When Sir Robert McAlpine created The Dorchester 80 years ago (and I use the word created, not ‘built’; we’re not dealing with a Hilton Hotel here), he set himself the lowly target of inventing the ‘perfect hotel’. What constitutes a ‘perfect hotel’ is likely to differ from guest to guest, depending on their whims – and bank balance, no doubt. But one incontrovertible fact remains: while many of London’s grandest hotels faced decline and ruin after the Second World War, The Dorchester’s star was in ascent, becoming a haunt for the young, rich and hip. Perhaps like LA’s Chateau Marmont, created in an age on the cusp of modernity and fitted with the latest mod-cons, The Dorchester was adaptable to the rapid changes and demands in style throughout the 20th century.
I had been once before to this most impervious of hotels (due to the copious amount of reinforced concrete used to build the 8-storey structure, it was considered one of the safest buildings to occupy during the war). The first time, I was a boy. My father, having trained as a pastry chef there under the auspices of several great Swiss chefs during the 1960s, had later returned for a visit and I had been given a tour in the belly of the beast. I wasn’t one, at the time, for the polite restraint of the above decks – I found the atmosphere rather stuffy, as one would at a young age.
Today, as I push through the revolving doors, I’m hit by a sense of nostalgia. Not because I remember my first visit, but because I had in my mind my father’s memories. The stars of the day he had told me about. The Beatles (whom he once created a cake for during the one of the many post-premiere parties). Then there was Peter Sellers who met second wife Britt Ekland at The Dorchester; Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor and the unfortunate Kenneth Horne, the comedian who died of a heart attack on stage at the hotel while hosting the annual Guild of Television Producers and Directors Awards in 1969.
But I hadn’t come to star spot; it was only a Monday afternoon, after all. I was here for one purpose: grouse. As it was November, I wasn’t exactly going to get the first bird from the Glorious Twelfth season, but no matter; I was told if you want grouse in London, The Grill at The Dorchester was the place to go.
And when you first enter The Grill, you can at least see why: lashings of Tartan adorns the upholstery, all watched over by dramatic ceiling-high murals of Scottish noblemen. It may not suit everyone’s taste but it certainly is decadent and certainly far from anodyne. It has an air of flamboyance and spectacle.
Comfortably seated and a glass of Gabriel Pagin Champagne to start with, I decide on the smoked mackerel consommé for starter. It arrives – as much of the food and wine does – seemingly out of nowhere. Such is the elegance and clear high regard put on the service. The waiters appear and disappear like spirits, but their patter is warm and informative when making enquiries about selections.
The mackerel is delicious and slight, as if setting the stage for the mains. With the consommé’s barely-there delicacy, one must concentrate to observe the subtle flavours which gently reverberate around the palate. It’s not a jaw-dropping dish, but then it’s most probably not supposed to be.
The grouse arrives on a side trolley. I decide the best option, so as not to embarrass myself in front of my dining companions, is to let an expert carve it from the bone. There are to be no heroic attempts to be William Wallace today. Though, naturally, I was given the option of tearing it from the carcass myself, I could see no immediate gain. There were expensive suits, and I do like things easy in a restaurant.
Served in traditional roast fashion – with bread sauce, home-cured streaky bacon, game chips and liver toast– it’s a butch dish and I loved every mouthful of it. My dining companion suggested perhaps we should order some greens. ‘Oh… yes of course, some vegetables…’ They’re easily forgotten when you have copious amounts of meat lying, draped, in front of you. Making an incision, the dark brown skin gives way to a fleshy-pink inner and it’s every bit as tender as one could hope. The flavours are enhanced by intense roasting juices, with the bread sauce softening the gamey-richness. Head chef Brian Hughson has clearly made this his forte and despite the ample servings, I didn’t want this dish to end.
Dessert came in the shape of a perfectly cast chocolate sphere. No sooner had it arrived than it had been dissolved in front of my eyes as the waiter poured over hot chocolate sauce. The end presentation therefore rather less visually appealing, but the sticky, velvety finale was much to savour. A sharp espresso and petite fours made this an extravagance no lover of classic British cuisine can afford to miss. No wonder my father holds such fond memories of his time here.