The Mandrake is a new ‘design hotel’ in London, which means it is for people who treat Elle Decoration magazine as their primary source of op-ed. It lives in a red-brick terrace in Fitzrovia and it feels very odd, like a corpse with the beating heart of a baby, perhaps even a Beckham baby: would it have preferred to demolish the crusty frontage and establish itself inside Heathrow Terminal 5, or a giant fridge? Who can say? And why is it named after a poisonous plant?
The entrance is dark, and haunted by black-suited men. I do not know what they do, besides lurk charismatically and pretend they work for Karl Lagerfeld, and he is in danger, perhaps from cheap skirts, or his own plastic surgeon. Inside, there is a check-in desk by a curved fake leopardskin sofa, an arrangement of black and white ostrich feathers, and a painting that looks like a Hieronymus Bosch repainted by toddlers and the animals of London Zoo. Design continues into the bar: there is a sculpture of a woman who is part tree, as women often are; a goat, or maybe gazelle, wearing peacock feathers; a skull with something crawling out of its head – like a writer! It’s potentially very meaningful if you are a cocaine addict but not otherwise.
The maids are dressed as Edwardian maids; that is, pornography maids in white frilly aprons. They match the ostrich feathers, and this is insulting; it reminds me of Dubai, where they style the staff according to ethnic origin and height. These maids may be art installations. Or they may be real maids, in which case they should unionise and seek guidance from Len McCluskey.
There is also a library. I love design hotel libraries because they stock books for people who don’t like reading but are pretentious enough to want books anyway, and here they are: Yves Saint Laurent (he made dresses); Margiela: The Hermès Years (he made coats with ‘fluid drapery’, whatever the hell that is) and Andy Warhol: Portraits (of other idiots). There is also a restaurant called Serge et le Phoque. It is a sequel to a Hong Kong restaurant which has been featured in the World’s 50 Best Restaurants list, which is sponsored by Miele. They make vacuum cleaners. Perhaps the pornography maids have Miele models, which they use to clean the bespoke tapestry. I can’t say.
This restaurant, which is almost empty (two blonde women, the editor and me), is clearly an afterthought, inserted for the sake of form. Fashion people aren’t interested in food. It is the opposite of their culture. Serge et le Phoque does not have the naff horror of a sculpture bar, although there is a private dining room which is completely red, like Karl Lagerfeld unconscious on the operating table. It is long and light, with spindly velvet chairs and pale walls. Rather marvellously, as if the chef is completely normal and was employed by mistake, it serves pub food. I eat an enormous £14 cheese and ham toastie — or Croque Monsieur. But I prefer the word ‘toastie’, and the Mandrake Toastie is a steaming cheese brick. I also order a grim sirloin steak with chips so vast I cannot eat them. The ideal clientele could probably sit on them; perhaps hold a conversation with them. The editor does better with a tomato salad. But the restaurant cannot recover from the absence of fashion hags. Perhaps it will abduct them from the Chiltern Firehouse.
Afterwards I visit the terrace. It is an outdoor room with seething walls of plant, and it seems to have nothing to do with London; rather, it denies London. I sit, and wonder how long it will take to die.
Serge et le Phoque, The Mandrake,
20 Newman St, London W1T 1PG,
tel: 020 3146 8880.