Russian Standard Bar at SamarQand Review

Published on Design My Night on 17th November 2011:

18 Thayer Street, London W1U 3JY

The Russian Standard bar at SamarQand, Marylebone, opened recently on the 1st anniversary of the restaurant to a flurry of crystal Louboutins, oligarchs and some 90 litres of vodka. But what’s it like the rest of the time?

Décor and Ambience

Situated at the back of the Central Asian restaurant SamarQand, the Russian Standard Bar blends in remarkably well. The owners, from Tajikistan, have decked out the venue with all things Central Asian so while it’s Russian Standard, it’s also got an Eastern European mix.

The giant horse which divides the restaurant from the bar and the riding art work on its walls all links back to Tajikistan as a riding country. The careful silver patterns illuminated by bright, but somehow not garish, backlights are created in the traditional Central Asian style. Even the private rooms of the bar, with their hand painted wall paper, are all named after capitals of the countries in the former USSR.

The air conditioned bar area, a slightly segregated room with banquettes and a series of private rooms, makes cocktails and conversation easy. One can imagine though, after a few shots of Russian Standard, it would also make quite a room for dancing.

Atmosphere and Clientèle

During the week there’s more diners than bar hoppers. Those that do lounge in the comfy bar area all seem to take their place two by two – it must provide something interesting to talk about on first dates. At the weekend the venue gets a lot more lively with young professionals and very well-heeled students taking their place at the bar. Given its Russian theme and Marylebone location, a few oligarchs here and there wouldn’t go amiss either. And while the evenings can only get livelier with vodka at the top of the drinks list, the burly bouncer who politely opens your door will make sure that nothing gets too wild.

Food and Drinks

The name of the bar gives away its top drink – Russian Standard vodka, by the shot glass or by the bottle. But it’s not exclusively Russian Standard as there are other vodkas on the menu too. The next best thing seem to be the cocktails at £9 for the standard Russian/Central Asian inspired numbers or £15 for the “Oligarchs”. Every cocktail on the menu is inspired by something Russian or Central Asian, even if you have to be in the know to guess the link. You may be surprised too, to find a large selection of wines, including Georgian wines – a rare find in the UK but very popular in Russia before the ban. If you need to quench your thirst with something non-alcoholic then Voss water comes highly recommended.

Don’t worry about drinking on an empty stomach either – the bar and the restaurant share the same menu so you can definitely eat to your heart’s content. The food has been adapted for the European palate but with custom made ovens, imported spices and recipes passed down through generations, there’s definitely authenticity in their selection of manty, shashlik and plov. The smaller dishes are around £8 and bigger ones are around £15, all designed to be portions for sharing. It’s not cheap but you wouldn’t expect anything less in Marylebone.

Music

The Russian Standard Bar stays true to its roots and most of the music is Russian or Central Asian during the week. Whether foreign or familiar to the ears, though, the music is mellow enough to be non-intrusive. At the weekend, like the crowd, the music picks up pace and becomes a heady mix of Eastern European and mainstream dance tunes. The aural experience is certainly a unique one.

In Summary

Those with Russian or Central Asian heritage will definitely find something homely about this eclectic mix of cultures. Those that aren’t can certainly seek out something new and interesting, if they’re not afraid to dive right in and get involved. Be careful though, with vodka on the table and Russian melody in the background, you might find yourself partying like you’re in Eastern Europe. Wild.

Budget: Splash The Cash

Pre-designs: After work drinks, Chill with your mates, Pre-Drinks

Service: 4/5

Azulito Bar Wahaca – Soho Bar Review

Published on Design My Night on 12th November 2011:

80 Wardour Street, Soho London, W1F 0TF

Wahaca is all Mexican street food but underneath the Soho venue lies the new Azulito Bar, the purveyor of a fine selection of tequilas. Descend the staircase from this popular Wahaca into a Mexican bar of fun.

Décor and Ambience

Like Wahaca upstairs, Azulito’s colourful décor projects fun – it’s all about the bold red, flashy blue and lime green. While the vibrant colours thrown together aren’t exactly harmonious, they somehow work for this pocket of Mexicano. The furniture, similarly, are an eclectic mix. You have your wicker swing chairs, your low wired stools, your strong wooden benches, your cushioned recliners – in short you have quite a selection of comfortable seating options to choose from. And in case there wasn’t enough of a crazy mix, there is also table football to the side so you can indulge in something a bit more than just good food and tequila. Olé!

Atmosphere and Clientèle

Azulito’s Soho location means that it’s filled with a mixed crowd. There’s no dress code and the venue is relaxed so the crowd rather reflects the décor – colourful. Lots of people will have filtered down from Wahaca above as they wait for their tables or after they’ve eaten, but of course there is no reason why you can’t just pop in for a drink or two (or three..or four…)

The capacity of the venue means that while there’s a buzzy atmosphere, it never feels over-crowded which for Soho is a god send. Most people seem to go there to catch up with friends over a love of tequila as despite the music, it’s not a place to throw your shapes and embarass yourself on a dancefloor

Food and Drinks

There is only one drink you should have at Azulito – tequila. The bar is stocked with an impressive 80 different tequilas, all made with 100% agave. In case you’re wondering, it takes at least 51% blue agave (Azulito means “little blue” in case you were wondering) for a spirit to be classed as tequila so 100% is as good as it gets. Prices start from a little over £3 for a 25ml shot to £45 for that same measure depending on quality and rarity. Of course when they measured it out in shot glasses, they really wanted you to sip and savour as each listing in the tequila menu is accompanied by a short tasting note…a very impressive touch.

The other drinks on offer are also very affordable. Cocktails, all tequila based, barely tip £7 and wines peak at £20 a bottle though you can buy it by the glass or in carafes too. But if you wanted food, it’s best to head upstairs and indulge in something spicy and filled with black beans, because downstairs is all about la tequila.

Music

The music in Azulito is unmistakably Latino – it’s probably not something that you’ll recognise, unless your bag is Mexican of course. But it is all about the Spanish guitars strumming away in a speedy pattern that will get your hips moving and feet tapping. You might even hear the occasional brass to really drum up the fanfare. The music is loud enough so that, should the mood take you, you can do a little salsa, but not loud enough to drown out the hubbub of chatter.

In Summary

Azulito is central, it’s fun and it’s inexpensive – that’s a pretty good combination for a great night out in London. Suited and booted isn’t quite its style though so make sure you leave the office at the door. But invite some friends, grab some change and find the tequila that tickles your taste buds.

Budget: Happily affordable

Pre-designs: After work drinks, Chill with your mates, Fun-Time Party Night, Pre-Drinks

Service: 4/5

Vista Bar at Trafalgar Hotel Review | Rooftop Bar London

Published on Design My Night on 15th June 2011:

Vista Bar at Trafalgar Hotel – Cocktail Queen Review

2 Spring Gardens, Trafalgar Square, London SW1A 2TS

Vista, one of the most renowned and best rooftop bars in London, has reopened after a short closure for expansions. At over 350m2, it’s now central London’s biggest rooftop venue and has a capacity for 200 discerning guests.

Vista’s location and altitude means that the venue boasts spectacular panoramic views of some of London’s most notable landmarks, including Big Ben and the London Eye. The venue itself offers plenty of visuals too with its eclectic mix of chequered and striped seating surrounded by heavy foliage. And when the sun sets and London becomes illuminated, the shimmery glow is even more impressive and simply breathtaking.

Of course the lovely views would be nothing without the fantastic cocktails and great nibbles served from its Nuttalls designed bar and kitchen. Expect to sample exclusive cocktails made from premium spirits like Gin Mare and Black Moth Vodka (made with black truffles!), or if the mood takes you, champagne. It is the Hilton after all! Food wise, there is an outdoor grill serving up platters and salads to share, perfect for its ‘place to meet’ ethos.

It is expensive with spirits and cocktails upwards from £9 but if you a yearning for a special atmosphere, incredible London views and feeling very very special then for me, Vista at The Trafalgar is a must.

Vista is open from 12pm to 1am, Monday to Saturday, and 12pm to 12am on a Sunday. There is an entrance fee of £5 but one of those pounds will be donated to charity; Hilton in the Community Foundation and Cancer Research UK (if you wanted to know!

Guest cocktail Queen: Qin Xie ( @qinxiesays | Blog)