The Best Room in the House: Hotel de Russie
Shopping in Bond Street the other day, I looked around Gucci and realised I was the only person left in London who doesn’t have a tattoo. What should I get as a reminder every morning in the shower of my one beacon of truth? Obviously, cute little animals representing your playful, lithe soul are all taken by the saturated-fat Mother and Daughter tag-teams you see jammed in the sliding doors at Primark.
The Union Jack could be a possibility except the flag wont exist in another five years time (when will the SNP field candidates in London? We’d be as happy to vote ourselves rid of the drunken spongers as they would be to cut themselves adrift to go off and float face down in the North Sea). And I am sure the wife has started taking a too-healthy interest in our efficient, long-serving pool boy, so I couldn’t bear to have his name on my arm now either. What is permanent in this world any more?
I was still trying to think up candidates when I lowered myself into my bath at Russie – a proper full-length bath, not the kind where different bits of you take it in turns to get wet, then cold. My eyes flicked around the room while my mind went looking for inspiration. The immaculate black and white marble, once the colours of my football team, reminded me that as a younger man I would have had its name tattooed proudly across my arm, but then the club was sold to a serial rapist and since you never change teams, I gave up on football altogether. The windows were open to the gravelled courtyard down below, the starlings and drinkers settling in for the evening and I remembered the passion with which I would have had CH3CH2OH tattooed on my arm late one night in the lab. But that had its consequences too. I toed the tap and it turned smoothly, gushing a little more perfectly warm water and I realised: Rocco. If I were to have one name tattooed on my arm, one person who’s never let me down and shows every sign of not knowing how to, it would be his. I’d probably leave off the Forte surname, but I might add Olga in recognition of his sisters contribution to the design. Rocco & Olga forever (maybe a full-stop, never sure about what the protocol is for punctuating tattoos). And then I remembered I really shouldn’t mix medication and a warm bath, it has an odd effect on me, and I got out quickly.
If not for a permanent place on my arm, then maybe Rocco would settle for a permanent place in my admiration. Everyone loves a backstory, and he’s got it: the family business steadily built up over time with love and attention (and it was very much family run, as subsequent events showed), only to be ripped from his grasp by the money men, paid handsomely for the business, but the piles of cash were never the revenge, what he’s done with it is: eleven immaculate, truly luxurious hotels in a world where the term luxury is now applied to everything from knickers to white chocolate bars.
Memories of Browns Hotel, Roccos London place, were fresh in my mind when I walked into Russie. It’s a tough act to follow and the arty collection of a dozen empty goldfish bowls wasn’t a great start. What is it with art in hotels? You’ve got a 200-year-old building sitting in a city older than Christ and you plonk down something that looks like the end of the day at the village fete. Three times a day I walked past those dozen empty goldfish bowls and thought – What? Huh? Eh?
And after that, everything else was pretty much perfect. Browns is London with a luxury twist wood panelling and deep carpets, libraries in your room and the best tea and scones in town. Russie is Rome with a luxury twist. Lots of stone and marble, a grand terraced garden tip-toeing down from the next door neighbours villa next into your courtyard. But I’d say the smartest part of Roccos money hasn’t gone on the building, but on the people. Rocco seems somehow to have perfected modern, European service: polite, peer-intelligent and everyone blessed with an extra gene of optimism. The best is Mario who runs the restaurant at breakfast time. Bubblier than the Prosecco at seven in the morning, joking and chiding, and knowing when a strong cup of coffee is all that’s welcome.
Every morning, grumpy and sleepy I came down to breakfast and Mario worked his magic, teasing me, complimenting me, stirring me and sending me out of the door ready for the day. At the end of the week Mario let slip that he was a new father and was existing on a handful of hours sleep between feeding the baby, looking after his wife, ironing his shirt and coming into work to serve us all breakfast. He reminded me of all those years ago in Chelsea and later, Fulham, in London when Italian restaurants were as much about the staff as about the food, and it was all about having ourselves a good time, not pinching our mouths to let as few carbs in as possible but opening our mouths wide to laugh.
The rest of the service isn’t as good as Mario – couldn’t be – but still the best you can ever hope for. Concierges remember your name, remember your pecadillos, get what you’re asking for when you just cant express it in words and book the most perfectly suitable restaurant. Front desk have got it all covered; the business area is actually a converted cloakroom stuffed with a couple of computers but they seat you just as carefully as in any restaurant and check it all over before quietly closing the door behind them. The underground spa is kept tidy and clean, as though it was opened yesterday, with a suitable hush hanging over the place and the massage isn’t bothered with faux age chanting but concentrates on pushing your muscles back into place.
After 6pm, the courtyard becomes a local scene. There are elegant elderly ladies having a gin and tonic, there are young Roman funksters taking a sharp cocktail before they head off somewhere more showy, and there are the business deals being sketched out over a beer and a handful of nuts. I love places where they can get things so right it’s not about tribal markers, but about a common sensitivity to the good things in life: prompt service, no fuss, a smile as you get it all done. There are enough young people here to make the elderly feel hip and enough old people to make the young feel grown up.
Lunch in the restaurant is everything you’d come to Rome for: fine fresh ingredients, delicately balanced across some filling pasta. Theres a gold battered ceiling and comfy sofas. The look is homely-grand, with a couple of grandiose chandeliers and a few splashes of fiery colours in the drapes. On a rainy Sunday afternoon in April, there was one waiter to each table.
The Best Room is the most expensive: the Najinsky Suite, up on the top floor. There’s a funkier touch to the decor here, not the reserved plush of London, with some zebra pattern covers and a few flashy colours to liven up the space. Generally though, you have RF taupey walnut walls, white net curtains fluttering across the windows and doors which lead out onto the 20m terrace. If you’re entertaining clients here or hosting a bar and hangout for the stars of the Oceans 11 franchise, as they did for a dozen weeks recently – it has an 8-seater dining room that can easily squeeze another four on the table if its all getting friendly. There’s a chefs kitchen and a chefs bar. Just as in Browns, there’s a simple library stocked with Everyman editions of the classics, a desk big enough to lay out a presentation on; and bedrooms are spacious with a couple of armchairs and enough space to walk around them; there are dressing rooms with good walk-in closets.
There’s a steam room and a walk-in shower big enough to walk into even if you’re more usually found jamming up the doors at Primark. And here there’s relief that I didn’t go and get Roccos name tattooed on my arm. He insists on having RF-branded toiletries. When you make hotels as good as this, it’s not credible you’d be off spending your spare time mixing up the toiletries to go with it. I get that you want to run the hotel brand through the whole hotel experience, I get that you might think there isn’t a toiletries brand that’s up to your standard.but hotel-branded toiletries remind me of those mean little slivers of soap you find in small American hotel bathrooms, all wrapped up in crackly Best Western tissue paper to let you know that no-one has used this soap before you and you’re not about to wash what you wash first with whatever your predecessor washed last. And that’s not something you want to be reminded about every day in the shower.