Big Smoke Meets WhiskyFest: Tickets Available

Monte's, London

| By Gordon Mott | From Matt Dillon, Spring 96

Sloane Street is an unbroken chain of top luxury goods stores. Names like Versace, Armani, Bulgari, Cartier, Louis Vuitton and Prada peek out from the stylish windows along the bustling thoroughfare. But as you approach Sloane Square, the sidewalk widens on the left side of the street, and amid the edifices is a narrow, white-marble building with a uniformed doorman standing under a discreet navy blue awning. On the facade, simple block brass letters spell out MONTE'S. Welcome to the Old World's version of a New World cigar club.

Named after the British slang for Montecristo cigars, the club opened last September to quiet fanfare. Its members-only standing has kept the growth slow, but word of mouth is quickly spreading its charms far and wide. By year-end 1995, there were 500 members, and with an upper limit that managing director Andrew Young estimates at somewhere around 2,000, Monte's is already on the way to being fully subscribed.

But what's a new club doing in a city filled with men's clubs, many of which seemingly are on their last legs? Monte's is the brainchild of Young, who runs his own restaurant consulting firm, and Mohi Binhendi, a wealthy investor from the United Arab Emirates, where he is Dubai's director general of civil aviation. Young's credits in America include the restaurant renovation around the Rockefeller Center skating rink in New York City and a six-year stint as director of operations for George Lang, owner of Cafe des Artistes in Manhattan. Young's introduction to Binhendi in October 1993 led to the decision to build what Young calls "the best club in London, of world-class caliber." The only questions were "How long will it take?" and "How much will it cost?"

Two years and $10 million were the answers. In effect, no expense was spared. Young's criteria were simple: Find the best people to do the job. He hired New York-based Adam Tihany, one of the world's top restaurant interior designers, so that the design would reflect a cohesion right down to the graphic elements. Tihany created a sumptuous interior that speaks to visitors at their first step inside the bronze and glass doors onto floors of inlaid marble. The concierge desk is a dark mahogany, and as you walk through the foyer into the lobby, you come upon a marble spiral staircase with a custom-made nickel and glass railing.

The first floor has a 90-seat restaurant with an open kitchen. The blue mohair banquettes and French silk chairs combine with walls of Lalique glass panels alternating with bird's-eye maple inlaid with mahogany. The same blue, bronze and gold color scheme extends throughout the club, including the second floor bar, with a domed ceiling of inlaid gold leaf and etched glass, and the basement-level nightclub, with a dance floor and bar.

To create the food and menus, Young signed a consultant contract with Alain Ducasse, the young master chef at the Hotel du Palais, the Michelin three-star palace in Monte Carlo, Monaco. Ducasse created a modern, Mediterranean-inspired selection that focuses on fish, but provides diners with a wide range of choices, including (on one recent dinner menu) a vegetable tart cooked in vinegar, dandelion leaves and celery root; a lightly sautéed fresh foie gras; sea bass with baby fennel, zucchini, olives and preserved tomatoes; and a Scottish rib of beef with potato gnocchi and a wild mushroom gratin.

The wine list is extensive and well chosen. It includes a full range of Champagnes with verticals of Roederer Cristal and Veuve Clicquot vintage reserve. All the first-growth Bordeauxs are represented in a good selection of top vintages, and there are solid choices in all Bordeaux appellations, including Pomerol. White Burgundies focus on top producers, including Vincent Leflaive, Ramonet and Sauzet. The top red Burgundy producers are also represented, from the grand crus of Richebourg and Echezeaux to the premier crus in Gevrey Chambertin, Nuits St. Georges and others. As an unusual addition, there is a good complement of California-wines, a broad selection of half-bottles and a Monte's Selection, which includes good affordable wines by the bottle and glass.

The cocktail menu also draws inspiration from the cigar theme of the club. The Esplendido, named after the large-sized Cohiba, is a mix of Mandarine Napoleon, framboise and fresh lime. A Havana calls for Malibu liqueur, Bourbon, pineapple and grapefruit juice, and grenadine. There is a standard list of Cognacs and Armagnacs, and a limited selection of Port.

The club also has a retail cigar shop that faces Sloane Street, the Havana Club. "We were required by the property owner to put in a ground-level retail shop to preserve the character of Sloane Street," says Young. Given the club's emphasis on cigars, the shop was an obvious choice. The selection includes top Cuban brands such as Cohiba, Hoyo de Monterrey, Romeo y Julieta and other Cuban cigars. At night, the shop becomes a smoking lounge for its members. A back door connects it to the main areas of the club, and large leather chairs in the store invite you to sit and relax with a smoke.

The end result is a wonderfully masculine, club atmosphere that magically places members in the twenty-first century instead of the late nineteenth. The service, the decor, the feeling of exclusivity are bundled up in the same package. "Basically, what we had to do was put this together, and then get the right people to run it," says Young, who spends about one week a month in London. He hired Michael Naylor-Leland, who has wide experience in the society haunts of London, as general manager. Young then put together a membership team that had helped run Anabelle's, London's longtime "in" club.

Young declared at the outset that candidates for membership would find it difficult to join without knowing someone in the club's management. Now, membership applications are coming in with the standard proposer and seconder required by most clubs. The annual fee is £500 (about $775) with a £500 sign-up charge. For overseas residents, a membership costs £400 (about $620). Young says that the club is exploring arrangements to permit short-term memberships, once its membership stabilizes. Such a plan would be restricted by British law, which requires a 48-hour waiting period between a membership application and access to a club.

There may be no better place in the world today to escape the hurly-burly pace and relax with a fine hand-rolled cigar.The setting, the food, the wines and spirits are all first-rate, and the price of admission is really a bargain, even if you visit London only two or three times a year. Before long, the question, "Have you been to Monte's?" will be a sure sign of being on the inside track to a good time.

-- Gordon Mott

164 Sloane Street
Phone: (44) 1 71 245-0891
Admission: Members only.
Lunch: Prix fixe, about $37, with glass of wine and coffee
Dinner: $65 per person, without wine