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April 15, 2011updated 29 Jan 2016 2:06pm

Havana Ball

By William Sitwell

As the finishing touches are applied to another Cuban-accented Boisdale steakhouse, William Sitwell talks whisky and cigars with proprietor Ranald Macdonald
IN CANARY WHARF’S Cabot Square Ranald Macdonald leaps up a set of steps towards the fountain that stands in the middle. High-rise office blocks climb towards the sky around us, ahead an avenue of trees stretches out to the docks and the City of London skyline beyond. As he reaches the fountain he turns around, pushes back his longish blonde locks and gazes up.

‘So that’s us there,’ he says grinning. ‘That whole frontage. When it was built, its codename was Buckingham Palace.’

We survey our surroundings. It’s a while since I’ve been to Canary Wharf. The place has grown beyond belief. Now, with an efficient Jubilee Line, there’s a mini-Tokyo a mere 25 minutes’ tube ride from Holland Park.

‘It’s Gotham City, but majestic, too,’ says Ranald. ‘And the closer we get to launching, the scarier it is.’

For that’s the reason we’re here. Restaurateur Ranald is opening the third branch of his Scottish restaurant Boisdale in the heart of this new metropolis. When the 47-year-old son and heir to the 24th Chief and Captain of Clanranald opened the first Boisdale, he viewed his foray into the London restaurant scene in military terms. Website blurb on the place talks of how ‘a few minutes’ walk from Buckingham Palace [he] conquered a small territory in London without force of arms. Wielding great Scottish culinary produce and stunning malt whiskies as the weapons of war to the sound of classic jazz (instead of bagpipes) Boisdale is now established as the embassy for Scotland…’

If Boisdale Belgravia is the embassy, what does that make Boisdale Canary Wharf? A grand consular outpost? Certainly this foray presents considerable risk. The premises are vast, the investment equally so. Only time will tell if the local population takes to his brand, a fusion of Cuban music, cigars and Scottish fare.

Assuming plans don’t go too awry — and with Ranald they can, his Russian venture having gone up in smoke (literally) — by the time you read this you’ll arrive at the entrance on Cabot Place West through a Park Avenue-style awning. And what on my visit were bare, unplastered walls, cables hanging from ceilings, steel beams and dozens of workmen will have been transformed. Oak floors, mahogany panelling, gold cornices, tartan carpets, dark green ceilings and, Ranald says proudly, a ‘golden amber wall of liquid gold’.

The last of these is his whisky bar. ‘This will be one of the greatest whisky bars on earth,’ he says. Which brought back memories of a trip he took me on to Cuba in 2005. He’d promised me ‘a pilgrimage to the greatest bar on earth’. There was the ‘VIP arrival’ at Havana airport, which took five hours longer than a normal arrival, then days journeying on a ‘luxury coach’. In the town of Santiago de Cuba he led us up and down dingy side streets to this greatest of all bars. In an ancient building, paint flaking, he pushed open the dusty front door and we stepped into the empty hall, listening for the sound of music and people behind some other secret door.

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But there was nothing. ‘I could have sworn it was here. Right there in the corner.’ Still, none of us minded and we’d do the hilariously heady adventure all over again.
BACK IN REALITY, Ranald is listing the many magnificents of his new domain: ‘Four private dining rooms… banquettes, button back, tan leather chairs… £180,000 sound system… Georgian church pulpit for the DJ… Cuban cigar library… Europe’s biggest walk-in humidor…’ and much more.

Reflecting on the project, Ranald rises to his military theme. ‘I’m like a general selecting my troops,’ he says of procuring his 80 staff, not to mention the finance. ‘We raised what we wanted — a bit from existing shareholders, £2.8 million — and a bit from the bank. If this breaks even and people love the place I’ll be happy. My main terror is losing money. But the battle’s never over ’til it’s over.’

Today, under the banner of Boisdale plc, he runs the Lamb at Hindon in Wiltshire and Boisdale Bishopsgate in the City, as well as Boisdale International, which he describes as being ‘opportunities in Hong Kong, Shanghai and Washington’. He also founded a Floridita bar franchise in addition to prospective businesses in Cuba — from holidays to energy. 

But Ranald lives and breathes — and provides venues for — his passions: smoking cigars — which guests will be able to do indoors to as they ‘sample’ cigars by his large humidor (or outdoors on the large terrace) — drinking whisky and listening to jazz.

He’s feeling bullish about his latest venture. ‘Canary Wharf is pre-eminent, a world-class destination, it’s convenient, well looked-after. This is downtown. Who wants to live in Chelsea when you can get an uncluttered, utilitarian penthouse suite here?’

With Ranald taking the risk, it’s surely not too much to ask that we indulge ourselves a little — think crustacea, caviar, champagne, steak, whisky, music, cigars — and help him on his way.

Illustration by Richard Beacham

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