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Tuesday, 22 April 2014

The Shelter at the Big Easy, Covent Garden


Claws out for cocktails in Covent Garden

I don't care for video games. In my world, there's only one Super Mario... and that's Testino. Drawn ever deeper into the labyrinthine bowels of the Big Easy in search of a new cocktail bar called The Shelter, I feel like I'm in an old school arcade game. Dungeon Master? Mountain King? Wizard of Wor? Prince of Persia? The ruddy Sultan of Brunei? I'm not sure what ancient Atari time-waster this cluttery clattery claustrophobic maze reminds me of, but by the time I locate my destination, on Level Zero minus 1 of this vast BBQ pit/ seafood shack, I'm feeling hot, hemmed in and a little urm, crabby. Resident head honcho Lee Potter Cavanagh greets me and proceeds to expound his theory as to why 'Gimme Shelter' should henceforth be my default cocktail clarion call. "London has some great high-end hotel bars, Artesian for instance, but it's not so great for good-times bars," states this sage son of Melbourne... presumably just off the boat or spending too much time Down Under in his Shelter, removed from the reality above. I almost choke on my drink; partly because simultaneously guffawing at such a daft claim while swigging booze is a bad idea, but more because it's oddly unpleasant. Reimagining a New Orleans classic, one of my regular calls,  as a slushie may have worked on paper but in the flesh, a drink that's the colour of clubbed seal pup on fresh snow and tastes like whiskey-laced Pepto-Bismol doesn't cut it: a sadder sazerac, I've yet to sip. Cavanagh's offer ticks many of today's modish boxes - viz an absinthe fountain, picklebacks, disco drinks, cocktails on tap (vieux carre presented in a carafe in an ice-filled tumbler, to decant into a shot glass), and other revenant rinses such as an income tax cocktail that stands up to inspection - as it should, at over £10.50 (with service). Bar snacks are big brutes but 'voodoo' wings are as bland as Smooth-FM dodo Dido. 'Jumbo' shrimps - as in the size of a 747? - are fair but stick with the chilli sauce, one of two dips served on the side: I'd rather a Peruvian peasant's cock cheese than the Big E's curious blue cheese. Talking of Peruvians, one of my litmus tests of a good times bar is to ask myself whether Super Mario would party there with his mate Kate Moss? If you're a pap loitering outside on the off-chance, keep me posted. You'll find me across the street at Rules - admittedly not your typical Big Easy customer's definition of a good time bar, I imagine. 
12 Maiden Lane, WC2E 7NA 3728 4888 http://bigeasy.co.uk/ 

Saturday, 19 April 2014

Cartizze, Mayfair


Tucked away behind New Bond Street, Lancashire Court's busy bars and restaurants feed and water Bond Street's spendy Fendi folk. Part of a pedestrianised cobbled ramble, the picturesque enclave's main alleyway is flanked by cafe tables that are always taken. The vibe is Continental: a buzzy backstreet on the Ligurian Riviera, perhaps. The clientele at Mews of Mayfair and at its new sister bar, Cartizze, opposite, look like they'd be equally at home in Portofino, sipping Cartizze's Bellinis - rhubarb, blood orange, and sgroppino (made with limoncello sorbet and lemon verbena liqueur). Two intimate Italianate salons, expensively got up in inky tones and jet marble with flashes of bling, are served by a smart Art Deco-style bar. Crystal glasses; Cristal chilling expectantly in a Champagne-laden fridge: such details speak volumes about the venue's target clientele. Speaking at at such a volume, I can't but hear, my barfly neighbours are a 50-something pair that look like they might run a BMW franchise in High Barnet - her barnet, all expensive blonde low-lights tumbling on to her still-perky La Perla bosom; he, all cashmere socks, Colgate confidence, and smarmy Swiss Tony forecourt charm. They are much looking forward to yacht parties at the upcoming Monaco Grand Prix. Well, who isn't? It's been simply ages since I went eyeball-to-highball with the Ecclestone sisters. Ah, Monaco! I've had more fun in Frinton, frankly, than in that sterile playground of the rich -  more Crass-than-class-sur-mer. But then, I'm not the sort of acquisitive type that aspires to a Bugatti Veyron, Bulgari pink gold watches and a neo-Georgian mansion on the Bishop's Avenue; the sort of trappings that would make me instantly desirable to a brace of  Prada-plumed birds perched at a high table behind me, I suspect. I try barrel-aged negroni. Good enough, but difficult to drink when a narrow-rimmed tumbler is filled to the top with ice cubes that keep smacking you in the kisser. Sicilian gimlet and Milano Torino (a Talented Mr. Ripley rinse that combines Campari, Martini Rosso and soda) appeal, and fine fizz Cartizze (£45 a bottle) - the bar is named after the ne plus ultra of Prosecco vineyards - works with San Daniele-wrapped figs or Orkney scallops with pancetta in brioche from a selection of snacks. A Chivas Regal sour (£12) is flavoured with liquorice and certain bartenders' currently trendy friend, truffle oil. I'm less certain. It looks pretty but smacks of, well, truffle oil. All polished threads and bella figura, Cartizze isn't aimed at me. I imagine its  pseudo-sophisticated dolce vita pose will appeal to another oily Italian, Nancy Dell'Olio...or her younger sister.
4 Lancashire Court, W1S 1EY   www.cartizzebar.com  @cartizzebar

Tuesday, 15 April 2014

Pearl's at The Cat and Mutton, London Fields

After 10 years as a gastro, Broadway Market's landmark pub was more overcooked Mutton than Top Cat when I visited last year. Not long afterwards, it shut, sold to new owners appaz. If the pattern in similar gentrified pockets of London held true, I reasoned, the new owners would be a chain of burger barons, bento box pimps, Carluccio's, Space NK, Oliver Bonas or some other yuppie knob wank. Would I mourn the Cat? Not really. I'm not local. Even if I were, there are more interesting places to drink on this East End strip where, perversely, the rarest sight these days is the genuine article. Eastenders don't, as a rule,  go by India or Hugo, rather Mason and Paige. Presently, I heard good news. The Cat and Mutton would reopen as a pub not a branch of Foxton's and, most interestingly, with Tom Gibson at the helm - he of dishy Dalston dive bar Ruby's, a gaff that's well worth crossing town for. Come April, I'm schlepping out East again -  a tedious habit since my manor, Chelsea, became about as cool as chlamydia. I'm here for the CaMutt's re-launch. Roadblock! The old girl is as stowed out as the first day of a Sloane Street sale, only with a crowd that doesn't look like lumpen X-Factor audition losers, what the queue for Gucci's sale appears to consist of these days. And lovely, the new improved Cat turns out to be. A more attractive but not unrecognisably different spin on what went before, it has craft beers and Licky Chops on kitchen duty downstairs and, of more immediate interest to me, Pearl's, a cocktail bar upstairs. Gussied up like an Edwardian bordello, Pearl's is accessed via a vertiginous spiral staircase whose polished steps should be approached with caution when well-oiled. How to get that way? £8.50 cocktails called fiery mare (gin, Kamm and Sons, lemon, wasabi and cucumber) and frisky Nellie or some such similarly hoorish handle. Alfred’s porter is an interesting Victorian-style fix that says much about London Fields' now. Asking for brandy, stout, honey and oyster sauce would have got you laughed out of the Cat when I first drank on Broadway Market long before it talked with a Mockney accent. In the punk days of my childhood, bootleg vodka and Vimto with a Dexedrine chaser was how to start your night.  
 76 Broadway Market, E8 4QJ 7249 6555 http://www.catandmutton.com

based on my review for www.squaremeal.co.uk 

Monday, 7 April 2014

De Beauvoir Tavern, Haggerston

The Fox and The Haggerston on the other side of Kingsland Road are jumping, but there are few takers for cocktails at DBT when I drag my weary derriere over Dalston way, bitching about how K and C might as well be Kansas now that all the action - ce soir nothwithstanding - is out East. Still, living cheek by Dead Sea mud-massaged jowl with Made In Chelsea's waxed back sack and crack bores (according to one on-the-make minx I know who goes there, perish the thought) has its compensations. Style-wise, I don't feel inadequate. Next to E8's hipster hordes, I look about as on-the-moollah as SW3's answer to Cristiano Ronaldo, over-moisturised nob knob, Ollie Locke the manchild who managed to be upstaged by magnolia emulsion on last season's celeb Big Bro'. De Beauvoir Tavern is the latest watering hole from the peeps behind Cargo and The Redchurch. A long corridor of train buffet carriage proportions, it's a bit of a squeeze by the bar; best to bag a booth to the rear.  The cocktail list is short - although not as short as the wine list if the scant contents of a fridge are it. Treacle and clover club appear alongside house ideas fisticuffs (a Jameson Irish whiskey, Laphroaig and Old Krupnik honey liqueur toddy), and nightcap (a JW Black and cherry brandy Manhattan). Grub boils down to fancy filled rolls -  chicken with hoisin and oyster sauce, vegetarian Wellington with goats cheese and shrooms, and dry-aged red poll beef - fair at a fiver a pop. The cod-Victorian decor is saying Sergeant Pepper's - and lonely heart I stay. There again it is barely the hour at which most locals crawl out of their scratchers on a Sunday. But with a 30-minute taxi ride now more expensive than a return flight to Rome, I'm on an economy drive. With the ordeal of the Overground/ Underground schlep West to face, 8pm is late enough to be out East on a school night.
321 Kingsland Road E8 4DL 7739 3440 http://tinyurl.com/kgr5ycb

Friday, 4 April 2014

TMF Bar, Chinatown


‘Liquor and strife’ is the mission statement of sharp-shaker Matt Whiley (ex Zuma/ Purl/ Worship Street Whistling Shop). His pop-up residency at One Leicester Street has turned into a full-time gig, making this townhouse hotel’s lounge bar a Chinatown go-to for smart noodles in search of cutting-edge cocktails and tasty bar snacks. ‘Strife’ is unlikely in such an upscale lair but TMF (aka The Talented Mr Fox, Whiley’s alter ego) is a liquor pimp whose turbo-charged tootsies could cause school night carnage: so caveat emptor when ordering full-on fixes infused with gubbins more usually associated with Heston wanna-Bs or B-list slebs in the jungle (ants, if not Dec, one possible ingredient you'll encounter). Innovative and restless, expect the TMF’s menu to change faster than you can say "Basil Brush": get ready for a repertoire that includes pig’s blood and black pudding bloody Mary; toasted rye whisky bread and butter flip; white ape (sweetcorn and cornflake distillate, Kamm and Sons bitters, and Cocchi di Torino); or, for £11, what is essentially boozy liquified Christmas pudding? What exotica informs a ‘pepper Middleton?’ Who gives a Fox? Suspend disbelief, dive in and enjoy! Who not to invite? Dr. Liam Fox: Guy Fawkes; Foxy Knoxy
1 Leicester Street WC2H 7BL 3301 8020 www.oneleicesterstreet.com 

Knowhere Special, Kentish Town


(Above: back in the day when you picked up METRO for its restaurant, bar and arts reviews - i.e. last week
 - before the bean-counters' baffling brand-threatening decision to cull quality freelance contributors )


One little corner of Kentish Town, or K-Town as it's known locally, just got a lot more interesting. Grab a speck, asparagus, mozzarella and parmesan thin-crust at Pizza East then head over the road for late night tonsil lubing at this handy new hole in the ground. Think of it as a destination bar BOGOF as shexy Shebeen gets a new next door neighbour. If you know where - behind an unmarked door to the right of a caff called Mamma Mia, you'll find special. Do I dig it? I Do, I Do, I Do, I Do, I Do; for here's the sort of bonkers indie booze bunker London does so well. Clothes hung out to dry overfly a narrow corridor papered in lurid oriental wallpaper so wanky, you imagine Widow Twankey's Chinese laundry within. Push on downstairs and, beyond a fabric curtain, discover a 15 by 15 squeeze with converted coal holes of, part of a bonkers booze basement tricked out like Josef Fritzl's cellar as imagined by Coronation Street harpie Vera Duckworth. Cocktails, despite daft titles such as get me a bourbon, I’m hungry (toasted pistachio-infused bourbon, Cherry Heering, vermouth and chocolate bitters) are on the money at ten plus one of your English pound coins. "Eleven quid?" you gasp? True, K-Town ain't Kensington, no matter how the man in the Foxton's Mini might spin it, but the uptown price does include all manner of odd snacks such as salmon pancakes with smoked vodka sour, bear with me honey. TBH, I'd rather get rinsed on the classics, sans gimmicks, at £6.50 than be taken to the cleaners for the sake of the toffee apple and salted chocolate caramels that come with friar’s luck (home-spiced rum, Benedictine, yellow Chartreuse, burnt orange and frankincense). Either way, this dinky dive is, indeed, Special K. 
296 Kentish Town Road NW5 2TG facebook.com/knowherespecial  

For more London bar reviews visit  www.squaremeal.co.uk 

Friday, 21 March 2014

Dub Jam, Covent Garden


"My wife has gone to the Caribbean." "Jamaica?" "No, She went of her own accord.": so goes the old music hall joke. I've never seen Montego Bay or eaten curried goat in Kingston - odd, given my penchant for 50s calypso, 60s ska and the sort of lover's rock played in Peckham nail parlours. Heavy heavy dub, I don't dig: living next to a North Kensington shebeen run by two misogynistic, homophobic, dole-cheatin', soap-dodgin' rank rasta drug dealers - not, perhaps, Jamaica's finest ambassadors - did my head in. Not much bigger than a bus shelter, clad in graffiti-daubed corrugated iron panels, decorated in lurid carnival colour-clash with furniture cleverly fashioned from jetsam and flotsam, I imagine raggamuffin chic hole-up Dub Jam is a fairly authentic approximation of the Negril beach shack not yet ticked off my bucket list. Thankfully, the soundtrack here  - played through speakers from which sweet rum punch is also dispensed - is totes top Trojan; no boom-skanga head-banga thuds when I drop in for full-flava BBQ street food. 28-day dry-aged burgers in flatbread; properly marinated jerk chicken; velvety pork belly; king prawns or haloumi and pepper skewers; “rice’n’ peace”; coconut and yoghurt-dressed slaw:  You Can Get It If You Really Want. Still on a reggae tip, there’s no Red Red Wine... or any other colour, for that matter. Alcohol is limited to Carib and Red Stripe lager, rums and a brace of cocktails. At the risk of being rude, boys, I’d like to see a dried-down rum fix in addition to (my boy) lollipop-sweet pina colada slush puppy and fruity Wray & Nephews rum punch (£6) served in tins at your Jammin’ joint.   
20 Bedford Street WC2E 9HP 7836 5876 www.dubjam.co.uk