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Friday, 21 December 2012

Opium, Chinatown

Eric Yu (Punk, The Social, Salvador and Amanda) and drinks industry guru Dré Masso's joint new cocktail joint/ dim sum parlour, Opium, invites comparison with that other talked-up late-night Chinatown noodle,The Experimental Cocktail Club. Both bars inhabit the upper floors of creaky old townhouses, their unmarked doors designed to foil all but those in the loop. Although it's possible to simply rock up at either, advance reservations are a better bet; while another trait shared by both bars, is pricing as steep as the staircases that lead to them - an ascent perfumed by joss sticks as cloying as YSL's Opium at Opium. The rarified cocktails at ECC are arguably worth their 'ouch!' cost but my date, a bar world bigwig, is agog at Opium's ambitiously priced menu.  My first choice, gin and blood orange cooler Laughing Buddha, is a fine sundowner, and attractively garnished too; even if with Bombay Sapphire sold at £21 a litre at the end of my street as its base, Buddha should be laughing all the way to the bank. My date is not so lucky with Kung Fu Whizz. Served in a prosaic Chinese teacup, he's not keen on its mix of flat-ish Champagne, parsnip puree, black malt vinegar and honey, claiming it has all the appeal of the old Chinese Commie Party Chairman's Maoth-rinse. I try it. Bleurgh! The last time I tasted anything this peculiar, didn't I come round, dazed, in a Bucharest gutter, minus both my kidneys? For this liquid experiment, dispensed from Opium's apothecary, a Hong Kong Heston-style lab complete with chef/ mixologist's table, you'll pay around £15 - amateurish service from a sweet French chap who mightn't cut la moutarde chez ECC - included. While ECC favours Rive Gauche boho chic, the decor in the section of the sprawling pile we are shown to suggests a 1930s drug-fug knocking shop crossed with the waiting room of the Kowloon clap clinic you'd subsequently need to attend. That's not necessarily an unflattering comparison; you'll meet all sorts of lovely, interesting people (albeit possibly, temporarily, off-limits if you're in the mood for romance) at your local STD lounge. As for Opium's lounges,  I rather like this funky Shanghai shonkytonk's various quaint charms - viz its surreal loo experience (and, no; I'm not telling). Steaming, plump, reasonably priced at around £7 for four, dim sum presently appear - delivered, according to Frenchy (and sundry media), via dumb waiter from Dumplings Legend directly below. Ho Lee Fook! Would that be Dumplings Legend as featured in yesterday's Evening Standard? I'll draw a veil over the reported matter, but if you're squeamish, best not visit . All I can usefully add is, whatever our dim sum's provenance, they were tasty enough and my guts suffered absolutely no ill-effects: the only slight sickener, the bill. Drinks industry legend date got landed with that one, poor dumpling. Some are raving about the place; others point to another of Masso's cocktails, The Emperor's New Clothes. Put on your cheongsam and decide for yourself, me old China.
15 Gerrard Street W1 7734 7276

Thursday, 20 December 2012

The Luggage Room, Mayfair

Grosvenor Square doesn't figure much in my life: I've no desire to queue again outside Fortress America in the hope of landing a work permit (been there; done that; bought the t-shirt), and my chauffeur has never been instructed to programme the co-ordinates of gobby Gordon's Maze into my Bentley's in-car Bardar (been there; done that; wouldn't buy the t-shirt). Actually, I made up the bit about the Bentley. I'm a Beemer drop-top bloke (it fits more with my sad fantasy of myself as Frank Sinatra as Pal Joey, running around in an expensive trinket gratefully gifted for services rendered, singing The Lady Is A Tramp ). According to tonight's destination's PRs, The Bentley Boys are the inspiration for this brand new Grosvenor Square bar, The Luggage Room. Apparently, the Bentley Boys were car-crazy Mayfair socialites - forerunners of today's Made In Chelsea chumps, out to impress the 1920s equivalents of Milly, Silly, Caggy and Slaggy with acts of derring-do on the Great West Road. Some of the drinks - such as gin, grapefruit bitters and absinthe martini, Baron André d’Erlanger, are named after members of their set - the Baron, a banker at £14.50. Otherwise, try Hanky Panky, Penicillin and Aviation, similarly on-the-money retro rinses in  served in vintage stemware with complimentary salted snacks that verge on the addictive. I'm less hooked on a salmon caviar and sour cream scotch egg hybrid -  too cold, curiously bland, no improvement on the bog standard job, and too steep at £15 - from a range of trying-too-hard faffy-fiddly ideas presented in twiddly twee containers. The basement suite occupied by The Luggage Room was ("no shit, Sherlock?") once the temporary resting place for monogrammed valises belonging to grand old baggages in residence at the Marriott Hotel above. The rooms' tiramisu-tone art deco-inspired decor - think drinking inside a Vuitton steamer trunk lined in ivory silk grosgrain - is sophisticated and easy-on-the-eye. So too, its staff. I'm not generally much of a Marriott man - their Kensington gaff as soulless as any you'll find - but I know a good bar when I see one.Tweak the food offer, dim the lights, and I might just join the Bentley Boys' gang. 
London Marriott Grosvenor Square, W1K 6JP 7514 1679

Post-script: on a subsequent visit , the lighting had been so successfully tweaked, even those faces sporting the afterglow of Harley Street chemical peel will look as blemish-free as an airbrushed Kate Moss.

Thursday, 13 December 2012

Craft Beer Co, Islington

A sympathetic refurb in scarlet and forest green breathes new life into this backstreet boozer; but its the fantastic range of craft beers that turns this charming local into a destination for hop-heads. As with the business’s other outlets in Clerkenwell and Brixton, there’s hundreds of bottled ales and a serious set of taps to tempt - we counted 24. Both native and imported artisanal beers demand serious attention. Bermondsey’s Kernel and a host of new wave native microbreweries go into bat for Britain, while Belgium is represented by a strong showing of Lambic, Geuze and Trappiste beers from the likes of Westmalle Abbey. There’s a strong Scandinavian team and America plays a blinder: Hoppin’ Frog’s 9.4% abv B.O.R.I.S The Crusher (‘bodacious oatmeal Russian imperial stout) and Anchorage’s The Tide and its Taker (a rarity at a sobering £29.95) among the folksy standouts. Wines from £15.95, scotch egg, epic meat pies - try the chorizo version - twinkly-eyed service and a patio garden complete the attractive offer.   
55 White Lion Street N1 9PP 7278 0318

Visit Square Meal for my review of Craft Beer Co Brixton

BrewDog, UK-wide

Scotland’s Top Dog Gets Its Teeth Into England

Londoners are used to successful launches in the capital being rolled-out nationwide; but for BrewDog, the phenomenon has worked in reverse. Founded in 2006 and now the largest independent brewery north of the border, BrewDog has established a London foothold - and a growing band of admirers - at its bars in Camden Town and Shoreditch. December 12th saw Scotland’s top dog get its teeth into Birmingham. The city’s John Bright Street hosts BrewDog’s tenth venue, part of a burgeoning chain that includes quirky premises in Edinburgh, Glasgow, Aberdeen, Manchester, Nottingham, Newcastle and Bristol. 

Responding to the growing demand for great British microbrews from drinkers ‘fed up having the wool pulled over their eyes, told by conglomerates their beer is from Australia when it’s really from Burton-on-Trent’, co-founder James Watt, along with some second hand brewing equipment and Bracken his dog as supervisor, has increased turnover to £12 million in just five years. So successful did Watt’s ‘punk’ brews - currently sold in 27 countries -  become, he was unable to satisfy demand. The solution: a second brewery near the Aberdeenshire origina financed by an ‘Equity For Punks’ scheme whereby 6,000 ‘fanvestors’ snapped up shares, enabling BrewDog to become a great Scottish export story - beery pun intended! 

Three braw brews to try

5A.M.SAINT - accurately described as an ‘iconoclastic, über-hoppy red ale.’

HARDCORE IPA -  this distinguished pale ale ‘gets the adrenalin pumping like a 400 volt shot in a copper bathtub.’

SINK THE BISMARCK - handle with care! At a ridiculous 41% abv (the same strength as whisky) three swigs can torpedo your night! 

Underdog, Shoreditch

For its first stab at a cocktail bar, Scottish indie craft brewing success story BrewDog has created a moody speakeasy in the basement of its second London premises - at what used to be Mason & Taylor and, before that, Green and Red. Figure out how to get in -  having Marvel Comics mutant Kitty Pryde's special powers will help - and you'll enter a dimly lit, atmospheric, post-punk take on a Deep South juke joint circa Calvin Coolidge - complete with a gutsy growling rhythm n'blues soundtrack, occasional live music and bartenders straight out of a Walker Evans portrait. Are the drinks as downbeat as their Great Depression-era surroundings? Not a bit of it! Any joint whose head honcho, lightly probed as to what bar he rates in London (his excepted), cites Happiness Forgets is playing my tune. Priced between £8 and £9, ideas such as Boil Your Maker (Glen Garioch Highland single malt or Buffalo Trace with a choice of floral, rich or bittersweet home-made vermouths) are top dog. As in an Ardbeg-based julep and The Beer Meeting (Diplomatico Anejo, Dead Pony and Libertin Black ales, verveine cordial and orange bitters) BrewDog brews inevitably sneak into the mix wherever practicable -but the guys aren't beer zealots to the extent that they won't knock out a Negroni..or Dead Pony-Groni if you let them have their way.  Underdog has the makings of a great Shoreditch bar. So what if only popcorn is available to eat? There's a Depression going on out there, don't ya know? Two 'Snakebiteritas' to the good; like you care?
51 - 55 Bethnal Green Road E1 6LA 7729 8476 

Thursday, 6 December 2012

House of Wolf, Islington

Previously, it housed Albert and Pearl, a swine among bars with ideas above its station (that's Highbury and Islington if you are tubing it); if you were part of (cringe!) 'Cool Britannia', you'll have fond memories of the place as The Medicine Bar; and if, like me, you used to ride a penny-farthing, you'll have enjoyed it as a Victorian music hall. Now this rickety ramble is in the clutches of the crew behind Brighton venue Madame Geisha who have transformed the Islington jumble into an ‘experimental pleasure palace’ that comes on like a Jack The Ripper era cocktail bar as imagined by Tim Burton. Tweedy young fogeys and vintage-clad chapesses who frequent postmodern gin joints such as The Worship Street Whistling Shop and Purl will adore it. Overwhelmed, minimalists may need smelling salts and a period of repose in the secret Victorian ‘fainting room’ while they recover from House of Wolf's ‘multi-sensory’ overload. I popped in for a tequila at a Patron pop-up, and I'm still reeling from an encounter with a fortune teller who tells me I'm about to father a set of triplets who will be born hideously deformed. Ah well, I can always pimp them out to a future House of Wolf freak show; for Gothic divertissements are very much in the spirit of the entertainment provided in the venue's ground floor main bar-cum-performance space.  Expect live sets from name-to-drop musicians, off-the-wall bingo, quizzes, cabaret and Saturday late The Burning Beat - billed as ‘wild-eyed-gypsy carnival rock n’roll'. This room's bar does a range of a dozen cocktails at around £8.50, but the intrepid will fancy an adventure in the Phileas Fogg-esque Apothecary upstairs. Here, lab-coat-clad professors (resting actors?) prepare arcana such as a black pudding-infused rum libation served in a Lyle’s treacle tin; a doctored knickerbocker glory unsuited to any child except The Omen's Damien; and the vodka peculiar that is popcorn-flavoured sour, Over The Pop. Over the top? Exciting innovation or pretentious tosh? Online reviews have been rapturous... and damning in equal measure - particularly in respect of the restaurant's outlandish 'experimental' food. But don't shoot the Wolf until you've checked out its den for yourself. Beast/ beauty? Either way, you won't be indifferent.
181 Upper Street N1 1RQ 7288 1470 

Wednesday, 5 December 2012

The Snacks That Ate Britain

Crisps, nuts, chips and olives aside; what were your favourite bar snacks of 2012? My nationwide (cheese) straw poll for METRO finds out.  

1 Scotch egg  - best served warm with a squidgy yolk, your top bar snack again... 274 years after it was invented at London’s Fortnum & Mason
2 Hot dog - and champagne - as at Bubbledogs, London W1- so very 2012, darling! 
3 Pork pie and piccalilli - nearly as old as scotch egg. In 1799, The Times carried adverts for the Indian style pickle that is great with Melton Mowbray pie. 
4 Beef sliders - Invented in 1916 in Kansas; all the fun of a burger at ¼ of its calories
5 Cheese-stuffed Padrón peppers - and chorizo, calamari, patatas bravas, etc, etc. Does Britain have more tapas bars than Spain these days?
6 Nachos - the Tex-Mex mushy mound that refuses to die.
7 Pint of prawns. Another heritage snack still going strong.
8 Fish finger sarnie - with tartar sauce. Down a few places on last year’s chart position but still yummy.
9 Buffalo chicken wings - one word. ‘Really?’
10 Homemade sausage roll- staging a comeback after years in the foodie wilderness.