Tuesday, 15 November 2011

Staycation at London Syon Park

As you might expect from a modern hotel sited in such an expansive historical estate, the Waldorf Astoria London Syon Park is subtly themed to bring the outdoors inside and to help guests enjoy the peace and quiet of its serene, natural setting.

On a recent late autumn visit, we found it the perfect venue for a single night minibreak – close to home and yet a world away.


History of Syon Park

Syon Park is the home of the Duke of Northumberland, and has belonged to his family for over 400 years. Syon Park, the stately home (in which the Duke and Duchess still reside), was built in the mid 16th Century by the 1st Duke of Somerset but after his death, it changed hands a number of times before eventually being acquired by the 9th Earl of Northumberland in 1594. It has been passed down through the family ever since.

Syon House sits in 200 acres of gardens and parkland designed by famous landscape architect Lancelot 'Capability' Brown, from the 1750s to 1770s. The 40 acres of garden are registered a Grade I landscape in the English Heritage Register of Parks and Gardens of Historic Importance in England and renowned for their collection of rare trees.

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image from Syon Park website

The crowning glory of the gardens must surely be the Great Conservatory, built by Charles Fowler in 1826, the first of it's kind to be built out of gunmetal, Bath stone and glass.

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We caught wonderful glimpses of the Great Conservatory frequently during our stay at the Waldorf Astoria, and plan to tour the house and gardens of the estate next time we visit. Entry to the house, gardens and conservatory is £10 for adults. Entry to the gardens and conservatory only is £5 for adults.

I would guess it must be quite a challenge to afford the upkeep of such an estate in this day and age. However, it seems the Duchy has found additional ways to bring income into the estate.

Also in the grounds of Syon Park are a large and attractive garden centre, where we took lunch on the day of our arrival and a tropical zoo, which I understand is scheduled to move to another site, so do please check directly before planning a visit.


Red Bricks

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an accommodation block

The newly-built hotel (which opened in spring this year) has been built in a modern style, on the footprints of the old stable blocks that originally formed part of the estate. The outside, truth be told, is not very attractive. Neither boldly modern, nor pastiche historical, it strongly resembles a 1980s office block. That's not the best look for a luxury hotel, so the good news is that it gets better – much better – inside.

The Garden designer (more of which later) has also taken steps recently to break up the expanse of red brick by creating tall narrow "living green wall" panels affixed to the brick exterior. The different shades of green ivy are just starting to mesh together into pretty vertical gardens.


Outside In

Inside the hotel, there are many design touches that refer to the natural environment outside.

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In the main reception hangs a starkly modern art installation – hundreds of white and black pieces of white card or plastic, folded to create sharp lines and angles. It's only with prompting that we are directed to look at the shadow cast on the adjacent wall by the sunlight filtering through, and gasp at how it looks for all the world like the shadow of a real tree! Syon Park refer to this beautiful and clever piece as the Troika Tree Installation; it was created by London art collective, Troika.

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Also in the main lobby is a large glass butterfly house, though you wouldn't know it to peer in – there are currently no butterflies inside! The glass house didn't meet specifications on temperature and humidity, so the hotel made the decision not to risk live insects until they knew conditions would be perfect for them. Minor fixes proved not to do the trick, so it may be some months before a new glass house is in place. This is a shame, given that the hotel's motif – visible on crockery, bath robes and stationery – is a butterfly, but definitely the right decision for an ethical business.

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Another aspect of the exterior spaces that I like is that there are quite a few of them. Not just one single outdoor seating area but a number of them, allowing guests to find their own peace and quiet. There's the front patio, next to Brownies (where afternoon sweets are served), some large wooden relaxation stands, with huge comfy beanbags in them, and a variety of seating round the back, next to the herb garden.


Afternoon Brownies

I love the idea of a hotel sweet shop where one can buy sweet treats, ice cream sundaes and pastries.

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Unfortunately, the reality is a bit of a let down. Some of the ice creams needed to make the signature sundaes listed on the menu are out of stock. According to our waitress, few people want ice creams in October. My response is either to remove them from the menu (and make it seasonal) or ensure you have the ingredients in stock regardless of the weather.

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The Manhattan (£12), a boozy ice-cream sundae described as "the king of cocktails in an ice cream coupe" features a bourbon and pecan ice cream served with a sweet vermouth reduction and cider brandy, and macerated cherries. Though I should love it given my love of pecans, cider and cherries, it doesn't really work for me.

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Pete's lemon and dark brown sugar crepe (£6.75) arrives dressed with the largest raspberries we've ever seen. Sadly they're the best thing in the dish, with not even a hint of lemon juice or brown sugar discernible in the well-cooked but exceedingly bland pancake.

For me, Brownies just doesn't hit the spot, which is a shame given the attractive indoor and outdoor seating areas it enjoys.


Cocktails in Peacock Alley

Peacock Alley is named for the grand social promenade that connected the original Waldorf and Astoria hotels in New York, which jointly became The Waldorf-Astoria. Described as a martini bar, Syon Park's Peacock Alley is much more than that, offering an unusual and appealing selection of cocktails not to mention what Pete tells me is an impressive range of whisky and bourbon.

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I find the space very attractive, with it's mix of bright peacock colours – mustard yellow, hot pink, pretty purple, lime green and cool turquoise. Like the rest of the hotel, decor is a mix of traditional luxury and funky modern touches; there's definitely a decent smattering of quirky. My only downer about the whole look is the carpet, which reminds me of the stuff we stripped out of our '60s decorated house, and for good reason. It's cheap motel chain on acid!

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Having ordered our cocktails, olives are served to our table and we enjoy watch the bartender mixing furiously.

Pete chooses a Divine Enchantment, in which rose and geranium are combined with fresh raspberries and rosé champagne. A little pretentious, but fun – when the cocktail is delivered, a puff of rose and geranium perfume is sprayed over the glass, to give an extra scent experience. It's a delicious cocktail, fruity and flowery with the refreshing acid and bubbles of the champagne.

I go for a newer cocktail, called Cool as a Cucumber, based on some of my favourite ingredients - cucumber, pineapple juice, Midori and vodka. This is simple but deceptively good and I absolutely love, love, love the distinctive taste of cucumber mixed with one of my favourite liqueurs and that sweet sharp balance of pineapple. It's brilliant, though packs a punch and slips down rather too easily!

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A touch I really like is the cordials or syrups that the bartenders of Peacock Alley make themselves and use in several of the cocktail recipes. As well as the rose and geranium one used in Pete's cocktail (and the perfume bottle which you can see, above) there is an ale syrup made from Meantime pale ale (using beer instead water when making a sugar syrup), a highly scented and flavoured lavender syrup, and a range of spiced ones including star anise, cinnamon and a mixed spice syrup.

Signature cocktails are £14 each, classics (some of which have been tweaked a little, Waldorf-Astoria style) are £12.


Dining In

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image from hotel website

For me, The Capability restaurant is one of the highlights of a visit to the hotel, and is certainly proving popular not only with residential guests but also with diners coming in just for the food. I can understand why.

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image from hotel website

Last time we visited, we were fortunate to spend time with executive chef, Lee Stratton, who expressed his genuine commitment to using high quality, sustainable, British ingredients. Just like the rest of the hotel, he is keen to bring the outside in and also to grow and forage as much as possible within the hotel and estate grounds.

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To this end, the hotel have engaged landscape garden designer, Robert Stoutzker, who has worked closely with Lee to decide which fruits, vegetables and herbs can be used by the kitchen. Robert has created and planted the herb garden, a large vegetable garden behind the hotel (which will be expanding further in coming years), and a large and beautiful greenhouse which is used not only for growing produce, but is also a venue for intimate dinners, served at the enormous wooden table at one end. He has also taken on the rest of the hotel landscaping, and is responsible for the living green wall panels I mentioned earlier. He's also replacing the somewhat pub-like bedroom balcony window boxes with more elegant ones that make use of stark black grasses and white flowers.

(I'll be posting more about Robert's thoughts over at A London Gardener in coming weeks).

Even though the hotel only opened this spring, the kitchen has been incorporating as much of their own produce as possible into regularly changing menus. This is set to increase in coming years as the gardens and orchards extend and mature.

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As always, we look for a red wine priced between £30 and £35. There are several listed, 3 that particularly appeal.

Unfortunately, due to a combination of high demand over recent weeks (and, perhaps poor stock control and delivery management?) the first three choices we requested are not available. That rules out the 2009 Saam Mountain Paarl Pinotage (£30.00), the 2009 Alamos Malbec (£31.00) and the 2009 Chateau L'Eglise Bordeaux (£32.00). Personally, after coming back to the table on three separate occasions to explain that our latest choice was also out of stock, had I been the sommelier I would have offered a more expensive bottle of something similar for the same price. Instead, we scrabble through the menu again and come up with a fourth option. Thankfully, the 2009 Cotes du Rhone Rouge Clocher Saint Michel Pierre Dorvin (£31.00) is in stock.

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Warm bread, freshly baked white sourdough I think, is excellent, served with butter and sea salt.

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An amuse bouche plays on the famous Waldorf Salad, first created in the late 19th Century at New York's Waldorf Hotel. A mouthful of apple, celery and pickled walnut with a light dressing, it's a refreshing start.

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I love the sweetness of the crab in my spider crab salad with quails eggs and mayonnaise (£14.50). The generous white crab meat is served on a thin layer of what I think might be brown crab meat with a little mustard mixed in, though I'm not sure. It's nice, whatever it is! The quail eggs are superfluous, flavour wise, though they make the dish look pretty, as do the edible flowers, grown in the kitchen garden. I enjoy this dish very much.

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Pete's chargrilled courgettes with Lancashire bomb and Heritage tomato relish (£9.25) is an enormous serving and exactly what is described in the menu. This is a simple dish, the kind that's often described as "honest" (though I'm not sure that I've had many deceitful dishes to compare it to).

When it comes to mains, we both think we're the winner.

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My hay baked Cornish mixed lamb with pan haggerty and green sauce (£24.75) includes slow baked belly, fried tongue, sweetbread, cutlet and kidney all of which are perfectly cooked, as is the cheesy, pan haggerty, something I've not had before. With my meal come two sauces, a fresh and vibrant green herb sauce and a sinfully rich reduced wine and stock sauce. Both work well with the different cuts of lamb. I always adore British lamb but this dish takes it to another level and I'm a very happy diner indeed.

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To counteract the lack of greens, I order a side of garlic spinach (£4.50), which is a nice foil for the heaviness of my meat and potatoes. I also give into the temptation of an order of Meantime beer battered onion rings (4.00) which are amongst the best onions rings I've had.

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Our friendly and well-informed waitress, Dayna, is very helpful when it comes to choosing between the Bannockburn rib eye and the Aberdeenshire sirloin, agreeing that the rib eye may win purely on flavour but pointing out that the sirloin would better suit Pete's preference of medium-rare steak. The 400 gram Aberdeenshire sirloin is described as 28 day aged beef on the bone with bone marrow butter & chairman’s chips (£29.75) and is served with an excellent Béarnaise sauce, a green herb sauce, a pat of bone marrow butter and two herbed salts, rosemary and sage. That may sound overkill but it makes for a pleasant variety, and Pete enjoys his steak with the different sauces and salts in turn.

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Crème brûlée, or Trinity burnt cream with Dorset blueberries (£6.50), as it's listed here, can be tricky to do well but the texture and flavour of the custard are perfect. The blueberry compote is not too sweet, making it an excellent foil to the burnt sugar topping, of which there is just the right amount.

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The raspberry Eton mess (£6.50) is served with a raspberry coulis on the side, which Pete quickly pours into the glass. Although first appearances suggest insufficient meringue to fruit and cream, on eating the ratios prove themselves well judged.

Far too full to squeeze in a savoury (I could choose Welsh rabbit, buck rabbit or Scotch woodcock, priced at £7.50 each) we dither over whether to have tea and coffee or retire to our room. Our waitress, on overhearing, kindly suggests that she send these to us via room service and they arrive not long afterwards, with some delicious chocolate truffles.

A wonderful evening meal indeed.

The prices are a little on the high side – our bill would have been approximately £140 plus tip – even given the provenance of the ingredients and standard of cooking. This is a factor of being within a high end hotel, I guess. But given how busy the restaurant was during our visit, especially during lunch and afternoon tea, it's clearly a price point the local population are happy to pay.


Head Down

Most of the rooms at Syon Park are fairly similar. The standard Syon rooms are very slightly smaller than the rest, at 27 square metres. The Estate, Garden and Arboretum rooms are all described as 30 square metres, the difference lies in the views. Estate rooms look out onto the larger estate, garden ones give a view over the landscaped hotel gardens and so on. I'm guessing the standard ones have an outlook towards the car park, though the layout means they all look over grassy lawn first and foremost. After these categories are the junior suites, one bedroom suites and presidential suite.

The standard, Estate, Garden and Arboretum rooms all share the same design and features. My photos are all of our Estate room, which looked out over the greenhouse.

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I must make a mention of this quirky corridor which linked the farther accommodation block to the central building. Passing through, motion detectors trigger audio tracks of birdsong, horses hooves drumming along hard ground and snatches of strange poetry. More of that "outdoors in" theming which succeeded in making us giggle each and every time we walked through.

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How to describe the room styling? I'd say it's traditional luxury applied with a firm nod to contemporary tastes.

I like the choice of furniture and bed linen and even the strange sculptural ceiling light.

I like the colours, which range from purples and blacks through to creams and pale browns.

I like the 42 inch HD TV with Apple TV, on which we play the latest LoveFilm DVD we popped into our luggage when we packed.

I like the large wardrobe with sufficient hangers for my clothes, that I can take out of the wardrobe to more easily use, and a light that comes on automatically whenever I open the doors (though I'm not so keen on the oversensitive sensor that switches the light on when I creep past to the bathroom during the night).

I like the sliding doors onto our own patio area with table and chairs. And I'm relieved to discover that, although we can see out clearly, with lots of sunshine flooding into the room, the glass is tinted such that the stream of passers-by walking along the path a short distance in front of our room can't peep in.

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I love the spacious marble-lined bathroom with indulgent under-floor heating, walk-in monsoon shower and separate tub (with its own TV). I will be taking some inspiration from this bathroom for the makeover of the one at home.

The bed is huge and very comfortable, allowing for a restful sleep though I wish I'd thought to take advantage of the pillow menu, as the soft squishy default ones were far too soft and unsupportive for me.

I'd also advise you to take advantage of the "do not disturb" light when you're in the room as housekeeping have a tendency to knock and barge into the room in a single fluid movement.

These are not rooms that will set the world on fire in terms of innovative design or experience. But they are attractive, comfortable and feel suitably indulgent, especially for the price.

A search for a Saturday night booking for 3-4 weeks time (at time of writing, in early November) came back with some great value rates such as £142.80 room only in a standard room, booked and paid for in advance, non-refundable, £258 for dinner, bed and breakfast in a standard room, which can be cancelled up to 4pm on date of arrival or £402 for advance purchase, non-refundable bed and breakfast in a luxurious junior suite.


Most Important Meal Of The Day

For someone who seldom has anything at all for breakfast at home, it's amazing how hungry and eager I am to enjoy a hearty breakfast whenever I overnight at a nice hotel.

Initially tempted by the option of enjoying breakfast in our room (or on our private terrace, in warmer months) in the end I am swayed by my desire to check out the buffet and we traipse back to The Capability.

There are three choices when it comes to breakfast. One is to order from the appealing array of a la carte dishes, adding fruit juices and hot drinks as extras. The second is to fork out £22 per person for the breakfast buffet, which includes juices and hot drinks. The third is to spend £30 per person to enjoy your choice from both the buffet and the a la carte, drinks included.

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Of those two,I'd say the first and last are your best options. The buffet is underwhelming for the price, with a far smaller selection that I'd expect to see from a hotel at this level. You can see it in its entirety in the images above. It consists of a selection of cereals (with dried fruits and nuts), fresh fruit salad, fresh bread, a plate of smoked salmon and a very small choice of pastries.

Whilst I appreciate that the quality of the individual components is excellent, I do find it disappointing and have seen better choice in low and mid-range hotels.

The a la carte menu, on the other hand, is fantastic – a long list of appealing choices that we struggle to narrow down.

Prices are reasonable, though be warned, portions are on the small side.

In the end, we both go off piste. I order the fried Braddock’s white duck eggs on toasted sourdough with woodland mushrooms (£10.75) with a side of Streeton's West London smoked salmon (which usually comes with scrambled eggs for £13.75 but is also part of the buffet) and Pete has a three egg omelette (£10.50) choosing cheese and tomatoes as his fillings and also an order of toasted crumpets with Marmite (£6.75).

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While we wait, toast, fruit juice and our hot drinks are served to the table. The jam and marmalade are particularly good.

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My egg, toast and mushrooms are decent (though I wish more care had been taken to brush the gritty dirt off the mushrooms). Streeton's salmon is truly delicious.

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Pete's omelette is of the heavy rather than fluffy variety, but well cooked and generous. The crumpets are home made but not freshly. His own are better!

Other options you might fancy for breakfast include the full English (£18.50), Eggs Benedict, Florentine or Royale (£8.50 for 1 egg £12.75 for 2), Orkney kippers with lemon (£10.50), crêpes with spicy sausage, potatoes and onion (£11.50), waffles with wild boar bacon and Syon Park honey (£7.75) and a variety of smaller items such as Organic porridge (£6.75), toasted bagel with cream cheese (£6.75) and croissants, pain au chocolat and muffins (£5.50).


Rest & Relaxation

Like any good luxury hotel, London Syon Park has a spa. Kallima Spa offers a large, modern pool, a sauna and steam room and a jacuzzi, which are open to guests from 6.30 am to 10 pm in the evening. There is also a well-equipped gym.

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All the facilities are in the basement, which means no natural light but the designers have incorporated the lack of light into the design, going for a dark and sultry space lit by candles and with bold wall textures and designs.

Instead of providing a list of treatments that guests can book, at Kallima you specify (and are charged by) the duration of treatment and only discuss what it is you'd like on arrival.

Whilst I do appreciate the simplicity this brings to the pricing (our one hour treatments were priced at £96 each) I'm not entirely convinced by the discussion that establishes what treatment might be most suitable. Being asked to describe "the outcome you desire" must surely elicit one of only a small range of answers – to relax, to release muscular tension or to improve the skin? I say I am hoping to release tension, but without knowing what the options are, I'm limited by my memory of treatments offered elsewhere, and forced to make stabs in the dark about what I might like.

Unsurprisingly, given this process, I plump for a bog-standard massage and acquiesce to the suggested oils from the Anne Sémonin range.

After being lead to the changing room and lockers, where I wish they had private changing cubicles rather than an open changing room, I'm shown to a (rather chilly) relaxation and waiting room until my individual therapist collects me. The massage itself is very good, as one would expect. Pete (who also ended up with a massage) says the same. Afterwards, we are invited to return to the relaxation or change and head back to our rooms.

Skilled, well-trained and friendly staff ensure that our experiences are positive but I'm sure we're not alone in finding the lack of structured information about potential treatments off-putting.

Only when I ask for more information the next day am I regaled with different kinds of massage, seaweed wraps, facials and pedicures and more.

As the spa is also open to non-residents, I strongly recommend booking time slots as far ahead of your visit as possible, especially if you would like to enjoy your treatments simultaneously.


In Totality

I think there are small things that London Syon Park can do better: stock control of wine and food ingredients, a rethink of Brownies' menu and a more structured presentation of available spa treatments would not go amiss. And the landscaping of the outdoor green spaces has a way to go, though I know it's already in hand.

However, for a hotel that's been open only a few short months, I'm surprised by how much is well-designed and well implemented. It's young but anything but brash!

Rooms are comfortable cocoons for relaxing. The bar and restaurant are fantastic. The public spaces are sumptuously appealing.

After just a one night stay, we came home feeling like we'd had a proper holiday and felt spoiled and relaxed.

What's certain is that next time I'm looking for somewhere local for a relaxing celebratory minibreak away from home I won't forget the option of dinner, bed and breakfast at the London Syon Park.

Kavey Eats was a guest of London Syon Park.

5 comments:

Gourmet Chick said...

I love the look of those bean bags and Pete relaxing on them! Just leave me there with one of the sundaes from Brownies and I would be a happy camper.

Foodycat said...

Being told repeatedly the wine I want is out of stock drives me bananas. We've stopped going to one local restaurant because of that!

There is also a trout fishery in the grounds, which Paul has been to several times. I should tell him that I will go fishing with him if we can stay the night...

Stacey said...

Sorry to be a pedant, but I think you meant to say "the sweetness of the crab" in the spider crab salad.

Sounds like you had a great time though.

Kavey said...

Stacey, indeed I did mean crab, you and another friend alerted me to my typo and I've corrected it now. Many thanks!

Claire said...

That's an extremely thorough review for such a short stay! Thanks very much for all the info - we live just down the road from the hotel and have heard mixed reviews. It sounds like the restaurant is worth a look though. c