Travel: Knightsbridge, London
They say London is nothing but an oligarch’s playground, and nowhere looks it more than Knightsbridge. If you’re anything less than absurdly wealthy, it really is a bizarre place.
New money doesn’t care who’s looking in Knightsbridge. In between one of Heston Blumenthal’s restaurants and the Abu Dhabi Investment Authority, a Formula 1 car hangs upside down in a McLaren boutique.
On the street outside our hotel is parked a Swarovski crystal-encrusted Mercedes, personalised license plate ‘BAI BII’.
Around the corner, the Ecuadorian Embassy hosts the world’s worst house guest, Julian Assange.
He stays in considerably less comfort than we did. The five-star Capital Hotel is sandwiched between Harrods and Harvey Nichols, on remarkably quiet Basil Street parallel to Knightsbridge itself, and was the venue for what turned out to be a thoroughly relaxing weekend getaway, despite the jingling bling ringing in our ears.
We stayed just before Christmas, and there can hardly be a better staging post for shopping. If like us, however, you’re running low on rubles, the natural attractions of Hyde Park are a very short walk away – the quickest route is through the Edinburgh Gate, no less – and Knightsbridge tube station is even closer.
Avoid the pavements, thick with heiresses, and take the underground to theatreland just a few minutes’ ride away. The Piccadilly Line also connects you to King’s Cross and the East Coast mainline.
The Capital is owned by the Levin family, part of a small empire of hospitality-themed businesses that includes a bakery and a vineyard in the Loire. The family interest in the industry started with patriarch David Levin, whose first job was as a commis waiter at the Malmaison in Glasgow.
That family ethos is evident in the small townhouse hotel, opened by David in 1971 and now run by his daughter, Kate. Staff were genuinely welcoming and helpful.
No, the concierge could not get me a table for six for Sunday brunch in Soho after 9pm on Saturday night. But the fact he was even willing to try is admirable in itself.
The vintage décor suggests its target market is probably overseas visitors able to shop in the nearby stores, but who still snap pictures of Buckingham Palace through the railings. That doesn’t mean one of her majesty’s subjects can’t enjoy a bit of baroque luxury – even the tea is brought to your door.
Step across the lobby into the bar and restaurant, and the surroundings are altogether more contemporary. Paneled in wood and glass and dotted with nautical maps, the décor evokes the sea that dominates the menu.
The restaurant is Nathan Outlaw’s Michelin-starred outpost in London, and the trip from Scotland is worth it for the Cornish chef’s cuisine alone. Subtle, balanced yet clear flavours are his calling card.
My cured bass, started with a salad of fennel, citrus fruits and horseradish was a delicious case in point. I winced in anticipation of a zesty grapefruit punch that never landed – instead it perfectly complemented the delicately meaty slices of fish.
Probably the raciest thing on the menu is also the most delicious, however – the lobster scampi that accompany the plaice with potato terrine and leeks. Matched with a bottle of Levin sauvignon blanc, this is a celebration of quality produce – particularly the seafood – that is a refined cocktail party rather than a raucous fiesta.
After dinner, we were offered a bespoke whisky tasting in the cosy wood-paneled bar that leads off Outlaw’s by bar manager Cesar da Silva. C
esar is the youngest ‘Keeper of the Quaich’ in the UK at 32, and has the knowledge to prove it. He was perhaps a little over-zealous in his talk – the history of Japanese whisky was perhaps unnecessary, given that we weren’t offered any to drink, thank goodness.
It was all the more difficult to focus on his lecture sitting in front of a spread of cheeses, fruit and preserves, as well as three Scotch whiskies. Credit to Cesar, once we got around to the actual eating and drinking, his tasting notes were flawless and revelatory.
At this point in the evening, it became difficult to remember exactly what was paired with what, but I do now know that a dram taken without a slice of blue is more or less wasted.
Between the restaurant and the nearby Peak Health Club & Spa, you could probably get away with barely exiting the building.
The overall effect was to visit the busiest city in Europe and still feel cocooned and pampered from the madness of Knightsbridge. As we left, we waved to Julian.
What must he make of the neighbours?
The Capital Hotel, 22-24 Basil Street, London SW3 1AT
Double rooms from £274.80 per night booked online; three courses at Outlaw’s at the Capital from £55 per head including a glass of wine; set lunch of two courses for £20 or three for £25 is available Monday-Friday