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Thursday, 12 June 2014

El Nivel, Covent Garden

 (Easy Rider!)

Mezcal is having a moment in London's better bars. Deservedly so. It may still be a niche product in the UK today, but long ago and far away, tequila's sexy sister had me from hello. On a wild night south of El Paso, we first locked lips in a backstreet bodega. What drew the 20-year-old me to Mistress Mezcal was her ability to render me para' without the usual loss of speech, use of limbs and the inevitable chucking-out time up-chuck shame. Hers was a more subtle, cerebral high; comfortably numb, as if shot full of peyote, quaaludes and stardust to a damped-down trippy soundtrack of Santana, The Doors, Hendrix, Curtis Mayfield,  America's A Horse With No Name and a dose of dirty dancing salsa. Like the best burlesque artistes, mezcal sheds her layers slowly, reeling you in, intriguing, tantalising and, ultimately, leaving you begging for more. If your experience of mezcal is of the worm-infested acid touted by tacky tramps in stetsons variety, get yourself an education at El Nivel, a pared-down 30's Latino-style bar, lurking, unannounced, behind what looks like a cupboard door to the left of the entrance to La Perla restaurant. Named after the Mexico City cantina wherein renegades Che Guevara and Castro conspired, la Perla (an upscale departure from its Café Pacifico group siblings' format) aims to revolutionise attitudes to Mexico's oft-maligned national spirits - mezcal and tequila. Collated by the Café Pacific head honcho/ Jack Kerouac manqué, Tomas Estes (pictured) - an authority on all things agave (see ) - they are served here with top notch antojitos, or "little cravings" as the the collective noun for Mexican street food translates. Purists sip theirs neat, but mezcal is magic in cocktails too. Ease yourself in with La Poderosa (Vida mezcal, agave nectar, lime, cardamom and lavender bitters and fizz). Follow that with a mezcal fix made with QuiQuiRiQui, roasted pineapple syrup, lime, Cynar and saltwater spray - smokey, complex and rewarding at £9. Now, you're ready to go all the way, naked. See? You're hooked! When it comes to mainlining mezcal, like Curtis sang it, "I'm your pusherman."

26 Maiden Lane WC2E 7JS 7240 7400 

Tuesday, 10 June 2014

City Social, The City

Room with a view: Jason's latest gaff's cocktails come with a Gherkin garnish.

Spikey-top chefebrity Gary Rhodes once cooked breakfast of bacon and chipolatas for me at Margaret Thatcher's daughter Carole's Bankside loft. Before you jump to any erroneous conclusion ("exactly how pissed were you the night before?"), let me stress that I was there on a (very) slow news day, snouting for a scoop at a PR bash to launch some initiative by a pork-pimping bureau called Ladies In Pigs to which I'd been invited. Initially, I'd misread the event as 'Pigs in Ladies ' - a title that conjured up a tacky 50 Shades of Grey-style porno flick wherein various pot ugly footballer lookalikes - one, a Scouser with a penchant for grannies on the game - would 'pleasure' posh old birds. Also present at this surreal meal? Tory/ indie/ UKIP battle-axe Christine Hamilton. Point being, whilst I found old bangers Christine and Carole mildly entertaining in a kind of la-di-da Loose Women way, Gary appeared to have all the synthetic charm of one of the Ladies' see-through sausage skins. The bar at his Rhodes 24 restaurant at Tower 42 in the CIty always struck me in much the same way. 'Meh' to the max. Chef du jour Jason Atherton has never cooked breakfast for me - it can only be a matter of time - but he strikes me as an altogether more interesting sort. So too, his new sky lounge where once stood Gary's gaffe (sic). More sophisticated, more stylish, slicker, less frenetic or gimmicky than other Square Mile get-high-in-the-sky opportunities - hello Heron Tower! - City Social is a blue-chip banker. The busy room - think Wall Street boardroom pre-the '29 Crash - has a bullish confidence about it. It's like 2008 never happened. The views are an obvious draw but best go at sundown; butch brown-on-brown Art Deco-styling, and London below, both look better by night as - moving away from some unfortunate downlighting - do I in Atherton's otherwise seductively-lit space. Order bar snacks - boqueronnes, crab and avocado salad, or goat’s cheese churros with truffle honey - or more substantial dishes off the restaurant menu, also served in the bar. Innovative cocktails include It’s the British whey (brown butter-washed Johnnie Walker Black, PG Tips syrup, split milk whey, bitters, lemon juice and nutmeg, £11.50) - a fine example of why London's stock is riding high. The root of all evil, they say, is money and you'll do well to shell out yours on a walnut rum, Bramley apple syrup, poire William and root beer cooler of that ilk. I'm more circumspect about City Social's resident booze brokers' hot tip, tolero; worried that a Tapatio blanco, Tabasco, piquillo pepper and apricot brandy firecracker might leave me whistling Johnny Cash's Ring Of Fire, confined in City Social's comfy, comely khazi.
Tower 42, 25 Old Broad Street EC2N 1HQ 

Monday, 9 June 2014

Portside Parlour, Shoreditch

Originally a pop-up, in Spring 2014, the good ship PP set sail from Broadway Market, docking in Shoreditch, its new permanent mooring. Formerly a hairdresser's, the new premises' Grace Brothers'-style window display appears to have been salvaged from a Chatham chandler's yard circa the sinking of The Titanic. Mercifully, there's so far been no sighting of old gushy gusset, Kate Winslet, a ludic' luvvie so full of hot air, it's little wonder she floated while others sank like stones to Davy Jones' Locker. Inside, all darkly-lit metals and black leather booths, the mood is v Querelle - benders on a bender as imagined by Fassbinder (only not so gay, or at all threatening) - with gallons of good-times grog housed in mesh-fronted lockers. Get off your rocker on autopilot, an absinthe-laced triple rum punch as lethal as any U-boat torpedo, or sink a poet - Johnnie Walker Black ‘re-blended’ with Talisker single malt, sherry and bitters in a Chartreuse-rinsed glass - a dark destroyer to wax lyrical about at £9.50. Non-rum recipes such as Hendricks, nettle, elderflower, orange blossom water and mezcal long drink, lawnmower sling, are similarly ship-shape. ‘Private dining curated by Sager and Wilde’ is set to come on board soon and, served until 11pm (with wine from £20) a selection of piscine tapas includes baby octopus terrine, seafood croquettes, and devilled whitebait. Portside Parlour is a sophisticated cocktail cabin: more Otis Ferry than Calais ferry, it floats my boat.

14 Rivington Street EC2A 3DU 3662 6381

Friday, 6 June 2014

Bermondsey Arts Centre, Bermondsey

Cottaging: Joe Orton was a fan. George Michael too, splashed all over the news, busted for waving his Whammer, sent to the slammer and fined $500 when the pretty police observed him 'engaged in a lewd act' in an LA loo. But why any wanker would hang out on the off-chance of servicing Banker Billy's willy in a water closet, before the pinstripe closet heads home to the wife and kids in Croydon (ahem) beats me. Perhaps the idea of being picked up by the fuzz, the smell of industrial strength disinfectant and urine, and being shagged in a  stall in sixty seconds flat, free STD included, is too potent a thrill to resist? Deep in the bowels of Bermondsey, these former London lavs can, in future, expect to find me loitering with intent, long into the night. With great drinks and its on-the-money mix of art deco, Gotham City grunge and 50s local authority utilitarian, this film noir bar is unlikely to be a flash in the pan. The venue’s young owner, George Garnier - a St Martin’s fine art grad who now rents affordable work spaces to local artists - originally envisioned the space as a daytime caff/ social hub for his tenants. Research, however, indicated that what today’s budding Basquiat or Banksy most wants is not soup and a sarnie, but a cool place to chill until 2 a.m getting bladdered on recherché rinses: chrysanthemum (£10) and Colias (Stoli, saké and Licor 43) among them. Beers from The Kernel, Picpoul de Pinet (£25), French bubbles, share platters, renegade rock, raw retro soul, and occasional live unplugged sets are perfect for a new generation of underground cottage loafers. The only bummer is, in 2014, to spend a penny here (French 75 and as bog roll thrown in) you'll pay £9. But with drinks as good as half hardy (an El Dorado 8, basil and quince sour), Georgy Boy (Garnier, not Michael) ain't exactly taking the piss. 
102A Tower Bridge Road SE1 4TP

A version of this and my other reviews is at

Thursday, 5 June 2014

Mother Kelly's, Bethnal Green

A tagged mural, featuring a classic yellow Chequer Cab, recalls bombed-out Bronx tenement gable ends circa Grandmaster Flash's White Lines. There’s nothing remotely flash about this stripped-bare, railway arch set with refectory tables, however. What is grand about this chilled new US-style taproom and bottle shop - that's 'offie' to you - is a back bar beer wall whose spouts dispense two dozen amber gems. Hop-hedz will salivate over the prospect of Kentish pints Alpha State Red Simcoe and Larsens Pale,. Also worth a swallow, are Oregon light bock beer Rogue Dead Guy, Sleemans Honey Brown, Schneider Weiss, and various London craft ales on tap. A palisade of packed fridges contains more interesting thirst slakers: Dutch artisans De Molen’s Dood and Verderf and Amarillo for starters. Also on tap, are Mortimer’s Orchard cider, Prosecco, and house wine at £4 a glass. Basic cocktails such as Aperol spritz are offered and a selection of single malts includes Hebridean hero, Bruichladdich. Olives, pork pie and meat and cheese boards are also available at a bar whose name derives from 60s drag diva Danny La Rue’s iconic music hall song. Mother Kelly, late of Paradise Row, would be amazed to have such a place on her doorstep.  
251 Paradise Row E2 9LE  Twitter @Mother_kellys

Gong, London Bridge

"Simples, Alexsandr?"

In the new Shangri-La Hotel's ground floor foyer, our reservations are checked on two bits of i-Kit, while staff dressed in comical costume provide the entertainment. Presumably picked up in a fire sale in Minsk, their Cossack military mufti might work better on Alexsandr Orlov's meerkat mafia henchmen. Tech glitches mean the check-in staff can't communicate with their colleagues atop The Shard; so we wait...and wait...and wait, giving us time to appraise glitzy, oddly cheap-looking, lobby furniture presumably picked up at another sale. Julian McDonald for DFS, who knew? Eventually we're cleared for take-off, herded into a lift, and like some latter day Laika, blasted into the stratosphere on a two-leg mission to Lost Horizons... aka Gong, 50-odd floors above. As the lift doors close, our fellow space travellers go a bit Yuri Gagarin, (prematurely) giddy with excitement. As a survivor of Windows On The World on level 107 of Manhattan's ill-fated Twin Towers - magnificent erections that would have made The Shard look like a short-arse in a Klu Klux Klan pointy hat by comparison - I'm a bit of a blasé bastard when it comes to sky-bars. When we finally reach London's latest, we're met by blank looks from staff in a tizzy, to whom news of our coming has still not filtered through. The bar's blue sky drink-in views over Lilliputian London below are undeniably impressive, yet only serve to make Gong seem even more insignificant, ickle and cramped than it actually is. More unfortunate furniture decisions include ghastly grey carpet, Hyacinth Bucket-esque chinoserie, squat uncomfortable stools, and a stupendously ill-placed, view-blocking, sofa over which item's high back, bridge-and-tunnel punters drape themselves in order to take souvenir pictures, their big Billericay bahookeys pointing straight into my mate's face, itself a picture... of disdain. I could go on, but staff in a faff have finally rocked up with our cocktails - a decent Pendennis Club (£15) and a Jensen’s Bermondsey gin and rose Champagne job. Next, I tackle the big smoke (pictured). A fair enough cousin of the martinez, its glass is perfumed, à table, in a billow of rosemary-infused smoke, to admiring gasps from agog out-of-towners unfamiliar with London’s tiresome/tired molecular mixology trend’s theatricals. 'I ain't never seen nuffink like it!" squeals one classy lassie on a table (uncomfortably) adjacent to ours. To eat, we're offered  a 'tapas' platter. It consists, inexplicably, of dull bite-sized open sandwiches. More Rayners Lane than Spain. My mate is getting tetchy - a combination of being constantly caught in a pincer movement by bustling staff brushing by us to either side and of loud 80s wine bar muzak. I'm unnerved by one besuited female staff member, an icy Baltic blonde who, rooted to the spot, spends her entire evening glowering at us like a Soviet-era Intourist minder. "Security?" I wonder aloud. "Why? To stop us from leaving?" shoots back my mate.  I desperately want our evening to end on a high, and it does - 20-odd floors below at Aqua Shard. To be fair, the Shangri-La's doors have barely opened when we visit, but it's all gone a bit Pete Tong at Gong and there's much to tweak. London's loftiest bar it may be but, on this showing, definitely far from its most exalted. 
Shangri-La Hotel 31 St. Thomas Street SE1 9QU 7234 8000 

Tuesday, 3 June 2014

The Rosebery Room, Knightsbridge

When Anna Wintour issues a decree, Planet High Fashion jumps. The petrifying praying mantis in Prada has reportedly banned her staff from staying in Dorchester Collection hotels after the group's owner, The Sultan of Brunei - a less benign dictator than US Vogue's bobbed Nancy Regan lookalike - decided to impose sharia law on his subjects. I'm with Ms W (and Stephen Fry, Ellen Degeneres et al) on this one. Lovely staff or not, I'm body-swerving the Dorchester, Bar 45, Le Meurice (the Nazis' HQ in WWII Paris) and the rest until the malevolent medievalist mullah realises that taking moolah from gay guys out to get stoned on martinis, while simultaneously stoning them at home for being gay (or any other 'crime' he might persecute in the name of religion), just isn't cricket. Hit him where it hurts; kick the c*** in the cash register, I say, and take Champagne afternoon tea (from £45) instead at the Mandarin Oriental's dashing new Rosebery Room. On the grounds that a picture speaks a thousand words (and that I'm on a tight advertising copy deadline today), I'll let the above jpeg tell you all you need to know about the decor. What I will add, is that my only beef is with the grand salon's afternoon ambient state: even Harvey Nics' dummies aren't as unforgivingly brightly spot-lit. Named after the Victorian PM, afternoon tea was last served in this 'lost' suite in the 1920s. The modern version is a marathon take on the old, with highly prized single estate teas in gorgeous china, superior rolled sandwiches, scones, macarons, cakes (followed by more cake) and chocolate truffles ceremoniously slung our way until my sugar levels are up there with 5-year old class tantrum-thrower, Taylor, on a Haribo-high rampage. Service is every bit as sweet, with more staff per punter than even a dodgy dictator would command. Come 6pm, the lighting is, mercifully, knocked down several notches (but not so low that Nuclear Wintour would remove her shades) and Champagne cocktails are the thing. Bellinis built on tequila, passion fruit, lemon and green tea, or peppermint, elderflower, cucumber white pepper and saké are standouts on an interesting list. Inch'Allah, not only the fashionisti will boycott the Brunei bigot's Park Lane pile and park their size zero posteriors on The Rosebery's pesto-tone plush; others will too.
66 Knightsbridge SW1X 7LA 7235 2000