William Cash finds himself back in the 'Upper East Side' at Albert's in SW7.
Last week, I took a wonderful trip back to starched linen 'Heaven in SW7' as Peter York dubbed South Kensington back in the 1980s. The opening of Albert’s, a new Annabel's-inspired 'restaurant with dancing' private club in SW7 - which I think of as the Upper East Side of London - was always going to be a notable event. Especially when launched by Jake Parkinson-Smith (grandson of royal photographer Norman Parkinson and formerly of Boujis), and other partners including Carlo Carello, Piers Adam (whose clubs include Mahiki) and Fraser Carruthers.
Membership is currently only £500 (plus £250 membership fee) which immediately takes you back to a more glamorous social age when going out to 'dinner and dancing' was just about affordable. The age range when I was there on a Wednesday night was mostly mid thirties to mid forties (I was one of the dinosaurs) but then what would you expect when you name a club after a German prince married to British royalty who died aged just 42. In short, its half the age of 5 Hertford and half the price.
The social tone of the club is set by the careful choice of Norman Parkinson prints that decorate the walls, including the private dining room (flexible in its privacy offering via its paneled sliding door). The mood is the Parkinson sliding into Aaron Slims international café society world of 1950s to 1980s. There are iconic shots of Parkinson-Smith's grandmother Wenda at 'Hyde Park Corner' and also 'Wenda and The Ostriches- 1951'. There's Jerry Hall in Jamaica (1975) and Mayfair Edwardians from 1945.
The committee are such social butterflies, upwardly mobile social tank commandants, fixers and London society lizards as Tatler editor Kate Reardon, Ben Elliot, Ben Goldsmith (former Spear's guest editor), Amanda Shepherd (formerly married to Bryan Ferry) and Jodie Kidd (former Spear's diary writer). I am guessing the club will come into its own on Thursday, Friday and Saturday nights - when heading off to Mayfair seems as far as Montgomeryshire.
The club may be named after Prince Albert - the area around Exhibition Road was nicknamed Albertopolis in the 19th century - but I actually felt I was back in the Upper East side of my roue Mid-Atlantic bachelor years. It’s not an easy feat to transport the likes of myself back to the world of Elaine's or Mortimer's of the classic 1980s and 1990s New York party years. When you hear people talking of the 'Upper East Side', most people assume they mean the New York of Tom Wolfe (who lives on East 79th Street) and the expat colony of upper class Brits and the likes of Taki who has a brownstone townhouse.
But the 'Upper East Side' is not so much an actual place as an international and chic state of mind: which is exactly what Albert's seems to be about. On arrival, I even had a déjà vu of Elaine's in the 1990s when I used to visit New York regularly - sitting in a prominent booth was my old pal, New York banker David Fell, with his beautiful young girlfriend. In the 1990s New York, Fell was a Manhattan high society fixture as his wife Anne was best friend with Sex and the City author Candace Bushnell.
Oh, and just two booths down was American tycoon Todd Ruppert - a social boulevardier usually seen at the bar at Annabel's or 5 Hertford Street. In fact the whole place felt more Manhattan than Mahiki. I enjoyed the sight of Sex and the City-style Cosmopolitan cocktails at the next table (sitting in a leopard print booth) and a magnum of burgundy.
Albert’s is very deliberately not Mayfair or West End which will be welcome news for many. With its paneled walls and hunting prints (interposed with edgy Norman Parkinson images), Balmoral tartan staircase (lovely red velvet bannister), Colefax and Fowler wallpaper and Prince Albert memorabilia (love letters no less), Albert's is more Downton Disco than Downtown.
The best thing about Albert's is that it's really a restaurant that turns into a nightclub rather than a club that pretends to be a restaurant. The chef is Alessio Piras, formerly with the superb Italian seafood restaurants Cecconis, Pescatori and Redhook. Like the whole ethos of the club, the menu is a contemporary twist on the classic.
Albert's steak tartare is made at the table; there's another tuna version with capers and chilli and rocket salad; I had the cornish crab and avocado which was as good as at Wilton's. My wife had beef carpaccio 'Harry's Bar' which is her favourite dish, so much so that for her 30th I had to travel to London (300 miles round trip in a day) to get the best fresh carpaccio in London from Lidgate's. Next year, I may be begging Parkinson-Smith to reveal his chef's supplier: this was even more delicate and better.
I'd just spent a few days with Parkinson-Smith being holed up on the South Italian coast at a wedding and had been hearing about his and Piras's hunt for the best lobster in London. His chef has a lobster spaghetti and lobster and asparagus salad. Other highlights that will be tried in the future include a delicious looking monkfish wrapped in parma ham with samphire; I also liked the look of the tagliatelle with black truffle and the pigeon and foie gras terrine with apple and caramelised onion chutney. For pudding, a melting chocolate fondant.
The food was not your average nightclub food. It was so much better. Superb - although I would have liked the lights a touch brighter so that could enjoy the food visually as much as sensually. Like the old Annabel's, where Mark Birley turned an underground piano bar into a gourmand destination, Albert’s is seeking to cause quite a foodie stir along the Old Brompton Road. Not so long ago the place was an Irish pub - give me the starched linen table cloth and cuisine of old world Upper East Side SW7 any day.
A trip to Upper East Side SW7 means a trip back to civilised demi-monde partying at which the old-fashioned society set - the social troubadours and wannabe Global Citizens in Guccis that shuttle between London, New York, LA and whichever other cities have their very own Upper East Sides where you will always find a club for the socially dispossessed upper classes looking for the best (and affordable) way to have a good time without veering too far from their front doors.
SW7 is the Upper East Side of London. Indeed, when I used to live off the Old Brompton Road in South Kensington, I would say 'Upper East Side' - to the bewilderment of fellow passengers - when I used to climb into a taxi in Mayfair and ask the driver to head towards South Kensington.
They are the same sort of 'classy' neighbourhoods - both very much not Downtown, i.e. West End or Mayfair. That Upper East Side feel - with the park just a short walk away - is always what has made living in SW7 so wonderful. That chic, cosmopolitan, Mid-Atlantic, old-fashioned, supremely civilised Anglo-French London neighbourhood - ok, it's partly a Paris colony but no more than Provence is overrun by Brits - just south of Hyde Park leading down to Brompton Cross on the Fulham Road.