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Saturday, 27 April 2013

Gremio de Brixton, Brixton

The first time I visited the Basque Country, I travelled there by ship. Alas, what  should have been a 36-hour pleasure cruise from Southampton turned into a re-run of The Wreck of the Hesperus. A dodgy hot dog gobbled down en route to the port had gone rogue on me. This, coupled with the tornado-swept Bay of Biscay Michael Fish's mob had somehow failed to alert me to, meant the traumatic trip took almost three fraught, sleepless, storm-tossed days. My boat (as a native of Bethnal Green or Bow might say) turned the same shade as my bought-brand-new-for-the-holiday and now-covered-in-puke, pea green Brooks Brothers button-down Chambray shirt.  When we eventually docked at Bilbao - Basque for 'bilious' I assumed - the rubber-legged, swimmy headed, churny-wurny motion sickness was such that it was still with me by the time our pre-booked itinerary demanded we advance to Barcelona, two days later. All of this to say, having managed to keep down nothing but one piece of dry toast, I would not discoverthe delights of pintxos, the Basque equivalent of tapas, until several years after my gastrodisastro maiden voyage to the land of berets, ETA terrorist bombs and exploding guts. For a taste of Bilbao in Blighty, head to new Brixton spot, Gremio. Run in conjunction with South London pub group Antic (Dogstar, Tooting Tram, Balham Bowls et al), it's the domain of proveedores de pukka pintxos, Gremio - señores normally to be found at the chain’s Graveney and Meadow pub in SW17. Cryptically located underneath a landmark church, the candle-lit Almodóvar-esque underworld - all Catholic iconography and matador imagery - is a devil’s playground for its early doors, cool, young, urban congregation. As well as boquerones, piquillo peppers with salmon roe, foie gras and oxtail meatballs and the likes, you'll find quality Spanish wines, sherries, cocktails, Iberian gins, cerveza and sangria set to a suitably sexy San Sebastian/ San Antonio de Ibiza soundtrack - with a bit of flamenco behaviour chucked in for good measure. If you fancy joining the union (as 'gremio' translates into in English) let's just say the Victoria Line is usually a marginally less rough ride than a P and O Line ship in a hurricane. 
The Crypt, St Matthew's Church, Effra Road SW2

Thursday, 25 April 2013

Vestal Voyages, King's Cross

"Fancy a cruise around King's Cross?' asks nice PR lady. Cruising for what, I wonder? Dodgy weed? Skunk? Smack? A five-bob-a-nob-job aff some gummy auld granny? An accountant from PricewaterhouseCoopers, pretending to be a scally, on-the-pull at Central Station, in full footie kit - one of that establishment's special interest nights, Im told? Negative. It transpires I am invited on the maiden voyage of 50ft Gdansk-built, Liverpool stern, classic canal cruiser, Disco Volante. The imaginatively refurbished craft is owner/ captain/ ex-Storm model turned purveyor of premium Polish potato vodka, William Borrell's pride and joy/ big boy toy. All summer long, twice daily (four times at weekends), you and up to nine others can also join William and his cool and slightly kooky crew in the shadow of St. Pancras International for Vestal Voyages - a Regent's Canal booze cruise that's a lot more entertaining than watching a pair of gannets from Thanet on a day-trip to Calais trying to cram more lager than Lidl will shift in a month into the back of an old Ford Focus. Glasses charged with Nautical Nonsense - one of various  themed 'tails that also include dangerously guzzlable vodka, white wine and green tea-based breezer, Sips Ahoy - we cast off. £8 each, two ship-shape cocktails are included in the £25pp cost of a 90-minute trip along what I'm assured is one of the more picturesque sections of Regent's Canal. Although, given the amount of crap floating in the water - chucked in by the kind of slacker that will happily donate to Friends of the Earth - I'll not bother with the grittier stretches, thank you, Captain William. It's all great fun and the sense of canal-life camaraderie is palpable. Ducks swim up to say hello, towpath strollers wave, and one grumpy dude on a bike shouts out "middle-class wankers!" Our floating gin palace, or vodka palace to be precise - although other spirits are available -  progresses serenely towards a long, long tunnel ahead. This is my favourite part of the trip. Clammy; claustrophobic; silent; Stygian: it's fabulously eery. Ere long, a golden light at the tunnel's end can be glimpsed. "This is what dying must feel like" muses one jolly Roger aboard. As we emerge into a sun-dappled, bucolic, watery idyll as imagined by Raoul Dufy, I can see what he means. Who knew the arse end of Islington could be heaven on earth?

Granary Square, Camley Street NC 4AA bookings 07941 117 553

Sunday, 21 April 2013

Downstairs at Harrison's, Balham

A few years ago, when a bar and grill launched on this site, I went with a local friend who styles herself, not unreasonably,  'the woman who made Balham fashionable.' An early adopter, she championed SW12 as the next deeply desirable postcode where others treated it as the butt of all property-related jokes. (She's now moved on to the methadone set's favourite holiday resort, St Leonards-sur-Mer, should you want to take a punt on that town's ascent). Back then, Balhamites were agog at the prospect of proper cocktails on their doorstep. "What do you recommend?" I asked our skaterboi waiter. "A taxi into town: our cocktails are rubbish," came his candid assessment. A P45 presumably soon followed and his place of employment closed. Balham wasn't quite ready for pornstar martini; that, or the gaff was found wanting. No such worries at Sam Harrison's new New York Upper West Side-style bar downstairs at his well-established, popular brasserie. Priced from £8, old-fashioneds and ideas such as Affogato Martini - Wyborowa vodka, coffee, butterscotch schnapps and vanilla cream - could hold their against many uptown lounges; and there's wine from under £20, Meantime for beery blokes and a range of bar bites too. Decor (see above), is er, 'nice' but would be nicer still with some quirky visual oomph to break it all up. Sam's ear candy, however, is much to my taste, even if his 20- 30-something Zara clientele would be happier with Beyonce and Jay Z or (God forbid) Taylor Swift than Pusherman soul and Californian yacht rock circa Kenny Loggins. If Sam opened a similar den at the end of my street, I’d fall in from time to time. Whether I'd ride the Northern Line again to revisit, is moot. But thanks to my former local friend's PR, I suspect Sam won't be needing my bucks. Lowly Balham: it's London's Brooklyn Heights these days... or some such flannel.
15 Bedford Hill SW12 8675 6900 

Friday, 19 April 2013

The Green Room, Stepney

The agreeably shambolic Mahogany Bar at Wilton's Theatre is a popular spot for jobbing thesps, the occasional star (Miss Minnelli is a fan), E1 trendsters and rubbernecking tourists who have picked out this landmark architectural gem from their guide books as a must-see. Quite right too: fabulously atmospheric and now a World Heritage site, Wilton's is the planet’s oldest surviving working music hall. Muso anoraks will know it from videos such as Annie Lennox's No More I Love Yous, Frankie Goes To Hollywood's Relax and more recently, Mumford and Sons' Little Lion Man. Originally Georgian, rebuilt in mid-Victorian times, a survivor of the Blitz, it's little changed from the days when vaudevillian Champagne Charlie was a regular turn on its stage. When you finally elbow your way to the bar, you'll find Meantime and Black Isle on tap, wine from £17 - £30 and, if the locusts haven't stripped the place bare, aperitivi -  served gratis, unlike at various London imposters - from 6  to 8pm. So popular did its upstairs Green Room - normally reserved for artistes -  prove with punters when it was opened to them during the theatre's recent staging of The Great Gatsby, it's now a cocktail bar, open to the public from Wednesday to Saturday each evening until 11 pm. Relive The Good Old Days with tipples from £7. In a strong cast that includes ginger and scotch martini, The Great McGonogall, and bittersweet chocolate sip, Montezuma, prune-infused Armagnac swashbuckler, D’Artagnan, manages to steal the limelight. 
Wilton’s Music Hall, 1 Graces Alley E1 7702 2789 

Thursday, 18 April 2013

GOAT, Chelsea

(Never marry a goat in boats)

Despite living nearby, I always avoided this pub when it was The Goat and Boots. It's a pity  a friend of mine who married someone she first met there didn't follow my example. Days before her wedding, she asked me whether I thought she was too young to get hitched. It was clear to me that, as a result of a particularly cruel and complex childhood, craving security, she was about to say 'yes' to the first geezer that had offered to put a ring on her finger. Through rose-tinteds, she saw Sir Galahad where I saw the shite in not-so-shining armour he'd turn out to be, two kids, divorce and a bitter custody/ alimony battle later. My point is, I generally know what will work - and GOAT, after a wholesale makeover that has turned the moribund tavern into a gleaming post-industrial pizzeria/ diner/ cocktail bar has success written all over it. Firstly, the place looks good - particularly the split-level lounge upstairs whose wine and bubbles are honestly priced. Thin-crust pizza slathered in gloriously unctuous goo is 'the best I've ever tasted,' reckons my date. I wouldn't go that far: I still daydream about a sloppy Giuseppe I locked lips with on Long Island one summer, but if I were the MD of Zizzi, I'd be dangling a fat contract under GOAT's pizza chef's Neapolitan nose. If you're looking for a bop, an old skool DJ, housed in a reclaimed church pulpit, turns the first floor bar into the Devil's playground at weekends. Chipper staff, and the young Kiwi/ Russian couple that owns GOAT are utter sweethearts. But best of all, is a wee hush bar lurking behind an anonymous door. Cleverly done out like a study in a dour Edwardian manse - set to a scratchy 30's jazz soundtrack - The Chelsea Prayer Room comes on like a dipso vicar's guilty secret. Cocktails are on the money at £10 for Rhubarb Bellini and Woodford Reserve bourbon, sherry, lemon and plum bitters flip, Spanish Harlem. Any negatives? That depends on your tolerance for the sort of gilded clientele synonymous with this particular part of Cameron and Osborne's Britain. Hence, Willie Windsor's sister-in-law Pippa Perky-Bottom, and what looks like every extra ever featured in a certain TV series 'starring' the sort of silver-spoon-fed Binky Bellends that give eugenics a bad name, are in the house when I visit. Had my friend wed a goat of their ilk, her divorce settlement might have been considerably more generous than custody of the vacuum cleaner her lardy, tight- wad, waste-of-space husband gave her as a birthday present. 

333 Fulham Road SW10 9QL 7352 1384

Saturday, 13 April 2013

The Lord Palmerston, Dartmouth Park

(all a little bit Linda?)

Dartmouth Park, I'm told, is popular with wannabe Prime Ministers. it's home, apparently, to the wrong brother installed by the Labour Party as their leader after godawful Gordon was sent packing. Tonight, I've agreed to attend the launch of Geronimo Inns' latest pub conversion, The Lord Palmerston, deep in DedMilibland-land. It's not, I'll level with you, that I'm desperate to see what they've done to the old place: I've visited so many of their pubs,  I've got the measure of their signature look by now - think Nu-Victoriana/ Cool Britannia as interpreted by a Linda Barker type off Mumsnet. No, I'm killing two birds and meeting friends who swear that Norway, as I refer to anywhere NW, is nirvana. 'What do you reckon to the place?' I ask my local love bird chums. The newlyweds - fashion/ advertising hot shots  - aren't convinced. 'Sunday red top design supplement' sighs she. 'It looked better before,' says he, witheringly. Before I can venture an opinion, we're back out the same door we entered by, mere minutes before. Freaked out, fashion friend has fainted and hubby is comforting her, clammy and cold on the cold pavement as she comes to. The cause of her distress? What bright spark lays on a filthy-big, tongue-flickin'. fookin' ferocious-looking, 15-feet-long, man-eating, scaly serpent from hell as entertainment - especially at an oversubscribed launch party in a confined space? Ophidiophobia: 37% of the adult population suffer from it, dontcha' know, you donut? So I'm afraid I'm unable to comment on the pub's ales and victuals beyond the slug of tomato juice I managed to down before our hasty retreat. (Kinda tomato-ish). Feeling somehow personally responsible (I must sort out this Catholic guilt thing: I mean, I'm not even a Christian, let alone a follower of some old Argentinian fart in a frock and a fancy Philip Treacy hat), I bundle swooning Mrs and concerned Mr into my car and deliver them to their preferred local where I buy brandy and dinner by way of an apology. Presently, fainty Fanny feels better, happy in familiar surroundings; and as said local is lovely The Bull and Last, I'm not exactly complaining. So, will I be reviewing Geronimo's latest in full any time soon? Another expedition to Norway? No way! 

33 Dartmouth Park Hill NW5 1 HU 7485 1578

Thursday, 4 April 2013

214 Bermondsey, The Borough

I wish I had bought a pad on Bermondsey Street when early adopter friends first spotted its soaraway potential and moved in (£300k to £2 million in 18 years? Jammy bastards!)  As things stand, I can just about stand you a round of drinks in one of this stylish enclave's numerous bars - The Garrison, Hide, East Village and now 214, a reboot of the cellar bar at Italian face-filling opportunity, Antico. Small comfy, cosy, all soft lighting honey-tone woods and tabasco leather, 214 eschews big design statement - a plus in my book in a city that now has more 'speakeasies' than the Chicago Mob could collect protection money from in a month of Sundays. In the absence of Bugsy Malone trappings, the adult theme here is a stonking range of great gins - I counted 50 on a smallish back bar where premium rums and whiskeys also vie for attention. Flights of three gins (from £12) come with house tonic - dry, peppery, earthy, bark-y, bitter, Fernet Branca-ish. Gin cocktails include aviation; Bermondsey negroni using local gin, Jensen; The Copenhagen (Bols Genever, Heering Cherry, lime and bitters, good at £9) and The Peck'em, SE15-distilled Little Bird shaken with Aperol, Cinzano B, grapefruit juice and bitters - more Portofino than Peckham to my mind. Gin junkies will be happy to find Death's Door,  Gilpin's, No.209, Bathtub Navy Strength, Xoriger various genevers and  current pash of mine, Saffron from Dijon's Gabriel Boudier. Gordon's? The barman tuts - although I retain a soft spot for the old girl having mixed it, aged 11, with bitter lemon and Dad's Eau Sauvage in an early experiment that led to a pubescent high I will never forget....followed by a tanned hide and tears before bedtime. My only gripe is 214's happy hour. If you aspire to owning a gaff in this deeply desirable faubourg, you're chained to a desk between 5 and 6pm, surely?
214 Bermondsey Street SE1 3TQ 7403 6875