf Barnato, the owner of the marque.
The art deco-inspired decor, by Fabled Studio, evokes the traditional steamer trunk. Wooden strips fringe surprisingly subtle Louis Vuitton patterned print on the otherwise cream silk walls, while Carrara marble lines the floor. It is a scheme far grander and more detailed than one might expect for such an intimately sized space, reclaimed, in part, from the hotel's former luggage room, while the rest came from the Cavendish function room. Tonight an antiques fair occurs in the latter, and Manchester-born bar manager, Abdulai Kpekawa (previously at Roux at the Pembury, and All Star Lanes) mentions that he has spotted a Bentley Boys decanter. A tempting trophy, he attests, if it weren't for the £950 tag.
Kpekawa wears a dapper, custard-coloured paisley cravat; his team sport braces clasping tailored tartan trousers. One bartender chips a clear block of frozen filtered water to cool an aromatic, but dense (and intense) Old Fashioned. Guests are greeted with complimentary, amusingly titled, "Mush Bushes", a Jamaican-style punch which favours the bar's ripe surplus fruits. At the other end of the spectrum is Kpekawa's most lavish cocktail, the £120 Bentley Cup. Served in a shiny bowl to sate six people, it features Tanqueray gin, tea, lemon juice, elderflower syrup, fruits, cucumber water, Chase Marmalade vodka and Champagne. There is deliberately only one such receptacle in the bar, says Kpekawa, to ensure a sense of exclusivity.
Kpekawa explains that he is not a fan of "abstract" cocktails generally, nor overly savoury drinks. In fact, on hearing a description of the smoked salmon martini I sampled in Beijing's fast-emerging cocktail culture, he says: "food drinks don't work for me." However, his description of the sprightly flavours of one of his inventions, a vodka martini infused with wood sorrel syrup, sounds wonderful. Kpekawa's signature cocktails are, given the inspiration behind the bar, appropriately named. They include the ‘Airmail' (Appletons eight year-old rum, lime juice and honey topped with Champagne - £12.50) and Luggage Champagne (Chambord, Green chartreuse and lemon juice topped with Champagne - £13.50).
I test Kpekawa's mettle on a classic, however - the Aviation (gin, maraschino liqueur, crème de violette, and lemon juice). The result is refreshing acidity and poise, not soapiness. "It's easy to put too much crème de violette in and turn it blue," says Kpekawa.
Perhaps even better, though, and testament to Kpekawa's eight years worth of bar experience, is his Pisco Sour (£13.50) simply made with Peruvian 1615 grape brandy, sugar and lime juice. The result is a pleasurable texture underpinned by tangible bite.
Alongside, bar snacks prove well-sourced, although cool and lacking seasoning. The H. Foreman & Sons salmon Scotch egg with caviar sour cream (£15) is well made, as is the almost whipped "Two Hoots" Barkham Blue cheese from Channel Islands cattle, served in a ceramic pot (£12). Meanwhile, serving crisp basil bread with tomato dip (£7) in a silver toast rack is a cute touch.
Compared to the hotel's modern lobby, which one must access for the loos, complete with a large screen featuring a live social media feed, the Luggage Room feels like a cocoon. Not only does it provide a desirably stylish opportunity to revel in the best of a bygone era, it also provides a couth alternative to the counters at the Ramsay-run restaurants, maze and maze grill above.