The St Martins Lane hotel isn't everyone's cup of tea. Not everyone will understand the idea that fabric daisy chains double as "do not disturb" signs in the bedrooms, or the mood-enhancing lights that glow yellow through to purple, at the touch of a button. And are those stools in the lobby gold molars?
This is owner Ian Schrager's "anti-brand" hotel - or, according to the rather verbose promotional blurb, "a subversive collision of influences based on diversity rather than homogeneity".
But then, none of Schrager's hotels conform to the norm. The New York native first made a name for himself with Morgans in 1984, then with the Royalton and the Paramount. These were followed by the Delano on Miami Beach in 1995 and, a year later, the Mondrian in Los Angeles. And now, London. Schrager is set to open his second hotel here in the spring, called Sanderson, in "north Soho". He calls it an "urban spa", with a landscaped courtyard open to the sky.
The St Martins Lane hotel is on the edge of Covent Garden, next door to the English National Opera. Its design is the work of the celebrated Philippe Starck - and it's wonderfully different. The staff are dressed like models, with grey silk dresses and black designer suits. Guests hang out in the lobby, perched on one of the gold molars or draped over the white calico-covered day-chairs.
The lobby, in fact, is the hub around which the hotel revolves. "The lobby is like a village of six discrete but seamlessly interwoven public spaces," spews the PR blurb. Meanwhile, the very white, very cube-like (and very popular, at 97% occupancy) bedrooms, from £195, are just somewhere to recharge before taking one of the hotel's five food and beverage options.
In one corner is Asia de Cuba, the hotel's flagship restaurant. In the middle is the Light Bar, for members only (and hotel guests, of course). To the right is Saint M, a twist-on-traditional brasserie, with its more relaxed central bar. Beyond Saint M is the Seabar, a Japan-inspired seafood bar, crammed with crustacea. In warmer months, there will also be the Sidewalk Café and Outdoor Garden Restaurant, running along the side of the hotel, in May's Court.
Schrager has handed over all the food and beverage for his two London hotels to independent restaurant operator Jeffrey Chodorow and his firm, China Grill Management. The alliance with Schrager began with Chodorow's opening of "44" in Schrager's Royalton hotel in 1988, followed by the Blue Door restaurant in the Delano. It was the popularity of Chodorow's Asia de Cuba restaurant in Morgans that sparked its clones at the Mondrian and St Martins Lane.
But, in the first few days of opening, Asia de Cuba, London, received scathing reviews from two of London's senior food critics, Fay Maschler and AA Gill. Did it affect takings? "Not at all," claims food and beverage director Barry Skarin. "It was a worry, but I think we lost two tables of eight in the end."
"Art" columns - one is covered with terracotta pots packed with fresh red roses, another has books - dominate the room. The Cuban music oils the atmosphere nicely, as do the tables for eight and the Rum Bar near the entrance - though customers haven't quite got to grips with the US "family-style" portions of "Asian-Latino" food. "It has been a bit difficult persuading people to share the dishes," confides one of the waiters. Executive chef is Richard Phillips, with head chef Peter Denham behind the range.
Phillips worked with Michael Roux Jnr and Peter Kromberg before joining Marco Pierre White at MPW Restaurants. After six months, he was promoted to head chef at the Criterion, before joining Skarin at St Martins Lane. Skarin is also ex-MPW Restaurants, as are 11 of his chefs (predictably, Skarin and White aren't speaking). His last position was group buyer and general manager of Quo Vadis. In fact, Skarin was lined up to manage Titanic, until Chodorow headhunted him.
Skarin says: "All the managers, the chefs and the sommeliers have worked together before at some time or other, and that's important. It was also important that we get a group of boys around us that we trust." There are 225 food and beverage staff, which could be considered rather a lot. "We're holding about 20% more staff because of Sanderson," Skarin explains.
Asia de Cuba has 165 seats, and is doing as many as 400 covers from Thursday to Saturday night, and about 300 covers for dinner at the beginning of the week. Lunch is less frantic, at 90 covers. Average spend is £47 (including drink). Saint M has 90 seats, with 140 covers on average, and 70 for lunch, with spend about £52 a head. Projected annual turnover for all the restaurants is £15m.
Saint M is a much more serious affair, and the menus, unlike those in Asia de Cuba, are Phillips's baby. He has installed Ian Sutton (ex-Criterion) to turn out dishes that will wow the critics - "If I could just get them back," he sighs.
"The backbone of my cuisine is French," he says, "but I wanted friendly food." Top-selling dishes so far include starters such as the crab and salmon fish cakes with sorrel and dill cream sauce (£8.95) and the risotto of sea scallops with poached egg, hollandaise sauce and parmesan crisp (£8.25). Main course best-sellers are the grilled darne of halibut (£18.50) and the marinated cannon of lamb infused with ginger and garlic (£16.95). Puddings are courtesy of pastry chef Stuart Pate and include a banana-and-rum mousse in a milk chocolate box (£6.50).
In the Seabar, a blindingly white interior sets off glistening mounds of seafood, with stool seating circling the Asian-trained chefs preparing the day's selection before diners' eyes. To complement the food, Skarin and wine buyer Jean Marc Heulière have built a ground-breaking list of Alsace varietals.
Wine will be a central theme at Sanderson's only restaurant (yet to be named), opening early next year. A glass cellar in the centre of the room will allow diners to glimpse a few of the 1,200-bin list being put together by Skarin and Heulière. "I want to make a statement here," says Skarin, who boasts about the "huge" verticals (successive vintages from the same producer) from California and Australia that they have managed to secure, and the 70 wines that will be available by the glass. The 90-seat, fine-dining, modern French restaurant is a collaboration between Phillips, French legend Claude Troisgros, and the restaurant's head chef, Damon Gordon.
And where did Gordon work before? "Where do you think?" laughs Skarin. Another reason for Skarin and MPW to avoid the same parties, then.
St Martins Lane
45 St Martin's Lane, London WC2N 4HX
Tel: 020 7300 5500
Owner: Ian Schrager London Ltd
Restaurants: Saint M (90 seats), Seabar (27 seats), Asia de Cuba (165 seats)
Average spend: £47 to £52 (including drinks)
Overall design: Philippe Starck
Food and beverage operator: Jeffrey Chodorow
Food and beverage director, London: Barry Skarin
General manager: Mark Butler
Rack rate: £195 to £450, with apartment and penthouse rates on request.
Source: Caterer & Hotelkeeper magazine, 16 - 22 December 1999