Episode 16 was written on June 15th, 2020. An incredible 95 weeks ago. I just re-read that diary entry, and noted how, after 90 days of covid restrictions, I had hoped it would all be over soon and common sense would prevail (allowing people to make their own judgments about risk). How wrong I was! But, we are now relatively normal, face coverings have gone, travel is open with no restrictions, social distancing is now just something my paranoid dog Molly practices, and for the vast majority of us covid is nothing worse than a common cold. Life must go on – or KBO as Churchill would have said!
In line that KBO spirit the Martini Diaries are back, and with a new audio version that you can listen to on a internet-enabled device – I have not been technologically idle in my absence. There are even plans afoot for a video version of the diaries as well!
In this episode I travel to Edinburgh Scotland for the first time in 5 years, dine at the Hawksmoor and the Ivy, move onto my first ever visit to Newcastle and dine and stay at Malmaison.
I travelled to Edinburgh on Sunday the 3rd of April. Arriving early at Kings Cross I was able to visit the LNER First Class lounge for the first time, located above the Waitrose store and easy to find. Directly Operated Railways-owned LNER (London North Eastern Railway) is government controlled and has been since replacing the dreadfully inadequate Virgin Trains East Coast in June 2018. They also took over the Virgin First Class lounges. The lounge is adequate, clean and functional. Tea, coffee, soft drinks and biscuits are the standard fare – alcohol is available for purchase. It is a step up from the tired and dis functional Virgin lounge.
The train (I was on the 1430 hrs) was very pleasant. Comfortable seating, clean flooring and pleasantly climate controlled. Three observations from me from the First Class compartment. Firstly, I am not sure the train has to travel quite so fast. There were times when glasses and other items slide across the table as we entered turns – I suspect for those who suffer from motion sickness it might be too much. Secondly, only hot food is delivered on a plate, everything else, including my chicken sandwich, is left on one’s table (in its wrapper) on a paper napkin. Hardly the atmosphere of ‘First Class’. Finally, serving a pungent curry in a confined carriage on a train where the windows do not open should not be allowed – the smell dominated everything. LNER should try harder here. That said, the drinks flowed freely, and the staff seemed very happy and pleased with their tasks (again, a big improvement on the sullen and demoralised Virgin staff from a few years ago).
The time passed quickly (helped along by a half bottle of Moët I carried on with me!), plenty of work was completed, and we arrived in Edinburgh on time at 1910 hrs.
In passing I should note no one paid any attention to the announcement as we crossed the border into Scotland to put on our face coverings – there was just much laughter mainly from our Scottish passengers that covid somehow respected physical borders! There followed a bit of a long uphill walk to reach the taxi rank (I would imagine that might be challenging for those with significant luggage), somewhat detached from the Station. A short ride to our hotel – Le Monde, on George Street.
Le Monde describes itself as ‘a world of relaxed global glamour’, with ‘18 individually designed bedrooms inspired by the world’s most stylish cosmopolitan cities’. Unfortunately, the hotel is still emerging slowly from covid restrictions and was very limited in its dining options. It does though have a huge cocktail bar – in fact my taxi driver only knew of it as bar and night club, not a hotel!
My room, the ‘Los Angeles’ was impressive. A large very comfortable bed (that I didn’t want to leave in the morning!), huge bathroom and bath (big enough for three people!), a comfortable seating area, and walls festooned with black and white framed photographs of movie stars (over the course of the next two days the many visitors to my room collectively managed to identify all of them – after I had miserably failed to do so). In a first for me, on my many global travels, I could not fault the room. Well done Le Monde!
The same could not be said for breakfast – although delicious and very well cooked, service didn’t start until 8 am, and with everything cooked to order a 30 minute wait was the norm. Fine, if you are holiday, but very challenging if it is a working day.
Overall, a big tick from me. A fabulous location, great concept (so much nicer than the bland chain hotels), friendly staff, and great value for money.
Back to Sunday evening and, after a quick unpack, we headed the short 5 minute walk to Hawksmoor, on 23 W Register Street, located in the rear of the Cheval, The Edinburgh Grand. This impressive building, originally the National Bank of Scotland and designed by award winning architects Mewes and Davis in 1936, finally completed in 1942. It is a stunning example of neoclassical Art Deco architecture. The decorative wood panelling are from American elm, Mexican pine, Honduran mahogany and English oak. Cavernous does not do it justice.
The food, although famous for its steaks, is for everyone. As it was already 8.30 pm we opted to avoid an first course and ordered the smallest steak (a fillet, at 300g). It came in 25 minutes, and was cooked to perfection (medium rare), that wonderful melt in the mouth sensation only possible with the finest cuts of beef. Washed down with a carafe of excellent Stellenbosch, Hartenberg, Cabernet Sauvignon 2015, it was a near perfect experience.
Between meetings on Monday I managed a walk around the local area in Edinburgh. I was very impressed with the restoration work and creations in Multrees Walk (in the corner of St Andrew Square), but thoroughly depressed by Princes Street (which now looks as run down as every high street in the UK). The closure of Jenners, such an iconic building, has added to the gloom. I hope the renovation being talked about for the building may help restore some dignity and glory to the area. But, wow, so many fabulous buildings and monuments in Edinburgh. The ‘cold’ grey stone of the building is somehow at the same time both sinister and majestic.
Monday evening we dined at The Ivy. I have never been to an Ivy before, and was pleasantly surprised (I am always one to be sceptical of hype). The only disappointment was the use of a reduced menu for our table (as we were a large group), and some of the menu items we had hoped to enjoy were not for us! My peach negroni was interesting, but you should never play with a classic. Food wise, the double baked Cheese Soufflé was magnificent, and I had to order some bread to soak up the remaining melted cheese. My turbot was somewhat smaller than I usually see in Portugal (on holiday), but well cooked and satisfying – some roasted garlic would have added to it I suggest. And then the chocolate bomb was sensational. For wine, the Chateau Montrachet lived up to its reputation.
I left Edinburgh on Tuesday afternoon very pleased with the work goals and objectives achieved, and very much in love with Edinburgh – a pleasant surprise to find it recovering very well from covid (there was little local enthusiasm to follow the current Scottish government compulsory, and often contradictory, face covering regulations). I look forward to returning.
Back onto LNER to Newcastle, and into the Malmaison Hotel, on 104 Quayside. My first stay in this chain. A very friendly and efficient welcome at Reception. My room, again, was spacious, clean, with all the facilities I would need (although the red and black striped carpet was not very soothing!). Now an hour ahead of schedule, and spotting a large bath in my bathroom I indulged in a relaxing bath. However, after the bath I attempted a cooling shower and found the shower (in the bath) stuck on scolding hot. My attempts to move the dial resulted in the tap head falling off! Reception advised me that maintenance do not work after 5 pm (!!) so I would need to move room – having unpacked I said no. They kindly arranged for me to have a room key to another room to use that shower in the morning. Well done! (An observation: Both Le Monde and the Malmaison rooms, when I arrived, were pre-set at 23c on the room thermostats. Why 23c? Who on earth heats their house to 23c? No wonder there is an energy crisis if every hotel room in this country is so hot!!)
I enjoyed two excellent negronis in the bar, and then dined in the Chez Mal restaurant. After some excellent calamari I enjoyed another fillet steak (not quite as good as Hawksmoor), and then fell in love with the truffle oil and Parmesan fries – where have they been all my life? All washed down with a very good Saint Emilion, Chateau Saint-Ange. This was an impressive restaurant – the staff were superb, service came at a steady unhurried pace, and the overall ambiance of the room suited the location. I would go again.
After a working visit the next morning to the superb facilities at Newcastle University I caught the 1410 hrs train back to London, eventually arriving home in Ipswich at 1900 hrs. I managed to clear all outstanding emails and catch up with projects, and also enjoy a very good toasted tea cake on LNER in the afternoon (on a real plate!).
So, travel is back, work is productive, meeting people face-to-face is back, the trains are running on time, restaurants are providing great food and service. It seems the country is on the road to recovery – I am delighted to be playing a small part of it! See you next week……