Monday, 5 September 2011

Roux at The Pembury, Westminster

Roux at The Pembury
Parliament Square
London SW1P 3AD

A Review in Letters

1. Sasha to Kina

You were, of course, my dear Kina, surprised by my unexpected departure for the country. I hasten to explain everything to you frankly. The month gone past, I was with Lisa at Princess M’s ball when Lady Olga, apropos of nothing, said to me that I must pay a visit to her son in his new enterprise, The Pembury, one floor up from Michel Roux Jr’s esteemed dining establishment, Parliament Square. Being dutiful servants of her lady’s recommendations of fashion we, Princess M and I that is, called in on Prince Abdulai one evening. You well know, my angel, that Abdulai and I spent many happy childhood years together but that I had not seen him since he joined the Service to wage war alongside our good patriots against Napoleon, that bane of the world. What I have never told you, or anyone, was that we made a secret engagement before he joined the hussars, when he promised to marry me upon his return. And so I was most surprised to learn of his return, as I was not aware, you understand, that he was again in London, let alone that he now planned to stake his family fortune on this newest endeavour. When Lisa and I arrived at Pembury we entered into a beautiful room most luxuriously furnished and were made welcome by Prince Liam, whose charming manners were nearly enough to make young Lisa fall rather in love with him. I left them, speaking together on the peculiarities of water filtration systems, to search for dear Abdulai.

I approached the mirrored glass with some trepidation. Would A still remember the promises he had made to his childhood friend? Finally, a man emerged from behind the glittering bottles and, though he had changed in many ways, in essentials he remained ever the same. We spoke of his mother, Lady Olga, and of his adventures in the hussars; very little was said by way of our years together growing up. In all things, he was much changed, but one thing in particular: he has become enamoured with alcoholic punches, though all the time referring to them as “cocktails”. Apparently this is the new fashion. Most peculiar. He insisted I try these cocktails, one after another, and conversed with me only on matters related to their composition, ingredients and unusual names. I did not know what to do. My head was in a whirl. Naturally, I gave way to his insistent urgings and sampled all of the drinks he put in front of me. I cannot even begin to describe the peculiar pleasure of what then followed. Lisa and Prince Liam had by this time rejoined us and Prince A had placed in front of us a number of punches to sample. A had bestowed each punch with its own unique nomenclature, often quite unusual, to provide some indication as to the composition. The Three Citrus Ricky was made with such exotic ingredients that I had to ask over and over what Ketel One Citroen (our fine Russian vodka, made in the Netherlands, wherever that is. They add lemon to it. Most unusual), fino sherry, and yuzu were. Prince A remarked that soldiers are far more worldy than young London ladies. I admit it was pleasant to drink, but not as pleasant as the next glass he pushed across towards me. He called it the Penultimate Word, which Lisa and I both agreed was very witty. It tasted like the Lapsang Souchong tea Natasha poured from the samovar just this morning. I said this to Abdulai and he only laughed at me and said that was because it was made from Don Julio Blanco, green chartreuse and coriander. I wanted to ask what green chartreuse was, but by this point my head felt rather strange and I wished our resumed acquaintance was more like the happy, earnest carefree days of our youth, not so formal and single-minded as all this talk of chartreuse and coriander.

Conscious of the necessity to say something, I mentioned quite irrelevantly that he was much changed since our last meeting and that his new-found devotion to punches that make one feel so lightheaded must leave little time for other pursuits. He seemed very cross with me and in a low voice said something about not being obliged to fulfill silly childhood promises. At once, I understood the meaning of his words and that he did indeed remember his promises to me and was little interested in fulfilling them. I was a miserable creature and made my excuses to sweet Lisa, who seemed rather taken with Prince Liam and he with she. I left Pembury immediately. I could not bear to remain in town, for I knew I would have to see Lady Olga again and I could not bear to have her ask me for news of her son’s latest enterprise.

This is the truth of it. I know you will think me ridiculous, but I really could not stand to meet with anyone who might ask me how I am and whether I have been to Prince A’s Pembury of late. I wish him well with his newest endeavour and his strange new passion, but I daresay I will never forgive him for breaking our engagement, even if that engagement was but a childhood folly.

Monday, 20 June 2011

VOC, King's Cross

2 Varnishers Yard
Regents Quarter
King's Cross
London N1 9AW

Ross Sutherland


King's Cross is an enemy generator
pumping out crackhead versions
of my old schoolfriend Ian Yarrow.

In each doorway, a mail clerk
putting in a call to a girl up North.

& a sky like the back of a spoon.

For the last week I’ve been
on a reading tour of the Cornish Riviera,
where I managed to tear open
the crotch of my jeans.

(Each night I had to assure the audience
that the hole wasn’t part of my act)1

Now, back in London,
in a borrowed pair of grey slacks, white shirt,
I make my way across Varnishers Yard,

which still looks exactly like
the artist’s impression of Varnishers Yard
I saw on a pasteboard four years ago.

Named after the world's first megacorporation,
the VOC is a modest establishment2

with a maximum capacity of thirty-two people
and a globe of the world that you are free to spin.

On my first turn I get Tanzania.
Then Gdanzk. Sadly, on my third spin
I drown off the coast of the Solomon islands.

And now, the cocktail review:

I bring a Martinez to my lips.
A jester falls through a roof
into a bale of smoldering hay.

Next, the Veiux Carre. A nervous dog
interrupts an anecdote from an art dealer
about the time he met Merle Travis.

Finally, the Bergamot Grog. A turquoise stamp
on a metal coffee table, schoolboy French coming
from the kitchen. Rain added in After Effects.

God, I’m trying tonight.

Why is it
that the move from the office to the bar
is rarely the dramatic change
it ought to be?

Like when the cursor on my computer
turns into a beachball.
If anything, this development
just makes things worse.

Next to me, a food blogger
with an arse for a face
is lecturing the proprietor on his own livelihood.
Yeah, this drink definitely has a flavour, he says.
I mean, if I wanted, I could look it up…

I go to make a note of this
as yet further evidence
of the death of opinion,

but when I look down, I notice
that I’ve somehow popped a button.

I wait
until no one is looking
then take out a stapler
and punch a new fastening
into the shirt
that I borrowed for the evening.

Much like the way
the launch of a bar
themed around a 17th century punch house
might slip itself quietly
into 67 acres
of perfect investment opportunity.

1 i.e. Chekhov says that if an audience
is shown a gun in act one, it must be fired by act three.
Which makes a gaping hole in your crotch
not only bad tailoring, but terrible dramaturgy.

2 The Dutch East India Company possessed
quasi-governmental powers, including
the ability to wage war, imprison and execute convicts.
Similarly, this cocktail bar possesses
an incredible cigar collection, exposed brickwork
and Nouvelle Vague’s second album on the stereo.

Tuesday, 17 May 2011

The London Cocktail Club, Fitzrovia

The London Cocktail Club
61 Goodge Street
London W1T 1TL

Olive R. Twist

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was dark and chill despite being a mid-May evening when Tiny Tim descended into the basement of 61 Goodge Street, away from the onerous claptrap of busy Fitzrovian Streets, into the dark, friendly warmth of wee Jamie Wopsickle's Dickensian parlour and cocktail club for the quaffing of distinguished beverages.

Tiny Tim was relieved to be free from the noise of the city and sighed contentedly as he and Pip sank into the crescent-shaped booths and took a good look at their surrounds. There were hundreds of dusty bottles filled to the top with pastel-coloured liquid, of all shapes and sizes, lining the wall behind the bar, glittering like the pocket watch hanging from Pip's waistcoat. Tiny Tim thought how warm and comfortable it felt inside, despite the dimmed lights and close quarters of the club's other occupants.

A young man with a friendly smile went over and introduced himself as Shrimpton Merryweather. He said he was at their disposal. Pip was feeling rather brave that evening and ordered a Bacon and Egg Coupet which Shrimpton said was the height of adventurous sophistication. Tiny Tim was weary still and found he could not settle his restless mind. Shrimpton Merryweather said that if Tiny Tim told him what sort of thing most often slaked his thirst, then he would concoct a treat of most wonderful composition.

After much conversation Shrimpton Merryweather felt confident he understood what it was Tiny Tim desired and returned, after a period of time had passed, with Pip's Bacon and Egg Coupet and Tiny Tim's libation, somewhat like an Aperol Spritz, but with the additional Generosity of a drop of Absinthe and a swish of Martini Rosso.

Tiny Tim and Pip sighed contentedly as they supped their drinks and reminisced together about their idyllic childhood days, wrestling baby lambs in verdant fields and making elderflower cordial from June blossoms for Mother. Though they were happy in spirit, they were weary in body and much in need of rejuvenation, and so Tiny Tim and Pip drank the rest greedily and exclaimed often in praise of the creative Genius of Shrimpton Merryweather and of wee Jamie Wopsickle, who though absent in that moment, was not forgotten.

Indeed, just at that very instant, an older Dickensian-looking gentleman - sitting in the corner with a woman of extraordinary beauty and shining eyes - stood up and exclaimed, "a toast to wee Jamie Wopsickle!", where thereupon he purchased everyone in the Establishment a drink. Tiny Tim and Pip were most pleased; they could not believe their luck. What a charming place this was.

Monday, 9 May 2011

The Zetter Townhouse, Clerkenwell

The Zetter Townhouse
49-50 St John's Square
London EC1V 4JJ

Kina Lillet & Jerry Boam

Scene: A country townhouse, in the city.

Fade in: The townhouse is full of thirty-something off-duty bankers and large groups of perfectly turned out women on hen parties. A woman sits alone at a small table in the corner. It is clear she's waiting for someone. A little while later a young man enters, wearing a navy blue double breasted blazer with gold buttons. It is clear that he's looking for someone. He spots the woman, smiles, and walks over to her table. He sits down. They don't speak. A menu is already on the table. He looks at the menu, takes his time and then signals to the waitress, who hurries over to take their order.

Jerry: "A Flintlock please, and a..."

Kina: "A Master at Arms."

Jerry: "and a Master at Arms for the lady."

The waitress notes their drinks down on a faded shorthand pad and winds her way between the tables back to the bar.

Jerry: "Quite something this place, don't you think? Rather reminds me of the Boam's Wessex pile."

Kina: "What, full of men in cheap suits and women who seem to be preparing for their impending nuptials by having botox and drinking themselves into oblivion with their 'girlfriends'?"

Jerry: "Kina, darling, why must you always find the objectionable in everything?"

Kina: "Why must you insist on bringing the objectionable to me? I want to like it. I really do. I'm trying to give the place a chance."

Jerry: "Ah, now then. Here, it seems, are our drinks. Splendid."

Kina: "Why are they in such small glasses? How peculiar."

J: "Oh gosh, well this is a charming little nip. It's like neat gin, but with a delicate floral sort of note or two. And she lit the side on fire – did you see that? How delightful. Rather reminds me of the Boam's ancient duelling pistols. Did I ever tell you that story of Old Deadeye Boam and those fig-leaved natives...?”

<<The gaggle of women at the next table chatter away, "Have you seen Almedia's bridesmaids dresses? They're absolutely atrocious. I mean sea green. Really. What was she thinking.">>

K: "I'm sure that someone might like this sort of drink, but it certainly isn't me. What have they put it in, anyway? I can't even remember. Evaporated port and rum. Why didn't I just order a Bloody Mary? I like Bloody Marys. I don't like this."

Kina attracts the attention of the waitress, who comes to their table. Jerry winces.

K: "I'm so sorry, but I really am not enjoying this drink. It's made beautifully, but it just isn't to my taste. Could you take it back and bring me a Bloody Mary?"

<<"Letitia, they did such a magnificent job on your forehead. Did you go to John on Harley Street? Didn't I tell you he was the best.">>

K: "So Jerry, what's the news? How was Mogadishu? Did you manage to track down your mother in the end."

J: "You know mother. One can only find her when she wants to be found, but Mogadishu was lovely as ever. The whole place is up in arms over elections or something. I forget exactly what. But never mind that all that. I drank all the Château Lafite in sight and did what I had to do.

K: "Here's my Bloody Mary, thank the lord. Yes, that's much better. Yes. Parsley vodka and beef consommé. Peculiar. It tastes rather like a Bloody Mary but with an Oxo cube chucked in. Much better than that other ghastly thing I was drinking before, but it's no classic. Dearest Jerry, let's never come here again."

<<"Of course I'm marrying Benedict. Just because he dallied that one time with the nanny, I'd be mad to abandon the flat in Chelsea, the Range Rover, and the little place in Dorset....">>

J: "I'll admit that I'm not overly fond of the dreadful company in which we find ourselves, Kina, but I am rather fond of nearly neat gin. Have I ever mentioned my Oxford days? I have? Right you are. Shall we depart? And yes, let's never come here again."

Fade out.

Tuesday, 3 May 2011

Holiday posting: Raoul's, Oxford

32 Walton Street
Oxford OX2 6AA

Jerry Boam

Naturally, or otherwise, Merton College, Oxford is the Boam alma mater. For more generations than the archives recall, sundry Boams have been drawn here; here, to Merton’s singular cobbled charms, its delightfully tended gardens, and its strange, shrugging air of having just missed out on something rather important.

It’s been a mixed history. Viscount Balthazar Boam was here of course, until he was sent down for something to do with the Dean, the Warden’s sixteen year-old daughter and a half-crate of vintage port. The exact tale has never fully emerged. Great Uncle Boozy Boam was here, submerged in claret and the classics. And, more recently, half-Uncle Hogg-Boam scraped in somehow and terrorised the young servant girls long into Oxford’s winter nights.

It is with such thoughts of lineage and destiny and the aged musk of Gevrey-Chambertin that I return now to Oxford’s ponderous streets. We stroll along the Broad, past Ducker’s on Turl, down the cobbles of Magpie Lane, and oh, to Merton’s pale and happy stones. Three years of memories rush back: Sundays, lazy smoking upon my first-year window seat; hazy summer lawns, tasseled loafers, lightly crumpled linen; my first pair of co-respondent brogues; my half-blue for Rugby Fives; my thirst for the coruscating scrape of neat gin upon a half-starved stomach. And Raoul’s.

Raoul’s. Here we supped on cocktails – rich and fruity – deep into summer nights, to totter home full of sugary verve and love. Thick mango purees, spiced pears redolent of some mystical Orient, dribbles of sticky caramel, fresh limes, apricots, the buttery whiff of vanilla. And the booze! Rums and brandies, whiskies, vodkas, liqueurs in every flavour, tequila from old Mexico, bourbon from New York…

Unsurprisingly, the aura of such dreams has faded. The clientèle wear jeans now. The décor – always bad – seems to have taken rather a tumble. And of course these days I must brave the pavement to partake of a Sobranie. But the drinks! Oh the drinks! One diving slurp into a tumbler of peachy Calvados-laced wonder, and it all comes flooding back – the excitement, the joy, the adventure. The booze! For as long as there are Boams at Merton, there shall be Boams at Raoul's. 

Thursday, 28 April 2011

Saf, Shoreditch

152-154 Curtain Road
London EC2A 3AT

Kina Lillet

You may be surprised, dear readers, to learn that your esteemed Editrix is in fact a vegetarian.  Perhaps that's why I'm so very fond of horseradish vodka.  Given said vegetarianism, I'd been meaning to eat at Saf for ages.  I'm sure the food is delicious, a veritable den of veggie food porn, and though I'm not proud to admit it I've not yet made it past the bar.

Though the restaurant is light and airy, the bar looks a bit like one of those California juice delis where mothers with over-active thyroids pop in after their 6am jog for a wheat grass shot with a vitamin C boost.  Do not let this trifling detail put you off.  The cocktails are like that horrible American film about Wills and Kate: impossible to resist and utterly delectable.

I'm with Margie Rita - who's still smarting from our last outing to Lounge Bohemia - but I worry not for I know what the barmen at Saf are capable of.  Margie plumps for a Tomaso, which sounds like some sort of tomato based drink, but is in fact comprised of white rum, lemon, mint, basil, a splash of prosecco, and a slosh of Galliano Balsamico. Smoooooooth.

I try Rebecca, Rebecca - Couvoisier Exclusif, homemade candied grapefruit syrup, Kummel, Aperol, a dash of orange bitters, delightfully garnished with a lemon peel sprinkled with fennel seeds - which is also wonderfully smooth, so much so that I'm convinced it's just freshly squeezed guava juice not booze.

But by seconds we're feeling rather light headed and so Margie opts for the silliest sounding cracker on the menu, "What happens in Amsterdam...", which though ridiculously named drinks scrumptiously, all ginny honey and ginger. I ask the bartender to make me his favourite drink on the current menu, the Charlie Chaplin, which turns out to be the best drink of the evening: sloe gin, creme de apricot, and fresh lime juice.  Simple but superb.  Who needs meat, after all, when fruit and vegetables make such delicious drinks.

Wednesday, 16 February 2011

Vıajante, Bethnal Green

Patriot Square
Bethnal Green
London E2 9NF

Monty Pulciano

I once tried on an off the peg suit at Spencer Hart on Savile Row. The jacket had magical flattering properties. It grabbed me around the shoulders, made me stand up straight and gave me an unfounded sense of my own importance. This is what a properly made Negroni should do. The gin makes you sit up straight, the medicinal taste of the campari feels like it is doing you good whilst the sweet vermouth and orange flatter you. The Negroni at Viajante failed to do one of these things and therefore failed utterly. There was not enough gin you see; I got the medicine and sweetness without the discipline imparted by strong alcohol. The twisted orange peel wasn’t up to much either.

Kina Lillet had asked me to do a review for this blog. I’d been putting it off for months pretending that I was writing a book when truth be told, I just don’t like cocktails that much. There’s so much to go wrong and even when the drink is made correctly, you have about 4 minutes to drink it before the ice melts, dilutes the drink and it is ruined. Red wine or whisky get better the longer you leave them and I like to linger. Cocktails are all hurry. They are essentially drinks for children.

The cocktail bar in Viajante is, however, a lovely room, the almonds are excellent and the staff sweetly camp so it would have been silly not to have another drink.  I ordered a Bermuda Porter. This consists of rum mixed with lemon juice and sugar and then topped with the foam from a porter beer and grated nutmeg and served in a half-pint dimple glass. Now this is a clever drink. One drinks the tart but sweetened rum through the malty foam. The first sip is wonderful. Sadly the foam quickly collapses, the ice melts and you are left with an unsightly scum. Before long it looks like one of those drinks university rugby players down for a dare before being sick all over your shoes. 

My wife ordered better, a Buffalo Jam. This is bourbon, Borojoa jam, lemon and soda: delicious, and after five minutes still delicious. Dilution did not ruin the drink. Viajante claim that Borojoa jam has aphrodisiac properties. Perhaps it’s me, but the only things she felt like after we left were some lamb chops and a nice drop of claret.

Thursday, 3 February 2011

Bar 92, Fitzrovia

Bar 92
92-94 Wigmore Street
W1U 3RD 

Kina Lillet

There’s something really quite offensive about the typical review of a cocktail bar. Nine times out of ten the ‘description’ is pilfered from a press statement, hence the similarities in so many reviews: ‘Oh my god. So there I was walking down [insert name of street one would be unlikely to ever randomly walk down] when all of a sudden what did I spy but a lil’ old cocktail bar, my oh my. I then went in to taste, in strict chronological order the two comp drinks I was allocated by the bar’s PR. Drink one was divine, drink two utterly delish. You must all go to [insert absurd bar name here] immediately.’



Anyway, I digress. I’m going straight. I’m the editor of this here review and I’m here to review. And not just any old bar either. This is Bar 92. Helpfully the bar’s address, capacity and name are all exactly the same. I’ll leave you to decide whether that’s clever or lazy.

To the task at hand!

  1. This bar is ugly. 
  2. This bar has ostrich-leather sofas. 
  3. 1 is not necessarily because of 2. 
  4. The food is rather nondescript.
I could go on about lack of atmosphere and zombie serving staff, but given that customer service in London is atrocious as a rule and most bar owners think atmosphere can be bought at John Lewis, this bar has one thing going for it that many others lack.

And that, dear readers, is a damn fine bartender (DFB).

I don’t wish to name names, but too many bars – including some I am unashamedly fond of frequenting – privilege theatrics over taste buds. Being a DFB, Omkar Kalaskar, the man behind Bar 92’s unusual menu, knows that the way to a lady editor’s heart is through her lips, not her eyes. Perhaps it’s because the bar is empty and Kalaskar has time to flick and swish each of our drinks into a composition so perfectly balanced it would have made Mozart green-eyed with envy, but Hallelujah, what perfection! what balance! what deliciousness is this!

We drink: 
  1. Ginger and Thyme Sour  (vodka, lime, and sugar, muddled with ginger, thyme, and egg white). 
  2. After Hours (mango juice, amaretto, dark rum, and coconut cream). 
  3. The 92 (tequila, galliano, passoa, passion fruit puree, lime juice, cranberry, champagne). 
  4. Yellow Magpie (more rum!, fresh ginger, lychee)
Every sip is so lip-smackingly classy, so perfectly poised, so refreshingly different that I never want to leave. I want to stay and imbibe one after another of the marvellous creations emerging from behind the bar of this man with a mind like Einstein and a palate like Marie Antoinette. But alas, Jerry and I have quaffed our drinks allocation and the PRs are pissed off I called their bar ugly. So we leave.

Let them try and keep me away.

Wednesday, 19 January 2011

Callooh Callay, Shoreditch

Callooh Callay
65 Rivington Street

Callooh Callay

Excuse me please, my ear is full of milk—Oliver Hardy (Going Bye-Bye, 1934)

Wine comes in at the mouth, and love at the eye,
but any fule kno that milk comes in at the ear.
I hear that cocktails pour their thoughts
through the candlestick ‘phone at Callooh Callay
where patrons, wise and elegant, drink not
themselves under the table but clear through
the looking glass where the Jabberwock waits
with impeccable, unimpeachschnappsable taste.
If its brrr outside then there’s Byrrh within
knocking boots with a splash of Amer Picon,
Cointreau, anise, and a sly soupçon
of inside-out chat about this and that.
Fraternise with a passing Fratterwacken,
or pick from a platter of snicker-snacks
to whet the old whistle and I’ll come to you lad,
keep coming back for the Jubjub Bird
in its fresh minty nest of green olive eggs,
spirited anchovies pecking their way
through shell and through mirror to the secret chamber

Monday, 10 January 2011

Ninety Eight Bar and Lounge, Shoreditch

Ninety Eight Bar and Lounge
98 Curtain Road

Abby La Fée

As I descend the cast iron spiral staircase from the street level of 98 Curtain Road, I don’t feel a bit like Alice entering the rabbit hole. As far as I’m aware Alice didn’t have jaded expectations of Wonderland, but I feel certain I know what I’m going to get from this underground Shoreditch bar: low lighting, battered Chesterfield settees, wax-dripped wine bottles and hipsters discussing their next tattoos (“so, like, I think I’m going to get a double helix on my tit with the words ‘there’s no gene for the human spirit’ written underneath, probably in a foreign language ‘cause it looks better like that”).

Well blow me down, how wrong I was. On reaching the bottom of the stairs, I'm met with white walls, marble flooring, fresh cut flowers and a twenty-foot high conservatory, complete with pot-palms and a grand piano. It’s awash with pastel coloured Baroque furniture, vintage perfume bottles, white feathered lampshades and sheepskin rugs.  Not your average 'my sovereign is more ironic than your sovereign' Hoxton haunt. On the table in front of me is a white porcelain elephant with a Smartie tube sticking out of its back. Curioser and curioser.

The bountiful proprietor, Kath Morrell, is straight at my side explaining that the concept behind the bar is ‘fun’. Fun, fun, fun. She introduces me to some novelties:
“Dip your finger in, rub it on yourself, and lick it off”.  She says.
A bold, request, perhaps, but in the spirit of open mindedness I bashfully oblige. Edible candle wax which doubles as a moisturiser, who’d have thought? Love that sweet-grease taste. She also offers me fairy cakes, followed by strawberries dipped in rum and chilli sugar. I inhale some of the chilli powder and ineffectively try to style out my esophageal paroxysms with a spontaneous Horatian Ode. Quite the Tea Party.

I proceed to indelicately set upon the first aptly named tipple, ‘Off in the Clouds', with the relish of a thirsty hound. A martini glass arrives full of towering candy floss, which dissolves as a bright blue concoction of lavender-infused vodka, gin and blue Curacao is poured over it. A vesper it may be, but it tastes like a melted Refresher and white spirit jus. Not cool. My taste buds forgive me, however, when I get my lips around The Country Cottage Sour, a pink-drink of lavender-infused rum, apple and hazelnut; and they're rendered delirious little papillae by my next tryst with the Labito. If you can get past its unfortunately vulval appellation, you'll discover a most wondrous mojito made with lavender-infused rum.

Granted certain flavour and style combinations at Ninety Eight are verging on garish and would undoubtedly illicit a spontaneous ‘quelle horreur’ from the lips of my modest-tasted French mother (she can’t understand American accents and sushi conveyor belts make her seasick). And there are a few ‘okeeeeeeeeeeey’ ornaments (the rooster made of plastic bags is worthy of note here) but that’s part of Ninety Eight’s appeal. Like the decor, the unlikely experimentation with mixology is playful and somewhat nostalgic, contributing to the charm and whimsy of the place. Behind the bar giant perfume bottles hold spirits infused with many weird and wonderful things.

Oh my ears and whiskers, how late it’s getting. I reluctantly bid adieu to the Hatter and mount the spiral staircase, a little less gracefully than before.

Wednesday, 5 January 2011

China Tang at The Dorchester

China Tang at The Dorchester
Park Lane

Glenn Fiddich

“So what’s it really like at the top of Mount Everest?” Ludicrously Hot Date asked me, popping a wasabi peanut into her mouth. As she leaned forward to pick up a replacement, I caught a glimpse of something black and expensive-looking underneath her dress.

“Oh, you know,” I said. “Cold. Snowy.”

“And you got up there totally without oxygen?”

“Well, I…”

“Wow. That is so… I mean, wow.” In went another peanut. Up went my blood pressure.

I stumbled across Ludicrously Hot Date in the personals section of a well-known newspaper’s website. She was naturally blonde, French-Canadian and a qualified masseuse. After years of dating wimpy acupuncturists and yoga teachers, she told potential suitors viewing her profile, she now wanted to meet a real man. Someone who could fix her car without looking at the manual and make a fire in a clearing whatever the weather. Someone born without tear ducts who could demolish one of those huge American-style steaks that flops over the edge of the plate in a single sitting. Someone, in short, who very definitely wasn’t me.

I climb mountains for a living, I wrote, emboldened by four hours of Boxing Day drinking with the retired Royal Marine who lives across the road from Mother Fiddich. And I once killed a deer just by looking at it. Drinks next week?

It was, of course, a joke. I really didn’t think I’d get a reply.

But I did, and in a hog-whimpering panic I suggested subterranean China Tang for our first – and almost certainly last – meeting. Ludicrously Hot Date listed Mad Men amongst her interests, and the place has a fabulously kitsch, Don-Draper-goes-to-Hong-Kong-and-wakes-up-next-to-Miss-Kowloon vibe. There are giant light-up soda siphons and jet-setting businessmen clustered around the bar talking in three-letter acronyms and spirits of truly stupendous quality. It’s also, crucially, very dimly lit.

Having hovered at a discreet distance from us for ten minutes, a waiter wearing trousers that were infinitely better tailored than mine arrived to take our order for cocktails. Ludicrously Hot Date batted her eyelashes at him.

“Surprise me,” she said. “I love surprises. Don’t you, Glenn?” She looked into my eyes and rested her manicured hand lightly on my knee.

“Mmph,” I said.

“And for you, sir?”

“Right. Yes. Sorry. I’ll have a…” With my glasses hidden at the bottom of my man-bag (which was, in turn, hidden in the furthest recesses of China Tang’s cloakroom), I thumbed blindly through the menu, desperately looking for something macho-sounding. “A Bullshot. Great, Thanks.”

Ludicrously Hot Date wrinkled her nose.


“Oh yes!” I squeaked. “Nothing like a nice Bullshot to start the evening.”

“It’s just that it’s got beef consommé in it. And that comes from cows.” She frowned. “Doesn’t it?”

“Yes, you’re right,” I said, very slowly. “It does. Yes.”

“But I thought your profile said you were a vegetarian?”

Since eating an ill-advised box of Chicken McNuggets outside the Bolton branch of McDonald’s on New Year’s Eve 2002, I haven’t touched meat or fish of any kind. I gulped. Behind me, ‘I’ve Got You Under My Skin’ was drifting out of the speakers.

I’d sacrifice anything, come what might, for the sake of having you near…

“Non-practicing,” I said.


“Oh, this is divine,” Ludicrously Hot Date sighed, setting her glass down on the table. “Aren’t you going to try yours, Glenn?”

I stared enviously at her bespoke Christmas Star cocktail – Ketel One vodka and something creamy with a dusting of nutmeg and a star anise on top. In front of me, in an enormous highball glass, was the Bullshot – all 350 menacing millilitres of it. It looked like Scotch broth, but without the carrots. Trying not to pull my coffee-face, I took the wariest sip since Rasputin sat down for dinner with Felix Yusupov and six of his closest friends.

“What do you think?”

I waited to pass out, or for my throat to close up. But actually, the Bullshot was just like a grown-up Bloody Mary – spicy, peppery and masses of depth. Not bad. Not bad at all.

“Delicious!” I said, grinning manically. “You know, I could drink these all night, I really could.”

“Well, I don’t know about that…” Ludicrously Hot Date moved a little closer to me on the plush banquette. “But how about we share some dim sum? I’m crazy about those cute little pork buns.”

I pictured battery chickens, and McDonald’s kitchens, and that horrible squeaking sound that Chicken McNuggets make when you bite into them. Then I pictured Ludicrously Hot Date licking barbeque sauce off her fingers.

“Count me in,” I said.