London’s Cocktail Clubs: An Aperitif

Published on The Arbuturian on 4th June 2011:

They say that cocktails are great lubricators of conversation and amazing catalysts for fun times. True, but they should do all that and more. Cocktails should inspire you. And, when drinking fabulous cocktails, one should expect the venue to be as interesting as the cocktail itself. Why would you want to sip an outstanding drink somewhere that’s duller than the patina on a Bronze Age statuette? It would be like drinking Château Latour 1982 with your blueberry pancakes in a shed-like Texan diner: utterly unthinkable.

So, here are some suggestions for suitable venues in which to imbibe a cocktail or three. Let’s start with something gentle to ease you in.

I say gentle but it’s really quite dramatic. Good Godfrey’s at the Waldorf is the epitome of the glamorous hotel bar with a West End twist. In fact, it’s positively theatrical. Nestled among the cream of the theatrical crop, the bar screams opulence with its original, listed panelling and illuminated marble and chrome fixtures. It’s named after Howard Godfrey, the bandleader of the ‘Waldorfians’ house band back in the 1920s – and everything else is inspired by drama.

Take Very Very Pretty; the name is a reference to the only stipulation of the ‘Gaiety Girls’, performers at the neighbouring Gaiety Theatre, who didn’t require any particular skills. And Thé Dansant, inspired by the tea dances at the Waldorf’s Palm Court. Then there’s the Hot Gin Punch and the Astor Hip Flask, which are served up in a giant teapot and a hip flask respectively. All, rest assured, are expertly created by the award-winning Nelson Bernardes.

Elsewhere on our map there is something thoroughly modern. Not the Millie but The Folly, a garden-themed venue with multiple bars and endless space for eating and drinking. It’s probably the biggest venue within the Square Mile and it could be the greenest place in EC3 too with its Norwegian Spruce tree trunk at the bar, the plant pot lighting over the restaurant and the potted plants in the deli-come-bar. You can pick up a gardening kit with your customised cocktail or a bunch of flowers with your sandwiches. And that’s just upstairs; there’s another whole level downstairs with even more subtly different pockets of microcosms.

Those conscious of alcohol calories will be pleased to hear that there’s a range of ‘skinnies’ to choose from, complete with calorie count to help you make an Informed Decision. The Watermelon and Raspberry Ripple is simply bursting with health, but the Ziggy is the one that’s been created by Ezekiel Maledon at The Folly – call it the house special. If you want something outrageously left-field though, there’s always the Thai Tini – it comes with a prawn.

Speaking of left-field, the London Cocktail Club has a courageous cocktail list with a décor to match. Where else can you enjoy a Bacon and Egg Coupet under spidery glow lights? The LCC is tucked away in a Goodge Street cellar space, but there’s also a sister venue on Great Newport Street called The Covent Garden Cocktail Club (which was formerly, and confusingly, also called the London Cocktail Club). Although each venue has its own unique character, both follow “that classic LCC/CGCC theme”. I’m still trying to work out what that is exactly but their outrageous wall paper and extensive cocktail list simply intoxicate me; the Brixton Riot (peach, cranberry and lychee liqueur, flamed with Wray & Nephew overproof rum) is a real flaming eye opener.

It seems that every other cocktail here comes with a helping of food for garnishing (bacon, bread, shortbread, ice cream and so on), but if you did fancy something a bit more substantial, the bar snacks are Raymond Blanc-approved. That is, the LCC co-owners JJ Goodman and James Hopkins were the winners of the third series of the BBC’s The Restaurant and have since been working with Raymond and other notables to create these unexpected cocktail clubs.

If the upstairs lounge is more your thing then you might enjoy Tempo, the Curzon Street Italian. It speaks Mayfair in volumes in the restaurant downstairs but the first floor bar is a whole different Regency period, all decked out in original Rococo Revival panelling and mouldings. The plush and contemporary seating will leave you in no doubt over the modernity of your cocktail. The Tempo Punch isn’t bad and the Basil Grande adds something extra to your strawberry purée – ground black pepper and basil to be precise – but there is one cocktail that defines this venue: the Mayfair Gem.

There’s a gem in the East End too. When you walk down Rivington Street in search of the double C of Callooh Callay, you’ll probably wonder what could possibly entice anyone not wearing brogues, skinny jeans and an oversized t-shirt with safety-pinned sleeves to tackle this part of town. It’s in the heart of Shoreditch with The 100 Club in one direction and some ‘invitation by word-of-mouth only’ abandoned warehouse rave in the other. But when you brush past the bouncers, doing your best to refrain from attempting a secret nod, and push through the heavy double doors, it’s all shirts and frocks inside.

The first room will be so dark that you’ll barely be able to read their outlandish menus but even if you could, you won’t be sure what you’re going to get. What does violet liqueur taste like anyway? Beets Me! is the thing to have either in the back room (much brighter) or upstairs in the Jub Jub bar (the seats are velvety). Of course, if you are a member of the Jub Jub bar – and that helps if you hope to get into Callooh Callay when it’s really busy – you could always order something on the Jub Jub menu or go off-piste.

After all the dimly lit venues you will need The Botanist on Sloane Square. The quirky ‘nature’ theme here is subtle and reminiscent of sunny days out in Kew Gardens except, instead of the sun, there’s floor-to-ceiling glass to make the most of that natural light streaming in from the similarly proportioned windows, and the plants engraving the walls give all the air of botany without any of the hassle of hayfever. Of course, that is not to say that it doesn’t offer the usual trappings of Sloane Square. After all, more than a few young Royals have been spotted propping up the bar.

That fact has definitely rubbed off a little on the cocktail menu, with the suggestively named Indigo Royale and God Save the Quince. I’m partial to a little Tea House Martini myself, but I hear the non-alcoholic (gasp!) Boost is also a popular choice. Should you happen to find yourself ravenous and the attractive clientèle not quite sating your hunger, there’s always the option of eating from the bar menu or popping next door into the restaurant.

Similarly Royal-inclined is Awana, down the road. The gourmet Malaysian restaurant has a bijoux alcove opposite a well-furnished bar looking out onto Sloane Avenue. If you’re not a member, this is the perfect place to spot who’s stumbling in and out of Bart’s next door while sipping on cocktails and enjoying a satay something. (I hear Prince Harry has been seen deep in conversation with a ‘mystery caller’.) The house classic is Havana-Banana-Awana but if that’s a bit of mouthful, go for Blooming Hibiscus.

For something that’s a bit more grown up, maybe even old fashioned, try the bar at The Zetter Townhouse (ZTH for those down with acronyms). It’s the latest venture of Tony Conigliaro, the man behind the now infamous and award-winning bar with no name at 69 Colebrooke Row, in collaboration with The Zetter. Inside is a boudoir of dramatic nick-nacks including taxidermy and old paintings. The dolled-up cat is a bit disconcerting and you wouldn’t want to get into a boxing match with the kangaroo on your way to the bedrooms after one too many, but the staff have the most adorable little outfits; you’d wish they were minuscule enough to pop into your pocket and take home. Figurines should definitely be the next thing on their agenda.

The Master at Arms is the drink created for ZTH, which will be adored by all port lovers, but the Harvard is just that bit more aromatic. If you discover their games room with the ping pong table, you will almost certainly need reinforcements. The food at ZTH is provided by Bruno Loubet, chef/patron of Bistro Bruno Loubet just across the square. In fact, you can probably spot him dashing between the two once in a while. The charcuterie platter is particularly good, but just make sure you order plenty of bread.

Of course if you don’t mind venturing further afield, the bar with no name comes highly recommended, by everyone. In the lab above 69 Colebrooke Row, Tony concocts some of the most interesting cocktails around. With mini distillation devices and water baths to play with, there’s certainly a lot of experimenting going on. There’s even a Manhattan up there that’s five years in the making. The menu is completely different from ZTH, of course. If it wasn’t so seasonal I could drink the Rhubarb and Hibiscus Bellini forever, but for now there’s a Lipstick Rose and a Liquorice Whisky Sour to keep me company.

Now that you have a handful of recommendations to take you through at least a week and half, I hope, go forth and explore. But please, report back interesting findings. And do drink responsibly; fabulous cocktails aren’t made for binging, you know.

Good Godfrey’s, The Waldorf Hilton, Aldwych, WC2B 4DD. Tel. 020 7836 2400. Website.
The Folly, 41 Gracechurch St, EC3V 0BT. Tel. 0845 468 0102. Website.
The London Cocktail Club, 61 Goodge St, W1T 1TL. Tel. 020 7580 1960. Website.
The Covent Garden Cocktail Club, 6-7 Great Newport Street, WC2H 7JA. Tel. 020 7836 9533. Website.
Tempo,  54 Curzon Street, W1J 8PG. Tel. 020 7629 2742. Website.
Callooh Callay, 65 Rivington Street,  EC2A 3AY. Tel. 020 7739 4781. Website.
The Botanist, 7 Sloane Square, SW1W 8EE. Tel. 020 7730 0077. Website.
Awana, 85 Sloane Avenue, SW3 3DX. Tel. 020 7584 8880. Website.
The Zetter Townhouse, 49-50 St John’s Square, EC1V 4JJ. Tel. 020 7324 4545. Website.
69 Colebrooke Row (the bar with no name),  N1 8AA. Tel: 07540 528 593. Website.

The Ebury

Published on The Arbuturian on 11th April 2011:

Whispers exchanged between passing Porsches have it that The Ebury counts a Royal-to-be as one of its regulars. The truth is, the well-heeled crowd that lounge in this Chelsea brasserie probably wouldn’t bat an eye if Kate and Wills strolled in arm-in-arm.

It’s not that it’s ridiculously posh. Well, I suppose it is a bit when you count the number of pearls adorning the necks of cashmered ladies; that is, if you haven’t been blinded by the light reflecting off their diamond knuckle-dusters first. But rather, there’s an overwhelming sense of privacy when you walk in, from the low lighting to the window blinds. You feel sort of safe and just blend in among the crowd, especially if you’re a Sloane. Besides, everyone seemed to be preoccupied with their own business which, for a privacy conscious individual like myself, is just fine.

I arrived first and scoped out a seat in the corner by the window – perfect for people watching or to plot domination of the London food scene in private. At 7.30pm, there’s a real buzz in the air and the place was filling up. For some obscure reason, Jonesy seems to think that it’s an obscenely early time of the day to be having supper, which, while I muse over the menu, I imagine was the reason why he’s keeping me waiting.

I began a slow tap on the table with my left hand, starting at my pinkie and working towards my index finger and then back again. Looking over the menu, I cast a furtive glance around the room for the first time. Considering the furore upstairs that was the joint 21st birthday of Tim and Ed, or some such young guns (who were all dressed in tuxedos, you understand, and smoking cigars, outside of course), downstairs was a mellow sea of families, young professionals and post-nesters. An eclectic mix I’m sure you will agree.

On my ocular exploration I happened to look out of the window. There was Jonesy. He has spotted me too, somehow, through the blinds and waved. I felt slightly duped by the false sense of privacy that the blinds offered – don’t sit by the window if you don’t wish to be seen.

“Have you been waiting long?” Jonesy asked breathlessly. Another one of Jonesy’s quirks is that he refuses to use public transport and instead prefers to either walk everywhere, as in this case, or catch a cab.

“No, I just got here actually” I say as I rose to greet Jonesy. It’s true, it’s only been five minutes.

As we sit down, Jonesy tells me he’s starving and tucks into the bread and butter offered while I stick to my water. I had already decided what I was ordering having looked over the menu at lunch.

Jonesy wants to get a burger.

“I’m not judging you,” I say with an unmistakable tone, “but you know if you get the ox tongue to start and oxtail for main, you would be eating from nose to tail?”

But Jonesy wasn’t having any of it. Clearly the Bohemian spirit from the ICA party the night before had caught up with him and he needed something comfortingly normal. So we both went with the chicken liver and foie gras parfait with grape chutney and toasted brioche to start. I’d like to think that I inspired Jonesy’s choice actually but I’m sure he will deny it. The parfait was great though, perfect you might say. And the grape chutney wasn’t half bad either except I kept imagining that they were mini pickled onions, which of course they tasted nothing like.

For main, Jonesy stuck to his guns and had The Ebury burger while I went for the confit rabbit leg with parmesan gnocchi, roast artichoke and tapenade sauce. I am probably mistaken but I detected a bizarre hint of soy sauce in my main, which in all honesty could have just been the complex fusion between the tapenade and the artichoke. The rabbit was fabulous, as was the gnocchi. It’s been some years since I last had rabbit and all those things you say about meat literally falling off the bone were all applicable here. Jonesy munched his way through that burger in no time at all so I guess that means he’s given it the thumbs up too.

Then it was on to dessert.

I have a mouth full of sweet teeth and Jonesy has precisely none. I was sure he was just entertaining me when he suggested getting a dessert so I could have two. It was too perfect to be true. Not so. Jonesy nibbled at the apple and Guinness fritters, probably so I would feel less greedy, before pushing the barely touched plate towards me. How could I resist? That said, after finishing my rhubarb crumble I was more than stuffed. Still, I made an attempt at it but try as I might, I couldn’t finish it.

In the end, I had to admit defeat and waddle out making extra room for my satiated stomach. No matter how good it was, finishing three whole courses plus an additional dessert was an impossibility for me. That’s not to say that I won’t be back to try again, of course. And next time I might wear my pearls.

The Ebury, 11 Pimlico Rd, London SW1W 8NA. Tel: 020 7730 6784. Website.

The Fountain Restaurant, Fortnum & Mason

Published on The Arbuturian on 22nd March 2011:

“You must not,” Jonesy tells me sternly, in a manner befitting a school headteacher, “talk about the food. Under any circumstances.”

And like a naughty school girl, I defiantly enquired: “What, then, should I be talking about in a restaurant review? Surely food plays a major part?”

“Talk about the history.”

“Ah yes. As an English institution, Fortnum & Mason certainly has a wealth of history for me to explore. Like when William Fortnum moved into Hugh Mason’s house with his family in 1707, and thereby facilitated their meeting and future partnership. Or perhaps when Fortnum began to amass a small fortune from sales of reconstituted candles that later funded the first Fortnum & Mason store. Or even all those times when Fortnum & Mason first introduced new products to the British public, products which later became staples, like the humble baked bean.

But alas, I’m no Andrew Roberts and waxing lyrical about history just isn’t my bag. Besides, the Fortnum & Mason website does it perfectly well so there’s really no need for a fool like me to stumble over the facts.”

“Talk about cashmere and pearls then.”

“Nothing to talk about there. While it is true that guests are encouraged to ‘lean more towards ‘elegance’, but that doesn’t surely mean I have to dig out those pearls and make like my mother? Charlotte and I mused over the dilemma of cashmere and pearls. Naturally we wouldn’t want to appear out of place amongst the well-heeled crowd. And going Stepford could almost be exciting, if you really enjoy irony. But it was fashion week and anything short of ‘this season’ with a dash of opulence just simply won’t do. So in the end, fur and Tiffany’s won out over cashmere and pearls.”

“Fine, talk about the jazz.”

“Indeed, we were at The Fountain to enjoy a jazz brunch so I suppose the jazz bit is rather important. And pleasant it was too in that quintessentially British way that gets you saying quaint a rather lot.

Two smartly dressed gentleman sat to one side of the restaurant and played a gentle lull, creating a very soothing backdrop to the conversation. You almost don’t notice that they’re there, except when they stop playing.

At first you won’t even realise it. Then slowly but surely, the feeling that something has gone amiss will creep up on you. You can’t quite put your finger on it but you know it’s there. Your breath becomes shallower, faster, and there’s an increasing sense of anxiety in the air.

But then they start up again and as if a dream upon waking, all dark clouds disperse and you are reunited with that sense of well being. So you sort of carry on like nothing has happened and continue tucking into your food.”

“Oh, there you go talking about the food again.”

“But, Jonesy, food is what I know. Surely people would be desperate to learn about the precise degree of piquancy of the steak tartare? Oh, how that yellow yolk exploded over it when I dug in – it was a moment of pure delight. And the sourdough toast was just the sort of equipment you needed to mop up any excess juices. Of course then there’s the scrambled eggs on toast that came up top as Charlotte’s eggy breakfast of the week.

Jonesy, wouldn’t you much rather hear about the rich, moistness of the chocolate cake with a filling akin to luxurious ganache? Okay, that one was strictly speaking off the menu until 3pm when Afternoon Tea is served. But the sticky toffee pudding I had was every bit its match…”

All that not talking about food has left me quite ravenous. I think some tea and cake is called for before I continue with this imaginary conversation about the review I should be writing. Or perhaps this conversation makes the perfect antidote to my usual lengthy explorations of food because, aside from the Jonesy bits, all other observations are factual. But wouldn’t you much rather me dote more on the sauce for that sticky toffee pudding?

The Fountain Restaurant at Fortnum & Mason, 181 Piccadilly, London W1A 1ER. Tel. 0845 602 5694. Website.