Wind the clock back a decade and the City on a weekend was a desert: nowhere to eat, nowhere to drink. That now (happily) has changed and after I emerge from my Sunday lunch at New Street Grill via a cocktail at Old Bengal Bar, I can't help but feel I've stumbled upon a great secret. There are three criteria in our view for the big thumbs up when we write up a visit to a place: the quality of what they serve, the quality of the service and the atmosphere. Old Bengal Bar ticks all three boxes and while I'm sure the bar is rammed on a weekday as local knowledge of the Bishopsgate crowd comes in to play, on a weekend, tourists can easily walk by New Street without ever realising it's there; even I didn't know (properly) the offering until today.
This visit to Old Bengal Bar was mid Sunday afternoon when I thought I'd stop by for a drink after my meal next door before heading home. There's an extensive drinks menu featuring both popular and somewhat more esoteric cocktails. The charming and lovely Peter is behind the bar making your drink while Sebastian, their house DJ, lends atmosphere with music pitched perfectly for the room (and size of the room). I got chatting to both during my brief time there because Old Bengal Bar is an inherently friendly place where you feel like the staff have embraced you stopping by. You can discuss, as I did, what whisky you should have in a Whisky Sour (I chose Lagavulin 16 year old if you're wondering), or request what music you want to hear. It's a cliche to say that it felt like home, but it really did, it was that comfortable.
Sundays are difficult days, we've perpetually struggled across London for a good lunch, too many places are closed and too many places seem too run of the mill to want to spend time in. I left Old Bengal Bar happily thinking I could spend 52 Sundays a year there. If it weren't for the fact they close at 4pm on a Sunday, I might never have written this blog, for I might still be there. But sitting at home just a few hours later, because of Peter and Sebastian, I feel I've had the most magical Sunday. Not many places can achieve that, that's special. Old Bengal did. What to say? Cheers fellas.
Peter pouring my whisky sour
my whisky sour x x x
Old Bengal Bar
The new year has itself brought something new to John Salt with Neil Rankin, aka @frontlinechef
now in charge of the food. If that name seems familiar to you, it's possibly because Neil was previously at the well regarded Pitt Cue Co
, but here at John Salt, the food enjoys a wider vision, though the passion to deliver something special remains unchanged. Ahead of our visit today, we broadly know what's in store for we were kindly invited to the pre launch dinner here and were so impressed with the food that night, we're back, less than two weeks later, as paying customers.
At lunch, it's downstairs only, with a shorted version (we understand) of the evening menu, but there's still plenty of choice and as we discover, plenty of food to satisfy even the biggest appetite. Is it a starter, is it a snack? We begin with crab on crackling. This is really superb, white Cornish crab on light pork crackling giving a whole new take on surf and turf: freshness sweetness with soft textures from the crab, salty umami with crunch from the crackling. Seriously, you could snack on this all day.
pork crackling & crab
Our 'proper' starters immediately become talking points. Red mullet, apple bergamot on one plate and raw beef, pear and sesame on the other. With an eye on both flavour and value, the beef is skirt steak giving huge mouth feel but is for sure a commitment to chew. Some chilli gives ample heat while the pear, as it stands, needs to bring a little more to the dish in our view. The red mullet equally has huge flavour but with raw pinky grey flesh, some people will inevitably shy away from this dish which would be a shame because it tastes great. These dishes are not going to be for everyone simply because they are so in your face with flavour but for those who are tired of food that's too bland too often elsewhere, this is food with real impact.
red mullet, apple, bergamot
raw beef, pear, sesame
It is perhaps one of the sides that we order alongside the mains that we liked best, tried previously, we now don't think we could visit John Salt without ordering it: chicken skin hash. Crispy roast potatoes, peas, sweetcorn and an egg yolk, and everywhere, massive chicken flavour. This is like the best roast chicken dinner you'll ever have, there's more chicken flavour here than most chicken roasts achieve with an actual bird on the plate, seriously. It's billed as a side, costs £3.50, yet to be honest, could easily satisfy many people as a main.
chicken skin hash
For the main plates themselves, first out it was green chilli poussin (£12) which arrived looking beautiful, with a brown sticky glaze and perfect form, offset with a chilli garnish, it is undoubtedly the prettiest dish of the day. And maybe a little overkill since we had the chicken hash, but we wanted to compare the pork hash (£12), which follows along similar lines to the chicken dish, apart from the fact it's twice the size and contains huge chunks of pork in it. Given that Neil previously was responsible for Pitt Cue, he knows how to cook pork, and both mains offered food that you really want to eat, perfect for a (very) cold winter's day. A grilled salad was our other side and here, the grill really did add an additional dimension to the greens.
Green chilli poussin
We really didn't need desserts but with three on offer, bacon panna cotta (£3.50), old fashioned triffle (£5) and the banana dog (£4), all three set you back just £12.50 so it's not break the bank stuff. The bacon panna cotta is likely to get the most attention on taste as the savoury bacon flavours in the dessert sends your head in a spin as you try to resolve the conflicting messages of your senses; it really works though and offers a sort of Heston moment. The banana will get the most comment around the table simply for its looks (no elaboration), and is bananatastic, while the triffle wins the award for having the most booze in, like a shot and a dessert in one; it's a crowd pleaser for sure.
the banana dog
Bacon panna cotta
old fashioned triffle
The food at John Salt is great. Flavours are big in every dish and even when combinations are classic ones, Neil manages to squeeze a little more out of everything so it never feels anything less than a new discovery. Given the price too, a three course lunch can easily be enjoyed (with service) for £20, it's astonishing value. You'll leave very full and very satisfied, and we can think of many a meal at two, three and even four times the price that didn't offer the enjoyment that this meal delivered. Service was relaxed and friendly, the place informal, and we're sure that of an evening, it's bursting out the seams for John Salt is billed as a neighbourhood bar, but as John Salt turns a new leaf in a new year with a new chef, they have too at least one new fan, us: we loved it.Return to homepage
Puppies are cuter than dogs, lambs more 'aah' than sheep, and continuing this logic, someone clearly thought that mini-hamburgers are therefore more obviously appetising than hamburgers. And given the fact that 'mini-hamburger', linguistically if not otherwise, is a bit of a mouthful, a catchy name seems in order, but I have to say, god I hate the term 'slider'. So what then am I doing in a slider bar?
Well, first of all The Player is principally an underground cocktail bar in Soho, though I usually try to avoid heading down poorly lit staircases in Soho also. But here, I've done some research and Lucky Chip are running the food so I'm guessing it's not too dodgy and we've been told many times, sometimes by people we even trust, that the Lucky Chip burger is potentially the best burger in London. This is of course a mighty claim and needs to be sampled.
Now, The Player isn't the only place where Lucky Chip burgers are available, but of the other two places, one is a 'cosy boozer in East London' between 6-10pm so no lunch service, and the other is 'a burger van double parked in Netil Market' on a Saturday between 12:30pm - 6pm. The Player's offering seems to win on many fronts - apart from the fact that they serve sliders, not burgers. Oh well, compromises sometimes need to be made.
The Player itself is brilliant and I love it not for the vintage Chuck Norris film playing on cathode ray TVs, possibly made in the same year as the film, or for the cocktails, which are brilliant, but rather for the friendly relaxed staff. Being late in the afternoon, I still had near on a full drink as closing time arrived but instead of shooing me out the door as so many uptight drinking places do, they invited me to stay indefinitely as long as I didn't mind if they carried on with a bit of work: of course not.
The menu, in card format, is pretty simple here, though the lunch menu may be a touch more simple than the simple evening menu which is hinted at on a notice board. The deal then: two sliders with fries for £10, a choice of four sides, a couple of home made dips (ketchup is freely available also) and then two dessert options. The slider choices mostly mix up cheese (yellow or blue), bacon (yes or no) and pickles/jalapenos/onions. There's a veggie burger option also.
One of the side orders arrives first: popcorn chicken with garlic aioli. Ironically for a place that sells mini-burgers, the popcorn chicken is bloody massive, the size of ping pong balls. It is however very nice and at '£4.5' it's pretty good value given how much chicken you get. If ordered with a side of fries (which would total £7) it would make an excellent meal in its own right.
popcorn chicken with garlic aioli
When the sliders come, they do look kind of cute, so maybe the rule of smallness does hold for burgers too. Obviously I had to go for the classic cheeseburger as one of my two: american cheese, ketchup, mustard and pickles. It is very good indeed and the burger is beautifully pink inside, something which is probably harder on a small patty but these have been cooked as they should be (quickly), and the cheese is nicely melting through: so inviting. It's a delight.
The second burger, the El Chappo sees the blue cheese completely melted and comes additionally with smoked bacon, roasted jalapenos and aioli. The bacon for me makes this too salty, especially with salty chips and I can't help but feel this would be better without it, but this is a personal preference only, never really understood the need to put bacon on a burger. They may be mini burgers but I in fact struggled to finish, it all adds up to a lot of food.
These were without doubt great mini-burgers, the best I've had, but for me the format doesn't add anything to getting a full sized burger and that would have been my preference, but again, this is personal taste and the opportunity to try two styles of burger will appeal to those who struggle with menu decisions.
The dessert is a 'sundae of the week' or the 'brownie of the week' but since the sundae came with broken up brownie, it seemed the obvious choice. It also came with a chocolate-bourbon sauce and was as deliciously gooey as it looks.
I finished up with a Martinez, an inverse Martini where the vermouth leads and the gin plays second fiddle, add a touch of orange bitters and yum! This was a very well made cocktail.
The Player then offered two discoveries, a great place to eat (assuming you want a burger) and a great place to drink (assuming that you want a cocktail). As someone who likes both, my return is a matter of when, not if. In fact, I like it so much, I'll even live with the fact that they only do sliders.Return to homepage
If you Google The Player you'll get lots of links to a silent movie so instead, follow the links below:The PlayerLucky Chip
Order a Napoleon Reserve from a regular Mayfair bar and, in line with industry standards, you are guaranteed a cognac that is at least six years old; ask for a Napoleon Reserve at Playboy Club and you might get more than you bargained for: as one of the best stocked bars in the world, they carry a bottle of 'Napoleon Reserve' dated 1796, a year bang in the middle of the French Revolution and three years before Napoleon would stage a coup d'etat and seize power in France. For this is no ordinary bar, rather, it is Playboy's downstairs lounge bar created by cocktail legend Salvatore Calabrese. It is unique bottles of this kind that allowed the Salvatore at Playboy bar win the prize for 'Best Drinks Selection in the World' at a recent industry awards ceremony in New Orleans. Not for the last time tonight I think, 'I'm in heaven'.
We're trying the house cocktails, a Spicy 50 (vanilla vodka, elderflower, lime, honey and chilli), a Japanese Peach Tree (Yamazaki whisky and peach), and the unofficial Playboy signature cocktail, Bunny Bubbles (champagne and raspberry). They are amongst the best cocktails I've ever had, perfectly balanced, no rough edges what so ever. In the Japanese Peach Tree, it's hard to believe there's whisky in it, the components are seamlessly blended and the drink has taken on an identity all of its own.
We're taking a moment after our tour of the club, conducted by VIP Bunny Host, Bunny Sara, who is charming and intelligent in equal measure. Work in progress for this tour, the old nightclub area of the building is being refurbished and replaced with a vintage champagne bar (Baroque) that is to open soon. Then there's the 'Player's Lounge' a general and sports bar with a casual atmosphere and a bit of noise drifting through from the adjacent gaming floor: as a club and holder of a gambling licence, there's an active casino with Blackjack and Roulette as the main games. Three card poker is played though sadly no Texas Hold'em, but perhaps that's for the best in saving me a small fortune on the night. There's the Dining Room, more of that shortly, and an outside terrace for smokers.
And while it is a private members club, it is at times open to non members also with The Dining Room open to the broader public every day for lunch, with the three course set menu including a glass of wine/champagne priced at a very reasonable £35. Worth mentioning, in case your minds are going there, it's a proper Mayfair club and there's no 'funny business' taking place within the club. While the Bunnies act as croupiers and will shuttle drinks for you while you are gaming, in the restaurant there are no Bunnies and it is male waiters who will be bringing you your food.
The bar at Salvatore at Playboy
Not quite Liberte, Egalite, Fraternite: 1796 Cognac
Salvatore at Playboy lounge area
The Dining Room at Playboy is headed up by Chef Judy Joo, perhaps best known for her TV work on Iron Chef UK. Cooking wise, she learned her craft within the Gordon Ramsay Group and spent time at Hospital Road, Maze, Petrus and Claridge's making her a contemporary of fellow London chefs Jason Atherton and Alyn Williams. What is less well known about Chef Judy is that she also has an engineering degree from Columbia University and has previously worked on Wall Street at leading US investment banks Goldman Sachs and Morgan Stanley selling fixed income derivatives. Even now, she can probably explain the European debt crisis to you and why Germany's TARGET2 surplus is disastrous for them if Greece abruptly leaves the eurozone. Put another way, this is one talented woman indeed.
The menu at The Dining Room is extensive and varied for the clientèle here is both diverse and significantly international as Playboy Club members can use clubs across the world. Chef Judy with both Asian and American heritage brings these strands together well with her classic Ramsay French training culminating in a menu of broad appeal. Indeed, narrowing your food choices down to a manageable level is the hardest part, and most kindly, Chef Judy allowed us to try a few extras so we wouldn't miss out.
the dining area
brown sour dough, focaccia
In the starter camp, I plump for oysters Rockefeller. Now, I'm mostly of the view that a simple raw oyster cannot be improved on but a plate of these would hardly be a challenge whereas the Rockefeller is a touch trickier. Mission accomplished however because the Rockefellers totally rocked. With the parmesan, mustard and cream fully dressing the half shell, even with the bivalve despatched, I found myself chasing the last of the crusty coating around the empty shell not wanting these flavours to end. A totally phenomenal start.
Elsewhere, an Asian style steak tartar brought Scottish beef together with Nashi pear and sesame soy dressing, pine nuts, garlic, ginger, mirin, pepper, lemon and salt served alongside black pepper prawn crackers. Having eaten all together too many steak tartars for recent blog posts, this was a welcome change up from the norm which is very much what Chef Judy does here, that is, putting her very personal touch and style in to familiar things and making it a little different, but never spoiling the essence.
An unmistakable Chef Judy dish is the Bo Ssam Buns being a steamed bun generously stuffed with thinly sliced pork belly, ginger and garlic marinade, cucumber and spring onions. This is a variation of a traditional Korean dish where the pork is wrapped in lettuce. The buns, made famous by Korean American Chef David Chang are huge in the States and Chef Judy has now brought them here. While we demonstrate initial curiosity - this is my first Bo Ssam after all - it takes again only a bite to realise this is an old friend with a new twist and thegorgeous Bo Ssam was soon demolished.
Asian style steak tartar
Scottish smoked salmon, Charlotte potato and herb salad, crème fraiche, lemon
Baked oyster Rockefeller
Bo Ssam Buns (pork, ginger and garlic marinade, steamed buns, cucumber, spring onions)
There's a lot of humour around the Playboy Club and we simply couldn't resist sharing The Hef Burger as an intermediate course, having already put a smile on our faces just reading about it on the menu. Described as 'rich in every way', we like aged beef but we hope that it's not quite going to be as aged as Hef himself; we needn't worry, this is a burger made from Chilean Wagyu with grade 9 marbling. Given that fact, the Hef burger comes at a Hef(ty) price (£36) and while delicious, I have to be honest and say that with my few Wagyu experiences, I'm not entirely convinced the extra costs incurred with Wagyu fully translate into an incremental enjoyment bonanza.
The Hef Burger
Somewhere along the line a truffle & cep mac 'n' cheese finds its way to the table. Here, the kitchen has been able to balance the truffle with the cheese rather than (as is all too often the case) simply allowing the truffle to overpower the whole thing. With a crunchy top and small macaroni beads, it's a great mac 'n' cheese. As we nibble, we're aware that our mains are still to come and we're filling up fast.
Truffle & cep mac 'n' cheese
My friend M accompanying me today had early on opted for a more conservative main with fish and chips though having now had a good taste of food across the menu admits to wishing he'd been more adventurous. I on the other hand had opted for the lobster and Cornish crab open lasagne which comes with a shellfish bisque. Again, everything here was right, the pasta thin and silky, the crab and lobster generous in meaty layers, a beautiful lobster claw on top and continuing the theme, another very rich dish.
The lasagne of Dorset crab with shellfish cappuccino is a signature dish of Michelin starred The Square and since enjoying it there back in 2010, I've been pretty much disappointed with every seafood lasagne tried subsequently. On one level then, I think I chose the dish here at Playboy Club knowing that it would given the kitchen a stern test against a ridiculously accomplished benchmark, but again, they came through with flying colours and no complaints from me. A very well realised dish, I'd even go so far as to say that I'll dream about this Poseidon of lasagnes from time to time.
Given how full we already were, the empty plate that was returned to the kitchen says it all.
Fish & Chips
Lobster & Cornish Crab open lasagne
Seeing our delight at the meal thus far, when it came to dessert, Chef Judy pulled out all the stops to end on a high note, sending out one of the most stunning tasting plates of desserts I've ever seen. Sweetly, she said she didn't expect us to finish it but thought we might like to get a full view of the dessert menu. I'm in another heaven now but cursing the devil that I'm so full. There's fondant cake with raspberry coulis, vanilla cheesecake, a signature 'Snickers' dessert (with peanut parfait, salted butter caramel, chocolate mousse, praline), there's a Knickerbocker Glory, a green tea panna cotta and a lot more. It was all so very good, and shamefully, we did almost finish it all.
Dessert tasting plate
We were lucky enough to get to meet and talk to Chef Judy at length during and after the meal and found her every bit as impressive as her CV suggests but in addition, warm, down to earth and friendly with it. She clearly enjoys her role as Executive Chef at the Playboy Club and her enthusiasm for it and The Dining Room is contagious. And on the strength of the meal we enjoyed, she can also be justifiably proud of her team for faithfully and skilfully executing her vision.
Chef Judy Joo with the Bunny Julia and Bunny Natalie
At the start of the evening, ahead of entering the club, my friend and I met up in a pub and discussed the night ahead, what we thought and what our expectations were. We had the usual cynicism, discussed the merits of the Playboy brand all these years on and wondered whether the club could offer anything beyond the obvious attraction of the Bunnies. By the end of the evening, all our cynicism had faded and we were genuinely enjoying one of the best nights out either of us could remember for some time. Salvatore's cocktails were sublime, Chef Judy's food was astonishingly good and the service levels of all staff throughout the club including the many male staff cannot be faulted.
The environment is more inclusive than you might imagine and we saw both couples and all women parties enjoying themselves on our midweek visit there. Membership details can be found on the website if you want to enjoy everything the club has to offer or, as noted, facilities within the club are open to non members everyday for lunch. In conclusion, we enjoyed a truly first class night in an environment that is deadly serious about the customer experience but that is laced with good humour throughout, and we will undoubtedly return in the future.Return to homepage
Related links:Playboy Club homepageJudy Joo's homepageDisclosure: given the sensitive nature of cameras in a private members' casino, our visit was agreed in advance with management and a discount to our final bill was kindly given by the club.
There's very few places where you get to see London in the way you do from Vertigo 42, for it sits you at the very top of London's skyline. Vertigo Champagne Bar is located in Tower 42 with the '42' of course referring to what floor you're on, in this case, the highest floor in the Tower that's accessible to the public. With Canary Wharf, the Gherkin and Heron Tower not available to the public at large, Vertigo is therefore the highest man made public viewing point in the UK at 600 feet, or 188 metres in new money.
A few things about the bar itself, it's reservations only and you have to check in with reception on the ground floor on arrival after which you have to go through airport like security but it's all pretty quick. There's an express elevator to the 42 floor and as you step through the door to Vertigo, you're immediately facing south-east so you are greeted with visuals of Tower Bridge, the Thames, the Mayor's office, the Belfast and The Shard; impressive. The seating area in the bar hugs the window line and follows the perimeter of the building clockwise round so that as you walk through the bar, you then look west for St Pauls, the London Eye, and even Wembley in the distance before looking north (Liverpool Street) and then looping back round east to catch the Heron Tower, the top of the Gherkin and Canary Wharf in the background. It's simply stunning.
The offering is basically champagne with some bar food like smoked salmon, Caesar salad, and hams available. If you want full on dining, it's downstairs to Michelin starred Rhodes 24
on the 24th floor. I want to make the joke that prices here are 'sky high' but that would actually be unfair. It's not cheap but they do have location and champagne starts at around £60 a bottle though service charge will be added. Staff are friendly enough but the real reason for coming is to look out the window and gawp.
There are three basic reasons for coming here then: one, impress clients, two, to take friends and family from out of town who will simply love it, and three, for when you just want to remember what a fabulous city London is and you want to look out and be amazed all over again. Noted by Douglas Blyde
, the window buttresses are very thick but that also has the effect of creating natural 'dividers' between seated parties in the bar.
The proposition at this bar is so simple and so obvious that no more words are really needed so I'll let the pictures take over. But one thing worth noting though is that it looks very different during the day and at night. If time and season permits, start your visit there during the daylight, watch the sun set over London and see it come to night life, that way you get the best of all worlds.
The Heron Tower
Good name in man and woman, dear my lord,
Is the immediate jewel of their souls.
Who steals my purse steals trash; 'tis something, nothing;
'Twas mine, 'tis his, and has been slave to thousands;
But he that filches from me my good name
Robs me of that which not enriches him,
And makes me poor indeed.
Othello Act III, William Shakespeare
Why is Mark Hix, a man with a most excellent CV and reputation, allowing this to be so tarnished by these London institutions that now bare his name? He needs to know what sins are being perpetrated under his banner: we're sure it's not what he stands for.
Heralded as the best bar in London in Time Out magazine, Hix Bar was clearly somewhere we had to try. Having spotted the Hix neon sign through Soho’s clutter, the imposing and closed oak door left us wondering if they were in fact open for business today but pushing through, we found yes, they were, and passing the restaurant on the left, we headed down to ‘Mark’s’, the basement bar.
First, on the decor, this was a confused place, like a twenty something’s bedroom that has yet to clear the adolescent junk of the previous decade (a bar billiards table for example) while showing pretensions to sophistication (a scattering of deep recline leather sofas). Bad enough, but elsewhere, the Ikea stock of wooden back chairs gave the whole thing a factory canteen style air. While the chairs may have given it the flavour, the roster of staff eating at the bar put the flesh on the bones. True, it was 4:30 in the afternoon and the staff were no doubt snacking between the lunch and the dinner service but despite being the only paying customers in the bar, they couldn’t have been less interested in us than if we entered the bar wearing a T-shirt bearing the slogan ‘we’ve got Herpes, kiss me’. Worse was to come.
After five to ten minutes of sitting there staring around the place playing with each other a game of ‘who’s the loudest member of staff’ versus ‘who’s the rudest’, someone finally came over to take our drinks order. Now, this is the place that claims to make a cocktail. As such, in a way that we might at a restaurant take the tasting menu or chef’s recommendation, we invited them to give us the best of the cocktails, what’s the house speciality, what does the barman ‘own’? Your choice we said, give us the best the house has to offer. We we’re met with the bland reply, ‘90% of the cocktail list is our speciality’. Should we leave now?
We asked for something in the sour family, open to whatever base spirit; our waiter seemed slightly lost though suggested a gin with lemon twist and when pushed for a second drink, a rum based cocktail. Knock us out.
When we were at the Connaught Bar (see our previous post), Erik made us two incredible cocktails when we said surprise us; he did, we sat, we drank; in short, we were in awe. Here alas, we were only in awe of how bad their ‘speciality’ was. Both cocktails suffered from an extreme degree, indeed eye watering degree, of sourness; neither had any sense of balance at all. Wrong, wrong, wrong. And in the time spent there, I never saw the bar tender tasting the output even once. The gin/lemon cocktail was like a sour highball lemonade and the rum base was little more than a neighbour’s BBQ rum punch with lemon and bitters; both were totally one dimensional.
We asked for the bill and left with three quarters of each cocktail still sitting in the glass. The ‘shocking’ thing is, given the choice between paying for a single cocktail at full price at the Connaught Bar or having five free cocktails at Hix, the Connaught wins every time, life’s too short to waste on inconsequential drinking; if I’m going to die of cirrhosis of the liver, I want it to count and at Hix, it simply doesn’t.
The world of real cocktail bars seems so often to try to make the client feel small or marginalised. Milk & Honey for example is so so trendy that they don’t even have their name over the door and as they say on their website ‘Access to non-members is by reservation only until 11pm (and in practice restricted to the early part of the week)’. Could they be any more up their own backside?
It is so refreshing therefore to find a bar like The Connaught Bar where not only are the best cocktails in the world made everyday but where Head Mixologist Agostino Perrone and his team treated us even on our first visit there as if we were long standing friends and cherished customers. In short, they completely won us over.
What’s more, while our casual use of the phrase ‘the best cocktails in the world’ in the last paragraph was, well, casual, there is in fact more truth than hyperbole in that statement because Senior Mixologist there Erik Lorincz this July won the Diageo Reserve World Class Bartender of the Year 2010 award. In short, he’s a world champ cocktail maker who beat a global field of 9,000 mixologists to take the title.
With such pedigree, the bar will of course do the classics if you want them but so much more fun is to let them decide your drink for you. We had two of Erik’s competition winning cocktails including Reach for the Sky and a Green Lady. Now, these drinks are a long way away from vodka, cranberry, triple sec and lime, rather, these are really clever drinks with extensive use of herbs and botanicals and other ingredients that are totally original in drink construction. The Green Lady for example comprises Green Tea infused Tanqueray Ten, lemon juice, lime juice, rosemary sugar, green Chartreuse and egg white, shaken and double strained and garnished with a shiso leaf and dry lemon. It looked beautiful and tasted beautiful and in my sheer excitement, I had already drank half the glass before it occurred to me to take a picture. The photo of my half empty glass does it little justice so I wont disrespect them by posting it here but I’ll collect another picture next time.
The Martinis too are imprinted with their own twist on the taste with original bitter infusions and in theatre with a Martini trolley that’s wheeled to your table so that you're ringside for the show. Agostino mixes the drink right there in front of you after you have chosen which of the bitter infusions you might enjoy for a new twist on a classic. Bitters here include vanilla, grapefruit, cardamom, liquorice, lavender, ginger or coriander. I chose liquorice and it was delightful.
All the cocktails served had just the right balance between sweet and sour and fruit/flavour and alcohol and all were a visual treat.The herb backing in many imparted hitherto unknown drinking flavours that you just have to try for yourself if want something properly original. Cocktail legend Dale DeGroff (of Rainbow Room fame) who was a judge at the Bartender of the Year competition said of the event that ‘these 21st century bartenders are the pioneers of a new golden age of the craft’; given that Erik won, I guess that makes him THE pioneer and drinking at The Connaught Bar therefore opens up a new frontier of cocktail drinking. There's so few places that could ever offer that.
To drink drinks of this quality, it might be worth having to make a reservation, it might be worth having to queue behind a red rope manned by surly door attendants, it might even be worth joining a private members club that doesn’t have a name above the door. Instead though, at The Connaught Bar, you have to do none of this, turning up is enough; from the moment you step through the door, Agostino and his team with a natural warmth will make you feel special from the very start. And even more guaranteed, after a few Tanqueray Ten Martinis, you’ll feel more than just special by the time you get up to leave a few hours later. We had the best time there and will certainly go back in the very near future.
Unexpected finds can often provide as much (or more) pleasure than life’s big set pieces. The discovery that Wilton’s Music Hall, the oldest surviving grand Music Hall in the world is on our doorstep (and that it has a liquor licence) has today given us great joy.
This place is just amazing and steeped in history as you might expect. The music hall was built in the back yard of five terrace houses that date from 1720. A pub from 1828 (Prince of Denmark), The Music Hall itself dates from 1859 when top acts from Covent Garden would run across town to perform on John Wilton’s stage in a hall that would hold up to 1,500 people. It wasn’t a music hall for long and variously became a Mission, a safe house for East Enders protesting against Mosley and Fascism at the 1936 Battle of Cable Street and a shelter during World War II for those made homeless by the Blitz bombing. Saved from demolition in the 1960s by Sir John Betjemen, the hall once again sees live entertainment performed in a truly original setting.
The Music Hall itself feels alive with the history and totally original only missing perhaps the original ‘sun burner’ chandelier of 300 gas gets and 27,000 cut crystals that has now gone but which must have been a sight in its day. On stage meanwhile, George Leybourne
known as Champagne Charlie performed, dressed in top hat and tails, gloves, cane and scarf waving a bottle of vintage Moet & Chandon, swigging from the bottle as he sang. Here too it is reputed that the first ever can-can was performed in London.
Roll forward and Hollywood’s in town as the Music Hall plays host to Robert Downey Jr’s Charlie Chaplin and Woody Allen’s Cassandra’s Dream.
Don’t expect though to find the place pristine – it reminded me of Cuba’s Havana: beautiful decay. Sadly this has been a much neglected building but in part, here lies the charm. The layers of history are seen in the peeling paint work and the original but historically neglected ornamentation. If most theatres invite you to ‘think when we talk of horses that you see them’, Wilton’s, through its being, turns this on its head and invites you to think of the performers and the crowds; here the story is the Hall, everything else is secondary.
The staff are friendly and the bar cosy. The cider was cloudy and cold (yum), they have a bottle of Macallan 10yr on the shelf and there are complimentary nibbles of ham and soft cheese spread on sliced baguette. There’s a jug of water and cups on the bar too which is an unusual and nice touch. Meanwhile, no two pieces of furniture in the bar match. These are some of the many reasons to love the place. On our first visit, we signed up to become ‘friends of Wilton’s’ for this is a beautiful place and should be enjoyed by not just us but generations to come.
While in 2007 the building was placed on the World Monuments Fund ‘100 most endangered sites’, things are improving and the Hall is slowly on the way to recovery as the Wilton’s Music Hall Trust move towards their fund raising target and the necessary repairs to restore this gem to a more enduring condition. Two things then that each of us needs to do: first, go there, it’s good for the soul and really has a wow factor for this is truly a hidden gem. Second, spend some money, have a drink and know that the ‘margin’ is keeping the place alive; perhaps even take in one of their shows, concerts or other events (they have live music in the bar every Monday).
In the world of the generic, this is truly a one off and a complete find. We’re delighted to call ourselves Wilton’s Music Hall’s newest friends. We hope to see you there.
The bar is open Mon-Fri, 5-11pm. A lunchtime service will also be available during August on Thurs/Fri, 12-3pm.
Find out more at www.wiltons.org.uk/
What do Cragganmore, Lagavulin and Talisker have in common? And what do Aberlour, Glenlivet and Scapa similarly have in common? Well, the first three are all owned by United Distillers (Diageo) who also own a further 23 distillers as well as brands like Guiness, Smirnoff and Tanqueray. The second set of triplets are all owned by Pernod Ricard who also stable Absolut Vodka, Havana Club and Beefeater Gin as well as over ten other Scotch whisky distilleries.
Now, I'm a big fan of Talisker as readers of the blog know, and the investment made by these companies in the distilleries to be fair has been substantial and given us some great whisky. Furthermore, I'm certainly not anti-capitalism or anti-globalisation. Nevertheless, Diageo's turnover in 2009 was £9.3bn and its operating profit was £2.6bn. None of this do I have a problem with but one must appreciate that, for the most part, the world of Scotch whisky does not conform to the romanticised view that we might have of a local distillery passed down from generation to generation producing fine Scotch in the family tradition, rather, the whisky industry is the world of the multinational and so is on a par with big oil, banks and pharmaceuticals operating for the profit motive with the distilleries run by employees who no doubt report to a regional chief who reports to the global head who reports to the Board etc. Consequently, Diageo's marketing spend is a whopping £1.3 billion and accordingly its voice is heard.
For those though who crave a unique voice and a distillery that has been passed from generation to generation and for those who would cleave to their heart a family that have no doubt passed up countless open cheque book offers for the distillery so that they could carry on a tradition started 145 years previously there is one and really only one name: Glenfarclas.
Glenfarclas has been in the Grant family since 1865 and this week we were lucky enough to visit the Coburg bar at the Connaught to taste whisky across the Glenfarclas range with George Grant, 'Brand Ambassador' and son of the current Chairman John Grant.
It would be too much to provide tasting notes across everything we took in during the day but as the saying goes, the list was long and distinguished. Tastings included the 10 year, the 105 proof, 15 year, 21 year, 25 year, 40 year, the Family Cask 1979 and the Family Cask 1962. Not bad for breakfast.
On the whole, Glenfarclas is simply lovely and will appeal to those who want depth to their whisky. First use sherry casks are predominantly used and the sherry flavours come through on both the nose and palate. Across the range too there's real warmth, with citrus orange, caramel and liquorice all varying in intensity with age. There's an intensity too of amber colour and the most amazing finish on the 15 year old (and above) that stays and stays and stays allowing you to savour the taste long after you swallow, perhaps the longest finish I can remember experiencing in any single malt. Furthermore, Glenfarclas is for the most part cask strength non chill filtered and 'non finished'; in other words, an honest whisky. Whisky Magazine named Glenfarclas '2006 Distiller of the Year' for 'being consistently good and staying true to its core values'.
Michael Jackson's Malt Whisky Companion notes Glenfarclas as 'outstanding malts, and in an unusually wide variety of ages - experienced tasters usually place the Glenfarclas malts in the top three or four from this most distinguished district (Speyside)'. We agree.
What's more, George himself was charming and is an ambassador for life as much as an ambassador for the brand and we enjoyed his whisky and his company in equal measure. With George possessing an infectious passion for the product, the distillery is certainly in good hands for decades to come ensuring continuity of ownership and spirit for the rest of our lifetimes at least.
We noted earlier the 'Family Cask' which is something unique to Glenfarclas and underlines its own family ownership. The Family Casks represent a family of single cask expressions from every year from 1952 to 1994 highlighting the continuity of private ownership at Glenfarclasas as well as their ability to bottle the rarest and most sought after of complex malts. Only two bars in the world possess the full span of Family Casks (52-94) though the Coburg Bar at the Connaught with 9 different Family Casks together with the 15yr, 25yr and 40yr range will become the third widest holder of the collection.
Glenfarclas doesn't have a billion pound marketing budget, instead it has George and for our money, he's the best advert for the best that a family owned distillery can produce and that, trust me, is very good indeed. In fact, don't trust me, go buy some yourself and see; available at the likes of Berry Bros and The Whisky Exchange at Vinopolis (and of course the Coburg Bar), thecriticalcouple are now 'officially' friends of Glenfarclas and we'll be making sure we always have a bottle gracing our bar at home.
Visit Glenfarclas at www.glenfarclas.co.uk/en/
Too many bars these days are for the most part predictable. A standard list of spirits is followed by a standard list of cocktails and a standard list of bar snacks. The Coburg Bar at the Connaught though is anything but making it one of the must go bars in London for anyone who wants something special in their glass set against a classic comfortable surround. Under the brilliant stewardship of Mark Jenner, the bar is a drinking adventure on each occassion and Mark's ability to continually source rare and unusual product offers the possibility of a new discovery every time.
At a recent late night stop at the Connaught for a final after dinner whisky, a venerable Talisker perhaps, Mark 'challenged' us with a 1937 6yo Canadian Club. Yes, all the thoughts that you're having right now went through our mind too, not least the fact that whisky of course, in theory, does not age in the bottle. The nose though, complex beyond what any 6 year old should ever smell like, persuded us both to a measure and we were not disappointed. 1937 was of course the year George VI was crowned King and Neville Chamberlain became Prime Minister, and here we were drinking the fruits of that year. In short, it turned a great evening into a unique event and it's uncanny how often they can do that at the Connaught, it's what keeps us coming back.
The cocktails are of course first class and a great evening itself can be had just sitting at the bar watching the bartenders creating their liquid verse. If you have the munchies, the crisps are made in the kitchens below while the bar snacks are prepared by the Connaught's Michelin starred Helene Darroze
Of course, this all comes at a price so you may want to have your bank manager on speed dial for some of the most exotic drinks (the 1914 Hine Vintage retails at a staggering £1,500 a shot), but if you want a more than just a drink, if you want a bar that makes every visit special, there's nowhere better in our view than the Connaught.http://www.the-connaught.co.uk/the_coburg_bar.aspx