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Outwardly, London hasn’t changed

It is a long time to be away but I had not been to London since the pandemic began.

When travel restrictions relaxed, I did go to the West, but mainly to Italy; somehow there seemed to be no reason to go to England.


Last week, I finally went back to London to attend the board meeting of a charitable foundation and wondered how different I would find it. Were the horror stories about Heathrow true? Had the United Kingdom (UK) changed as a consequence of its revolving door approach to the prime ministership? Had the hospitality industry recovered from the devastation caused by the pandemic?


   I’m not sure I found answers to all of those questions. But in some ways, I was lucky. And in the case of Heathrow, I was doubly lucky. Firstly, my flight landed late in the evening when Terminal Two is not so crowded. There were lines at immigration but they were manageable. And unlike other airports where I have landed recently (Sydney, Milan and Frankfurt), British immigration officers tend to be relaxed and cheerful. They do not treat every passenger as a potential illegal immigrant.


   Secondly, the Tata takeover has led to an almost unimaginable improvement in Air India’s ground handling at Heathrow. The whole process, from disembarkation to luggage collection, was better handled than before.


   But yes, it was just luck. Professor Sudhir Anand who flew in for the same board meeting had arrived early in the morning when Heathrow was jam-packed. It took him one hour and 50 minutes to clear immigration because of the paucity of immigration officers.


   Outwardly, London hasn’t changed. Christmas lights blazed in Regent Street and Harrods was lit up to thrill the tourists who form the bulk of its clientele. The hospitality industry is bouncing back, though it may be too late for restaurateurs whose businesses were devastated during the pandemic. And because many people have left the industry, many jobs have not filled or have been filled by people without the requisite experience or ability.


   But London’s hotels are doing all right. Not only are they full but room rates are at a historic high; even higher than they were in the pre-pandemic era. This does not mean the hotels are any better. I would argue that many are actually worse-run than they used to be — but they are all making a lot of money.


   I stayed, as I usually do, at 51 Buckingham Gate, run by Taj; 51 Buckingham Gate is an apartment complex with full hotel services so should you so decide, you can make your own dinner in the apartment’s kitchen or order it from the Michelin-starred Quilon.


   Because I was in London on such a short, rushed trip, I went out for dinner only once, choosing to eat in the apartment on the other nights. (The five-and-a-half hour time difference meant I was wrecked by 7:30 pm every night and in no condition to go out.)


"The Fat Duck is located in a building that is over 500 years old and it looks nothing like your average three Michelin star restaurant and the cellar was particularly charming."

   It helped, I think, that I felt safe at Buckingham Gate. The hotel is superbly run with great food, of course, but it manages to make guests feel secure and looked after. This is a big deal in London which is now one of the most unsafe cities in the West. Watch companies tell you to wear only the cheapest watches on the street because people are regularly mugged and asked to hand over their money and their valuables. If you are talking on the phone while walking down the road, do not be surprised if a motorcyclist grabs the phone and speeds off.  Likewise, for ladies’ handbags.


   You are not safe in your own hotel room either. While I was there, a cleaner at the London Hilton was being prosecuted for stealing jewellery worth around Rs 2 crore from a guest room. Gangs of thieves have infiltrated hotels, planting staff in the housekeeping departments to steal from the rooms. No hotel is really secure, which is why I was glad to be safe at 51 Buckingham Gate.


   Given the rushed nature of the trip, I had hardly any time to meet old friends or check out new restaurants. A special treat was an invitation to The Fat Duck in Bray (a lovely village that is an hour from London) to have lunch with Heston Blumenthal and Melanie Ceysson. Heston and Melaine had also invited Matthew Fort, one of the UK’s best food writers.


   The restaurant was full (it is always booked up months in advance) so we ate at a table in the wine cellar. The Fat Duck is located in a building that is over 500 years old and it looks nothing like your average three Michelin star restaurant and the cellar was particularly charming.


   When the Duck opened, Heston was at the pass for every service for ten years. He no longer cooks every day (he lives in France for most of the year) but his chefs come to France to develop new dishes with him, so he is totally involved in the food. At present, the Duck menu includes some of its greatest hits along with newer dishes.


   I had never been to the Duck before so, naturally, I was blown away but even Matthew, who has watched Heston go from being an interesting young chef to becoming the world’s greatest chef, was impressed by the excellence of the food.


   By now people have said all the things that need to be said about Heston’s food — it is joyful, it is surprising, it appeals to all of the senses, it is astonishingly creative, and so on — so I won’t repeat all of that. But what struck me was the complexity of flavours. Most European food — even at the best restaurants — will have three or four flavours. But Heston’s food has so many — often seemingly conflicting — flavours that with each mouthful you taste something new and different.


   If you forget for a moment about the dishes themselves, the techniques and the multi-sensory approach and just focus on the interplay of flavours, that alone goes beyond anything I have ever seen any chef create.


   Obviously, it helps to have the chef on your table (so that you can ask him questions about the food), but even if Heston had not been there, my strongest memories of the meal would have been: This man is a genius at creating and combining flavours.


   I am aware that this is not Heston’s primary claim to fame — he is better known for his many other achievements — but on the drive back to London, all my wife and I could talk about were the flavours in Heston’s food.


   Long before the Fat Duck lunch was planned, we had agreed to meet old friends of ours for dinner at Dinner, the restaurant at the Mandarin Oriental, which is, of course, another of Heston’s places. At that stage, Heston was not supposed to be in England but when it turned out that he would be in London, my friends were pleased that he could join us for a drink before dinner. They were pleased too at seeing Heston up close: He can be charming, playful, thoughtful, mischievous, profane and delightful, all in the space of two minutes. He is nothing like you would expect a great chef to be and, unusually for a man who has been so famous for so long, has no air of self-importance about him. You can say what you like to him; provided you let him do the same to you.


   Before we got to London, my wife and I had made many plans: A walk along the river, sitting in St. James’s Park, an al fresco Sunday lunch at some lovely location. None of this was possible because three-and-a-half days is simply not long enough. And besides, it rained every day.


   I guess that’s okay. The sun will come out. And we will go back.



Posted On: 05 Dec 2022 07:55 PM
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