Balvenie and Oysters at Brown’s

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Nick Hammond dons his best bib and tucker for a trip to Brown’s Hotel in Albemarle Street…

I’m a sucker for oysters. Always have been. It just doesn’t get any better than a plateful of these zesty little pouches of ozone. No. 2 is my favoured size and by preference, a Colchester Native, please.

But I must say, the half dozen Loch Ryan’s I’m presented with at Hix Mayfair are up there with the very best I’ve had – and I’ve had my fair share. So good are they that I forgo shallots, red wine vinegar and Tabasco – hell, I even forgo the wedge of lemon. They disappear from my plate one after the other in a flash. Mrs Hammond receives a fearsome scowl for daring to snatch one during an unguarded moment.

But, as ever, I am getting ahead of myself. I’m at the distinguished Brown’s Hotel in Mayfair‘s cultured Albemarle Street; a subtle mix of new and old from 11 converted townhouses in the thick of the capital’s action. Reputedly, it’s London’s oldest hotel; the warm oak panelling, marble and other-worldly levels of service go a long way to proving the point. But there’s a Tracy Emin here and a Rankin there to daub deft touches of contemporary to this historic hotel. too.

Browns Hotel Donovan Bar

A jolly good bar stands apart from the rest. The best bars make you feel like you’ve stumbled on the hottest party in town – and you’re the VIP guest. There’s a real buzz about The Donovan Bar this Wednesday early evening; it’s every so slightly gloomy and there’s a morose-looking chap making love to his red wine in the far corner, but this merely serves to improve the drama. It’s jammed with beautiful people which, to be honest, makes a nice change from the hairy oiks that loiter around my local.

Groups of girls chatter over tables of Champagne; hungry young fellas in power suits laugh loudly at each other. It’s great theatre, and the good lady and I share an indulgent smile as we find a quietish spot and soak it all up. The bar itself is small but powerfully magnetic – and a brief but illuminating chat with Bar Manager Giovanni sees me gunning for a signature whisky cocktail to open the batting. More theatre follows.

The Spey Trip involves a glass made from a cut-down bottle of Balvenie; a stave of whisky cask, a sliver of copper from a still, dried figs, some ice, bitters and a dram. It’s a snorter. I love Balvenie Doublewood, which forms the basis of the drink, and Giovanni’s concoction showcases it, while adding a subtle twist. It’s sort of like an Old Fashioned – but with a better class of whisky, if I’m allowed to say such a thing.

Donovan Bar Spey Trip

Anyway, it’s bloody delicious and the perfect, slightly ‘over the top’ drink to kickstart your evening in the Donovan. It’s strong too, and it’s with a tell-tale flush of the old cheeks that half an hour later I repair to sample the wares of Hix Mayfair.

Mark Hix is, of course, a chef of some repute these days and hot property wherever he lays his toque. The restaurant is warmly inviting – very elegant, but by no means starchy; it also serves as our bright breakfast spot the next morning.

And so, here I find myself sans oysters, thanks to my darling wife who nabbed the last. I curse and mentally admonish myself for not going the whole hog and ordering a dozen. Manfully, I pull myself together for the main course.

It’s venison Haggis in a Savoy cabbage skin, clever and pungent, washed down with a suitable depth charge of Claret. Meawhile, Mrs H has finished a sweet, delicate crab starter and is now is cooing over a fragrant turbot curry. It’s a sensational menu – one of those which leaves you wishing you could try each dish at least once.

Hix Oysters

But they wouldn’t let us work our way through the menu from top to bottom, the miserable swines, so we force more sweet nothings past our lips; a citrus milk pudding and a classically gooey, rich, chocolate dessert. We waddle back to the utter splendour of our Albemarle Suite.

The bathroom (always strangely the litmus paper for a hotel stay, I feel) is wondrous in its bright, white, fluffy-toweled majesty. You can watch telly in the bath if you so wish; it has one built in. There are bottles and bottles of expensive and heady oils and lotions; His and Hers sinks; monsoon-inducing showerheads and on and on. Wonderful.

There’s even a nifty little suit stand complete with a tray for all the useless accoutrements blokes tend to carry around with them (in my case a packet of Polos, worry beads, a hanky and some loose change). I’d like to stay a bit longer here – get to know the history of the place; hear tales of when Churchill regularly browsed and sluiced downstairs; of when Kipling wrote The Jungle Book while staying here; how Agatha Christie used dear old Brown’s as inspiration for her novel, At Bertram’s Hotel.

Browns Hotel interior

But alas and alack, I must collect my old trundle trolley and depart in the morning. For now, all that remains is to lie back in my voluminous bed, enshroud myself in a duvet of staggering proportions and flick the off switch.

‘Night.

Staff at The Donovan Bar at Brown’s Hotel were inspired to create The Spey Trip after visiting The Balvenie distillery via canoe. The label is made from copper from the stills, wood from the casks in the cooperage forms the stand and the glasses are made from empty Balvenie bottles. Ingredients include fig syrup, dried figs, Donovan bitters and, of course, Balvennie single malt. Arbuturian readers can sample The Spey Trip at a cost of £20.50.

Over the weekend of 3rd – 5th July, Browns are offering an opportunity to experience the world’s greatest art market destination. 100 Mayfair and St. James’s galleries and auction houses will open their doors to the public for the duration of the weekend. With free talks, walks and exhibitions, Brown’s London Art Weekend offers a unique opportunity for art lovers to explore the capital’s greatest private galleries.

As the base for the London Art Weekend, Browns are hosting a programme of themed tours and specialist art talks covering topics from ‘How to start your art collection’ to ‘Fashion in Art’, and also offering a sumptuous Hix and the Artists all day menu, created by Mark Hix in collaboration with Young British Artists.

For more information, visit www.londonartweekend.co.uk.

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