Tanya Gold

‘The food is as good as you will find in London’: Saison at Raffles London, reviewed

Credit: Justin De Souza

The Old War Office (bad acronym OWO) on Whitehall is now a Raffles hotel: you can stay in Winston Churchill’s office if that helps you sleep at night. I’m not sure I could, but this is the rational endgame of privatisation: you can sleep inside British history, which is quite close to sleeping through it. War isn’t the jolly marketing riff it was five weeks ago, and the atmosphere in the OWO reflects this. Even so, you need the money of a (fleeing) Tory donor to stay here, and perhaps they won’t notice that pre-war is outside their door in the form of children setting off fireworks and picking fights with the police during marches ‘for’ Palestine.

There will be nine restaurants eventually because it seeks to be a destination like Dubai or Center Parcs

I watched an ultra-Orthodox anti-Zionist child stand nearby while non-Jewish people posed for photographs with him, as if he were Darth Vader. Perhaps they will rethink the name. Or perhaps they will restyle it like a second world war variant of the Jorvik Viking Centre. They should. It is pleading to be a themed hotel.

It is as gilded as the Empire it was built for – its date is 1906, its form neo-Classical – and the Hinduja Group that renovated it because they believe people can, and should, relax this close to the centre of the British state. I never could. I would need Nembutal to sleep here, Churchill’s ghost with paintbrush or no. The doormen are red-coated and bowler hatted: their view is of a statue of HRH Prince George, Duke of Cambridge, with horse.

The hallway has a princely staircase and a chandelier for giants. The corridors are vast, and white: institutional still, and heavy. As with all such buildings, the visitor resents the present as the past is more interesting. There will be nine restaurants eventually, because it seeks to be a destination like Dubai, or Center Parcs. I book into Saison, which claims to be ‘Mediterranean all-day dining’ with the implication of informality.

‘Frankly it’s a relief to quiz someone who was good at their job.’

That is impossible here: there has been too much money, and too much war. Saison is a vast atrium with wood floors, many mid-sized trees, green chairs, yellowish banquettes and the palest table linen. I see an odd painting of Herbert Kitchener’s faces (they are in triplicate) floating above Imperial soldiers soon to dissolve, which I like; whimsy also breaks through in the coffee cups, which are like Picassos.

Otherwise, it is Establishment, without the elasticity the Establishment has. It’s not a restaurant but a sombre museum that sells food because the exhibits are all gone. We eat fine lamb chops from the West Country with a glorious gnocchi and Swiss chard gratiné; then halibut with artichoke mousseline with capers, olives, and citrus beurre blanc; then chocolate mousse with hazelnut ice cream and tiramisu with coffee, Savoiardi biscuit and amaretto.

The complaint is there doesn’t seem to be anyone here besides the staff: the rich are seasonal, like swallows, and Whitehall feels peculiarly exposed just now. But these are early days for the OWO: perhaps Whitehall will relocate to Birmingham and Downing Street will become a spa and gift shop. The food is as good as you will find in London, and not appallingly priced – we paid under £100 a head for two courses – and I like that the James Bond theme tune is playing in the loos. It suits them. But all I felt was a terrible unease.

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