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Crazy Rich Asians in London

I would have been around 11 years old when I first flipped through my father’s day-old copy of the Financial Times (airmailed from London). I was probably attracted by the colour printing – the domestic state controlled media was yet to discover colour. In fact, life in Sri Lanka was mostly devoid of colour – a bad case of socialism left everything dull and grey. 

Well-meaning teachers warned us of the evils of running dog capitalist pigs and their economic models. We were encouraged to study hard and aspire to underpaid government jobs (the only kind around).  

Malcom Forbes’ Boeing 727-100 private jet – “Capitalist Tool”

The pages of the FT were an escape, but most of the content went over my head. And then I came across a column called “How To Spend It”. It became apparent even to a 11 year old, that running dog capitalists made so much money that they needed advice on how to spend it. This was not just shocking, it was subversive. The first article I read was about Malcolm Forbes’ new private jet, christened “Capitalist Tool”. I was enchanted and completely captivated. I stopped dreaming of driving a metallic blue Toyota Corolla with aftermarket alloy wheels, and started dreaming of driving a screaming red Ferrari. 

The Financial Times recently celebrated the opening of two uber luxury hotels in London. Outposts of grand Asian hotels, they are aimed squarely at running dogs who need advice on how to spend their money. Both the Peninsula London (at Hyde Park Corner with a view of Buckingham Palace) and the Raffles (at the Old War Office across from 10 Downing Street) charge over £1,000 a night for their basic rooms.  When in London I tend not to spend money to sleep in other people’s beds.  However, I was curious. Friends intervened with kind invitations to both venues.  

A Colonial Singaporean Icon in London

Raffles at the Old War Office today (top) and the same building with crowds gathering to hear the declaration of war on August 4, 1914 (bottom).

Raffles at OWO (the Old War Office) is a spectacular building.  Sprawling over 57 acres in the heart of London, the building cost £1.2M in 1906 (about £123M in today’s currency).  The refurbishment by Raffles cost £1.4 Billion . 

Kitchener, Lloyd George, Eden and Churchill all ran their wars from this building.  David Lloyd George once called it the “tranquil sanctuary of the God of War”. 

The British spy service was founded in the basement, where Ian Fleming had a desk. It is here that he concocted some of his more outrageous plans to defeat the Nazis.  Heard the one about dropping London hookers into occupied France to demoralise the enemy?  Invented here. Whatever the merits of his wartime plans, as a writer Fleming became a one man recruitment agency for the intelligence services; at some point in their lives every boy wanted to be James Bond. 

The OWO building features in many Bond movies including Skyfall, Spectre, License to Kill, A View to a Kill, Octopussy, and, most recently, No Time To Die. Ian Fleming’s former office is now a James Bond themed bar, complete with an Aston Martin DB5. 

The grand staircase at the Raffles at OWO (photo courtesy the Financial Times)

The Ottoman Princess hosted me to a boozy lunch at Paper Moon,  an Italian restaurant at the Raffles Hotel. The restaurant had only been open for two weeks and they were still working out some kinks, but the enduring memory is of a large, light filled room, some spectacular dishes and superlative, Asian levels of service.  While our mains were run of the mill, the starters were spectacular.  Carcioffi (thinly sliced raw artichoke hearts) with mozzarella and lemon was full of freshness and flavour. Punterelli (chicory with anchovies) was another standout.  At the end of the meal the affogato (ice cream and espresso) came with a bit of theatre with the coffee poured through a chocolate filter. 

The prices were about standard for London restaurants these days at around £100 per head. The clientele consisted mostly of hotel guests (Japanese and Americans when I was there) and the ever present well dressed English gentlemen of a certain age taking their nieces to lunch. 

A Hong Kong hotelier creates a narrative in London

Raffles at OWO reinterprets history. The Peninsula London, a brand new building, had to create a narrative. I’ve been driving past the construction site for several years, with its imposing Chinese lions guarding the entrance, eyes blindfolded with red silk, awaiting the grand opening. 

The Brooklands lobby with the 1926 Delage once raced by Sir Malcolm Campbell.

The Brooklands Restaurant occupies the top floor of the hotel with a roof garden overlooking Buckingham Palace.  The restaurant theme attempts to combine British motoring heritage (the Brooklands race track) with British aviation history (the Concorde aircraft).  The restaurant has its own lobby on the ground floor, replete with a 1926 Delage race car once owned by Sir Malcolm Campbell, and the nose cone of a Concorde. 

The Brooklands Restaurant at the Peninsula London. Note the Concorde pilot’s seats and speed displays on the far wall, the star map on the carpet and the Concorde Speedform sculpture on the ceiling. (Photo courtesy of the Peninsula Hotel Group)

The restaurant itself is designed to look like the original Concorde lounge at Heathrow – and succeeds in feeling slightly cold and impersonal.  The decor includes pilot’s seats from the Concorde, wall displays showing altitude and speed – similar to those found in cabin of the Concorde, and a carpet incorporating a star map of the sky on the aircraft’s last journey from New York to London.  A sculpture entitled the Concorde Speedform dominates the ceiling.

The Concorde theme continues with the cocktail menu where the drinks are listed by potency: Mach I, Mach II and Mach III.  My Hudson cocktail (a Mach III) was a riff on a Sazerac.  Like most things on the menu here, it had a long list of ingredients, some core (rye, cognac) and some frivolous (quince, vanilla, tonka) that all magically combined to work rather well. 

The food, all sourced from the British Isles is complicated, creative and occasionally, genuinely fun.  There was an amuse bouche of typical British flavours, including a pâté that tastes of coronation chicken, and mushrooms on toast given a posh makeover.  Mains included delightfully quirky combinations including Skate with smoked eel, guinea fowl with razor clams and celeriac with crab.  If we were actually on the Concorde, we would have been in New York by the time we finished our meal. The cost of the meal might even have paid for a ticket on the Concorde!

Your meal comes with a personalised copy of the menu and a paper model of the Concorde – which flies pretty well!

Claude Bosi, who currently holds two Michelin stars for his cooking at Bibendum, runs the kitchen here.  There is no doubt that Brooklands will earn a Michelin star in due courses. But the food is not the point here. People come to see and be seen.

At a time when service levels around the world have dropped, both Raffles at the OWO and the Peninsula London boast of flawless service. When most restaurants expect staff to be tipped 15-20% for just about doing their jobs, service is the new differentiator.  On a subsequent visit to the Paper Moon restaurant, not only did they name-check me, they remembered my gluten intolerance and had freshly baked gluten free bread waiting on the table. This is luxe service and I want to go back just to feel pampered. 

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