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Friday, 29 October 2010

Le Bistrot at L'Institut Francais , South Kensington

In an area not blessed with great hang-outs, Le Bistrot - the bar/ cafe at this cinema/ library/ cultural centre - is open to even les rosbifs. In the heart of Little Paris (i.e. South Kensington ) where shop keepers routinely address you in French and stare uncomprehendingly when you reply in English, this is something of a find. Recently reconfigured in nouvelle vague black and white, it's the kind of smart, middle class space demanded by the sort of bon chic, bon genre bitches who always appear immaculate, head to toe in Dior, on the beach in Sainte Maxime while you look like a dishevelled pink shrimp, colour matched to a swimming costume that fitted when you bought it in 2005.  A central self-service buffet boasts fifteen different salads, traiteur tasties, charcuterie, quiches, soups, patisseries and viennoiseries charged at £4.95, £8 or £10 according to plate size. To drink, there’s a selection of by-the-glass wine from Pays d’Oc (£4) to superior Chablis (£10); Kronenbourg and Peroni and a selection of spirits and aperitifs that, naturellement, includes the fuel on which all Provence runs, Ricard. Le bistrot opens at 11 am for strong café and stays open until 8.30 pm by which time, it’s assumed debate and discussion surrounding matters existential will be moved on elsewhere. The bar monsieur was atypically charming for a grenouille but his pantalon looked like une petite visite to the nettoyage a sec shop was long overdue. Les Frenchies, superchic? Pas toujours!

Blind Tiger, Battersea

Arrivals are scrutinised through an anonymous door's sliding grille. Pass the test (feel free to dress up as Spats Colombo or Sugar Kawalczyk although, as nobody else has bothered, reservations will presumably swing it) and enter Blind Tiger a semi-clandestine Roaring Twenties experience; that's as in Prohibition, the era when ‘blind tiger’ was code for an American speakeasy. In this candle-lit honytonk parlour cocktails, chow and chin-wagging are the thing. Lemongrass and lychee daiquiri, rhubarb and honey Bellini and Georgia mint julep - from a list of 'prescriptions' contained in gold envelopes handed to guests - live up to their raffish surroundings and an interesting selection of Stateside beers includes Kelham Island Pale Rider. Bistro-gastro best describes the generously apportioned food: with starters and franglais puds from £5 and mains of pork loin in pancetta with a mustard sauce, artichoke, runner beans and new potatoes (£14.95); pan-fried halibut, samphire, radicchio and gamey-good pheasant (complete with shot) on creamed mash all well received, murmerings of 'too many things on the plate' aside. There’s live juke joint music on Wednesdays, rat pack swing on Thursdays and Sunday tea parties with illicit hooch. At weekends, the venue reverts to being an annexe of Lost Society but for an alternative week night jaunt or a novel Christmas party, this Tiger lost in the back woods of Battersea could turn out to be a blinding idea.

697A Wandsworth Road SW8 7652 6526
(adapted from my review for Square Meal) 

Thursday, 28 October 2010

The Betsy Smith, Kilburn

I’m keen to sample outlandish cocktails at a new brekkie-to-late DJ bar. Will Relish The Thought - tequila, rhubarb liqueur, lemon, apple, roast parsnip, caramelised red onion relish and dolcelatte - be the dog’s nuts or just cheesy boll****? Who knows? ‘Ve do not hav’ ingri-juntz,’ offers Olga from the Volga in that matter-of-fact tone adopted by hard-faced Soviet era cabin crew. Instead, I try Quincy, a gin, quince and rose petal martini. It’s punchy enough as, gauging by the way two girlies are weaving through the long bar, are £12 cocktails served in teapots. The Betsy Smith, from the guys behind The Winchester in Islington, is already pulling Kilburn's burghers in numbers. Prices are fair; there’s a reasonable grub offer that includes a Sunday roast for £8.95 and staff are generally sweet, if a bit ditzy. The locals - from not the most fashion savvy postcode in London, I swiftly conclude -  seem particularly taken with the decor: think Artful Dodger does Victorian Poundland. Perhaps they’ve never experienced this jumbly Narnia/ Alice In Wonderland trip done miles better at Shoreditch’s Callooh Callay and Loungelover? Talking of trippy, having been shown the door, a dolally old cove in a camel coat is ranting outside as we arrive. Waving a plastic tote emblazoned with an ac-ieeed smiley at Betsy bar-bloke, he insists his drink has been spiked with LSD. Smirking, the accused motions him away  ‘I hope your insanity keeps you warm.’ On Kilburn’s chaotic pavements, such street theatre passes unnoticed. "He's a regular' confides another staffer. Charming!
77 Kilburn High Road NW6 7624 5793

Thursday, 21 October 2010

Minako at The Met, Marylebone

If you don't fancy Minako, there's always this lovely. On second thoughts, maybe not!

On the Park Lane Hilton’s 28th floor, velvet rope-keeper orders ‘No coats in the bar!’ ‘What? Not even Dior couture?’ We’re expected to queue with plastic thickos that look like the cast of The Only Way Is Essex dressed for the TVChoice Awards in association with Daz. Tonight, the portals to Galvin At Windows - that’s WAG backwards - are besieged by backwards Wag-wannabes and mouthy chavs, sample comment: ‘These new ’eels are proper raping my feet.’ Classy! We leave. Soon after, WAG’s PR contacts me. A ‘Guy Fawkes Night’ is to be held there. So, here’s to flammable acrylic extensions going up with the bonfire. This is my second recent Hilton encounter, both duff. The bar at the chain’s new pan-Asian joint, Minako, twenty-three floors above Marylebone flyover, also boasts great views but, tonight, its guests are less fake Gucci gutter-glam, more how I imagine people who are big in Inkjet Toner World might look. We sip fair-ish Thai Bellinis but give up on banal bar bites. This was formerly Nippon Tuk whose tired 1970’s decor has been dragged into a new decade... the ‘80s; nice in a Krystle Carrington way. Presently, a Minako minion corners me to explain ‘the concept’: like I’m 17 and just off the bus from Clueless? I’m rapidly going off Hiltons, guilty pleasure, Paris, notwithstanding.  

Sunday, 17 October 2010

The Jam Tree, Olympia

Worth a detour for those attending nearby Olympia or even Westfield with its predictable high street chains, this handsome corner tavern conversion set deep in a residential enclave ticks all the prevailing foodie pub design boxes. Two floors are given over to meeting rooms for hire and private dining and there's a cellar bar too but the building's heart is an airy ground floor lounge kitted out in 21st Century old-booza-moderne hung with bright Warholesque foodie 'art'. In addition to a range of tap ales, an interesting list offers ten wines by the glass with Aussie shiraz and chardonnay at £14.50 and Picpoul de Pinet - a luscious Languedoc fruit orchard in a bottle - right at £23.50. Burgundy at either side of £50 hints at some ambition. Apparently owner Sam Riordan is a nephew of Rick Stein. A quick lesson from him on how long NOT to cook fish for might be in order, based on my main. Moister, was chicken jalfrezi, one of various ‘colonial’ dishes that were attractively presented - although nasi goreng may  be more representative of another European neighbour's past overseas adventures. Sam's brother, DJ Judge Jules might want to suggest the staff change the CD occasionally; the Troggs’s Wild Thing x 4, anyone? Sunday lunch at £12.50 is a steal and a discount voucher offering 20% off, available via the website, stack up to a not-much-money tree for those jammy enough to cotton on.
(adapted from my Square Meal review) 

58 Milson Rd W14  07905 975 123

Thursday, 14 October 2010

The Flowerpot, Kentish Town (CLOSED)

Reviewing bars, I get to visit all sorts. From the sublime - The Connaught whose twenty quid killer martinis I'd never have afforded as a student, to The Flowerpot in Kentish Town whose £2 Sambuca shots, I could have, had I ever actually wanted to. On balance, even back in those impecunious days, I’d probably have elected to neck neat turps with the local bums than frequent what is essentially a retread of grungy, junior muso joint, Bullet. Bleach? Mr Muscle? Whatever they swab the place down with, it smells like a spotty-rashy, trainer-trashy, teenage oik’s pit. Fragrant date winces and demands we leave - immediately! Made of sterner stuff, I insist on at least one drink - industrial strength cider. Suddenly, I’m all nostalgic for patchouli oil, Pot Noodle, Che Guevara posters, lava lamps, Hendrix and that other student bedsit sine qua non, the liberated rubber traffic cone. We park up on shonky, wipe-down banquette that’s in danger of self-destructing whenever either of us moves. The alternative is a grubby armchair, its foam guts spewing out like some fat sleb's during liposuction. The mere prospect of it sets me off on a different (bad) nostalgia trip: the night I caught crabs down Dover docks way. Behind the bar, skinny-jean Flowerpot man (more of a little weed) chomps cheesy crisps and scratches his armpits. Nice one petal!  On-stage, tonight’s ’free live music’, Natalie Macool, wails like a bereaved wifey at an Irish wake. Suddenly, I hate my job.
147 Kentish Town Rd NW1 7485 6040  

Monday, 11 October 2010

Cigar and Cognac Garden at Duke's Hotel, St James's

I'm not much into brandy: fine name for a Playboy bunny but generally, I prefer my native Caledonia's McEau de vie. And, I stopped smoking some time ago. So brandy and cigars - Wot.Evah! Gardens, however, I do dig (if pottering around with terracotta pots and a rusting trowel on my sun-trap city balcon counts) and Duke's Hotel, I like because  a) it does a stellar martini b) it's not the effin' Ritz  and c) I was once entertained there by two mad old society bints, gin- raddled 60s chicks who made a bee-line for a younger, svelte me, fancying I was available for hire for the sort of afternoon romp Dempster's column thrived on. At Duke's new C and CG  there are hydrangea and potted shrubs, but ‘garden’ is pushing it. A tented, heated space for twenty intimates feels more like a hospitality lounge at a corporate summer bash- Henley, The Open or Wimbledon. That, or the patio furniture section at Homebase. Its finest Cubans cost more than a night with a Havana hoor and for £340, the price of  Bignon 1800 from a range of VIP cognacs and armagnacs, she'd throw in her kid sisters and the old man's 1957 Chevrolet convertible for good measure. In truth, it all looks a bit Hyacinth Bucket and some of its punters look like they are about to kick her namesake. That's bucket not bouquet by the way. Stick to Duke's main bar or sashay round to The Stafford, I say.

Friday, 8 October 2010

Melanzana, Battersea

 Is it a bar? is it a trattoria? Is it a deli? Well, it’s all three... and it’s also a find. I'm told there used to be a mad disco called Bennet's on Battersea Square. Under its glass dance floor, it boasted piranha fish ready to chew to stumps the feet of anyone who flunked the Noo Yawk Hustle. By the time I moved to SW11 (quickly realising my grave mistake and legging it back over the river, pronto) the hood was devoid of any interest beyond Ransome's Dock. But then came Montevetro with its millionnaire pads. Now, SW11's wadded new homies have various noshing ops on Battersea Square of which, Melenzana is by far their best option. This cute, rustic affair - formerly the dire Raven pub before it shot the crow - offers draught Peroni at £3.60 and a fair selection of Italian vino to drink in or to go.  Apperitivo hour -  that's around 7 pm local time - is when to rock up for an Americano. Otherwise, order oaky Sardinian red, Cannonau (£25.80); Nosiola, a fruit and nutty white from Italy’s alpine slopes; or crisp Prosecco at £5.50 per glass. Charming service delivers a range of honestly-priced, mostly well-executed simple recipes: strozzapreti with mussels and courgettes; rich gnocchi with Italian sausage in a tomato, spinach and mascarpone sauce; beef carpaccio and a dozen top notch pizzas. Only troppo al dente aubergine in a mixed grilled veg salad struck a bum note. An affordable range of antipasti, meats, cheeses and sauces from the deli counter is another magnet for busy Battersea bachelors and yummy mummys in a hurry.  
(adapted from my Square Meal review)

140 Westbridge Rd SW11 7228 5420 

Flemings, Mayfair

Whether for afternoon tea with cupcakes in its cosy-cute library, or a tête-à-tête over Taittinger - from a selection of fizz from £10 a flute - in its semi-secret intimate basement bar, splashy boutique hotel Flemings is a Mayfair address to know. With its seductively-lit, mirrored overwrought interior in lurid cerise and jade, we're in 1950's kitschy pot-boiler territory - the sort of film set you half expect Bette Davis to waft onto in a cloud of Sobranie smoke, wearing a beaded shantung silk number and an eye-patch and dripping diamonds and vitriol. Unflappable, twinkly-eyed service is part of the appeal; camp staff entertain us over knockout martinis and pink fizz fit for bubblehead blondes. Go ‘long and luscious’ with Eau de Poire (a pear Collins) or demand a ‘glamourous treat’, a Precious Jewel, perhaps (Tanqueray 10, fig liqueur, lavender bitters and lemon) from a drinks list that includes various martinis at £12 and pinot grigio at £22.50. Canapes of mini fishcakes, pea and mint risotto balls, bresaola wraps andveggie options encourage lingering in a clandestine, subterranean speakeasy that's far removed from the West End hustle (Up until the mid-1970s, Half Moon Street was home to Mayfair's rent boys).  Just don't tell the suits! (Abridged from my Square Meal review) 

8 -12 Half Moon St 7499 000 

Thursday, 7 October 2010

Mustik, Finsbury (CLOSED)

If you’re anticipating Mustique, as in the late-Princess Margaret’s dream holiday destination, walk on by. That’s if you can squeeze past the ranks of off-duty suits smoking, texting and shivering their tits off by the potted palms on the pavement outside.  Formerly The Prophet -whose plunging prophet margins presumably did for it - Mustik is  a bar/ restaurant/ nightclub hybrid set to Latino beats. Its aim? To inject a shot of Trinidadian warmth and hospitality to the grey concrete canyons of EC2. I'm not sold. There's a nod to lurid, crazy tropical colour clash but, overall, the space feels more like a two-star package hotel in the Dominican Republic - or Doncaster, come to that - than a sun-kissed Tobago beach shack fit for the Glenconner clan, whose late 3rd Lord turned Mustique into Windsor-sur-mer. Among the Mr Boombastic cocktails, rio fuego (cachaça, lime, chili and passion fruit puree) and chiquita (a frozen rum, crème de banane and pineapple juice concoction) are Sunny Delight at £6.50. There are ranks of chrome spouts and wine from £16.50, but what encourages a repeat visit is a menu of Caribbean eats: patties, ackee and salt fish and fritters as bar bites, to braised oxtail with butter beans, stews, jerk or calypso fish and chicken and escoveitch via ‘rasta pasta’ and that well-known Carib classic, portobello mushroom burger with mozzarella and Med veg.  Surely some Mustake, there? 
Triton Court, 5 Worship St EC2 7330 0929 

Shaka Zulu, Camden

You have to admire this new South African-themed pile for its pluck. Hopefully, springing somewhere the size of Lesotho on London, at a time when the bush tom-tom talks of enforced austerity, won’t end, like the Boer War, in defeat for Shaka’s Zulu nation. To bingo bongo beats, we navigate our way to the lounge bar at this ‘unique’ (that’s, for sure) and ‘classy’ (if you say so!) gastroplex that must be seen- once will do - to be believed. Wall-to-wall tribal carvings; ethnic prints; statuesque warriors a go-go:  this overwrought subterranean kingdom feels more Sun City than Camden. Short of Justin and Colin doing  the window displays for Loincloths-R-Us  to coincide with Gay Pride, Johannesburg, could it look more camp/ crap? Forget beads and trinkets here, the intrepid  explorer will need to part with nine and half of your English pounds to sample the Shaka shakers’ finest efforts. Pick of the ‘Zulu cocktails’ is angel face (African Mishale brandy, fig, lemon and apple juice), (Ketel) dawa, a native of Nairobi & vodka and kumquat thirst quencher, sufrica. Closer to home there's Orkney dig. What archaeology on rainswept islands off the north coast of Scotland has to do with Durban is anybody’s guess. Ten by the glass wines include Kloovenburg merlot at £7.50 while Namibia’s Windhoek spearheads the beer selection. In similarly ‘classy’ bars in Cape Town, £10 will get you three Bellinis. If this one lasts, I'll eat my vuvuzela:  but then that's pretty much what I said about the similarly bonkers Gilgamesh next door, so what do I know?.   

The Stables Market, Camden High St NW1 3376 9911  

The Phene, Chelsea

When moribund boozer The Phene - George Best’s livers’ (yes, that's plural) sometime local - shut, it was presumed lost forever, destined to be turned into yet more desirable London living. Re-floated, with turbo-toff Lily Bourne at the helm, its gazillionaire neighbours seem happy enough to tolerate the brouhaha that is inevitable whenever Sloanes invade a pretty terrace garden. Perhaps a better class of braying sits easy on the ears? Indoors, to either side of a jolly bar, an agreeable mix of red banquette, knick-knacks and old tomes by-the-yard screeches ‘pub nouveau’ while upstairs, chess sets await players in a would-be rakish cocktail lounge-cum-parlour in plummy purple plush. An other room hosts a day-time deli-cum-caff, shut when I look in.  In the bar, Peroni heads the draughts and ciders include the excellent  Polgoon from Cornwall which reminds the blonde surf dudes of hols in Rock, no doubt. ‘Phene colada’ appears on a list of £8 cocktails but a negroni comes with orange juice and much chutzpah on the part of its maker who insists ‘this is the Italian way.’ (Oh, really?) From a sensible wine list, Picpoul de Pinet is right at £23 but dinner disappoints. Artichoke with lemon butter’s lemon seems to have gone AWOL while ham hock, sauce gribiche, is like chewing on a bland rubber band. Burger (comes with claggy chips while roasted sea bass is paired with a mushroom risotto whose salt levels whisk me back to my stock cube sucking days (a childhood fetish).  Puds are better if not entirely er, Phene. Still, the Sloanes seem pleased as , 'yah', Punch with their new Chelsea HQ.

9 Phene Street SW3 7352 3294 

Aces and Eights, Tufnell Park

Aces & Eights is my kind of local. Only problem is, Tufnell Park is about as local to me as Timbuktu. Still, I’m glad I rode the Northern Line; this newbie is a honey. Rough-hewn booths, flickering neons, posters advertising gigs circa The Doors and a collage of well-stacked cuties clipped from vintage top shelf mags design the down-and-dirty vibe. Dimly lit, its butch bar counter punctuated by high stools and staffed by laid-back ‘tenders out of a 1960s East Coast garage band, this rakish rock’n’roll scruff - with its blaring leather, denim and cheesecloth Route 66 soundtrack and occasional live bands - belongs in a Brooklyn backstreet. It’s an impression reinforced by the bar’s chow; big, horny pizzas to match anything you’ll snarf on Long Island. That, and a useful selection of whiskey and bourbon. Whiskey Sours - half-price before 8pm - are fair enough and my jet-lagged Nancy Sinatra-esque arm candy perks up on Cherry Smash. But, since bourbon’s your thing, how about more adventurous cocktails, guys? Rat Pack Manhattan, De La Louisiane or a Mrs Robinson? (You'll find the recipes in Difford's Guides) Talking of Mrs Robinson, much underwear has been shed within. The custom, I’m told, is for feverish females to whip off their scants. Judging by the pants panties and boring Brenda bras strung above the bar like washday in Wigan, what NW5 needs next is a branch of Agent Provocateur.  
156-158 Fortess Rd NW5 7485 4033