WLC’s resident sybarite, Lucy Shaw, heads to the sumptuous Baptist Bar & Grill at L’oscar hotel in Holborn for divine smoked cod mousse, sinfully good Dover sole and a heavenly Sauternes.
The concept: “I can resist everything except temptation,” Irish poet and playwright Oscar Wilde famously said. Parisian interior designer Jacques Garcia, the brilliant brain behind the spectacular restoration of a Grade II listed former Baptist church in Holborn into an opulent boutique hotel, seems keen to lead guests into a lair of temptation, decadence and excess.
“People go out to be seduced and to seduce people. I create places where people can meet. It starts by having the right chairs and lighting. People always look better in dim light,” Garcia told Condé Nast Traveller in an interview to mark the opening of L’oscar last September.
The 39-bedroom hotel uses its namesake, Oscar Wilde, as its muse, and aims to infuse Baroque splendour with the best elements of the Arts and Crafts movement. You may already be familiar with Garcia’s signature ‘more is more’ style.
He designed the interiors of the NoMad hotel in New York and La Reserve in Paris. His rooms at L’oscar are painted in scarlet, violet and cobalt hues and boast bathtubs edged in gold and pillows plump with hand-picked down feathers.
The domed chapel in the hotel’s heart was built in 1903. By 1961 the church was down to just a dozen worshippers on Sundays and was forced to close. The space was sensitively restored in 2012 to make the most of its original features.
From the moment an immaculately attired doorman ushers you into the hotel, your eyes begin to wander. The interiors are so stunning you could feast on them alone.
In the reading room you’ll find pretty Frederic Leighton paintings, black-and-white photos of local literary legends like Virginia Woolf, bulging bookcases and exquisite fabric screens adorned with gold peacocks.
To the left is Café L’oscar, an all-day dining venue decked out in black and gold. Inspired by chic Parisian cafés, in the centre of the room is a dazzling glowing onxy bar. The mirrored walls and ceiling are modelled on the interiors of Café Florian in Venice.
The décor: Atop a spiral staircase is the pièce de resistance – the Baptist Bar & Gril – a breathtaking mezzanine space with a soaring Sir Christopher Wren-like dome. The devil is in the detail here, and the longer you sit taking it all in, the more design quirks you’ll discover. The sumptuous purple velvet seats are as comfortable as armchairs. Lined with gold buttons and finished with purple fringing, on each is a round silk cushion with a peacock feather motif.
Oak panelling abounds and arched windows are framed by swagged purple curtains. Dotted around the room are intricate panels depicting different trees, from cedar and fir to fig.
The black and gold details found in Café L’oscar reappear, both in the peacock feather plates and the waiters’ black jackets adorned with shimmering gold poppies. Illuminating the room are adorable hummingbird-shaped light fixtures. You’ll find 540 glass bird lights fluttering around the hotel.
The food: If you can take your eyes away from the interiors for a moment, it’s worth perusing the menu, devised by executive chef Tony Fleming, who helped steer seafood focused Angler in Moorgate to a Michelin star.
Working with British seasonal produce, Fleming’s menu celebrates the land and sea and offers playful twists on British classics. His coronation crab salad with mango and pickled lime is inspired, marrying the gentle hum of Indian spices found in the original, with the sea air freshness of creamy crab meat interspersed with sweet squares of zippy mango and lip-smacking lime.
Equally stunning and perhaps even more moreish was my starter of smoked cod mousse and cuttlefish ragout. The warmth of the cloud-like mousse provided much-needed comfort on a cold January evening. Beneath it lay a wonderfully rich, lobster bisque-like broth and tiny shards of salty cuttlefish, offering a symphony of flavour I’ll long dream about.
Signature dishes: Being a grill, our waiter was quick to recommend some of the steaks on offer, from the rib-eye with snails and garlic, to the English veal T-bone with rosemary, anchovy and lemon.
My dining companion and I decided to bypass the Cumbrian beef in favour of the Dover sole served with a silver sauce boat filled with olive oil, preserved lemon, capers and parsley. The dish is such a delicacy the price isn’t listed on the menu.
Its delicate flesh was so flavoursome, it barely needed bathing in the accompanying sauce. My only criticism is that it could have done with being served a few degrees warmer.
All of the sides we tried were on point, from the salty French fries and the earthy, truffle-laced mash to the steamed spinach flecked with raisins and pine nuts. The piping hot sourdough served with caramelised yeast butter was as intriguing as it was delicious.
The star of the desert trolley is the blackcurrant soufflé with liquorice ice cream. Notoriously tricky to make, Fleming’s has serious height and a gorgeous violet hue. Fluffy and featherlight, its pleasingly tart flavour is cleverly offset by the sweetness of the liquorice.
The drinks: It’s well worth swinging by the beautifully lit bar at some point during your visit, either for an appetite-whetting apéritif before dinner or a decadent digestif after.
Garcia has made the most of the space, which offers guests a glorious view of the dome above. Playing on the building’s former past as a church, the cocktails are divided into two sections: the Old Testament and the New Testament. The drinks in the first section are named after virtues, while those in the latter are based on the seven deadly sins.
Opting for a ‘saintly’ apéritif, my Charity blended Tapatio Silver Tequila, apricot ‘ketchup’ and Calvados to great effect, the purity of the agave shining through, with the subtle flavours of apple and apricot playing notable supporting roles.
In the restaurant, the wine by the glass offering is small but interesting. We began with coupes of Exton Park Blanc de Noirs from Hampshire, which sang of sour apple.
A melon-scented M de Minuty Provence rosé made a perfect pairing for the coronation crab, while a generous glass of creamy, barrel fermented Muga Blanco 2017 from Rioja complemented the delicacy of the Dover sole with its notes of toasted almond, quince and lime.
Glassware geeks are in for a treat, as sparklers are served in bespoke coupes that allow the fizz to trickle down to the base, while the liquid honeycomb-like 2014 Rieussec Sauternes served with my pud came in a gorgeous glass etched with a vine leaf motif.
Who to know: Ask for Julia at the bar, who will tell you the stories behind each of the cocktails.
Don’t leave without: Having a snoop around. The hotel is full of fascinating nooks and crannies begging to be explored. With their dainty crystal butterfly wing taps, even the loos are an event.
Last word: As you may have gathered, I was rather taken with L’oscar. Rarely have I been to a place that paid such attention to detail. But there is more to the hotel than meets the eye, and much to delight on the food front. I look forward to returning to try out the more casual café.
For those seeking solace from the hustle and bustle of central London, you’ll be hard pressed to find a prettier space in which to unwind. The restaurant isn’t cheap, and should perhaps be saved for special occasions, but the hotel’s namesake would have no doubt encouraged the cracking open of a bottle of Champagne any night of the week. Every sinner has a future after all…
The Baptist Bar & Grill, L’oscar London, 2-6 Southampton Row, London WC1B 4AA; Tel: +44 (0)20 7405 5555