To proclaim the Barbican as the Bermuda Triangle of London might be a little excessive, but whenever mentioned in conversation, it’s one of those places which fills me with a mixture of confusion and trepidation. If someone were to ask if I knew the way to the Barbican, I’d mutter “Yeah, kind of”. I know it’s east of Blackfriars and west of Liverpool Street, but any further geographical exactness I couldn’t claim. With a degree of nervous excitement, therefore, I head off with my girlfriend on the two-mile adventure that takes us from my front door to the more-than-just-a-front-door of the newly opened Montcalm London City at The Brewery Hotel.
To quote its elegant albeit visually repetitive website, “The hotel accents luxurious comfort and offers a superb choice of luxurious accommodation, while preserving heritage values”. As such, it prides itself on being a ‘boutique’ establishment where attention to detail and customer service are paramount. Located within a stone’s throw of the Barbican centre, the hotel hopes to cater to the discerning and stylish traveller, the cultural elite and, due to its city location, the itinerant decision-making business man. This is the second Montcalm in London, the other being in Marble Arch.
The Montcalm sets its sights high and if anyone was in any doubt before arriving, the short length of red carpet ushering its guests into the impressive foyer is the visual leitmotif that boldly states this. Red carpets conjure up priceless shiny smiles and immaculately bequiffed heroes ushering their shapely heroines into a world of perfection and (hopefully not too) brief escapism. The audible trickle of water running down a large white plain mosaic wall on the immediate right of the entrance offers pleasant respite from the city turmoil and indeed provides a (mont)calmness to the angular reception. Staff aplenty greet us pleasantly and attentively as shiny red apples (the kind with which you’d imagine Eve tempted Adam) silently demand to be devoured.
The spa, which if it’s anything like the one in Marble Arch should have sauna rooms, steam rooms, jacuzzi, treatment rooms and gym, wasn’t opening for another two weeks, so we decide to hang out in the luxury suite for four hours instead, which does at least offer the elegance that the website boasts. With its dark wooded hues and occasional pinstripes, there’s something quite manly about it. There’s more fresh fruit (grapes, plum, orange as well as another tempting apple) and a small potted green plant which serve as welcome flourishes. The lighting is subtle and precise, the internet access is thankfully free, a decent sized LG flatscreen sticks to the wall and an iPod player sits faithfully by the bedside ready to rock.
Size is an issue here, however, and anyone thinking about bringing and swinging their cat should think twice; to describe the space as New York in size is probably the politest euphemism I can employ. The bed sits literally one metre from the door and there’s probably a maximum of a metre and a half between it and the wall at any given part of the room – not especially conducive to hanging out and relaxing, since this really means you’ll be stuck on your bed. Moreover, the two chairs that in part block the pathway through the room also come across as cosmetic rather than functional.
Somewhat bizarrely, at, I’d guess, just under half the size of the bedroom, the bathroom is impressively large. All in black with inch-sized silver tiles which create a dynamic flash through the centre of the room, the bathroom isn’t so much gentlemanly as rock and roll, and if you’re going to party in the privacy of your own hotel room, this is the place to do it. Fill that bath with champagne if you want, or if not, the rain shower still offers a vague novelty to the quotidian shower experience.
More than anything, however, it’s the details that seem to contradict the Montcalm ethos. There’s a Time Out in our room which would be great apart from the fact that it’s four weeks old. There are three clocks in the room (on the TV, the iPod player and the scent vaporiser), but each tells a different time and with 21 minutes between them. This is more than enough to make a meeting go badly wrong and yes, I do want someone to go around the 100-odd rooms and synchronise each clock in every room! Although the TV boasts almost 40 different global channels (gay rabbit anyone!?), there’s actually no VoD which means, as a film freak, contrary to being at most hotels of this ilk, I can’t luxuriate (or slob for that matter) around on the bed watching a relatively new movie at an exorbitant price – which I think is a shame.
These are all minor niggles of course but my biggest gripe is that the windows don’t have double glazing and so, really, the calm that the Montcalm is purporting to offer is in fact fairly non-existent. Even on a Saturday night when the city should be at its quietest, cars and taxis seemed to roar up and down this low-key street as drunken revellers mocked us from the road.
In the same way that relaxing in the bedroom didn’t seem like the most attractive option, relaxing in the hotel generally didn’t entice either. Most hotels these days seem to make a point of having some kind of area or bar for their guests and for their guests’ guests, where everyone can smooch around and sit comfortably smug in the knowledge that an area is actually designed for them and them specifically. However, Montcalm is lacking any such thing and so seems to be devoid of the heartbeat that defines not only boutique hotels but luxury hotels generally in this early 21st century.
There actually is a ‘bar’ but in reality it’s a smart, small gastro-type pub on a nearby corner. Previously known as St Paul’s Tavern, the space on the corner of Chiswell Street and Milton Street has become Chiswell Street Dining Rooms. Opened by Ed and Tom Martin (of The Gun and The Botanist fame) in association with the Montcalm, the chef is Richard O’Connell (formerly One Aldwych and The Groucho). With lime green leather chairs and bright white walls offsetting the mahogany tables and dark wooden slatted floor, the dining rooms are smart but cool in design, probably appearing funky to a city crowd and smart to a funky crowd. The menu is what I call British surf ‘n’ turf – proud, loud but with a flourish. There are diver-caught King Scallops from the Isle Of Man, poached langoustines from the Isle of Benbecular, smoked eel from Lincolnshire, roast rack of lamb from Denham, and hell, there are even some snails from Lincolnshire!
All the fish /shellfish is hand selected in the morning from Billingsgate Market and one imagines the same care and attention is offered to the meat. After the crispy and warm miniature loaf with butter, we start with a mixture of Maldon and Cumbrae rock oysters and the aforementioned scallops with English samphire and lemon thyme. The oysters were good but the scallops were great, cooked perfectly, allowing the texture and the taste to impress.
For mains I had the grilled whole Cornish sole with dill butter and instead of the broccoli I opted for tomato and onion salad. The sole was meaty in a good way, with enough butter to enhance as opposed to drown the sole flavour and the tomatoes came multi-coloured in green, red, yellow and purple(ish). Britta (the girlfriend) went for the Wild Atlantic stone bass with summer vegetables and tomato and cucumber consommé, the stone bass proving to be succulent on the inside and suitably crisp on the outside.
Our desserts were straight out of the Secret Seven; Knickerbocker Glory and a Sticky Toffee Pudding (albeit with salted peanut ice cream). No self-respecting child of adventure would utter any shrieks but those of delight as these came and went all too quickly, much like the dining experience itself. Honestly speaking, this was a near perfect meal with service to match from a Hungarian waiter who walked that fine line between being personable and attentive and obsequious and annoying with natural flair.
The next morning we returned for a full British breakfast which was fresher and tastier than any such hotel breakfast I can remember. The scrambled eggs were fluffy and creamy and tenderly handmade as opposed to nuked in a microwave, while the help-yourself orange juice in large-ish dispenser was happily fresh ‘with juicy bits’ rather than the concentrate which brings down, in my opinion, many a hotel breakfast.
On leaving the Montcalm, the trickle of water down the mosaic wall had stopped, dispelling the aura of calm that had initially informed the hotel. Unfortunately it’s this breakdown, I think, that sums up the place well. The staff were friendly, keen and attentive throughout our stay and a great deal of good thought has gone into the hotel’s design and construction. Nonetheless, the cramped hotel without a central pulse really doesn’t deliver on its manifesto of luxury, certainly not with rooms starting in September at over £300 a night. One can only hope that once the spa is up and running this might change, but in the meanwhile, the only solution is to go back to Chiswell Street Dining Rooms and bloat on the Knickerbocker Glory.