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Thursday, 23 February 2012

Galante, South Kensington

Once married to Madonna, who once played Evita, I guess Sean Penn is uniquely qualified to pontificate on the sovereignty of The Falklands. With political colossus Penn busy Brit-bashing in Buenos Aires, is it wise to reccie an Argentine outpost in London tonight? Might hostile staff at a watering hole attached to Sloane Avenue steakhouse Gaucho Grill torture us with cocktail sticks? Frankly, with muddles and mixes this good, let them take me hostage. Waitresses are the friendliest of ambassadors for their country. Looking dapper and dangerous to know in well-cut cream tuxedos, dashing caballeros prepare top notch rinses following the recipes of 1930’s Latin American ‘cóctel’ king Santiago Policastro... aka ‘Pichín’...aka ‘el Barman Galante’ - hence the swish gaff’s monicker. Discover Pichín signature, El Pato - basically, a turbo-charged Negroni (£9.50); order Derby Criollo, a pink grapefruit julep using Legui, a native rum, sugar and herbal tea liqueur; or brave Zonda, a potent white rum, apricot brandy and gin martini that could sink a destroyer in the River Plate. Reasonably priced (for Chelsea), copetines - the local equivalent of tapas - are also served and presentation is muy elegante. Challenging decor is a curious mix of art deco sophistication and trashy 70s glam rock: Galante’s silver (Gary) glitter resin floor as dazzling as its drinks. 
87 Sloane Avenue SW3 

Tuesday, 21 February 2012

Seven, Brixton

Exotic Brixton Market is the location for this cheap and cheerful daytime caff that morphs into an ersatz Spanish backstreet bar each evening. Its quirky luggage theme - battered vintage suitcases double as display shelves - is a nod to the former shop unit's past incarnation, while local artists’ works are featured in a rambling punky gallery space above. Enjoy a selection of wines at peasant prices or try various sherries - so now, senores -  Hispanic lagers and cocktails, cheap and cheerful enough at five quid. Try basil and ginger beer mojito, old fashioned and vodka, marmalade and pomegranate muddle Electric Avenue - named after the local street commemorated in Eddy Grant's hit about the 1981 Brixton riots - sound familiar? Charged, as tradition demands, by tallying up the skewers at the end of your visit, pinxtos are a typical mix of cheese, chorizo, hams, spicy bites and piscine pieces. have a sharing board to yourself  if you're really hungry, or order soups, salads churros and trad Spanish desserts. It’s no elBulli, but for a fun informal bar and a chance to try Ferran Adrià’s creamy, fruity, floral Estrella Damm Inedit beer, I rate Seven a 5. Sorry it took me 6 months to get down to SW2.
 7 Market Row SW9 0754 597 3348

see more reviews at

Friday, 17 February 2012

St James Bar, St. James's

£17 for a Belvedere Bloody Mary sounds expensive. When I add that it comes with charcuterie, roast chicken dinner and pudding as part of a fantastic Sunday lunch deal at The Balcon; form an orderly queue!  Having saved yourself a packet, splurge it immediately at the brasserie’s elegant sister bar, St James. Gallic swoons, dressed as if by The Kooples for the new film version of de Maupassant’s Bel Ami, deliver killer cocktails with a sexy French accent. Evocative titles I could not have bettered had i chose them myself, include Pépé le Moko - a nod to Jean Gabin's character in the 1930's gangster caper of that ilk. Built on Ardbeg malt and Eldorado aged rum, it's a smoking gun for hire at £13.50. Yes, that’s almost what lunch just cost, but trust me, you want it!. A tequila and Aperol vision - decorous and flawless - befits its inspiration, Kiki de Montparnasse - Man Ray’s muse, the toast of sybaritic 1920’s  Paris. Recalling that same pre-War joie de vivre, exotic fancies Miss Mistinguett, Topaze (after Marcel Pagnol) and Petite Tonkinoise (after Josephine Baker) are reason for repeat visits, but limit yourself to two: these bébés are lethal. The bijou lounge is a play on Coco Chanel’s Rue Cambon salon. Taking against one cocktail, I’m told Chanel insisted its name, Mademoiselle Cinq, be changed. It was... to 1921, the year No5 was launched. Based on some historians' claims about the designer's political sympathies, would ‘Nazi Poodle’ or 'Miss Swastika' have been de trop?
Sofitel St James, 6 Waterloo Place SW1 7968 2900

Friday, 10 February 2012

Sebright Arms, Bethnal Green

Once attached to a Victorian music hall, more recently left abandoned and boarded up, this typical East End inn faced the same fate as so many pubs: oblivion. Despite a petition raised by local residents, it looked set to become another victim of the fatal combination of greedy pubcos, swingeing taxes, Labour's smoking ban, ridiculously cheap loss-leader supermarket alcohol and Simon Cowell’s Saturday opium for the masses that has decimated our stock of boozers. Cue the savvy inn-trepreneurs behind the Horse Bar, Waterloo: riding to the rescue, they've saved the Sebright from Demolition Man, reinventing it as somewhere quite special to boot. Its lovely tiled and wood panelled saloons may be unchanged since Cockney sparra Babs Windsor last had her nappy changed, but the crowd is decidedly ‘now’: Bethnal bushy-beards and Lauren Laverne-alikes soundtracked by name-to-drop DJs - Mark from Rae & Christian good enough for ya? Less up-its-own-harris than hip Shoxditch gaffs, friendly, button-cute staff pull pukka pints from London microbrewers Sambrook’s, Brodie’s, Meantime, Redemption et al and wines start at recessionista-friendly prices. Old school fun runs to jumble sales, stand-up comedians, a ‘working mens club’ complete with meat raffle (how very Hilda Ogden!) and live gigs in the basement. Top scran is currently provided by peripatetic burger barons, Lucky Chip, whose decadent patties are meaty magnificence. Talking of meat magnificent, current Hollywood hottie via Michael Fassbender is in the house tonight. 'Shame he's fully clothed,' reckons my date. Worth crossing town for, even in tonight's snowy blizzard, I'm miffed this ain’t my local. As for the Sebright's local locals, a manager tells me they're not overly thrilled about the noise emanating from their newly buzzing, rescued local. Start another petition?
31-35 Coate St E2 7729

Tuesday, 7 February 2012

The Collection, South Kensington

The Collection holds special memories for me. In my dim and distant yoot, way BF (before Facebook), it was THE place to get off your face on free Krug. It wasn't a bar per se, rather Thatcher-baiting 80's iconoclast Katharine Hamnett's flagship shop as conceived by Lordly architect Norman Foster. Held there, the designer's parties are the stuff of legend. Accessed via a long catwalk, what fun we had pretending to be lovers/ models du jour Nik Kamen and Bond girl Talisa Soto while strutting its length with well, Nik Kamen, Talisa Soto and every other catwalk queen and hip young face as seen in The Face. Step forward Tom Dixon, then a member of white soul boy band Funkapolitan and most recently charged with redesigning the very same split-level Patrick Bateman-esque NYC warehousey space. Now in its second incarnation as a restaurant/ cocktail lounge, its new owners have chosen to retain the identity of its failed predecessor... #notsurewhy. The fashion pack have long since fled South Ken, ceding it to scions of Eurotrash and silver spoon English idiots whose trust funds can afford its stucco villas. What the Made in Chelsea/ Monte Carlo set get is Dixon's postmodern monochromatic scheme punctuated by teal flashes that keeps the focus on the bar, a long metallic sweep. It’s a handsome prospect. So too, well-balanced cocktails inspired by Chelsea’s heyday - from Quant in the 1960s, to the tail end of Malcolm and Vivienne's various incarnations of their wonky-floored World's End cutting edge clothing emporium, variously known as Sex, Seditionaries and Let It Rock.  Hence, mixes and muddles such as Ciao Tina Chow (named after the late model/ socialite/ Warholista wife of restaurateur to the stars, Mr. Chow), God Save McQueen (José Cuervo, cardamom, vanilla and pomegranate juice) and the ‘Ferry addictive’ L’Oeuf Is The Drug, a ‘glamrocktail’ that flips cognac, quince, caramel and egg white (£9.95). What inspired mind came up with such evocative names? I'd love to meet him.  Bottle service from £150 is the thing as the room morphs into a late-night club and there’s  champagne from under £10 a flute. Tapas from £4, include garlic and chilli squid, halloumi avocado and truffle, merguez, and cured beef with tomato bread. Service is sweet verging on giddy, and the under-lit undulating catwalk entrance is still there, even if the names that once walked it are strutting their stuff elsewhere.
264 Brompton Road SW3 7225 1212 

See Nik Kamen's finest 30 seconds here:

Friday, 3 February 2012

Bread Street Kitchen Bar, The City

If the shouty chef is your bag, you can buy into the brand for a tenner at this compact street level bar, the portal to Gordon Ramsay's City juggernaut upstairs. To Russell Sage Studio’s witty design for the main act - a fantasy art nouveau brasserie that’s somewhere between Caro and Jeunet’s Delicatessen and Amélie Poulain -  are added pommel and vault horses (presumably borrowed from Dumbdown Abbey's gymnasium) as seating/ amuses yeux. Watching one determined wee boulder in a too-tight short black skirt squiffily attempt to hoik herself up on to just such an item while retaining her dignity, is the best laugh I've had today since hearing Fred the Shred's title was 'toast.'  Martinis such as the signature Grey Goose cinnamon-infused Bread Street (shaken with hazelnuts, grapes, apple and lime) - about right at £9 or thereabouts -  and the house take on mojito (muddle with pears)  are conjured up by efficient, rather than particularly effusive, staff.  On the coldest night of the year, many will be happy to encounter hot toddy and BSK Blaze (raisin-infused whiskey, pineapples, apples, pears and coconut liqueuer flamed with cinnamon). A good range of 30 wines by the glass from £4.50  includes fine claret and top notch Burgundy at £25 plus for Square Mile dealers. A disappointingly terse bar snacks menu offers three different toppings on pizzetta, meatballs in tomato sauce and cured meats. In the absence of any cheffy effin' and blindin'  coming from the kitchens, we conclude Big Sweary is not in da house, tonight. Maybe the gallant one has ridden to the rescue of yet another roadkill-serving kitsch inn's kitchen in Kentucky? How does he manage it all?
10 Bread Street EC4M 9AB 

from my review at 

Zahra, Clapham

Stress is the cocktail’s biggest ally. Wound up because K&C towed my car, and £265 poorer, I’m grateful someone else is paying for my nerve-de-jangling drinks tab tonight. I’m propping up a handsome bar at Zahra, a vast Turkocco bunker (as in Istanbul meets Marrakech) lurking beneath the latest outpost of Middle-Eastern resto/deli Del’Aziz’s burgeoning Ottoman empire. Here en masse, the lack of signage hasn’t foiled Cla’am’s flush 20/30-something Zara classes for whom Zahra’s clandestine casbah is tailor-made. Designed by the no-less luridly dressed Shaun Clarkson, its garish folkloric wallpapers, fabrics and beaded curtains (to screen off more intimate recesses) turn a potentially cold concrete bunker into a gay lounge. That’s ‘gay’ as in Sybil Thorndike’s day, I should add, lest nearby Lavender Hill’s LGBT mob gets over-excited. What excites me more, is on-the-money mixology - notably, the Hennessy cognac, cigar syrup and chartreause (sic) combo that is Del’ight. Del’icious too, despite the mental image conjured up by its bonkers description. ‘Think Sarkozy with the cigar’? Non, merci... on so many levels! Two Moneypenny cocktails (gin, cucumber, elderflower and ginger) to the good, my chum is still tense. When I dare to mock, saying the stress of casting models for a living doesn’t really compare with defusing mines in Afghanistan, huffy fashionisto flounces off. Thankfully, everyone else seems totally 'chillaxed'.

55 - 57 The Pavement, SW4  

Fire Your Imagination: London's best winter pubs

Are the short days and cold evenings of winter reasons to be depressed? On the contrary, says Keith Barker-Main, as he sups cask-conditioned real ales in front of roaring fires. Check out his brilliant baker’s dozen.

Next to Hampstead Heath, this deservedly popular pub and kitchen (pictured, top right) punts a more modern take on trad. Giles Coren is a fan and you’ll likely spot other familiar TV faces, too. Isn’t that Miquita Oliver in the corner? Hog the fire, drink Mad Goose and Black Sheep Ale, and order bar snacks or lunch. More Dazed & Confused than Daily Mirror readers, this is not for the cloth-cap fraternity… unless Burberry or Margiela happen to be selling them this season.

For beer bellies, this old survivor is not a good pub; it’s a great pub that’s akin to a permanent beer festival. Head here from Putney Bridge, after a stroll along the Thames towpath, for Skinner’s Cornish Knocker, Stonehenge Great Bustard, Goddards Fuggle-Dee-Dum, Phoenix Thirsty Moon, Salopian Peccadillo and other intriguing stuff you’ve likely never heard of. A horseshoe bar, two open fires and pleasant staff help cement the Brickie’s reputation.
Just off N1’s main drag lies this cute, friendly corner boozer for locals – which in 21st-century Islington means Guardian journalists, authors, TV comedians and Labour policy wonks. Order modern Brit pub grub, Fuller’s ales and guest beers such as ESB, Red Fox or Gales Seafarers ale. Stare into the embers as you plan your next novel, gag or initiative to wrong-foot Mr Cameron.
For riverside romance, olde Hammersmythe is hard to beat. Lovers Nell Gwynne and Charles II, as well as Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor, were drawn to the Wendy house-proportioned, oak-beamed Dove. Other past patrons include Graham Greene, Ingrid Bergman, Ernest Hemingway and Boris Karloff. Check out the smallest snug in England, a tight squeeze that redefines the word ‘cosy’. Local boys Fuller’s provide the pints, and roasts are big on Sundays. A sign of the times, perhaps, but aren’t gas-powered ‘coal’ fires a tad disappointing?
Dating back to 1720, in its time it has served pirates, highwaymen and politicians – spot the difference! American artist and past patron James Whistler, who lived in the East End in the 1850s, would instantly recognise it in all its preserved dark, woody glory and we hope new owner, Sir Ian McKellen, won’t change a thing. Landlord and Marston’s Pedigree lead the draughts, while any draught coming in from the river outside won’t bother those near the fire. Good for a shoal of fish dishes, it prides itself on being a pub for grown-ups. No chance of a latter-day Dickens singing from a tabletop as the novelist did here as a child.

It’s well worth negotiating the confusing Docklands sprawl for The Gun (pictured, left; free taxis are laid on from Canary Wharf). Once Admiral Lord Nelson’s local tavern – his house was next door – Tom and Ed Martin’s baby is now home to modern British pub grub at its best. Pop in for a pint of Adnams bitter or Dark Star Partridge by the log fire and you’ll inevitably end up begging for a table for lunch or dinner.
Does NW3’s altitude account for the number of great pubs with open fires in this postcode? Perhaps it’s always several degrees colder up north. Order Seafarers, Butcombe Bitter, Harvey’s Sussex or London Pride at the pride of Hampstead village, a cluttered, wood-beamed charmer that was once stables, according to the old boy on the next table. There’s a good range of pub staples and prices that won’t frighten the horses.

Stripped back to something resembling its original low-rent, Victorian interior, this fab, no-frills ale and cider house proposes a dozen-and-a-half hand pulls served in dimple pots. Expect amber nectar from Tottenham microbrewery Redemption and Sambrooks of Battersea, and it’s good to find ale from indie breweries further afield, too. Try deep-filled baps, Scotch eggs and pork pies. Crackling? That’ll be the fire.

Have the band strike up ‘Jerusalem’ in celebration of this rickety, quaint tavern straight out of Harry Potter (see right). Don’t tell your tourist chum that it’s only been a pub since the 1990s. Its pared, faux-Georgian interior looks and feels more authentic than many genuinely old pubs and the ex-shop frontage, at least, dates back to 1810. It’s owned by Suffolk brewer St Peter’s, whose Golden Ale is the thing to drink while you enjoy bangers by the Bob Cratchit-style fire.

Dating from the 15th century, this spooky, rambling pile (pictured, left) is steeped in history: Keats, Byron and Shelley were regulars; Dick Turpin is said to have lived here; and it appears in The Pickwick Papers. What the Dickens are you waiting for? After a bracing winter walk on Hampstead Heath warm yourself in front of a log fire with a pint of Landlord while they clean up your pooch in London’s only doggy wash.
You’ll find no music, TV or the annoying ‘yah, yah, yahs’ of the Made in Chelsea set here. This Belgravia belter is good for quiet chat, a pint of Pride and an open fire. The cosy, conspiratorial vibe is perhaps why, in 1963, the pub’s upstairs dining room – still in use today – was allegedly chosen by a bunch of villains planning the Great Train Robbery. Current patrons are more likely to have made their fortune flogging posh handbags (Anya Hindmarch is a fan).

Whisper the word ‘fire’ here, for this authentically olde shambles was rebuilt in 1667 after being destroyed in the Great Fire of London. Once favoured by Mark Twain, Lord Alfred Tennyson and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, the writers would be stumped for words to behold ladies – traditionally barred – supping by the hearth today. Samuel Smith’s ales may not be everyone’s choice, but if it’s dark, dingy, Dickensian atmosphere you’re after, Sweeney Todd’s local has it by the (blood) bucket-load.
This feature was published in the autumn 2011 edition of Square Meal Lifestyle.