Wednesday, 17 November 2010

Lounge Bohemia, Shoreditch

Lounge Bohemia
1 Great Eastern Street

Kina Lillet

"It was a dark and stormy night; the rain fell in torrents--except at occasional intervals, when it was checked by a violent gust of wind which swept up the streets (for it is in London that our scene lies), rattling along the housetops, and fiercely agitating the scanty flame of the lamps that struggled against the darkness."

--Edward George Bulwer-Lytton, Paul Clifford (1830)

If Lounge Bohemia were a sentence, not a bar, it'd be in with a prize-winning shot at the Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Prize for rubbish writing. Like Bulwer-Lytton’s original line, Lounge Bohemia is atmospheric but overblown. I’d like to be drawn in, to be captivated by Paul Tvaroh’s establishment and by his cocktails, naturally, but while the ambience is just right and the menu-cum-book is a nicely observed detail, the drinks are all smoke and mirrors. I hate to resort to such a tawdry metaphor, but given that Lounge Bohemia is more concerned with process than pleasure, I feel less guilty for poo-pooing the watering hole of this would-be wizard of booze.

I telephone to make an appointment, for an appointment is necessary. The conversation proceeds as expected, but before replacing the receiver, I am informed that neither suits nor office wear are permitted at this bar. Given that most everyone I know, even the dickhead, creative media types, work in an office, I wonder whether my cashmere and leather constitutes “office wear”.

I meet Margie Rita and we fearlessly order round one. Margie opts for the Lavender Crème Brûlée, a drink one of my new flatmates described to me as being like, “an orgasm in a glass”... The LCB is delicious. It tastes like a lavender-flavoured crème brûlée. So far, so good. At the recommendation of our delightful hostess, I’ve ordered the bar’s signature drink: the Sgt. Pepper. With black pepper vodka, elderflower liqueur and cordial and lemon juice, it tastes neither like black pepper nor like elderflower, but rather bizarrely like freshly-squeezed grapefruit juice.

Next Margie orders a Kaid Sling, which is probably supposed to taste like an adults-only Shirley Temple, but instead comes across all sickly sweet and bubble gum. My Holy Smoke is “leather infused Courvoisier VSOP Exclusif, frankincense and myrrh smoke”. The drink arrives in a small flask nesting in a Czech bible.  There’s an upturned glass resting on a tray. I’m instructed to turn the smoke-filled glass over and pour in the Courvoisier. It smells like a priest and tastes like sin. Actually, it tastes of a passable single malt, but who cares.

Our last drinks are the most bizarre: a Porcini-tini and a Bubble Bath Martini. Do porcini mushrooms, vodka, crème de cacao, condensed milk and salt sound like a match made in heaven? This is Tvaroh at his most Blumenthal-esque and I don’t like The Fat Duck either.

The BBM was a blend of lychee liqueur, lavender and poppy seed vodka, with lychee, lavender and rose bubbles. Frankly, it was revolting: like soapy, liquidised turkish delight.  Its only redeeming feature was a hilarious miniature rubber ducky face down in this undrinkable drink.

I later find out that Tvaroh is teetotal and doesn’t drink a lick of booze. How utterly baffling. Why on earth would a man who doesn’t drink alcohol open a bar? It certainly helps to solve the puzzle of this place, though: the drinks at Lounge Bohemia taste like they were created by someone who likes neither cocktails nor the people who like to drink them.

Avoid the magic tricks. Find a bar that likes people who like to drink.

Thursday, 11 November 2010

Purl, Marylebone

50/54 Blandford Street

Jerry Boam

Hallowe'en is a time for tales. And in the Boam dynasty there is one tale that haunts each and every Blakeyed step, from birth unto the brink of death; a spectre that pursues every first-born without remorse, a dog that hounds us toward untimely ends and, for all we know, beyond that moment of supposed rest. No amount of claret has ever been able to quench this silent shadow; no amount, that is, until now. I, the seventh Boam to feel the touch of the icy-fingered fiend, tell my tale with darting eyes and pen a-tremble.

My story begins under the streets of Marylebone, yards from the garret dwellings of Great Uncle Boozy Boam; down cast iron steps we tread, and into the gloom of Purl. 'We' is Ms Kina Lillet and I, seeking refuge from the cold afternoon on this Eve of all the Hallows. We seat ourselves on an ageing Chesterfield. We peruse an ancient, yellowing page of menu. Out from among the bricks and cobwebs, candles aglow in corners, steps our ghostly waitress. All in black, she totters to take our order.

Whilst we dither and decide, I sense something amiss. Why does she stare at me so? It's as if, somehow, she knows me. Unnerved, I order drinks. Demurely she departs toward the bar, and to a trio of oddly attired drinks concocters. They seem familiar, like twisted Boam portraits through the ages; all slicing, chopping, pouring, measuring. Their eyes flicker periodically towards me, and glitter and smirk. Smoke gushes forth in torrents.

With a shudder, I turn toward Ms Lillet. I can't hide my fear, not from her.

“What ever is the matter Mr Boam? You look so dreadfully pale all of a sudden.”

“Oh 'tis nothing Ms Lillet,” I parry bravely. “And do call me Jerry. I insist upon it.”

“If you say so, Jerry. It's frightfully scary though in here isn't it,” she grins with glee. “Why don't you tell me a story?”

And so I tell the only story the Boams can ever tell, the fated story of the Boam curse. “It all began,” I begin....

...our waitress returns with our drinks; drinks which match both the day and the tale: the otherworldly festival of Hallowe'en, and the tale about to stutter forth from pinkly trembling lips. Ms Lillet sips a Pumpkin Pie Flip, a creamy Bourbon affair with lip-zinging nutmeg sherbet around the rim and a 'Chicken Egg' lurking deep within. I have something entitled Mr Hyde's Fixer Upper. The presentation – in a wax-sealed glass flask – beguiles, but the drink seems a little peculiar: cola syrup has never been suited to the Boam palette.

We chat, Ms Lillet and I, and soon we order further from our attentive waitress. She seems to be sliding into familiarity. Might I know her from some past dalliance? Thankfully the thought drifts away as more drinks arrive: for Ms Lillet, the Mummified Elixir cloaked in bloodied bandages; I, meanwhile, sup the Werewolf's Tincture; in effect an elaborately presented Negroni. The Negroni of course is a Boam favourite, and this one rather raises the spirits. Supplemented by 'Full Moon' pickled onions and 'Graveyard Mist' it's both omen and memento...

Ms Lillet leans towards me, her hand brushes my raven-black lapel. She whispers close. “Continue, Jerry, your tale.”

“It all began,” I begin again, “in the days of Viscount Balthazar Boam. He was, as you know, a monumental carouser. Nothing, nothing escaped his rapacious whim – money of course being of no object. He was known up and down St James', throughout London, from the bedrooms of princesses to foul dens of the most base iniquities. The tales of his escapades could fill a book. Indeed, it's said that such a book was written by one of his callously jilted mistresses. And here lies the origin of the curse.”

“The curse?”

“Indeed. For Balthazar, it's said, had lost interest in this mistress and had her bricked up deep in the cellars beneath one of his properties. For days she screamed, for days she wept. But to no avail: she'd been left, she knew, to die.”

“How awful,” whispers Ms Lillet softly. Is she, could she be, smiling? She seems to take some strange pleasure from this vile family tale, a tale I've never told in full before. But something compels me to continue. Now, I shall never need tell it again...

“Her mind dark with avenging rage, this unknown mistress compiled a full inventory of every sin committed by the profligate Balthazar. It took a full day and a full night to compile the list, a list that would make the devil himself quake in awe and horror. She wrote, so the story goes, on old parchment left in the cellars long-since abandoned. Instead of ink she used her own blood, delicately drawn from her snow-white upper arm. Rumour has it she survived for weeks, slowly losing energy, weight, flesh; gradually, painfully wasting out of this life, and into the next. Her dying words were the curse – the curse that still haunts the Boams to this day: to die an unknown death, never to be found or buried, never accounted for, never blessed, never freed. The Boams must roam eternal. It is our fate.”

Ms Lillet's tongue caresses her lips, her mouth twisting towards a grin? It must be the remnants of her Elixir, its flavour softly clinging. “But what happened to the parchment?”

“That,” I reply, suddenly struck by the hunger in her greenish grey eyes, “remains a mystery.”

“Perhaps I can help with that.” It's our waitress, suddenly behind me. A chill gust nips the nape of my neck. I notice her upper left arm – gashed and raked, ancient wounds still raw and red. She grins a manic, blazing grin. And turns over our drinks menu – upon the other side, in darkly crimson scrawl, an unmistakable catalogue of sin.

I turn toward Ms Lillet, “Kina!” The light flickers. Her hair glints grey.

Purl. Here, in this bricked up family cellar, I remain. The curse is lifted. The curse has just begun.

Friday, 5 November 2010

Skylon, South Bank

Royal Festival Hall
Belvedere Road

Glenn Fiddich

Just after we arrived at Skylon, Fiddich Senior and I were presented with two complimentary glasses of iced water and a tiny porcelain bowl of rice crackers.

"Oh, I'm not sure we want any of these," said Fiddich Senior to our waitress, who looked like an extra from the first series of Star Trek. "Whatever they are."

"They're Japanese," she said, with the tiniest of sighs. "To go with your drinks."

Fiddich Senior, whose admiration for Vesta beef curries has remained undimmed by the passing of the years, looked pained.

"Yes, I think we'll give them a miss," he said. On the eve of his sixtieth birthday, my father was about to try his first cocktail, and he was determined not to enjoy it.

You see, Fiddich Senior comes from a little village in Cumbria - let's call it Ramsbottom. All the ales in his local boozer have names like Badger's Arse and Get Your Tits Out. In Ramsbottom, any man ordering a drink in a long-stemmed glass is regarded with the very deepest suspicion. But my tales of Skylon, with its grand river views and gourmet bar snacks, had intrigued him. We've always had a rather competitive father-son relationship (every Sports Day, he used to abandon me in the Parents' Race and team up with a thinner, faster child), and he likes to prove me wrong. So he booked a return ticket to Euston and prepared himself to be disappointed. He was, he told me firmly, really only coming down to London to visit the Imperial War Museum. 

With the crackers gone, Fiddich Senior turned his attention to the Skylon cocktail menu, which is divided into classics (Martini, Margarita and several others beginning with M), seasonal specials, Bellinis and desert cocktails. As I talked him through the various options, he looked longingly at the whiskys.

I decided to go for my usual, the Skylon Spritzer (Apperol and rhubarb with a lemon and grapefruit twist, topped up with sparkling wine), while Fiddich Senior, after much hmming and tutting, chose the Prunelle (fresh plums muddled shaken with Prunelle plum liqueur, Krupnik honey vodka, lemon and apple juice).

"Very good for the digestion, plums," he told our waitress when she brought the drinks over. "Well, here goes." Then he took a deep breath, lifted his glass (a Martini glass, never to be mentioned in Ramsbottom) and took a cautious sip through pursed lips.

"Well?" I asked. Fiddich Senior swilled the contents of his mouth around, looking thoughtful. 

"Room spray," he said eventually. He wiped his mouth with the back of his hand. "But nice room spray." He took another sip, a bigger one this time, and smiled. "You know, I might have another one of these. And some of those Japanese things, too."