Let’s have an update on the ‘town and country’ pairing. Here is the ultimate suggestion that is absolutely right for the 2020s. What do they have in common? Eccentricity, no gyms, ultra-enthusiastic workforces, and uniqueness.
The Mandrake Hotel London is a conversion of a pair of four-floor office blocks, adjacent in Newman Street, Fitzrovia. Ten minutes’ walk north-east of Oxford Circus, this is the high-money centre for entertainment gurus, fashion and tech (no problem, you rightly say, in filling the two year old independent hotel’s 34 rooms week nights).
I arrived, past a security guard, perhaps from, say, Nigeria, wearing black. I walked along a vaguely-lit all black entrance tunnel, some 20 metres long. The black wall at the end, I later discovered, is a screen, hiding an original Andy Warhol. Turn left, through automatic glass doors, to a fantasy. The two-floor lobby looks into an inner garden (designer Bas Smets’ Mandrake concept beat Singapore’s Marina Bay Sands on best outdoor spaces in a recent global competition). Turn and look up, over where I came in, and there is a back-lit upper window revealing the studio of the current artist-in-residence, who may well be champion tattooist Mark Mahoney. The hotel spends £20,000 a year on tattoos for its 92 team members, ‘The Tribe’.
Four Tribalists greeted me warmly at reception. All wear black – ‘no uniforms, but wear dark – there’s a dress allowance, plus a box of exotic jewellery for anyone, guy or girl, to wear on-shift’. One had both-arm tattoos. Of the two Romanians, one, doing a part-time Masters in Finance (‘to get a proper job’), roomed me. Honestly, room 21 was amazingly normal, about 28 sq m, instant WiFi and plenty of sockets, easy-see minibar, kettle rather than espresso machine, Grown Alchemist toiletries, cashmere-filled bed, and, apart from one metre-square wall painting, overall cream colours relieved by a soft peach chaise longue that matched the cover of one of my four standing hardbacks, Francesca Woodman’s egocentric female nude photographs, On Being an Angel. I also had a booklet promoting the hotel’s onsite shaman concierge, whose offerings range from a Peruvian heart opener with medicinal cacao, 60 minutes for £150, up to a three-hour shamanic healing lesson, £300. This lay on top of Malec Fustok, the artist responsible for my room’s Jean-Michel Basquiat-style silhouette.
This is a family business. Brother Rami Fustok owns the hotel, a repository for his own collection. Sister Tala did the interiors. Mother is Lebanon’s most famous sculptor, Bushra Fakhoury (Saudi Arabian father, never mentioned, is also, apparently, ‘in hotels’) • My new Romanian finance-student pal takes me on a tour of what could be called Fustok Palace. In the basement, toilets share a common hand-wash area that has a table bearing eight white and one black 50x50x50cm china bowls, all fed automatically, when hands are under, by ceiling-hung brass tubes. Next door, Masha-Hari Theatre is in fact a versatile public space, with a migraine-inducing video wall, and other walls that, like the wood floor, can be put on to vibrate mode.
I am introduced to the ground-floor bar, Waeska, a long space with a five-metre-long well-stocked bar. Lean on its Labradorite counter for positive energy. Behind, hundreds of bottles are overseen by a colourful 1.5 metre-long Fable sculpture, 50% gazelle and 50% peacock. Way beyond, past a DJ setup, are private areas that include a kind of red velvet rail carriage that can hold about 12, separated from the plebs by a metal-chain curtain. The French-Italian mixologist, who came from The Langham London’s Artesian, shows off his Ethnobotany menu, utilising fruits, herbs and the like. He offers an exotic green wakamomo peach, imported from Japan expressly for here. He makes a Szechuan, namely Patron Silver tequila, Mezcal Union, Yuzu agave, basil sorbet, and a powerful little seed that needs to be nibbled between sips.
YOPO, the South American restaurant named for a Venezuelan plant, is, as often, bought out, so I dine with GM Simon Drake at one end of the 18-seat wood table in the private dining room, where walls and ceiling have been scarlet-lacquered 28 times. Australian chef George Scott-Toft was dispatched to Argentina, Chile and Peru to research with ‘the best’. I follow Roscoff onions, Romesco and burrata, with halibut, chanterelles, braised endives, and a glass of Nuits-St-Georges 2016 Dme du Clos Frantin. Drake tells me this is a dream job. At the last Tribe party, every employee left with a gift of the calibre of a helicopter ride over London. At his last guest-party, Hieronymus Bosch-themed, a real dwarf, naked but for a loin cloth, emerged from an outsize egg. Now, after a five-day closure for Christmas, the hotel will be a sell-out for New Year’s Eve: 600 tickets were sold in six hours online, £100 entry or £180 with food.
“Live beyond yourself” is The Mandrake tagline, says the GM, but I come back to earth with a bump as I must rush to bed. A few hours later, at 5.30 a.m., the charming Nepalese night manager brings just-brewed coffee, with brown and white sugar lumps, and shortly after, I am on my way – to the 32-key The Pig in The (New) Forest. I pass isolated wild ponies, some by themselves, some in small groups – these animals, like cows and sheep, have run of the entire 376 sq km New Forest.
Over a cattle grid, I drove a further 500 metres to a two-storey house built in 1634. This was converted, without being over-modernised, to open in 2011 as the first of what has become the cult ‘The Pig’ brand, summed up as old-buildings offering addictive shabby-chic 21st century luxury lodging. The restaurant is always a large glass conservatory connected to the rear of the building. There are always extensive grounds that include working vegetable gardens.
I was staying with my sisters in the two-bedroom Pig Lodge, 300 metres from the main house. We shared a living room with big Smeg refrigerator, stocked with masses of wine, and a full working kitchen: a loaf of new bread, butter under a ceramic cover and a bottle of English sparkling waited. We never got round to lighting the log-burning stove. My bedroom, about 45 sq meters, had recycled wood railway sleepers for flooring. I had a Roberts radio, black Bakelite telephone and light switches, a flatscreen Samsung and excellent WiFi. There was a current Private Eye magazine, and two hardbacks, Wild Food, and Tales and Recipes from the Kitchen Garden. The bathroom, had a freestanding tub, one big old fashioned sink on a long granite stand, a superb strong-pressure walk-in shower, and towels warmed over a radiator. The toilet functioned via a metre-long hanging chain. 100 ml flip-top Bramley toiletries included juniper, sweet orange and bergamot body lotion.
We dine in the glass conservatory, surrounded by lots of flourishing plants. Mix-match plain wood tables are set with china, cutlery and glass from garage sales. Pair this with crisply-ironed white linen napkins and smiling staff. The menu, on an A3 sheet, is 25-miles-radius, with a map on the rear that shows what comes from where. My meal is simple, a Walled Garden salad, with enormous chunks of home-made bread, followed by oyster mushroom pappardelle with garden herbs and cream sauce. The separate red and white wine lists – more A3 sheets, with listings on both sides – include a Hall of Fame section (Yaltarra Bin 144 Penfolds 2016). I choose a glass The Pig Hut 2016 Grenache/Syrah, from M. Chapoutier.
The bed, which has four 2-metre-high corner posts, is Four Seasons comfort. I sleep through to the (old-fashioned) alarm and make an espresso. The conservatory’s Breakfast Table buffet is an incredible bargain: pay £12 for masses of fresh stuff, from whole fruit through to boil your own eggs from The Pig’s hens, with a choice of home-made toasting breads (you can pay an additional £4 for a range of other hot items, say a ‘full Pig-out’ of Hampshire middle-cut bacon, eggs, sausage, field mushrooms, grilled tomatoes and both black and white puddings). Tables are now set with dark brown paper napkins. Strong coffee comes in metal jugs. I get an expected telephone call and then it is time to leave – I am farewelled with a big kiss on the cheek from the Night Manager.
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