Like all people who are able — generally through work-related jamminess — to very briefly dip a toe in the crystalline waters of the extremely loaded, I have a somewhat conflicted relationship with luxury. Because, yes, on the one hand it is mildly embarrassing and gross to be guiltily ushered on to the front of the plane, past corralled parents with screaming kids. And I have discovered first-hand that I don’t really have the constitution to relax in those lavish, blagged hotels where staff bow and scurry and — true story — a waiter once muttered, ‘Enjoy, sir’, as I made for the toilet.
But then of course there is the uncomfortable truth that, done correctly, these moments can thrillingly confirm absolutely everything you’ve ever suspected about the social order of the world. Which is to say, that money absolutely can buy you some happiness or momentarily fill a supposedly unfillable void. That the wangled first-class flight or preposterous swanky client lunch that permits you to gleefully cosplay as a one-percenter, half drunk on vintage armagnac and your own perceived sense of power, is a good, covetable thing. And so, though my dining taste tends towards the sort of cramped, small plates and tinnitus emporiums that mark me out as an elder millennial, I have always had a soft spot for some well-placed flash. For table-side razzle-dazzle, glittering vaulted rooms and white-jacketed staff that treat you like royalty even though you keep reflexively specifying that you want tap water.
Or at least, I thought I loved all that stuff. But then I visited Charlie’s, the new flagship restaurant in Brown’s Hotel that sees Michelin-approved chef director Adam Byatt aim for timeless grandeur and instead land at a sort of perfunctory, moneyed stiffness. Yes, there is some rousing food and vague gestures towards glamorous theatricality (such as a gleaming jet-age trolley bearing daily lunchtime specials). But there is also something inhibited and vibeless about the general tableau of sedate oyster lunches and hovering, jumpily deferent staff. Sitting in the mausoleum hush of the floral-print dining room, I vividly remember glancing around and feeling like the trappings of immense wealth had never looked like less of a laugh.
Let me say again, though: there were occasional, unignorable flashes of inspired cooking. Menu-wise, Charlie’s (which gets its name from the five-star hotel’s former owner, Lord Charles Forte) generally leans into a comforting, reassuringly spendy Britishness. After a strangely gritty, arid snack of tempura wild mushrooms, this streak emerged most potently in the rich chime of a chicken oyster consommé; a brackish mussel, cockle and clam-strewn pasta; and a lavishly filled chicken and ham pie, crowned by a puffed, golden plinth of fantastic pastry.
Seared slivers of tuna were effective, too; prettily adorned with radish, nasturtium leaves and green mandarins that came both as tart segments and worked into a terrifically complex mottled grey emulsion. There were also some creditable sides (buttered green beans strewn with toasted hazelnuts, and fat, fluffy chips). And, oh yes, a chocolate pudding with malt ice cream that, whisper it, brought to mind the very wet, aggressively sweet, chocolate fondant you might tiredly put away in a provincial branch of Strada.
Still, let us be realists. It occurred to me, scanning a room of well-dressed, unsmiling retirees, that I probably occupy neither the age category nor tax bracket of the customers. And that is fine. Disappointing perhaps, given the crossover appeal of, say, an Otto’s or Fortnum’s, but fine nonetheless. A luxury restaurant can feel like a mini holiday into a different sort of life. But not every excursion into rarified territory is going to warrant a return trip.
Charlie’s at Brown’s Hotel
1 Seared tuna £17
1 Sutton Hoo chicken pie £19
1 Hazelnut beans £5
1 Triple cooked chips £5
1 Tempura mushroom £10
1 Set menu chicken consommé £14
1 Set menu clam and mussel pasta £14
1 Chocolate pudding £12
2 Schiehallion beers £16
1 Glass of Lagar de Costa Albarino £12
1 Large still water £7
2 Double macchiatos £15
24 Albemarle Street, Mayfair, W1 (020 7518 4004; roccofortehotels.com)