Two great European hotels spring to mind when saying ‘art afternoon tea’. One is Waldorf Astoria Cavallieri, above Rome, famed for its Tiepolos. The other, run since its 1997 start by very-Irish mine host Peter MacCann, is The Merrion, Dublin, where 159 priceless art works are more than enough reason for me, at least, to return to the Irish capital.
The Merrion’s free audio tour takes about 35 minutes, and after an introduction from the hotel’s Chairman, business tycoon and art collector Lochlann Quinn, off you go. I personally was fascinated by the lobby-set red-turbanned self-portrait by Saurin Elizabeth Leech (1879-1951), who was married for two years to William John Leech, (1881-1968), whose Aloes hangs in the hotel’s Upper Drawing Room. One of the newest additions, outside The Garden Room all-day restaurant, is The Battle of The Boyne 1690, by Jan Van Huchtenburg (1647-1733), one of two of his paintings of this battle (the other hangs in The Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam).
This 143-room hotel (with 159 artworks), part of Leading, could well be described as an art gallery that also happens to have bedrooms. I was in suite 292, recently added to the inventory. Alice Roden’s bedroom interiors are reminders that the hotel is a conversion of 18th-century townhouses, one of which was birthplace of the Duke of Wellington. The suite is classic, with moulded ceilings and floral prints showing more than a streak of chinoiserie. You have Asprey toiletries, electric towel rails, simple Nespresso with bespoke William Edwards cups, and a range of Irish arts and history hardbacks. My glass-bottled water was Oscar Wilde, from Tipperary. The bottle is described as ‘exquisite’ by Wilde’s grandson, Merlin Holland. Yes, Wilde had two sons – one Merlin’s father – by his wife Constance Lloyd. Both were surnamed Holland. Why? In fact Wilde came from Dutch heritage, de Wilder. After the Wilde scandal both his sons changed their name to Holland.
The Merrion has so many advantages. It is five minutes’ walk to St Stephen’s Green and double that to the city’s retail hub, Grafton Street, pedestrianised and greatly cleaned up these days. The shops are magnificent, for fashion, jewellery and coffee at Bewley’s. Of course there are pubs galore, although actually there is a great pub right in the hotel, the basement Cellar Bar, with original barrel-vaulted brick ceilings, pub-grub food and two own-label craft beers, the Delaney, and, for the building’s original contractor, the Monk.
I dined, however, in the Garden Room, an Alice Roden masterpiece that flows, through an all-wall sliding window, out to the central garden when the weather allows.
The Garden Room is light, bright and furnished with palest pine-coloured wicker, chairs and glass-topped tables. The kitchen sent out pairs of nutty Wexford scallops as amuse, and I went on to Ardsallagh goat’s cheese salad with pancetta, toasted pine nuts, beetroot, and rocket, followed by grilled whole black sole with baby brown shrimp, samphire and lemon butter. Although Ireland does craft beer, and whiskey – I had a carafe of Redbreast 12-year-old single pot-still Irish Whiskey, with tasting notes by Jim Murray, in my suite – it does not, however, produce wine, so we had to make do with Givry 1er Cru le Grande Berge 2017 Dme Mouton.
Apart from the wine, The Garden Room is an Irish experience, through and through. Servers are in soft greys to suggest the Wicklow hills, specially designed by Consolata Boyle, who got Oscar nominations for costumes for both The Queen, 2007, and Florence Foster Jenkins, 2016. Yes, this is an Irish restaurant. At breakfast, there are local yoghurts, including Killowen Farm macrobiotic, and G’s james, and if you want the full Irish, you get eggs, Tommy Doherty black pudding, bacon, tomatoes, and potato soda bread.
Since my last visit a highly successful spa has been added, sculpted out of what was a lowest-level thematic-dungeon restaurant. Now the sparkling five-room facility, with ESPA and Biologique Récherché, the first in Ireland, does extremely well, with 85% local clientele and remarkably healthy retail sales. I only had time for the gym – 24/7, with LifeFitness: the 12-metre indoor pool, next to it, has a trompe l’oeil country house scene on one end wall. The time came to head off to the countryside. As I left, concierge Colin handed me my preordered Irish sandwich, actually a wholemeal baguette liberally spread with just-churned butter, and filled with rocket and cheese. ‘You are welcome’, he said, using the ongoing Irish catchword. (Next week: the Irish countryside, and its crafts).
Mary Gostelow‘s travelogue is www.girlahead.com